Life of a Green Market Farmer

By Elsa Säätelä
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When Mental Health Problems Become Another Hurdle for Immigrants

By Rahinur Akther

In his small office in Jackson Heights, Queens, Dr. Ferdous Khandker cares for many immigrants and says he is as much of a counselor to them as a physician.

In his small office in Jackson Heights, Queens, Dr. Ferdous Khandker cares for many immigrants and says he is as much of a counselor to them as a physician.

Dr. Ferdous Khandker had finished with his last patient of the day, a Bangladeshi immigrant. In his in his small office in Jackson Heights, Queens, Khandker sees immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and various African and Hispanic countries.

“Eighty percent of immigrant patients start their opening conversation expressing anxiousness, feeling pain in the body here and there, and most definitely talking about stress in life,” Khandker says.

To many of his patients, Khandker has become less like a doctor and more like a counselor with whom to share problems. In fact, researchers have found that discrimination and family cultural conflict appear to play a significant role in the likelihood that many immigrants will eventually develop psychiatric disorders.

Khandker says he sees three predominant problems in his work with immigrants.

The first he calls the school-and-job adjustment problem, particularly prevalent among 18-to-35-year-old immigrants.

“This group of people is facing the identity problem,” says Khandker firmly. “They are young and dreaming for a better future. In reality they are struggling to fit in school among native students.”

One aspect of this, he continues, is that “their non-fluent communication skills create barriers for their desirable jobs; for instance, someone who came from India at age 20 and now is trying to make his or her identity in New York, new culture and ceaseless demands of adjusting with a new society are making their lives harder, yet they want so badly and quickly to fit into the society.”

The frequent result, he says, is “when they are not completely achieving what they want, that is making them insecure and feeling unfit in the society.”

The second category Khandker has found is depression, and he finds this most commonly among 36-to-50-year-olds. Basically they are highly depressed and frustrated by their jobs and the lack of other opportunities.

“They are missing their high-profile jobs and positions back home,” says Khandker. “They used to have a good job. Now, they cannot have an official job here unless they go to school, and 90 percent of people do not go to school due to the financial responsibilities for their families.”

One of his patients, Jahanara Begum, 42, a Bangladeshi immigrant who now works at a Dunkin’ Donuts, says in broken English: “My entire life I speak Bengali and live as a housewife. It was so miserable when I first came to New York, because of the language.”

After she came to the United States in February, it took her five months to find a job, she says with a sigh, and during that time “my family and I survived a dispossessed life.”

She continues, “I have two sons and my husband is a heart patient. I had to go out every day looking for job. It took me five months to get a job in Dunkin’ Donuts because of my language problem. I did not understand English when someone was saying anything to me. In Bangladesh, I never speak in English.”

Khandker’s third category of problems is loneliness. People who are over 50 are at risk of feeling lonely, he says, because no one has time here to keep them company. “Traditionally in Bangladesh those who are 50-plus retire from work and stay home with their children,” says Khandker, gesturing with his hands.

Ready to leave for the day, Khandker says, “When this age group of people comes to USA, they basically stay home all day without doing anything. They do not know enough English to go out to communicate with others. They have to wait until someone comes home.”

It’s hardly surprising that life is stressful for many immigrants, as they adapt to new places, new cultures and new languages. And for those who are undocumented, the strains are surely worse.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 1.04 million foreign nationals entered the United States legally in 2010.

Many researchers and scholars have studied immigration issues, with the focus primarily on Latino populations. Whether comparable studies have been done of East Asian, South Asian or other immigrant groups is not clear. (Searches of scholarly literature do not turn any up.)

Researchers at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, for example, found that Mexicans who came to the United States were “far more likely to experience significant depression and anxiety than people who stay in Mexico.”

But interestingly, other studies have found that Latino immigrants to the United States have better mental health than Latinos born in the United States (what researchers call the “immigrant paradox”). Researchers also say that the mental health of immigrants declines over time in the host country (what they call the “acculturation hypothesis”).

