Welcome, 2014!

The second half of December blew by unbelievably quickly, and now here we are in the new year. I’m looking forward to a major change coming my way in a couple of months, and in conjunction with that, doing some tweaking to my blog theme and name. When that’s done, I’ll cease to blog here. The site will still remain, but I’ll move my posts elsewhere. This marks a start to what I fully intend to be an exciting new year!

While the blog move was happening, I was busy with end-of-the-year wrap ups and the holiday season. It’s the time of the year here in America when there’s a marked increase in activity around town. People are generally upbeat on celebrating, but the added hustle and bustle almost feels like a final ritual that we must undergo before crossing over into a new year. The more effort you put in, the more good luck will come your way — yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic but if you know where I’m coming from, you might understand.

Businesses start peddling their holiday season wares as early as right after Thanksgiving, reminding us all to get ahead with the holiday shopping. Luckily, traffic around here doesn’t start growing to maddening proportions till December. When that time rolls around, try to avoid weekend travel and shopping in general, if you want to keep your sanity.

Radio stations will play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town and other catchy Christmas jingles so often that you’ll remember it all by heart by the end of the week. After hearing the same track for the thirtieth time, I broke it up by tuning in to WETA 90.9. for choral music from the Renaissance era. Those beautiful and melodious harmonies reverberate with a joy that will fill your heart — impossible not to like.

But what does become impossibly tedious during this festive season is going shopping at the malls and other stores. All over town, everyone converges at TJ Maxxes, Targets, Walmarts and at departmental stores with young children and in-laws in tow, checking off their gift lists as they work their way through different stores. The popular ones are guaranteed to be extra crowded; lines of shoppers snaking through the store on their way up to the checkout register.

Hours of shopping would yield a few bags full of gifts, but you’d have to be pretty careful as you made your way back to the car. Most drivers do stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks that connect them from mall to parking lot, but occasionally  there’ll be the one raging renegade, possibly losing his mind with all the holiday traffic and hence, the inability to find parking. I can empatise, but that’s no reason for sadistically trying to run pedestrians down. Yes, even if they’re taking their own damn sweet time.

Back at home, there is plenty to be done. If you celebrate Christmas, a tree goes up in the living room and everyone gets roped in to decorate it with LED string lights, glittering glass ball ornaments and personalised tree decorations of all shapes and sizes. Here in the the D.C. area, the White House Historical Association ornament is a popular gift, as they feature a different theme and design every year. I respect the White House as a symbol of American power and greatness, but I don’t really care about collecting the ornaments. My personal favourite is a pendant ornament the size of a penny souvenir — a portrait of Schubert, my very sweet little cat.

I suppose it’s all in the spirit of the season — a reminder of loved ones to keep that warm fuzzy glow in your stomach going. Provided you’re on good terms with them of course.

Another type of glow that I never fail to be amazed by are the holiday lights. The effort in which people put into decorating their lawns and roofs with brightly colored lights and holiday time decorations is mesmerising.



I wish I had taken better pictures. In person, they are much more impressive.

Growing up in Malaysia, all we ever did during Chinese New Year was to set out trays of sweets, oranges and cookies on the coffee table in the guest room; maybe if we were motivated that year, we’d also make paper fish out of empty angpow (small red envelopes) packets and hang them on a tree made of plastic. But over here…just look at those displays! I admire the dedication to designing how it should look, and then spending, not only hours putting them up, but what must be quite a bit of money on decorations and electricity bills.

In some neighbourhoods, residents actually put their heads together and get everyone living on the street to decorate their houses. Like the residents on the 700 block along 34th street in Baltimore, who since 1947, have been decking out their row homes with the most elaborate lighting and are known collectively as the “Miracle On 34th Street.” I was able to enjoy the Miracle from a resident’s viewpoint a few years ago; I visited a couple I know who live on the street. We sat in the living room with the front doors wide open as one of my friends made squealing UFO sounds on the theremin, much to the fright of passing children who were there to catch a glimpse of the streets most well-known Xmas tree, made entirely of hubcaps.

All these lights and shopping — as pretty and well-intentioned as they are — seems like such a waste of money and energy.

At least that’s what I used to think; but the months of winter really can be a real downer — whether you live in the heart of a busy city or peaceful suburbia, the landscape is a chilly, bluish grey;  a horrible wintertime dreariness made worse by the sun setting at 5 p.m. daily, and it’s not much better even when the sun is shining during the day. Snow makes it worse, and whoever says “they love snow” has never had to actually deal with the extra work that comes with it.

