Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Main Takeaway
Modern Day Downton Abbey meets Joy Luck Club by way of Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich and Asian, Kevin Kwan crafts a fascinating fish out of water story, granting us a peek into the privileged life of how the 1%-ers in Asia live the grand life of high fashion, opulent homes, and family competitiveness (and dysfunction) that would fit right into a 90's sitcom.

Verdict:  it's a fun, breezy read.  I liked it but I would wait for the paperback or borrow it from the library

  • the first chapter pretty much sucks you into the world that Nick (one of the main character) lives in
  • incredible amount of details about the luxurious life of the "well off" in Singapore
  • interesting look at old money versus new money flowing through Asia, with China being its heart (sorry Japan ... maybe in the sequel?)
  • the Nick and Rachel characters (Rachel being the other main character) are likable enough but certainly aren't as interesting as the other characters (see last bullet point).  In a way, they're very reactive to everything that is happening around them
  • engaging look into how there are various degrees of richness among the rich, with those striving to become richer while others finding difficultly in becoming obscenely rich
  • lots of eccentric characters surrounding Nick and Rachel so that even if the main story drags a bit, these colorful characters are there to liven things up
  • despite the story taking place in Singapore, despite some name dropping of some of the restaurants and locales of where the rich live, shop and eat, the city itself isn't much of a character in the book, which is a bit of a shame.  I would have liked to have gotten a better understanding of Singapore, aside from a lot of rich people live there.
  • the narrative loses steam at the end.  Makes one wonder if there is going to be a second book: Crazier, Richer Asians
  • all of the bad people in the book are stereotypically bad; very one-dimensional.  If there was only more depth to each of the characters, which would have made the story far more engaging
  • despite being loaded with colorful characters, there are a lot of them to keep track of so at times, especially in the beginning, you wonder who are these people and how are they related (both to Nick but also to the storyline)
  • the set up is great (getting Rachel to go to the wedding with Nick) but somewhat unconvincing.  How can the Rachel not that that she's dating one of the wealthy men in the world?

Boy invites girl to boy's best friend's wedding, girl finds out that boyfriend is totally loaded but has dysfunctional family members. Hilarity ensues.  If one would be so lucky.  

More interesting than the premise to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Kevin Kwan's take on the high society of the obscenely rich and equally spoiled preparing for the big wedding of the protagonist's best friend is a great setup: you feel as though you're there with Rachel, as she bathes in all of the sheer opulence and unimaginable grandeur displayed by the ultra rich. Rachel, who is an American of Chinese descent, is from a middle class family so she's certainly overwhelmed by what not only by what she sees but who she encounters (from eccentric relatives to supportive but loaded best friends to haughty girls envious of her relationship with Nick).  Nick, the first born son to one of the richest families in all of Asia, is a good guy and tries to be supportive of Rachel but is too naive to realize how contemptuous his family (especially his mother) is conspiring to break up the two lovebirds. Tensions flare and the story spirals from satirizing the extent the rich would do for things (weddings, homes, food) to becoming a tired, cliched sit-com, complete with cartoonish mother holding all of the cards and exposing things to everyone.  Which is unfortunate because the story up to that point felt pretty solid.

Despite faltering towards the end, that shouldn't dissuade you from reading this book.  The whole ride that Nick and Rachel go through, from arriving into Singapore, eating the best satay in the world to attending the most obnoxiously over-the-top wedding, you're there for the ride and it's fun, despite the bumps at the end.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Main Takeaway:  long is the journey to the Lonely Mountain and it takes over two hours for our dwarf + Hobbit heroes to get into the hallowed halls of Erebor.  But it's a grand adventure to be had and you should tag along since there be dragons.

