I’m breaking up with sugar, and it’s been hard

Endless conveyor belts of sickness or litigation poured clients and patients into these midtown offices like dreary Long Island potatoes. These dull spuds crushed psychoanalysts’ hearts with boring character problems. Then suddenly Humboldt arrived. Oh, Humboldt! He was no potato. He was a papaya a citron a passion fruit. He was beautiful deep eloquent fragrant original – even when he looked bruised in the face, hacked under the eyes, half-destroyed.

-Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

Everyone has a drug.

What’s your drug?

Before you answer, I’ll clarify what I mean by ‘drug’: I mean anything that you find addictive – substance, food, drinks, activities, people.

But no, this post isn’t about that kind of coke; instead, it is tenuously related to the (marginally) less harmful kind one finds on supermarket shelves, because I’ve recently discovered that one of my biggest ‘drugs’ is sugar.

candy for gummies

Spotted in Camden Town, London

I’m a healthy eater, but whenever it comes to cravings, my wiggling sweet tooth would always be the culprit behind my many a yielding to that after dinner pudding (which is a purely commercial institution no one really needs), that caramel flapjack lurking in the office snack corner (which everyone starts eyeing at around half five), or that bubble tea no one ever needs but everyone always ends up getting anyway because #STRESS so #WTF #weneedthatsugarrush.

At the start of this year, I made a conscious decision to cut down on sugar, which for me comes mostly from fruit.

You’re probably thinking – ‘What the hell, I thought fruit was supposed to be healthy?

fruit end of term 1

This is what I gave my students at the end of term last year

Well, technically, yes.

But not when you’re eating truckloads, like 4-5 servings every day, which is basically how much I was having for the longest time. Honestly, I gotta have gained some legit fruitarian cred over all these years of fruit obsession. To put it in perspective, 1 serving of fruit is a medium-sized apple (think Braeburn or Gala as opposed to Fuji or Red Washington #iknowmyapplecultivars #fruitcred), and I was going way above and beyond 1 serving on a daily basis.

apples_washington post

At one point, I was having a banana, a dragon fruit (big-ass ones), a cup of grapes, red jujubes and an apple just for breakfast, and because I loved fruit so much, I would snack on fruit in the late afternoon as well, which I’d justify with the spin class I was going to attend that night (and fruit is good for you, right??).

The American Heart Association recommends a daily sugar intake of 25 grams for women; I was probably taking in at least 4 times that amount. Fruit is healthy because of its minerals, vitamins and fibre content, but at the end of the day, too much fructose still counts as too much sugar, which is especially bad for people with a family history of Type 2 Diabetes, like me.

I just couldn’t do fruit in moderation.


What worried me most was that the more sweet stuff I ate, the more I started craving it on a constant basis. Even now, having significantly cut down on sugar for about 5 months, I still feel the urge to chew on a piece of gum every morning before I head out for work.

Currently, I’m approaching the half-year mark of cutting down on fruit/sugar, but am still finding it a daily struggle to cut out – completely – my need craving for the sweet taste.

It’s actually bloody, bloody hard.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be this hard.

In her beautifully poignant memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, while tending to her daughter at the UCLA hospital, makes a sharp observation about “a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful”, which is that –

didion_cover“They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone number they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favour at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events… Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them.”

(p. 98)

Eager to ‘manage’ my craving, I tried giving myself ‘encouragement’ stamps on the Merit Card I’ve been giving my students for tracking good work. Ground rule is simple: For every day I get through without consuming any sugar (gum excluded), I get a stamp.

It’s been one month since I started this initiative, and I regret to report that progress has been slow.

There’s a total of 20 stamp spaces, and so far, I’m not even one-third through them yet, because there would always be that little nibble or sip here and there of some random chocolate biscuit or flavoured latte or that slice of orange my mom insists that I take because one slice ain’t gon kill me and she looks hurt if I don’t.

My lack of sugar-culling success is getting a bit demoralising, which is why lately, I’ve been trying to distract myself from it all by surreptitiously hiding my stamp card underneath other sheets of paper.

Hardly the most mature way of going about it, I know.


A lot of my friends crave crisps, steak, or anything savoury/oily, but put a chocolate muffin in front of me and you might as well be filming me live on Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment.


