Project: VISION

Chicago, Thoughts

Last week, I went to an open house hosted by Project: VISION, a local Chicago nonprofit that I began supporting this fall. PV provides after school programming to youth aged 12-18 in the Chinatown and Bridgeport neighborhoods; most of the students attend Chicago Public Schools and many are from first-generation immigrant families.

At the open house, I got to ask some of the students what they’d been up to over at the center. Some were receiving mentoring from Chicago professionals; others were being helped through college applications and FAFSA. A group of students told me about a recent exercise they’d completed that pushed them to think about their 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans.

“So what did you say was your 10-year plan?” I asked, curious to understand the mind of today’s 17-year-old.

“A stable job,” said one. “A doctor, lawyer, or a teacher,” replied another. “I want to be a father,” answered a third, as his friends laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. I noticed an easy camaraderie among them, three seniors in high school who were semi-anxiously awaiting the start of college admissions decisions. These didn’t seem like kids who just came to a center once a week to receive homework help; they seemed like friends, true friends.

“You guys said you go to different high schools, right? Would you say you’re better friends with your school friends or each other?” I wondered.

They smiled – somewhat bashfully – and all pointed at each other.

In that moment, I understood the power of a place like Project: VISION. It is a place full of resources to help middle and high school students navigate the next stage of life; it provides opportunities to learn, lead and serve – and yet it is so much more. Between the logistics of life that have to be completed, there is a space at PV – literally, and figuratively – that allows for relationships, for community, for belonging.

Some teenagers are able to find these friendships at school; others at places like Project: VISION. And still others are unable to find it at all. It could be due to a shyness that creates anxiety in social settings. It could be due to the lack of alternative opportunities like PV. It could be due to priorities like babysitting the family, priorities that take precedence because of the necessity to survive. It could be due to any number of different factors – but every young adult who wants the safety of community, who needs the comfort of belonging – they deserve a chance to have it.

I’m incredibly proud to support Project: VISION and all the work its staff does to provide students with the help and the skills they need to succeed. That the students I met at open house could point to each other as close friends is a beautiful testament to PV’s power in creating an alternative space for community. As these students begin their journeys to a stable job, a doctor / lawyer / teacher, and to becoming a father, I can’t help but smile knowing that they’ll have each other’s friendship through it all.

If you’d like to support the work at Project: VISION, click here to donate or message me to learn more! 

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Uber Driver

Chicago

We rushed along Michigan Avenue, dodging the tourists that milled about leisurely. I looked down at my phone, checking the license plate number of our Uber. “She said she’s in a silver car,” I told my boyfriend, scanning the road for our ride. We were cutting it close for getting to Ogilvie to catch the train that would take us to the suburbs. Finally, we found the Uber, slamming the door behind us as we breathlessly greeted our driver.

“How are y’all doing today?” she asked cheerfully. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how, but the conversation veered away from generic niceties about the weather to specifics about her Englewood neighborhood. “I like Uber because it gets me out of there,” our driver commented, her tone matter-of-fact. “You could be sitting outside on your porch for 2-3 minutes and you’ll hear gunshots.”

My jaw dropped, unsure whether this was an exaggeration. I had heard that Englewood could get ‘bad’ – but I didn’t really know what ‘bad’ meant. “Are you serious?” I asked, and our driver continued talking. “Yeah, I’m serious. They rob people, too, but I would be pissed if they robbed me because I ain’t got no money. If they want the lint from my pockets, I’d tell ’em, ‘You can have the lint.'” We laughed with her when she said that, and the mood lightened.

She continued. “You know, I love driving Uber. I get to meet all kinds of people when I drive, from all over the world, and learn stuff. It gets me out of Englewood and I get to see parts of Chicago I never even knew about, which is crazy ’cause I’ve lived here my entire life.” I nodded, appreciating that sentiment – one which I’d heard from other Uber drivers as well.

“I never even knew we had two airports in Chicago before I started driving Uber,” she declared as she turned a corner.

“WHAT?” I reacted, failing to hide my shock. As an immigrant, I’d come by way of O’Hare; the airport was literally where I’d taken my first few steps in the Chicagoland area.

“Yep,” she nodded, her face breaking out into a grin. “Like I said, I love Uber. If I ever meet the guy who started Uber, I’d just go up to him and squeeze his little nubbins.” My boyfriend chortled next to me at the mental image of Travis Kalanick having his cheeks pinched.

I mulled over that conversation for days afterwards, unable to fully digest just how different my life was from that of our Uber driver. It was more than the differences found in our skin colors, in our jobs, in our current life stages (she was a mother, she told us; “I tell all my kids they gotta be good people”). These were obvious; loud, external contrasts that already carried whole hosts of implications – right or wrong – about our lives.

