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]

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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Adventures with rogue lit journo Jen: Covering the HKU Open Forum on ‘How, What & Why Do Writers Write?’

“How do I write? Why do I write? What do I write? This is what I am writing: I am writing Mr. Potter. It begins this way; this is its first sentence: ‘Mr. Potter was my father, my father’s name was Mr. Potter.’ So much went into that one sentence; much happened before I settled on those eleven words.”

-Jamaica Kincaid, ‘Those Words That Echo… Echo… Echo Through Life’ (1999)

Two weeks ago, I went to a writer’s open forum hosted at the University of Hong Kong, titled ‘How, What and Why Do Writers Write? A Conversation between David Tang, Hannah Rothschild, Simon Winchester and Wilbur Smith’.

hku open forum shot

(From left to right) Simon Winchester, Hannah Rothschild, David Tang, Wilbur Smith

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An Interview with Nicholas Wong, HK poet

We went to the West, away
from communist coxswains, but were whittled

to sculptures called ‘second-tier citizens’,
second to terriers

– Nicholas YB Wong, ‘Postcolonial Zoology’ (2012)



Nicholas Wong, HK poet and “firestarter”

In my second episode of ‘Litera-chats with Jen’, I talk to home-grown poet and scholar Nicholas Wong Yu Bon about the beginnings of his interest in poetry, his creative writing process and the state of reading and literature in Hong Kong today.

Considered a “radically inventive” writer and “the future of poetry” by Ravi Shankar, Pushcart Prize winning poet and Founding Editor of Drunken Boat, Nicholas has published his works in a number of literary journals, in addition to two collections – Cities of Sameness (2012) and Crevasse (2015). He is currently on the 2016 Writers list of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

Aside from being a poet, Nic is also a Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, where he teaches contemporary poetry, creative writing, film and gender studies.

Oh, and if T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg had a baby, I feel like it’d be him.

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‘These are my confessions’


“When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualised route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past.”

– Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita (1959), p.12

I hate it when my mind draws a blank.





This is especially maddening when I’m in the mood to write, which doesn’t happen too regularly these days. John Updike’s advice to aspiring writers is to write every day, however short the length or trivial the content, while Jonathan Safran Foer’s weekly routine consists of waking up at 4 am so that he could write for two hours before going to work. The fact that they practised what they preached is also what makes them Updike and Safran Foer, two of the best authors to have come out of the American post-war literati. To them, writing itself is religion, and the act of writing comparable to that of prayer.

Ideally, I’d follow in their footsteps, but the lure of sloth and sleep too often precludes my pursuit of more writerly ambitions. Regardless, I still keep a journal, which helps curb my laziness on the pen-moving front.

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Why I Write the Way I Write: Part II

Part II: The anxieties I’ve faced & the changes I’ve made in developing my style 

“Literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification, in mystification it has its truth; therefore a fake, as the mystification of a mystification, is tantamount to a truth squared.”

– Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1980)

big words_1

The look I’d get whenever I used words like “obsequious” or “nefarious” when “brown-nosing” and “wicked” would have sufficed

“Tennyson’s aesthetical imperative renders the emotional expression in ‘Mariana’ an effusive endeavour.”

That’s the title I came up with for my first ever undergraduate essay.

If you don’t understand what it means, then congrats – you’re perfectly normal. I’ll also let you in on an embarrassing secret: I didn’t, and still don’t quite know what that sentence means. Being classic Jen, however, I went ahead and waxed faux scholarship on Tennyson anyway, thinking that my gung-ho efforts marked the instauration of a path to glorious professorship.

Eh, fat chance. The feedback that I got from my tutor Hannah was at best a kind of baffled bemusement, and at worst the worldly disdain of someone who’s ‘seen it all before’. Let’s just say it took me an entire year to convince her the way I write isn’t symptomatic of a “worrying lack of conceptual rigour” – a comment which I received in my first term report. And a most sobering one at that.

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Why I Write the Way I Write: Part I

Part I: What it means to be an accessible writer

…Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

– T.S. Eliot, ‘On the Metaphysical Poets’, first published in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921


No apple pie; that postcard is just about the most ‘American’ item I own (It’s a collage titled ‘I Was A Rich Man’s Plaything’, 1924, by Eduardo Paolozzi)

“I don’t understand it.”

“It’s just not very accessible.”

I’m often told either/both about my writing: the content eludes, the style obscures, the tone inflates. Jen, piss off with your pretentious patter, please; that self-indulgent bombast of yours, eugh.

Well, fair.

Three years ago, my slightly more defensive self would have dismissed these as ad hominem remarks, purposely made to make me feel bad about myself because WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T WRITE WORTH SHIT. These days though, I tend to take them on board as instructive feedback. I’ve never been a sucker for clichés, but it takes two to tango, and so goes the relationship between a writer and his/her readers, I guess.

Or maybe now that my readers are no longer college tutors paid to hear students spew feel-good BS on a weekly basis, but real people in real life, I’ve come to be more aware of my stylistic quirks and flaws.

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