For me, snowfall is something to be enjoyed on a ski vacation, or if you’re really longing for that Christmas-at-the-North-Pole-with-Santa kind of vibe. If you have to live on a day-to-day basis with snow (or cold winters in general) you’ll see how pointless and annoying it is. Putting on extra layers of clothing to keep warm takes extra time. Shovelling snow off walking paths and away from your car takes extra time. So does scraping away ice so you don’t slip. Heating your home in the winter costs more. Freezing your ass off if you have to be outdoors for more than ten minutes? Not fun…and neither is falling on it because you slipped on a patch of ice…in front of a bus full of commuters.

Yes. So I can understand the need for plenty of noisy, brightly-lit and colourfully-wrapped distractions. Now, any kind of celebration that perks up this gloomy time of year and keeps that momentum going till the new year is good with me, and I looove new year celebrations.

I fondly recall my first new year’s eve in the U.S., spent with a group of fellow Malaysian undergrads, including my high school pal Qi Ming. Fresh off our first semester, studying at universities in the Midwest and Northeast, about 20 to 25 of us converged in New York for a week to share lodging costs. Then we split up in smaller groups to tour the made-famous-by-Hollywood sights of NYC, but gathered again in Times Square to usher in 2004. I was 18 going on 19, and it feels like a lifetime ago.


This year, I joined a group of fellow expats to await the arrival of 2014. Literally hailing from all four corners of the world, we got together at a one bedroom Petworth (neighbourhood) apartment. Over home-made Peruvian snacks prepared by my friend Carol, fried chicken wings from a nearby Chinese takeout, free flowing vodka and shots of Jagermeister, and a raucous game of Cards Against Humanity.

I think everyone had a great time, even though most of us had just met for the first time that day. The common strand that brought us together for that final evening of 2013, and the immediate camaraderie that’s conjured, due to our shared experience as expatriates living in the United States, far from close friends and far from a loving family. These strangers often become your (interim) family. You instinctively feel a closeness with others who travel hundreds – even thousands – of miles from everything they know, all for the sake of exploring a different life — in a whole new world.

You have to live by a set of rules, norms and values quite different from your own. Your learning curve may occasionally hit rough patches along the way, like homesickness for the familiar comforts of home and perhaps even a lack of kinship. The urge to hole up in your apartment might be tempting. It won’t help you get over those rough times, but a little support from other expats might.

Like our little international new year party. Nationalities from seven countries squeezed into one tiny apartment, cracking jokes and poking fun at each other like we’d been best friends for years. That kind of acceptance is immeasurable when you’ve been abroad for awhile, especially when you’re feeling jaded and lonely. Locals of your host country might not always respond kindly to your attempts at fitting in somewhere, but expats nearly always lend a friendly hand, even if it’s just a small gesture.

Like an offer to walk you home when it’s late. Giving you a ride to the airport because you don’t have a car. Or inviting you to a potluck dinner with others. Expats understand how these things matter when you’re on your own in a strange land. In a moment of fraternity, even racial and religious conflicts can be set aside. Because choosing to live abroad means that you should be meeting people who don’t share your cultural and geographic background, and finding commonalities to build friendships on – sharing with them what your world is about while taking in some of theirs.

This is one of the things I appreciate the most about being on the road. If you choose to think the best of the people you meet, you bring out the best in them as well. You get to stay optimistic about the world — that innocent wonder and happiness of experiencing a new place and new friends. Even the most insignificant details, can never be lost on you. And that, is what makes your time abroad that much more special.

Being a constant traveller, I count my blessings that I’ve never had trouble seeing the world in this light. Every country I’ve visited on every continent I’ve set foot on has been a wonderful adventure, and with the new year, I’m looking forward to brand new ones.

Cheers to an amazing, travel-filled 2014!

The City At Night

Every night when dark settles over the District, bright lights around the city’s famous landmarks power on, creating a magnificent glowing aura around it. Even if you had traipsed around the city snapping shots of yourself in front of memorials and monuments earlier in the day, it’s worth the trip to come back out at night and see them again in a, well — different light. A thinner volume of visitors and cool night air makes the walk all the more pleasant. Not to mention a creative, romantic date idea!