It was her statement about the airports that struck me: the tiny, specific fact that so clearly delineated the vast disparity in the ways we’d both experienced this journey called life. Chicago has two airports: a fact I didn’t realize I’d learned; just one that I’d “known” for as long as I’d been here. And yet here I was, talking to someone who had been in Chicago her entire life – much longer than me – who was, until the last year, unaware of this detail that I’d never given a second thought to.

The disparity makes me feel uncomfortable; I feel guilty that I fly for leisure multiple times a year while she’s just grateful to get out of Englewood driving Uber. It makes me feel spoiled and so out-of-touch with what “reality” might mean for another human being; it makes me feel like a hypocrite about the bubble I live in while I work for an organization that serves neighborhoods like Englewood. I should be more thankful for all that I have, that I’ve experienced – but the inequality makes me judge the parts of me that has taken everything in my life for granted.

But conversations like this are the ones that push us to grow: in understanding the most nuanced details that make us so different, we forge empathy. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that we must face head-on. Despite not quite grasping how that conversation impacted me, I know that it has at least forced me to pause and reflect; and for that, I owe that Uber driver from Englewood.

Taxi Driver

Shanghai

I slid into the backseat of the taxi, slamming the door behind me. “Beijing West Road and Xizang Road,” I told the driver. “Beijing West Road and Xizang Road!” He repeated my destination cheerfully and put the meter down to start the ride.

It was late into the evening, and the radio played old Chinese songs as we drove along the brightly lit streets of beautiful Shanghai. The music was ceaselessly interrupted by the Didi app, aka the reason Uber failed in China. “Ding ding! Huaihai Road and Ruijin Road!” “Ding ding! Nanjing Road and Maoming Road!” The taxi driver ignored the ride requests, humming along to the radio; after a while, the Didi sounds blended as percussion into the symphony of sounds on the drive.

Suddenly, the blaring ringtone of the taxi driver’s phone interrupted. “Hello,” he answered.

“Shifu,” a young man said, calling driver ‘master’ as was common with the more polite youth in the city. “I’m the friend of the girl you just dropped off, Shifu, the one who forgot her wallet. I can pay you back now, I’m at the corner near where you just dropped her off – can you come here?” The conversation turned into one of figuring out meeting logistics and I sat in the back, quietly listening.

As soon as the call ended, I piped up. “Shifu, how did you know she was going to pay you back? What if she was just lying and you never got your money for driving her?” He laughed and shrugged. “It’s just 20 RMB – really, not a lot of money. It’s not a big deal, it’s just money, right?”

His attitude both surprised and touched me; in a city – country, really – where I was wary of being scammed or ripped off, his words felt an anomaly. But that was exactly the point: every moment I’ve spent in any town, any city, any country, I am taught over and over again that the people who make up its population are so incredibly unique. Some may be selfish, but others will be generous; some are out to scam me – but others are out to help.

My imperfect human tendency to generalize a culture, a people, a city was and is always being challenged and rebuked; this I owe to the intricacies of the human beings like the taxi driver that I met – if only for a ten-minute ride across central Shanghai.

Bracelet Man

Milan

We arrived in Milan at 8AM. Despite our grogginess, I was intent on making every single minute of our vacation count. And so after leaving our luggage at the front desk of Hotel Berna, my sleepy boyfriend and I found ourselves in the open square in front of Milan’s famous Duomo on a sunny spring morning. Surrounded by pigeons and tourists, we stood looking at the cathedral in our tired state of awe. As I looked around for the best photo spot, two men walked up to us.

“Welcome to Milan,” they said, “where are you visiting from?” As we spoke, I heard a familiarity in their accents. “Are you from Senegal?” I asked. One of the men nodded in surprise: “How did you know?” I excitedly told him about how his accent reminded me of a close friend back in New York, who was also from Senegal. “Do you also speak Wolof and French?” I continued the conversation, happy to show off my limited knowledge of Senegal.

The conversations quickly took a turn as the friendly men tied string bracelets on our wrists. “Is this free?” I asked cautiously, my wary tourist alarms finally going off in my head. “Yes, it’s free, it’s just a friendship bracelet, a welcome to our city,” the men smiled. “This is free, nothing attached, right?” I overheard my boyfriend asking. Before I knew it, the knot on my wrist was tightened – and the man from Senegal smiled, “A few coins, now, just a few coins, for the bracelet.”

The knot in my heart tightened. “You said it was free,” I accused, “I asked you and you said we didn’t have to pay.”