Verdict:  highly recommended, see it in high frame rate (HFR) 3D if you can

  • to paraphrase George Lucas, the movie is faster, quicker, more intense
  • somewhat analogous to the Two Towers, in that it's the middle act with more things going on now that we know the story and the characters better
  • Legolas is meaner than the gentile elf that we saw in LOTR but still a badass.  Maybe dwarf envy?
  • Tauriel is very pretty and very badass
  • Smaug is impressive (Benedict Cumberbatch did the motion capture but not sure if it was just the face or the whole dragon body, which would have been cool)
  • Martin Freeman may be a thief but still adds great humanity to being a Hobbit
  • the high frame rate experience is at first jarring but after a while, you get used to it. But if you get motion sick, you may want to take some Dramamine before seeing the movie.
  • not sure why the movie had to be 2 hours and 40 minutes.  It felt like there was a ton of filler that could have been trimmed.  
  • ends right at a cliffhanger, which I admire but it's also frustrating.  No, I'm not suffering dwarf envy! We just have to wait a whole year to see what happens next.
  • Gandalf goes rogue to do some LOTR set up stuff.  I blame the whole coming of Sauron on Gandalf's meddling and those stupid dwarves.
  • Main bad guy orc looks like an evil version of Jar Jar Binks.  Meesa thinks CGI bad guys needs more reality, less Jar Jar.
  • And yeah, the high frame rate is impressive and all, especially during the action sequences but during the slow scenes, looks totally fake
With a more streamlined plot, that quickly jumps from one scenic location to another, our heroes jump from one entanglement to another, often leading us to some harrowing action sequence that is a marvel to watch in 3D with high frame rate.  Much of the dull exposition that occurred in The Unexpected Journey is greatly reduced in this film (although the story does falter slightly when our heroes reach Lake-town) and you can feel the sense of urgency the dwarfs have in wanting to slay the evil dragon and regain their homeland.

The Gandalf side quest is a bit distracting at first but when you look at the grand scheme that is the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit being the prologue, it makes sense why Gandalf is more detective than wizard (although we see him using more of his wizardry skills than we did in the first movie).

Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it's as long as the first movie, but faster, quicker, more intense and best of all, better action scenes.  Introducing Tauriel is an inspired decision Peter Jackson made in expanding Tolkien's universe but along the way, Jackson gets mired in needless story filler.  Still, it's much more fun than Unexpected Journey and it's a joy seeing Smaug in action.  Nice wink-wink pairing of Cumberbatch and Freeman sharing the same scenes together.

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Main Takeaway:  Disney becomes the new Pixar in creating a crowd pleasing movie full of goofy characters, a beautiful snowy locale and a strong set of musical numbers that rivals the best Disney offered in its 90's heyday.

Verdict:  Highly recommended. 3D not necessary.

  • Veronica Mars is a Disney Princess, singing included.  Kristen Bell owns the Anna character, giving her character enough warmth, heart, goofiness and vulnerability in her performance.
  • the musical numbers, especially the earlier songs, are all standouts:
    • "Do You Want To Build A Snowman" - you listen and you'll smile and then feel so melancholy within a span of 3 minutes.
    • "For The First Time In Forever" - a grand and sweeping song, like a spunkier version of "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast
    • "Love Is an Open Door" - a very catchy tune with funny lyrics that has some great harmonizing
    • "Let It Go" - while not as strong as the first three, when you hear the song while watching the movie, it just works and you completely understand what the Elsa character is going through
  • the story is simple but there is an underlying level of complexity in its characters and relationships with each other, especially between the sisters
  • Sidekick characters pile on the humor, on top of the already funny main characters
  • great locale (a very Norwegian vibe) but not appreciated when the land is frozen over. Then it's just fifty thousands shades of white. You can only take so much white.
  • action sequences were not as dynamic as some of the best action scenes from Tangled and Wreck It Ralph

The Disney Animation Studios reached its pinnacle of creativity during the release of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Lion King. There was a kind of emotional resonance when watching each film, with its timeless musical numbers, identifiable characters and great stories that you want to hear about.  Pixar Studio's initial release of movies showed that other studios were primed to tell stories just as well as Disney (if not better).  But, there has been a renaissance in Disney Animation Studio's in their past releases: Tangled, with its lead character looking to leave her home to see what's out there (similar to Belle's desire to leave her small, provincial town) , Wrech It Ralph and his search to find acceptance among those who have shunned him (similar to Aladdin's desire to not be shunned by other because of his lack of wealth) and most recently, Frozen, a touching story about two sisters, so close at one time but had drifted apart because of events that transpire in the story.  Similar to Lion King's treatment of death and inheritance of responsibility, Frozen's handling of such complicated themes of sisterhood and true love that is explored between Anna and Elsa is impressive: while simple on the surface, go deeper and you realize the complicated relationship they both have.  Throw in a prince, an ice seller with his trusty reindeer and a cool (cold?) sidekick, you get an enchanting story of saving a kingdom from wintry doom but also a satisfying heroine's journey of saving her sister.

Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Josh Gad
Screenplay:  Jennifer Lee
Story:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Directed By:  Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Rated PG
Based on "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen

Monday, December 2, 2013

Katsu Burger

I mentioned in a previous post about the spectrum of fast food burger joints.  Let's change continents for a second, go to Japan and talk about MOS Burger.  When I lived in Japan, MOS Burger was my favorite fast food restaurant.  It was fast, fresh and always delicious.  Granted, the name MOS didn't lend itself well to selling an image of a tasty burger.  But when talking to a Japanese friend about my love for MOS Burger, she asked me if I knew what "MOS" stood for. I did not know and had no clue that there was meaning behind the name.  

Go to the MOS Burger website, it describes the origins of the MOS Burger name:  The "M" in MOS stands for Mountain, O stands for Ocean and S stands for Sun.  "MOS" - Mountain, Ocean and Sun.  However, my friend mentioned two other things about MOS Burger that left an impression on me and on why I like them so much:
  1. MOS is a contraction for "Most Delicious Burger".  Delicious?  Oh hell yeah.  
  2. MOS tastes so good is because of the sauce.  The sauce? you ask.  Let me explain.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi describes the Force as an energy field that surrounds us and binds us together.  The Sauce in a MOS Burger, like the Force, surrounds the burger will flavor and binds all of the ingredients together into a well rounded and tasty package.  
Spicy MOS Cheeseburger (image courtesy of MOS Food Services, Inc.)

Look at the Spicy MOS Cheeseburger as an example:  bun, tomato, meat sauce, jalapenos, onions, cheese, meat, mayo, mustard and bun.  When you bite into a Spicy MOS Cheeseburger, the first taste that hits you is the meat sauce, followed by the rest of the burger. It doesn't overpower the burger but just makes it all the more flavorful. There's a huge dollop of it in the burger and adds so much.  It is an elegant burger, for a more civilized customer.  Yes, I'm using Star Wars to make a point about a burger. Deal with it.

"an eclectic combination of Japanese comfort food mixed in with some Hawaiian swagger and American burger goodness"

I mention this because my experience at Katsu Burger was very similar: of all of the ingredients that make up a Katsu Burger, it's really the sauce that left an impression on me that elevates the burger from fast food staple to fully realized gourmet burger.  Is it better than Lunchbox Laboratory?  Is it a MOS Burger replacement?  Let's find out:

Katsu Burger.  Hard to find, harder to forget.

Step up to the counter to order.  Simple, straightforward menu. And ... ohhh! Pocky!

Located in South Seattle, in the Georgetown District, Katsu Burger is located in a remote part of town that's somewhat difficult to find.  But once you find it, you'll pretty much know where to go and where to turn.  It's a small restaurant, with seating for about 20 people and when I arrived, it was about half full.  The menu is an eclectic combination of Japanese comfort food mixed in with some Hawaiian swagger and American burger goodness. While there was a good selection of burgers to choose from (from the Tokyo Classic (deep fried beef patty with Japanese mayo and tonkatsu sauce) to the Teriyaki Chicken (deep fried chicken with pineapple, Japanese mayo and teriyaki sauce), I decided to get the following:
  • Samurai Select (beef patty breaded in panko (Japanese bread crumbs) deep fried, with bacon, pineapple, wasabi mayo and tonkatsu sauce)
  • an order of nori french fries (fries seasoned with aonori(bits of green seaweed)) with wasabi dipping sauce
  • cole slaw mixed with wasabi

Samurai Select with Nori French Fries w/ wasabi dipping sauce.  And wasabi cole slaw.