Lighthouse Tofu Shows The Way To Good Korean Food

No offense to anyone, but I’m typically not a fan of Korean food. Previous experiences have ranged from too much garlic, to overly sweet bulgogi, to chewy and inedible grilled pork skin; and to emerging from poorly ventilated restaurants smelling musky of days old food. I’m aware that my sentiment goes against the love for Korean food as shown by legions of fans, but sorry — or not really sorry — I just never got into it.

But at Lighthouse Tofu, also known as Vit Goel, I’m assured that I’ll never encounter the problems mentioned above. Atmosphere in the wood-paneled restaurant is quite a pleasant home feel, whilst servers are quick with recommending dishes, and serving complimentary little saucers of kimchi and pickled vegetable appetizers.

Entrees here look and taste like healthy, home-cooked meals. Ingredients are fresh, negating the need for heavy handedness on the seasoning, and yet, dishes still turn out flavorful enough to keep customers coming back for more. I usually get one of their famous soondooboo, or tofu soups, as part of a small ensemble of dishes, but this last time when I went to Lighthouse, I wanted to try other things on the menu.

Seafood Pancake
The seafood pajeon (pajun) is crispy on the edges, chewy towards the middle and filled generously with sliced vegetables, but slightly skimpy on the seafood and taste. It was still good, and the companion dipping sauce makes it better.


Spicy Octopus Dish
Sorry for the nondescript dish name. Although delicious, I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s like a mildly spicy octopus bulgogi and julienned veggies, and we had a little bit of confusion while ordering this. We Asians are allegedly notorious for being complacent with tentacles, feet, beady black eyes and a whole variety of legs served in their food, as everyone else watches in horror (or less frequently, awe) as we dine on these delicacies with relish. Our server must have thought my Italian-American friend hadn’t a clue what she was getting herself into, and suggested a squid noodle dish that didn’t have whole pieces of squid in them.


What she didn’t know is that my friend is an Octopus Fiend, even venturing to eat large pieces of mini octopuses whole — a texture I can’t stomach no matter how well it’s been flavoured. We declined our kind server’s suggestion in favour of a large hot plate full of octopus, small enough to be bite-sized that I had some too. The sauce wasn’t too spicy and bordered on soupy, perfect for spooning on to your rice. I typically like my hot dishes to have a robust piquantness, but in this instance, that was irrelevant, as it was tasty and good without needing more. 

Hot Stone Bowl Bibimbap
Bibimbap is white, short-grain rice that’s completely covered with shiitake mushrooms, bean sprouts, carrots and snow pea leaves, each neatly arranged in segments, topped with some sauce and a sunny side up egg and served in a hot steel bowl The egg yolk is intentionally served runny, to be broken, swirled and soaked up by the veggies and rice. The more you mash and swirl, the more the the yolk cooks on the surface of the bowl — salmonella worries, be gone!  Thinly sliced pork also begins to emerge from the depths of the bowl, but there isn’t a lot to discover; at least, not during this meal. The delights of this dish goes all the way to the bottom, where the rice has cooked long enough that you can scrape off a crunchy, cracker-like layer that is every bit as delicious as the rest of the dish.  Bibimbap is very much like a healthy version of fried rice to me, and I can’t be far off, as the word translates as “mixed rice.”


True to the Korean dining experience, the table is always full of food, even at tables of two. This means that you’ll never order more than you can eat (unless you want,) which helps keep your meals here affordable. Our bill arrived as we enjoyed bowls of barley-and-rice tea, (another complimentary side dish that you can have with your meal or as a plate cleanser after) which came to approximately 35 bucks with tips and tax.

Overall, I’m pretty happy to have ventured off my usual picks, but there’s a reason why the soondooboo dishes at Lighthouse is the talk of the town: unique, hearty and flavorful comfort dishes that can strike a chord with practically anyone is bound to be a winner. I’ll also add the bibimbap to my personal list.

Vit Goel (Lighthouse Tofu)

Annandale, Virginia
4121 Chatelain Rd
Annandale, VA 22003
(703) 333-3436
Mon – Sat 10:00 am – 11:00 pm
Sun 10:30 am – 10:30 pm

Rockville, Maryland
12710 Twinbrook Pkwy
Rockville, MD 20847
(301) 881-1178
Mon to Sun 10:30 am – 10:30 pm