“Oh, but just a few coins,” the man continued to smile, coaxing me to pay for the strings around my wrist that no longer looked so colorful. Betrayed by my new “friend,” I was contemplating how to respond as my boyfriend suddenly appeared and took my wrist. “We’re leaving,” he said firmly, dragging me away with determination I didn’t have the heart to muster myself. I never looked back.

When we talked about it later, my boyfriend told me that he had reluctantly given the other man some coins – before feeling angry about being duped and deciding to save me from the same fate. As for me, I was sad that the brief connection I thought I’d made with the man was marred by his ulterior motive. My eyes were opened to the fragility of the human connection: how easy it was to share conversation, and how easy it was to scar it.

Eat This in Montréal

Eat This, Montreal

If you’re a first time visitor, make sure to check out Eat This: An Introduction.

When my friends and I decided to visit Montréal, we expected to see gorgeous old cobblestone streets and hear Canadian French being spoken. What we didn’t expect was how absolutely incredible the Montréal food scene would be. It’s a good thing we walked a lot that trip, because we seriously stuffed our faces with the diverse and delicious food in the beautiful city. I can’t wait to go back!

1. Schwartz’s (Smoked Meat Sandwiches; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: You honestly don’t need this, but here is the menu.
  • Reservations: No – and be prepared to wait in line for at least a half hour.
  • Try: Smoked meat sandwich.
  • Tips: In addition to the smoked meat sandwich, the Montreal version of cherry coke was a favorite at our table. Also, just obey the servers – ours basically just ordered four smoked meat sandwiches for us and we’re so glad we just listened to him. The born-and-bred New Yorker in our group admitted that Schwartz’s was better than Katz’s in Lower East Side, so make sure you get out here.
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Smoked meat sandwich | Schwartz’s | Montreal, CA

2.  Mâche! (Comfort Food; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Mâche! Menu
  • Reservations: No.
  • Try: The pulled pork poutine (à l’Effiloché de porc) and the spicy paté chinois (le “Spicy”).
  • Tips: Come with a friend, or a big group if possible – the food is delicious, but pretty heavy so best if shared. Also, take some time to explore Rue St-Denis when you’re finished eating!
  • Read my Yelp review here.

3. Jean-Talon Market (Market; Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner/Dessert)

  • Menu: Check out its Yelp page to see all the food here!
  • Reservations: Nope – there are some seating areas both inside and around the market, but it gets crowded!
  • Try:  The tacos near the seating area are amazing, as are the gigantic empanadas. If you love oysters, the crew at La Boîte Aux Huîtres is incredibly kind and knowledgeable.
  • Tips: Pace yourself as you eat your way through. Try fresh gooseberries from the fruit sellers if you’ve never had them. Stroll around to check out all the colorful vegetables, and keep your ears out for the occasional street musicians!

4. Pho Tay Ho (Vietnamese; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Pho Tay Ho Menu
  • Reservations: No.
  • Try: The raw beef salad (bo tai chanh), the pho, any of the gigantic rice vermicelli platters.
  • Tips: Expect a line here. The food is absolutely delicious and portions are HUGE, so come hungry. Seriously the best Vietnamese I’ve had outside of Vietnam.
  • Read my Yelp review here.
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Rice Vermicelli Platter | Pho Tay Ho | Montreal, CA

5. La Panthère Verte (Vegan; Lunch/Dinner/Dessert)

  • Menu: La Panthère Verte Menu
  • Reservations: No.
  • Try: Traditional falafel sandwich.
  • Tips: I’m one of those people who swears by meat and needs it for almost every single meal. La Panthère Verte – The Green Panther in English – is one of those places that make it possible for me to enjoy a meatless meal. The food is also local, and the restaurants (multiple locations) are designed to be sustainable, so check out your surroundings!

 

Eat This in Philadelphia

Eat This, Philadelphia

If you’re a first time visitor, make sure to check out Eat This: An Introduction.

I spent my college years in Philadelphia, and while I didn’t get out of my college bubble as often as I should have, I do have my favorite food spots in the city. In fact, Philly is one of my favorite food cities in America: it boasts awesome flavors for reasonable prices, unlike some of its other neighbors on the East Coast. I miss Philly and its food dearly. As always, feel free to comment if you have any questions!

1. Primo Hoagies (Hoagies aka Sandwiches; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Primo Hoagies Menu
  • Reservations: No – and some locations don’t even have seating, so you might need to plan for takeout.
  • Try: Any of The Diablos, especially the AuDiablo.
  • Tips: Sandwiches are a pretty hefty portion, so consider getting the smaller size if you’re not a huge eater! Napkins come in handy, since taking those big bites can get messy.

