Last week when I first started to write this annual report, I found myself out of topics very shortly. There was not much going on, I thought. I only remembered the vacation in CA with my parents, and the family vision statement that we made a few weeks ago. So I decided to check my blog in 2009 to see if anything I can add and soon I realized I have a lot to talk about in 2009.
2009 is the year of living, as I mentioned in the last annual letter. I think it's an accurate statement.
We have undergone some great changes in 2009, as you will soon witness. We are moving away from the 'settle in' phase, and into a time of 'better living'. We start to know better of this country and governing system through a list of documentaries, and change our mind set and modify our life style accordingly.
We challenge ourselves to find a better place than Cleveland for living. We paid off our mortgage to save on interest this year. We try to liquidate our asset and limit our purchase for the house to make future transition easier. We wrote our family vision statement as a guide to our future planning and career development. Meanwhile, we felt compelled to preserve our tradition and culture after 9 years staying here in US.
So, 2009 is in a sense building a sustainable model for the future.
We continued our request for a better dietary plan since the last writing (2008 annual report). We eliminated unhealthy food snacks, and discarded industrialized sauces at home. We have developed the new habit to read food product labels. The long list of corn based preservatives and additives always bring me laugh.
We also made a series changes to our daily food choices. We are moving away from heavy animal protein to increasing variety of substitutes. We cut meat in smaller size and stocking up different vegetables and grains. We have fish every week, and recently have started to have one 'vegetable dinner night' every week. We are trading in quantity for quality.
Our food vendor mix in 2009 has changed to accommodate our shifting needs for healthy food. We have increased our visits to Wholefoods, and opened to sources that we previously ignored due to the higher price point. I researched our local grocery stores and compared their offerings base on quality then price. We have stopped purchasing chicken from Costco because they were fat and industrialized (meaning big breast, soft bone, and loose joint - which indicates they don't move much, and are raised to increase the meat output). We found a good replacement in Giant Eagle, a regional grocery store which offers 'frying chicken' (from Delaware) at a comparable price that is less commercial. Plus we can just buy one instead of two in a pack at Costco. There is also Amish county chicken in the local stores with doubled price, we will try it next to see if the quality lives up to its price.
For pork, we have more choices. The pork in Giant Eagle is from Kansas farms, and the quality seems to meet the standard. We have bought pork rib ends from Heinens (from North Carolina) and have had good experience with them. D.W.Whitaker at the Westside market offers Ohio raised pork. I always get the rib tips from them as it's the best bargain. We used the pork rib end bones in a stock from Miles Market (from Ohio) last week, and we were happy with the result. We recently started to talk to a local farmer regarding buying a pasture-raised pig for 2010. It will be twice expensive but we are willing to give it a try to see if it's worth it. We will buy less pork from Costco that's for sure.
We don’t consume much beef, therefore, I don't plan to spend too much time to compare offerings like what we did with pork. Heinens offers beef shank at a good price. Wholefoods sometimes have sales on beef steak. Miles market has various cuts of black angus beef. I think we have enough to choose from for our needs.
We harvested some vegetables from our garden last year and we will continue work on our garden this year. We are planning to join a CSA program this year to accommodate our increasing need for farm fresh vegetables.
While eating healthier, we strive to move our food expenses to local markets. As suggested in the documentaries that we have watched this year "Food.Inc", "The future of food", we are exercising choices every time we walk into the store. We are moving to a new food standard while helping the local agriculture.
When research on healthy diet, we have become more and more aware of the environment impact of what we do on the planet. This is a direct result of a list of documentaries that we have watched: 'Addicted to plastic", "Who killed the electric car', "The end of surburbia", and "Collapse". We were introduced to the new concepts such as 'peak oil', 'the clash between infinite growth and finite resource', and ‘local agriculture’. We were watching in awe how the plastic got recycled in the wasteland in India so we stopped using plastic spoon and fork in the office for lunch and bring in our own stainless steel ones. Our thermostat is kept at 50F this winter although it's mainly due to the high cost. We will buy a hybrid car instead of a regular 'fueled' car in the future. We still need to digest the concept of 'peak oil' and see how we can prepare for the collapse and become less dependent on oil.
After 8 years staying in US, I found my feelings for and attitude towards home shifting gradually. Few years ago, I won't even bother knowing the happenings in Shanghai, but now I am more open to them. We watch Shanghai local news every night. This Christmas, we have both noticed an emergent need to preserve our culture and our language. We wrote our first weekly menu in Chinese last week with the help of dictionary and we will continue to refresh our Chinese writing skills. It will be sad to lose our own language because it's one of the most important part of the culture. We agreed to have days off in our Chinese new year to celebrate the tradition.