It took about 8 minutes for my order to arrive but when it did, I was overwhelmed.  First off, all of the burgers are huge.  My Samurai Select was stacked high with cabbage, onions, sauce, the aforementioned breaded and deep fried beef patty with pineapple and bacon; it had all of the makings of a gourmet burger that rivals the gourmet goodness found at Lunchbox Laboratory.

I think I'm going to cry ... beef patty, breaded in panko and deep fried. Topped with cabbage and tonkatsu sauce

I was trying to get my hands around the burger but gave up.  It was just too big so I used a knife and fork.  You can tell how juicy the burger was by just cutting into the deep fried beef patty. And then I took a bite. The beef patty was tender, juicy and flavorful.  The cabbage, pineapple and bacon added a nice spin to the typical burger taste.  But, similar to my experience in biting into a MOS Burger, it was the tonkatsu sauce that blended all of these uniquely different tastes together. It was like biting into everything that you love about Japanese food while biting into everything great about a local greasy spoon, all-American restaurant, all at the same time.  I unfortunately didn't taste much of the wasabi mayo, which was a bit of a disappointment but the combination of tonkatsu sauce with the burger and condiments made it a great burger tasting experience.  I wouldn't say it was better than Lunchbox Laboratory but good enough to stand on its own as something different but still delicious.  I can go to either restaurant and be happy.

Nori french fries with wasabi dipping sauce.  They also had other dipping sauces, including curry mayo, miso honey mustard and spicy mayo.  Need to come back and try the other flavors

The fries were served hot out of the fryer with little flecks of green seaweed that added a nice sea-salty taste to the crispy shoestring cut fries. The kicker here is the wasabi dipping sauce. Just like the tonkatsu sauce elevating the Samurai Select burger into new level of burger goodness, the dipping sauces add just enough jazz to the already jazzed french fries to add a new spin to a familiar taste:  mayonnaise mixed with the right amount of wasabi to give it the sweet, spicy taste you will definitely love.  

Wasabi Cole Slaw.  Mix well before eating.

Before digging into the cole slaw, our server told me to mix up the cole slaw since the wasabi mix tended to settle at the bottom of the cole slaw.  Glad she told me about it since there was a lot of wasabi kick to the creamy cole slaw taste.

Two great tastes that go great together. Note the pineapple and bacon in the burger.  Ok, I'm hungry.

Katsu Burger is simply great.  While the restaurant itself may lack the shine and polish of Lunchbox Laboratory (it looks more like a teriyaki place), don't make the mistake in thinking the restaurant setting reflects the quality of the food.  Hardly.  Using the sauce to bind all of the different flavors together, Katsu Burger is a fine dining experience and highly recommended. MOS Burger will still have a special place in my heart for Japanese fast comfort food but if I'm not in Japan, Katsu Burger is the next best thing.  Come for the burgers, stay for the sauce.

Katsu Burger
6538 4th Ave. S (at E. Marginal Way S)
Seattle, WA 98108

Monday, November 25, 2013

Japanese KitKat (Red Sweet Potato, Shinshu Apple and Kyushu Strawberry)

My friend at work JCOS gave me some of their specialty KitKats that they got when traveling around Japan last September. Thanks JCOS! The below is my review of these special KitKats that are unique to Japan.

Red Sweet Potato.  It's purple!

Red Sweet Potato
Very nice packaging.  This is a special Okinawa/Kyushu version, which is interesting in the sense that I didn't realize that Okinawa/Kyushu were known for their sweet potato.  While the label says red, the KitKat is actually a light purple color.  Will that affect the taste of the KitKat?  Let's take a bite:

The initial bite has that doughy, starchy sweet potato taste.  There is a slight, savory aroma of steamed sweet potato that accompanies each bite.  It starts off well but after a few bites, the aftertaste is definitely white chocolate with only a hint of sweet potato. What's interesting is that while all subsequent bites taste like white chocolate, that initial bite was definitely sweet potato. I had something salty before eating the KitKat so if I cleanse my palate, I was curious if I would get get that same sweet potato taste. I do the following:
  • drink a sports drink
  • drink water
  • eat a couple of potato chips
I then take another bit of the KitKat.  Yes, yes ... sweet potato again!  At this moment, I decide that I need green tea.  Eating Japanese KitKat felt like I was eating wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and the whole experience needed a cup of tea to go with it.  I found some packets of oolong tea and made myself a hot cup.  I unfortunately spilled some tea over my hand but was determined to continue with my taste review.  The tea hit the spot but it did not get rid of the overpowering white chocolate taste.  I decided that to counterbalance the white chocolate aftertaste, I needed more potato chips.  I ate a handful.  Man, potato chips taste good.