2.  Noord (Northern European; Brunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Noord Menu
  • Reservations: Yes.
  • Try: The mustard soup for an appetizer, and the rabbit confit for an entree. Also, if they have it, the incredible chocolate bread pudding for dessert.
  • Tips: The bread with warm butter and roasted garlic is so delicious. Try not to fill up on that alone, though, because the rest of the food here is great. Fun spot for a date night!
  • Read my Yelp review here.
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Chocolate Bread Pudding | Noord | Philadelphia, PA

3. Philly Flavors (Ice Cream/Italian Ice; Snacks/Dessert)

  • Menu: Philly Flavors Menu
  • Reservations: Nope, grab and go!
  • Try: The Slammers, which is a blend of ice cream AND Italian ice (my personal favorite is the honeydew).
  • Tips: Philly Flavors is a must during the summer. They have so many different flavors of ice cream and Italian ice – don’t be afraid to ask for a sample!

4. Pietro’s (Italian; Brunch/Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Pietro’s Dinner Menu (For other menus, click here).
  • Reservations: Yes – although I’d say you only need them during super busy times like weekend dinners. Otherwise, the space is pretty big!
  • Try: Rigatoni alla Vodka (lunch/dinner); either of the brunch pizzas.
  • Tips: Pietro’s allows for you to order pasta in individual and family sizes, so this is a fun place to come with a big group for birthdays or special occasions!
  • Read my Yelp review here.

5. Reading Terminal Market (Market; Lunch/Dinner/Dessert)

  • Menu: List of Merchants (There are so many places in the market to choose from…)
  • Reservations: No – walk around and follow the smells while keeping an eye out for any seats that open up.
  • Try: The incredibly fluffy pancakes at the Dutch Eating Place (their apple dumpling is also to die for). I’ve tasted a fraction of what the entire market has to offer, though, so really…just follow your nose.
  • Tips: As you can probably tell, this is a huge market with tons of food options inside (sorry it’s kind of cheating to list this as a “restaurant). Reading Terminal is almost always crowded, but especially so on the weekends, so be ready to stand in long lines and to fight for your seats!

Eat This in New York City (Manhattan)

Eat This, New York

If you’re a first time visitor, make sure to check out Eat This: An Introduction.

I spent my first two years of post-college life in the Big Apple, and recently went back for a quick visit. Aside from wandering my lovely old neighborhood of Long Island City and enjoying the Cats on Broadway, we wanted to make sure to eat some of the great food Manhattan has to offer – but it was so hard to choose. There’s pretty much no way to keep the list to five here, but I have to. As always, feel free to comment if you have any questions!

1. The Halal Guys (Food Truck/Mediterranean; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: The Halal Guys Menu
  • Reservations: Nah – this place started out as a food truck!
  • Try: The Chicken and Gyro combo platter.
  • Tips: That red hot sauce is seriously no joke. I say this as someone who freaking loves spicy food – go easy on it, because it could easily ruin the rest of your meal if you go overboard.

2. The Meatball Shop (Meatballs/Italian/American; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: The Meatball Shop Menu
  • Reservations: Nope – be prepared to wait at prime times!
  • Try: The Kitchen Sink. And make sure to leave room for a giant ice cream sandwich at the end!
  • Tips: See above re: amazing ice cream sandwiches. There are so many different ways you can have your meatballs – just mark what you want on the dry-erase laminated menus on the table.
  • Read my Yelp review here.

3. Artichoke Pizza (Pizza; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: Artichoke Pizza Menu
  • Reservations: Nah. Grab your slice, eat and go!
  • Try: The Artichoke Pizza, obviously.
  • Tips: Slices are huge, so if you’re not a big eater you may be better off sharing!
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Artichoke Pizza | Artichoke Pizza | New York, NY

4. BCD Tofu House (Korean; Lunch/Dinner)

  • Menu: BCD Tofu House Menu
  • Reservations: No. Oh New York. Yes, there are lines.
  • Try: Soon Tofu, Pajeon, any of the meats
  • Tips: The banchan (side dishes) are free refill aside from the fried fish, so eat away! Be sure to crack in the raw egg while the soup is still bubbling hot.

5. Two Little Red Hens (Bakery; Breakfast/Coffee/Dessert)

  • Menu: Two Little Red Hens Menu
  • Reservations: Nah – just a cute little bakery, with a couple tables for coffee-goers.
  • Try: Coffee Cake, Key Lime Pie Cupcake, Cheesecake.
  • Tips: Lines form here at all times of day and the best bakery items can run out, so try to go on the earlier side if you can!