We have accomplished two major projects this year, the garden and the bathroom remodeling.
We started our garden project in early spring. We roller tilted the garden we put down last year, and the flower garden that we hadn't been taking care of. We added another flower bed next to the maple tree at front. My wife had developed a strong interest in gardening so she wanted another garden for the additional vegetables. We took a day off and put down another garden in the backyard. We spent a few hundred dollars on soil, seeds, flower and herbs for the projects. All tools are borrowed from our neighbor. Happily, the flowers came out well later on. We also had more vegetables this year. We planted some heirloom tomatoes and they came out well, they were the best tasting tomato. The roman tomato is tasteless, but very productive. I bet it's an industrial specie. We had squash, green beans, tomato, fava bean, long string bean, bochoy, and different herbs. We still have rosemary and tarragon indoor now.
At the meantime, my wife has been working on the garden compose and we had so far almost 3 whole big boxes of decomposed 'stuff' for our garden next year. We have moved them into garage in the winter afraid plastic cracking in the cold weather.
We didn't do anything for the lawn in 2009, except our parents have been pulling out dandelions since they arrived here. We aero gated the lawn before the winter, and didn't seed. We will see what happens next year.
Around June, we started to work on our bathroom. Our initial budget was $700, and soon it span into $2000. We took down and reinstalled 4 wall panels, painted the whole room, retiled the bathtub, have someone refinished the bathtub, and changed fixture. Our neighbor has been the project leader and I was there helping out. The cost is half of the quoted price if I decide to hire someone to complete it, and that makes me feel better. Our bathroom was reopened in mid August when we expected our parents coming for visit.
One side project our neighbor did for us when we were vacationing in CA in October is the electric switch for the heating cables outside of the house. We left him the key just in case when we were gone, but he went in and re-wired the switch. Now we have a dedicated switch for the heating cables outside.
As of this writing, we just added another project for 2010. Our roof has been leaking water during snowy days since we moved in. This winter seemed to be particularly harsh on the roof and we had a lot of water leaking in. The ceiling under the roof has taken some water damage and leaking down to the room. We noticed the water drop last night, and traced it to the attic, then found a pool of water there. 10pm at night we were crouching in the attic and trying to soak up the water with newspaper. The next thing I knew was that my right foot was through the ceiling. It's just like in the comedy movie we saw before, only this time it's not that funny because I need to fix it. We will have to fix the hole on the ceiling, and fix the leaking roof in 2010. Plus, we need to better position our heating cable to let it drop down to the down spout so that the water won't back into the house dripping all over from the top frame of the windows in the living room like a water fall. Can't wait to see the winter end.
Since my last injury back in Shanghai running the half marathon in 2008, I haven't been able to get back to running. I joined the gym early in 2009 so that I can have some alternative exercise. One class has become my weekly routine - Yoga. It helps with stretching my body which I hope will speed up my recovery. At one point I was so tired of being injured and I went to have my leg check up, I went to a recommended sports doctor, and I didn't get much back from the visit. It was a very expensive visit as well, even with the insurance. It's one of the financial mistakes that I made in the year.
Other than running, I got the chance to play basketball a few times with colleagues this summer. Games took place at an outdoor half court and I had a good time. My leg injury was there, and I wasn't able to do my best. But it's great to get back to the game.
We did watch some good movies this year, below is a list of my picks.
Best drama: The curious case of Benjamin Button
Best Animation: Up
Best TV series: Dexter
Best Chinese movie: A night at the supermarket
Best Sci-Fi: District 9
Best Action: Terminator 4
Importantly, We watched a series of documentaries including: "The future of food", "Food.Inc", "The end of surburbia", "Who killed electric car", "Addicted to plastic", "Collapse", 'I.O.USA', 'The business of being born', "Sicko", "Guns in America", "World's most dangerous gang", "Bowling for Columbine" that cover a wide range of subjects. The future depicted from them was not bright. Most of them are trying to reach out and raise awareness for social responsibility. We have been acting on the ideas that are promoted ever since such as stopped using plastic spoons in the office, change our diet plan, and choose local food over national chain. We consider those viewings good learning. There is still much to do and we are still trying to chew them and digest piece by piece.
We are glad to watch a few good Chinese movies this year. "A night at the supermarket" is an entertaining movie. Yes, one can argue that the movie copied many ideas from other movies, but I say it serves the purpose and has enough originality to stand on its own. On the other hand, "Crazy Stone" wasn't that impressive for me. "Red Cliff" was a well directed movie, and I found it enjoyable to watch. The most disappointing TV series this year is "Heroes", it's been dragging since the last season and I think the show has lost its way. The best TV series is "Dexter" due to its gripping story development in the consecutive 4 seasons.