Pros:  nice packaging, purple, initial bite does indeed taste like biting into a steamed sweet potato from a street vendor
Cons:  lingering white chocolate aftertaste, drinking oolong team doesn't help (next time, I'm going to try green tea)
Verdict:  better than I had expected.  But the dominating white chocolate taste makes this more white chocolate than sweet potato

Shinshu Apple.  It looked like a regular KitKat but with magical apple power!

Shinshu Apple KitKat

Opening up the Shinshu Apple KitKat packaging, you're greeted with a very robust apple smell but tempered with the smell of KitKat chocolate.  Will this taste better than the white chocolate/sweet potato hybrid?  I take a bite (and yes, I have my cup of hot green tea with me).

A very rich, chocolate taste with a hint of green apple, very different from the Sweet Potato KitKats. I have to say that I like the combination:  the sweetness of apple and the smoothness of milk chocolate go hand in hand; no white chocolate aftertaste.  This one is definitely habit forming but not as habit forming as a can of Pringles.  

Pros:  Nice packaging.  Great mix of apple and chocolate.
Cons:  there were only two wafers
Verdict:  sweet, fragrant, a perfect harmony of sweet apples and milk smooth chocolate for a delicious combination

Strawberry KitKat.  It was pink and delicious.

Strawberry KitKat
This is the special Kyushu edition ... that's where my parents are from.  Kyushu Strawberry comes in a creamy pink color with a faint smell of artificial strawberries.  Just having finished Shinshu Apple, I drink more tea to make sure the lingering apple taste does not affect my judgement of the Strawberry KitKat.  How does it taste?  Let's find out:

The first bite reminds me of strawberry ice cream in a cake cone.  Yup, it's the taste of ice cream, strawberries and crispy cake cone, all rolled up into one.  Very delicious.  No white chocolate aftertaste but no chocolate taste either; it's like pure artificial strawberry goodness

Pros:  strawberries, cream and KitKat wafer goodness
Cons:  strawberries and nothing else  
Verdict:  savory strawberry flavor with KitKat crunch.  There isn't anything unnecessary about these KitKats.  It's pure strawberry + KitKat goodness put together.  I like it

Strawberry was fine but it was just strawberry.  Score:  5/10
Apple combines chocolate and apple together and works splendidly.  Score 6.5/10
Red Sweet Potato tried too hard and copied too much of white chocolates flair.  Score: 4/10
Winner of this round:  Apple

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Novilhos - Brazilian Steakhouse

I wasn't expecting my brother to make a second appearance in the Pacific Northwest but when he told me that he was coming up to Redmond for a conference, our first immediate thoughts were the same: when are we going to get together and where are we going to eat? Last time, up in Vancouver, we went to Hawksworth and filled up on steak. This time around, we decided to do something similar but different at the same time. How, you ask. Simple. Novilhos: Brazilian Steakhouse. It's steak (similar) but served buffet style (different). It's my brother and myself (similar) but with two of our close friends (different). How was the restaurant? Was it as spectacularly delicious as Hawksworth or different? Let's find out....

"If you're a meat lover, this place is for you."

Novilhos is located next to the Factoria Mall, in its own building so there's plenty of parking. The restaurant gives off a classy vibe. Walking into the darkened entry, it reminded me of walking into a night club.  We were greeted by the receptionist and once we mentioned our reservations, we were immediately seated.  We sat in the main dining room but I saw several rooms off to the side, most likely used for large parties. Our waiter quickly appeared and asked us if this was our first time at Novilhos. We said yes. He then kindly explained to us how things work:
  1. you grab your salad/appetizers from the salad bar first.  Fill up on as much salad and appetizers you want but save room for meat.
  2. on your table is a coin shaped red/green card that each guest has.  The red side is displayed when you're seated.
  3. once you're ready for meat, you turn over your coin to green.  Green means meat.  Meat servers, who are often circling around the main dining area, will stop by and offer what they're serving.
  4. while pigging out on all of the fabulous meat selections, you're welcome to back to the salad/appetizer bar as much as you want
Red side of the meat service coin.  With fried bananas.

