This week I prepared a simple fried rice with some day-old rice, eggs, garlic, and nam pla. As I cooked, a memory arose of fixing a more elaborate version of the dish with my former co-worker Mark Harris. We worked together at IFTC, a subsidiary of financial software and services firm DST, nearly thirty years ago.
We worked at adjacent desks separated by low gray walls into a cluster of pods. Another team member, Anita, sat next to us. Mark and Anita were loud, sassy, and outspoken. They brought bold attitude into every conversation, whether discussing paperwork, dissing a customer’s complaint on the phone, or joking with each other.
As a shy Asian-American fresh out of college and inexperienced in the workforce, I couldn’t have been more different from Mark and Anita. They relished being obnoxious and outrageous as extroverts. Mark was a six-foot-tall African-American with a large frame, close-shaved head, and an expressive face. He threw frowns full of dissatisfaction like hatchets. Mark often raised one eyebrow to show surprise, disapproval, or doubt, or simply to convey a nonverbal challenge. Anita was tiny and scrappy, full of rapid-fire commentary, and unwilling to back down in a challenge.
As the newest member of the team, I was quiet and soft-spoken. I let their banter and tirades blow past while I learned the ropes of my customer service job. I laid low for the first two weeks, only asking questions to learn processes and procedures. Mark and Anita chatted, argued, sassed, joked, and slung slang like fastballs at each other while I listened. Their patience with my quietness, apparent lack of personality, and non-participation in their office antics soon ceased. They weren’t having it.
I was on a phone call one afternoon discussing an account with a customer. Mark grabbed a large paperclip and flung it at my head. His eyebrow raised, daring me to respond. Anita watched in anticipation. I felt the paperclip bounce off my forehead, recovered from the distraction, and finished the call. I looked at Mark with a mixture of irritation, surprise, and confusion. Who does that? How rude. Mark and Anita burst into laughter at my shocked expression.
“I just had to break the ice,” Mark said, staring me down with a wide grin. “You’re too quiet.”
Ice broken, I spoke up more, joined in their banter, and countered remarks with my own. I learned and adopted slang of the day, talking about hoopty cars and whatnot. We made up our own slang for the office and the world around us. We told stories about daily encounters that created shared bonds and inspired laughter. We understood each other better even though our background, music tastes, life perspective, and goals remained different.
Over time, Mark and I ate lunch together. We’d hop in his jeep, top down, and zip over to a fast food drive-through or take our packed lunch to the park. Anything to breathe fresh air and get out of the office on a nice day. The latest R&B hits from KPRS boomed on his stereo. Sometimes Mark would sing, crooning with delicacy and soul that ran counter to his bullish demeanor in the office.
Eventually, Mark took an interest in my dual culture background, being half-Thai, and my interest in cooking. I learned basic Thai dishes from my mom and also explored cooking while living on my own in college. As a young white-collar worker, I had no idea that I would pursue professional interests in cooking and writing about food years later.
Mark wanted to eat healthier and learn how to cook fried rice and stir-fry. I volunteered to show him how to cook. One day we bought groceries at the supermarket and took them back to his parents’ home in Kansas City east of the Plaza, if I recall. I steamed rice, sliced and prepped vegetables, and chatted with Mark in his parent’s kitchen. I’m sure they wondered what the heck this skinny guy was doing, but they didn’t interrupt us.
I was eager to show off my cooking skills and introduce Mark to an authentic Thai-style dish. I used freshly steamed rice instead of day-old rice so the grains were too wet and gummy. I added too many types of thinly-sliced vegetables to make the rice more colorful and add volume. The vegetables only added more moisture to the gummy rice. I used soy sauce instead of nam pla (fish sauce) for fear of stinking up the house and Mark’s unfamiliarity with its intense salty, fishy flavor. Working in an unfamiliar kitchen with another person’s pots and pans, I didn’t anticipate the different heat level of the stove or how the pan’s surface would stick. The result was a massive glob of sticky rice, soggy vegetables, and flavorless shrimp. To his credit, Mark didn’t bust my chops over the cooking disaster. We ate as much as we could. I never cooked my hoopty version of Thai food for him again. The subject of cooking never came up at work.
We remained friends and co-workers for another year or so. I left the company to begin a six-year run at Twentieth Century Mutual Funds until it transformed into American Century. Eventually, I left the mutual fund industry and corporate world to pursue an interest in cooking and becoming a chef. That led to another track, where I completed a master’s degree in writing and publishing from 2000-2002 at Emerson College in Boston. I incorporated my professional experience and personal interest in food into writing.
Once I left IFTC, I lost touch with Mark as he pursued his career path. I learned quite a bit professionally from Mark and Anita about working in a corporate office without losing your personality and identity. I experienced fresh perspectives on culture, slang, work, and living in Kansas City. Their lives were far different from my sheltered suburban upbringing and four years of college.
Even now, I remember Mark’s statement to Anita one afternoon. She was worried about some matter troubling her. Mark said, “Don’t be scared. Be aware.”
Simple but empowering. Rather than cower in fear, practice awareness. Listen, learn, and watch. Be informed and prepared as much as you can for life’s challenges and threats. I try to apply Mark’s words in situations that prompt a choice of being scared or aware.
And whenever I come across a large paperclip, I’m ready.
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