I continued my music journey in Progressive House this year. Trance has been commercialized too much that I have lost taste to it.
As for video game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare2 is the best of the year.
Our IRA investment in 2009 has delivered good result. I made the decision to divert our portfolio at the beginning of 2009 to take on some high growth and riskier stocks. The decision has paid off. My IRA has grown 27%, while hers has gone up 30% since inception.
Our after-tax investment account on the other hand only went up 4% because we set up the account at the peak of the market and soon the market went under. Even after I tried to infuse new growth oriented stocks into the mix, the account hasn't been able to fully recover from the market downturn. In 2010, we will continue to invest this account with new stock selections, and possibly a monthly or quarterly contribution instead of a lump sum deposit.
Another much smaller after-tax account that we had was still in the negative growth area. I bite the bullet and sold some underperformance funds before the year end in exchange for some promising stocks. I look forward to see its result in 2010. For the losses that I had, I will use it in the tax return this year.
Both of our 401K account started to climb out of valley in 2009, but we are still not able to shake off the losses incurred in 2008. We can only hope we can go back to the positive growth in this year.
We opened a few new bank accounts this year in pursuit of higher interest rate and opening account bonus. One bank account is actually a good choice because it has the ATM onsite in the company. That makes money withdraw safe and convenient.
We had a car accident in 2009, which put a dent on our insurance premium. We haven't changed our insurer due to its low cost, but we will be reviewing our policy this year and looking for alternatives and better home insurance coverage.
On the expense side, I bought six pairs of shoes this year. Patagoia (my current favorite brand) Balsam, Drifter, Vasque Blurr, Vasque waters shoes and Salomon Xt Wings from Sierra Trading Post at good prices. I also bought Rockport travel shoes (which is a mistake) from amazon.com. and finally a pair of Salomon XA Comps at Marshalls for $15. I am happy to report that my hunting for a fitting shoe has finally concluded. They are all great shoes. I am also happy that my parents can bring back home some of my shoes (wrongfully bought because they were cheap at the time) and give them away to relatives.
We purchased a few pieces cookware in 2009. Some of them are for resell over amazon.com and two pieces ($29) are for my cooking pleasure. I was able to sold two pieces (Kitchenaid 12qt. stock pot and Marco Pierre White oval fry pan) at very good prices. I lost money and product over a 14” fry pan transaction because the customer didn’t return the pan and amazon.com refunded the product due to the damage during the shipping. Another good financial lesson learned.
The current concept in managing our asset is 'liquidity'. We know the current house is not our home for long and we want to keep everything 'liquid' so we can have an easier transition in the future. We will limit our purchase and sell or donate anything that we won't carry over to the next home.
Due to the market downturn and Fed's rate cut, mortgage rate has been dropping through the year. We analyzed our situation at the time, and decided to refinance the mortgage. However, after we paid our application fee, we did another round of calculation and found a better option - pay off the mortgage totally. We cancelled the refinancing and lost the application fee during this process. It was very expensive lesson.
To keep a record of mistakes we made so that we can remember, here are the top financial mistakes in 2009:
1. Application fee for refinancing the house
2. Buying airline tickets for my parents from David Wang, higher price than in China, and can't use Credit Card to accumulate points.
3. Go to sports doctor for leg injury, high x-ray fees which is not necessary.
4. Didn't completely stop at the red light on E71. and Chester when turning right.
5. Bought a salad without thinking how to avoid heavy weight items.
6. Lost money and product over amazon.com during a transaction.
Other fun facts, we both saved on hair cut in 2009. I started to cut my hair since early spring and stopped going to saloon. My wife stopped going to saloon and let her hair grow.
Not till later in the year I started to make moves to prepare for the next step in my career. The business my group manages did well in 2009 and we are on our way to meet the target for the first time. It will be unwise to miss this accomplishment. Therefore, I will stay put and see it through. On the other hand, I have talked to other department to see if there is any fun project to work on, and there is. My manager will make some arrangement this year to fill my time with work from both sides.
While I am writing this, my wife is preparing for an interview for a position in eMarketing in our company. It's a new field for her and she is interested. She is good at her job and she has good chance, and I can't wait to celebrating her getting the job.
We are still working on our long term career plan. Recently we had a meeting to talk about our life goals and city preference. We wrote a family vision statement in the meeting to guide our future planning. We will continue our research on our career and city preference in the new year focusing on what industry and type of job we like.