It’s especially hard to exercise self-control when it comes to sweet cravings, mostly because they’re so easily accessible. Within a 2-min walk radius from my current workplace, there’s already 4 coffee shops and 3 bakeries, most of which sell blueberry/banoffee/choc chip muffins and yum pastries and peng cakes and all the sweet shit I should not be thinking about but would love oh so love to pig out on.

Who knew convenience could be such a bitch?!

Sometimes, when I cave in to my sweet tooth, I guiltily recall one of my favourite poems – William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is just to say’:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams’ persona is basically me: I’ve nabbed my dad’s plums from the fridge so many times I eventually stopped feeling guilty over doing it. Besides, it’s not like he ever has plums for breakfasts.

Doesn’t make my nabbing more justifiable. Just saying.

Anyway, this got me thinking about why different people have different cravings. Some medical researchers posit that each type of craving is symptomatic of a nutritional deficiency, so, say, if you crave chocolates all the time, you’re probably lacking in magnesium and need to be eating more red meats/spinach.

spinach_mnnAlthough I’d wager anything that no one would go for a bag of overpriced, pre-washed, random-organic-farm-no-one-has-ever-heard-of spinach leaves over a good ole’ bar of Snickers (or insert preferred chocolate brand of your choice to make my assumption more convincing).

When it’s late afternoon and you’re cranky from sitting at the desk for too long, the last thing you’d want is probably Popeye’s diet, although I’m sure my savoury-craving friends wouldn’t mind the Popeyes diet, which is basically Louisiana-styled spicy fried chicken.

popeye v popeye

Popeye v. Popeye

My theory is that cravings are formed by the tastes we regularly experience in childhood. Not to generalise, but I’ve noticed that a lot of my British friends tend to crave crisps, which I’d consider to be a UK national staple, if £3.29 Tesco meal deals are anything to go by:


If a certain food is part of the diet you grew up with, it makes sense that you’d end up missing its taste time and again even after you hit adulthood, particularly if you associate the taste with memories of family, which is traditionally one’s main feeder source.

John Updike, as virtuoso of beautifying the mundane, describes a wistful version of this attachment between taste and family in his novel Roger’s Version, when the protagonist is reminded of his childhood in Ohio while serving apple pie to his dinner party guests:

IMG_5861“I went back to the kitchen and took the apple pie from the oven: apple, the favourite treat of my sombre boyhood, soaked with cinnamon and the crust marked by ‘bird’s feet’. Yet I was served it, as I remembered, very rarely, though there were orchards all around us in Ohio. My mother was always withholding things, not because they couldn’t have been provided but in illustration of some life principle that she had painfully learned and was selflessly imparting. Since I had been weighing her belly down when my father decamped, I felt partially to blame for her life of ‘doing without’, and accepted without protest my share of privation.”

On a more light-hearted note, Roger’s banter with his niece, Verna, also validates this link between childhood and the taste bud:

“I’ll take the dishes in; if you could bring one of the pies warming in the oven…”

“Ooh,” [Verna] exclaimed, “pumpkin! I love pumpkin, Nunc. Ever since I was a baby, I guess because it was so mooshy. I’ve always had this terrible weakness for things you don’t have to chew, like custard and tapioca.”

“That’s why I like meatloaf,” I said.

(p. 123, Modern Penguin Classics edition)

Coincidentally, apples and pumpkin happen to be two of my favourite foods as well. And to put them in a pie – luuuuuush. Nomnomnom.

Funnily enough, as unamerican as my family is, apple pie had always been an annual Christmas treat up until I left for university.

apple v pumpkin pie

I remember the way mom would stew a bagful of Granny Smiths and put the filling in hard crust pie pastry. Yum.

I also remember that my late grandma used to buy cakes from the neighbourhood bakery by the dozen and bring them over to our home for tea time.

I remember, too, when dad and I would sometimes take after-dinner ‘dessert trips’, for which he would drive from one end of Hong Kong Island to another (Stanley to Happy Valley) – just for a bowl of black sesame paste soup or mango pomelo sago.

black sesame_mango sago

In retrospect, though, dad realised that his nightly dessert cravings marked the onset of his diabetes. From then on, he changed his lifestyle and has since significantly cut down on sugar.

As someone who has inherited a diabetic inclination, then, I’ve been conscious of the need to constantly keep my sweet tooth in check, as challenging as I am now finding the process to be.