Let's start with the salad and appetizers.  Along with leafy green lettuce and vegetables, you can choose from other various prepared salads, such as caesar, potato, pasta, and cole slaw. There are also a number of breads, hams, cheeses, eggs, rice and fruit selections. I stocked up on a little bit of everything.  Each table also gets a basket of warm cheese bread, mashed potatoes, and fried bananas. Very nice spread.

My friends and my brother decided that it was meat time and flipped their coins to green. Within a minute, a server appeared holding a giant skewer with a thick steak covered in mozzarella cheese.  The server carefully sliced off a piece and asked my brother to grab the slice. Each guest has their own set of tongs so using his tongs, my brother grabbed the generous slice of meat and put it on his plate. The server did the same thing with my friends.  I was still eating my salad.  Next came the rib eye, followed by pork loins, then chicken wings and sausage.  If you're a meat lover, this place is for you.  I decided to go for another round of salad.

My "salad".  That round thing on the left is a meatball.  Very delicious.

By the time I was almost done with my second helping of salad, my brother had a concerned look on his face and was wondering if 1) I was on a diet (of course not!) and 2) if I was feeling OK.  I told him I was pacing myself.  I finally flipped over my coin to green and started pigging out on everything that was being offered, including the bacon wrapped chicken (scrumptious), filet mignon (juicy), and sausage (pretty good).  By this time, my brother and my friends were starting to realize that they needed to slow down.  They were consuming too much meat too quickly.  They already went through two rounds of meat and they were already starting to feel the need to stop.  I kept on eating.  More chicken wings, spare ribs and rib eye please.

Protein! And carbs! The best of both worlds. Who needs vegetables?!?

But even my pacing didn't help me in the end.  By the end of the third round, all of us were on the ropes: too much meat consumed too quickly.  But the beauty of buffet is that you can take your time and enjoy the food or enjoy the conversation with your dinner guests so while resting (I was munching on more of the appetizers), we talked and had a really great time.

We finally decided that we had enough and dessert was presented to us.  Unfortunately, we didn't save enough room for dessert (auxiliary stomach, usually reserved for dessert, was used during the third round of meat eating) so we had to pass. I did take a picture:

Too stuffed to eat anything else.  That cheesecake looks good though.  I mean, look at it!  Next time!

Overall, a meat lover's paradise with nice salad/appetizer selection for all of your grazing needs.  It's $48 for the full meat and salad course but if you're in the mood for various types of meat and want it all you can eat, this is the place to be.  Just remember to pace yourself.

Novilhos - Brazilian Steakhouse
12405 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006

Monday, November 18, 2013


Context:  this is a continuation of the "Interview Experience" post, where I chronicled my initial interview with Northwest Airlines.  A week has passed since the follow up interview and I was offered a job as a flight attendant.  I accepted, thinking that I would enjoy the opportunity of flying around the world while helping customers and then quit within a year or two.  This post talks about training and classmates.

---------------------------------------- o ----------------------------------------

Flying time from San Diego International Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul is roughly 4 hours. This was my first time riding a plane as an employee of Northwest Airlines.  It was a free ride and although I didn't have to pay, I had to dress up in a suit and tie with dress shoes since as a representatives of the airline, we had to look first class, even if we end up seated in coach.  I was able to grab the last empty seat.

"Luckily, I didn't spill any hot coffee on my passengers."

Upon arriving at MSP, I quickly gather my suitcase and head towards the taxi bay.  The directions I got in my letter from Northwest direct me to go to the Oaktree Apartments in the city of Edina, about 20 minutes away from the airport.  As I'm standing in line for a taxi, a young woman behind me asks if I'm headed to the Oaktree Apartments.  She's about my age, maybe older, Asian and also wearing a smart looking business suit.  I say yes and ask if she's a new hire for Northwest.  She smiles and says yes and introduces herself. Her name is Olivia.  She says that she remembered seeing me get on the plane last and thought that I was a new hire.  We share a taxi to the Oaktree Apartments.