Earlier of the year, I traveled to L.A for the first time on a business trip with my manager and another colleague. CA was still like what it was when I left there 4 years ago, sunshine, hippies, girls showing skin, and the whole 'California' attitude. After our meeting with the client, we went to a local museum which is very nice. It was my Nikon D60's first field trip. I was able to snap a few good shots there.
We had two long vacations a short one after that. One with my in laws in DC, NY, MD, and one in CA with my parents.
We went to NY because my wife needed to renew her passport in NY. So we decided to take her parents along and did a tour in DC as well. It was about 7.5 hour's drive to DC. The train system in DC is well built and we had not much difficulty to get around. The Holiday Inn hotel we stayed in Greenbelt VA is decent and inexpensive. We walked around the town taking pictures at different sites and museums. The next day we left the DC and dropped by MD, then went on to NY. We stayed at Newark as the hotel was less expensive. We sent her parents on a city one day tour in the morning and we then waited in the chilling wind in front of the Chinese embassy. We got in and soon we found we were missing some documents (which were not required according to its website). The copy machine wasn't working, which wasted me four or five coins. Eventually, we got it renewed and we needed to pick it up a few days later. Fortunately, we bumped into a couple who worked in the same company and they were doing the same thing. They had a cousin lived in NY and their cousin can pick the passport up for us. We left the embassy and walked around the city and window shopped some food stores of our interest. There was one very expensive store (something ducas) I remember. We bought a bread in a store where my wife said Wholefoods sources its bread from, the bread is expensive, and the store cashier is nice and friendly.
We then shopped at Fairways. The array of olive oil in that store is impressive. There was a young guy with a back pack looking like a college student stormed into the aisle and started to sample each olive oil with the bread. The watching old Chinese lady next to him was laughing. The young man turned around and said 'trying different oils'. Well, he looks more like 'stuffing myself up before walking into the classroom'. Poor kid. My wife also got a comment from another old guy who was trying to walk pass her 'get outta here' in the store. She was not happy about it and before I found out that guy disappeared already. When we were done with the shopping and walked to the register, we didn't notice we cut off people accidently and we were 'reminded' by the people behind us right away. Finally we left the store and we saw the old guy who was previously rude to my wife, and I wanted to confront him, my wife stopped me and that guy sneaked back into the store again. Overall, Fairway is a nice store with great product, but I just can't stand the people there.
Then we went to a 'legendary' local restaurant to check out their corn beef sandwich, we found it was way too expensive and left there. We walked into a Wholefoods and were not that impressed by its cashier (in terms of friendliness).
Before I concluded that NY city is not a friendly city, I would have to point out that I have a few friendly encounters when I was asking directions in the morning. All the people I asked responded kindly and they all tried to help. I guess I have got used to the customer service standard here in Cleveland Ohio.
As soon as my parents arrived in early September, We drove them to the Niagra Falls where they had a great time appreciating the grand view of the falls. One bummer is that the picture card somehow stopped function and we lost some family pictures.
CA vacation in October was a nice, but short one. We travelled to Montery Bay Aquarium, Big Sur State Parks, Yosemite, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon. The sites are wonderful, but we found we need more time to rest between place to place as our parents can't handle tiring commute. We did plan our food well, and cost was controlled and in line with our budget. We took thousands pictures and I found shooting Grand Canyon and Yosemite were very challenging because it was easy to get overwhelmed and carried away by the beauty and missed focus in the picture. At about the middle of the trip, my mom got sick and we had to slow down our pace and luckily still were able to finish the trip as planned. I will go back to Yosemite again, and when I do, I will spend a whole week there in a better hotel.
We had a tragic event this year. We were expecting in August and when my wife went back for the second check in September, we heard the bad news. We lost a twin due to chromosome defect. It was a sad day. We soon found out both of our family have a history of miscarriage. Our doctor said there was nothing we could have done to prevent that, though parents from both families have different theories.
Jill and her children came to visit us in October. Sadie and Doug are big kids now, we enjoy the time they staying with us.
Nikil married with Joan in India
Santosh left US due to his visa problem
Anita and Mukesh got married in India
Ankur and Swat got married in India
Veronica got married here in US.
One guy in the office has been bothering me for a while. He chews ice nonstop from 8am to 5pm. The noise is annoying and distractive.
I expect to see great improvements in our career, and refined life style in 2010. We feel we are ready to move on to another level. So I would like to call 2010 the year of ‘龙腾虎跃’ .
Labels: 2009 Annual Letter