But then again, I’m trying, and trying is winning half of the battle. And if I share my sweet noms with others more often, then perhaps, just perhaps, it’s slightly more acceptable to fall by the wayside once in a while?

“Dale dear: would you like pumpkin or apple or both?”

“A little bit of both, please.”

“A little bit. Not enough to make a byte?”

He smiled… “No, that wouldn’t leave any for anybody else. A byte is usually eight bits.”

“One of each.” She handed him his plate. “Does that make an OR, or an AND?”

(p. 124, Roger’s Version)

Often, what makes or breaks our progress and success is that of choosing between ‘or’ and ‘and’.

What are some of your cravings and how do you deal with them?

I’d love to know.


[Photo credits: Brenda Godinez, Skint Dad, MNN, Taste of Home]

An Interview with Albert Wan, owner of Bleak House Books

“If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.”

-George Orwell, ‘The Moon Under Water’ (1946)

Back when I was studying in the UK, I would notice how many more second-hand bookstores there were when compared to Hong Kong. Sure, you’d see the familiar signs of Waterstones and Foyles in the city centre (think Commercial Press and the former Page One in HK), but people would often go to charity shops, indie bookstores and Sunday markets for the hidden gems, like out of print works, first editions or even unpublished papers.

PrintRecently, I came across the website of an independent second-hand English bookseller called ‘Bleak House Books’, which immediately caught my attention with its nod to Charles Dickens.

The owner, Albert Wan, is a former civil rights lawyer from the US, and he is dedicated to selling “books that people want to read” and building “the best selection of used books in Hong Kong: literature, non-fiction, essays, cookbooks and children’s”. For now, Albert is running his store online, as well as selling second-hand books at pop-up shops and weekend markets all over Hong Kong.

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Why I’ve been MIA these few months

CLIFF: Anytime I want to, I can close my eyes and call it back. Then it’s like I’m really back there and I can practically hear that field buzzing. In a way, it’s like I never left that field. In a way – it’s like I can’t.

(The single light fades, and bright summer sunshine fills the stage. Dorothy is on the ground, reading a book.)

-The Land of Cockaigne, David Ives (1995)

In the past few months, I’ve taken a brief hiatus from this blog to focus on sorting my life out living.

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Retrospective: 2016 – A Poem in 3 Acts

As I take my digital labour of love – Classic Jenisms – into 2017, I have decided to take part in my first WordPress Discover Challenge.

In the spirit of a brand new year, the challenge is titled ‘Retrospective’, and the Editors are asking us bloggers to “look back over our past years’ worth of blogging… to build on or synthesize our best work of 2016”. Since I’ve only ever published prose on this blog, I figured that it’d be a nice change for me to write a ‘found’ poem using lines from my 10 most popular posts to date. For ease of reference, I have hyperlinked all of the lines to their original posts.

I hope you enjoy it, and in contrary to my customary urge of offering ‘literary critique’, I will leave you, dear readers, to ‘interpret’and glean from it whatever you will. 🙂

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6 surprising things I learned about New York in 6 days

new-colossusNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’ (1883)

Have you ever experienced moments in life when you feel restless and reckless, like there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet got round to doing because of [insert excuse 1][excuse 2][excuse 3]?

For all the stultifying effects that a life of routine poses on the mind, thoughts of reckless abandon hit me on a regular basis, but if I were to act on them every time they came knocking on the door of my consciousness, I would probably be the poster child of millennial bohemianism by now, living like a troglodyte in a ranch ten thousand feet below some random Idahoan mountain for half a year and jet setting in a perennially airborne state for the other half, courtesy of parentally accumulated mileage points and savings.

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This is a book you will either love or hate

“Life’s great happiness is to be convinced we are loved.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Among the many types of mental fallacies, confirmation bias has got to be my favourite. Mostly because I’m so often guilty of it. Confirmation bias means the tendency to seek out information that validates your assumptions and beliefs, in the process screening out those which don’t.

The example most relevant to this blog would be my awareness of a constant uncanny ‘echoing’ between my daily reading and my daily living, which I’ve written about here and here and here.

As much as I’d like to think of myself as some Minister of Literary Humanism, deep down I suspect that these ‘coincidences’ are less so manifestations of an uncanny ritual, as they are simply a testament to the fact that I read a lot of humanistic fiction, which, of course, is made up of events drawn from this activity called human living.

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