On our way to the apartment complex, Olivia tells me a little bit about herself.  She's originally from San Francisco but currently lives near San Diego with her husband John.  John is a famous hockey player and plays for a team that I've never heard of but I nod my head anyway. He travels a lot and so when Olivia heard about the flight attendant position, she thought it would be a good way for her to travel with him when he was working.

I ask her if she had to talk about her best customer story at the interview and she said yes.  Olivia's parents are both Chinese but she was born and raised in San Francisco and so she only remembers speaking Chinese when growing up.  When I ask her if she's able to speak fluent Mandarin, she says that she's able to get her point across but I think she was just being modest.  For her best customer story, she talked about how, as Ms. Chinatown, she had to work on various public activities, from senior citizen groups to schools and radio and television performances and had to treat each group with respect and understanding, just as if they were her best customers.  I pretty much lost all concentration when she mentioned, almost offhandedly, that she was Ms. Chinatown.  My initial thought was "Wow, I'm in the same taxi with Ms. Chinatown.  That's like being with Ms. Universe!".  But, I listened to the challenges she faced as an ambassador to the city of San Francisco with both admiration and respect.  In hindsight, she seemed almost too overqualified to be a flight attendant.

The taxi enters a nice suburban area of Minneapolis and to me, Edina looked like a nice place to live.  The Oaktree Apartments seemed like any other apartment complex; a well appointed office that looked more like a hotel lobby was in front of us when the taxi dropped us off.  Olivia and I both went in and was given keys to our respective apartments.  When I got to my apartment, two other guys were already there.  Richard Hashimoto, a Japanese American dude from LA, was watching TV when I entered and he greeted with a firm handshake.  Mike Lee, a Korean guy who was in the kitchen also shook my hand and greeted me as well.  The apartment had two bedrooms, with two beds in each. Since Northwest Airlines firmly believes in the seniority system, Richard was the oldest (he was 25) so got a room for himself while Mike (24) and myself (21) shared the second bedroom.  Richard used to work at a supermarket while Mike used to work at an insurance company.  Both seem very easy going and after a couple of hours of talking with them, I know right off the bat that we were going to be fast friends. Down the hall from our room was Harry, a funny Chinese guy who wore glasses and had a very wanting-to-please attitude towards everything.  And, there was Steve the Mormon who spoke fluent Korean because he had done two missions in Seoul.  He was very popular with all of the girls.

Training went something like this:
  • 3 weeks of safety training, focusing on learning all of the safety features of each airplane Northwest has in service.
  • 3 weeks of service training, focusing on proper serving techniques, from first class all the way down to coach.  You also get to learn how to make yourself presentable.
  • Everyday, you take a quiz and at the end of each week, there is a final examination.  If you fail a final exam, you get kicked out.

Safety Training
During the first three weeks, we learned about safety techniques.  What to do on a wheels up landing (you do not deploy the overwing slides since it will deploy right into the adjacent slide), learn how to use all of the safety equipment (from fire extinguishes, CPR equipment, life vests to safety masks), and commands.  The commands I remember are "Come this way, move quickly, leave everything" and "Run, Jump, Help At The Bottom".  I'm sure that the commands have changed over the years but I still remember them.  At the end of each week, there was a final exam that everyone had to take.  For some folks, they were able to soak up every single safety detail and recall everything in an instant.  For others, like myself, I had to read, re-read and then try to remember everything.  I very much admired my roommate Mike who was able to learn everything once and felt that there was no need for study. Everyone was very smart and very motivated so almost everyone passed the test, including myself.  By the end of the third week, only a couple of trainees left the training program, either because they didn't pass the test or felt that being a flight attendant wasn't right for them. For me, I was having the time of my life.  

Like high school, cliques are created within our class and for me, I usually stayed with my small inner circle of friends.  With Richard, Mike, Olivia, and funny guy Harry, the time spent practicing our safety routines, learning the proper uses of the safety equipment and standard operation procedure on all airplane types made it worthwhile.  After training, we would get together and have dinners together, hang out, walk to the supermarket and just talk about all of the things that we left behind and all of things that were looking forward to doing.  I would often invite Steve the Mormon to join us but he would always politely refuse, often letting us know that he had other plans.  Harry would tell us that Steve was going out with a girl from another class.  I always found it interesting how Harry was able to get that kind of information, as if he was some kind of reporter, searching for juicy gossip.  Graduation was still three weeks away and none of us knew which base we would be assigned but we were all motivated to work hard, pass our exams but also have a good time.

Service Training
The last three weeks was focused on proper serving techniques.  I got to learn how to pour wine (the key is to twist the bottle when you're done pouring) as well learning how to pronounce Cabernet Sauvignon (red wine, often served with red meat) to chardonnay (white wine, often served with chicken and light meats).  I learned how to "drizzle" salad dressing instead of pour, the quickest way to serve three carbonated drinks at once (and it's true, Diet Coke is the slowest drink to serve since it takes for time for it to settle) and making sure that the food is served in a presentable fashion.  Speaking of presentable fashion, we were fitted for our uniform and taught grooming skills so that always looked first class (always clean shaven, hair properly combed and moussed, nails trimmed neatly).  We were also instructed on how not to step on people's hands when walking through the aisles.  It almost felt like being a fashion model.

After six weeks, everything that you learned from training culminates to a buddy ride, on-the-job training where you get to fly on a real airplane and serve real customers.  My training flight was LGA-DTW (LaGuardia International Airport, New York to Detroit, Michigan) with a flying time of 1 hour and 45 minutes, just enough time for a drink service.  Richard told me afterwards that on his training flight, he was pouring coffee over the passenger's lap (which is a no-no) and just when the airplane hit a pocket of turbulence, the coffee swirled in and out of his cup and into the passenger's lap.  The passenger didn't get angry and took it all in stride.  Richard, on the other hand, was freaked out and apologized a number of times to the passenger.  Luckily, I didn't spill any hot coffee on my passengers.  On the flight back, we had extra peanuts so I gave each of my passenger two bags of peanuts.  I don't think they even noticed.

When we finally reached the end of our six week training session, we were all happy to be graduating.  While the six weeks seemed to have flown by so quickly, it felt almost like a lifetime of creating new friends, building rock solid friendships while studying together with the shared goal of being a good flight attendant.  At the graduation ceremony, I hugged Olivia and mentioned that it felt like a lifetime ago when we shared the same taxi to the Oaktree Apartments.  I shook hands with Richard and mentioned that it must be a thrilling feeling to know that he'll be working on a Boeing 747-400 as flight attendants instead of working behind a cash register at a nearby supermarket.  He was looking forward to taking his parents to Hawaii. Mike Lee, the Korean guy who used to work at an insurance company, looked somewhat glum. When I asked him if he was alright, he looked at me with a serious look on his face and said, "Yeah.  I just can't believe that we're done with training."  I wasn't sure if he was happy or sad about it.  

The next day, we are told which base we would be assigned to.

Richard, Mike, Harry and Olivia are assigned the Boston base.  I'm assigned to New York. Boston international flights go to Europe (London-Gatwick, Paris and Amsterdam).  New York international flights to go Japan.  I am disheartened to know that all of the people I had in my inner circle were not coming with me to my new home. Everyone was very much excited and looking forward to their new home in Boston and for me, for the briefest of moments, I feel a sense of abandonment.  After all we've been through, I realize that what comes next is what I will have to do on my own.

That's when I hear someone say "Hey Scott".  When I look up, I see Steve the Mormon.  He says, "I guess it's just you and me going to New York.  I guess you can teach me how to speak some Japanese."  He smiles and shakes my hand.  I smile back and realize that it's not really abandonment or a feeling of separation.  It's just that uneasy, uneven feeling of change and growth, not just for me but for all of us.  I was happy that Richard, Mike, Harry and Olivia were going to Boston since now I can visit them and hear all of the great stories about traveling to Europe.  As for Steve and myself, we set our sights on New York City and on what the future holds for us.

[To be continued]