Miguel Chavez, 24, a Mexican-born immigrant, has been living in the United States for more than five years. He is a waiter in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan and is studying English literature at Queens College.

“I do not know what would be my future in America,” he says. “When I go for a job interview and see an American-born person is also waiting for the interview, I deeply feel, as an immigrant, my chance is already low to get the job.”

Offering Workplace Skills to the Visually Impaired

By Ying Chan

At first glance, Room 655 in Baruch College’s Newman Library looks like just one more computer lab, with wide-screen monitors in four rows, bare, white walls and a carpeted floor. But for Ellen Tarr and Carolina Vollo, Room 655 is a special place.

Ellen Tarr, left, and Carolina Vollo

Ellen Tarr, left, and Carolina Vollo, at Baruch’s Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, which helps teach computer skills to people from the metropolitan area, are visually impaired and blind.

Tarr and Vollo are legally blind.

In the lab, Tarr and Vollo are thoughtful and soft-spoken, careful that their voices do not carry far, as two students lean in closely toward the magnified monitors to write e-mails, review lessons and practice using Word and PowerPoint.

Tarr, who began teaching Excel classes in March, also tutors at the learning lab, which is operated by the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, a part of the Division of Continuing and Professional Studies at Baruch. The program is not intended for Baruch students, who receive similar services elsewhere in the college. Rather it is for the community, a way to teach skills that enhance the employment prospects of the visually impaired in the New York metropolitan area.

Last year, 186 students ages 15 to 81 attended the center’s courses, according to the center’s enrollment statistics. The majority of the center’s students are residents of New York City, with some from Long Island and New Jersey.

“Part of Baruch’s mission is servicing the community at large,” says William Reed, the assistant director of the center. “There was a real need for it and a growing need in our society.”

Like many, Tarr, who teaches at the lab, and Vollo, who takes classes there, learned of the center through the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, a division of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services that provides funding and assistive technology to the legally blind.

“We teach blind and visually impaired people to use assistive technologies, such as JAWS, the screen-reading software, and Zoomtext, which is screen magnification, and we use those in training for Microsoft Office applications,” says Tarr, whose straight, jet-black hair delicately drapes her shoulders.

Tarr, who is employed part-time, is among the minority of the visually impaired and blind who are employed. An estimated 2.3 percent of non-institutionalized Americans reported a visual disability in 2008, according to DisabilityStatistics.org, a Web site that compiles data from several sources, and about 43 percent of them are employed.

Tarr, 31, has been legally blind since birth. Her friends, her family and the people around her, as well as her surroundings, are just faint, blurry outlines.

Under the Social Security Act, blindness is defined as “central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of correcting lens.” The term vision loss refers to those who are visually impaired and have “trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses” and have vision better than 20/200 and a visual field of more than 20 degrees, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, prohibits employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. Before this law, many visually impaired and blind people, including Karen Gourgey, the director of the center, struggled in their search for employment.

Gourgey applied for a teaching job in California before becoming director of the center in 1983 and recalls her interview there: “On every question, every category, where they had to evaluate me, I was excellent and outstanding, and on the bottom, the guy wrote: ‘Unacceptable because of handicap,’” says Gourgey. “Now, they just might say: ‘Someone has slightly better experience.’”

Pensively, she adds, “They can do it very easily and make it very hard to prove— people still don’t want to deal with what they think is an enormous challenge and difficulty for them.”

Increasing employers’ awareness is the key to improving the employment prospects of the visually disabled. “The essential idea is that once you digitize information, then you can either enlarge the print or you can have it spoken, or if people need, you can have braille output,” says Gourgey. “As a basic, that makes many, many more jobs accessible than otherwise would have been the case.”

The intention behind the handbook published by the center, A Practical Guide to Accommodating People With Visual Impairments in the Workplace, is to make employers less fearful and prejudiced. It delves into assistive technology, as well as the ways in which employers can better relate to those with vision loss.

“There’s a need for employers to simply to get to know people—people who have vision loss, people who are totally blind or who are visually impaired— to find out that people are people,” Gourgey says.

Vollo, who lost her vision gradually over a span of nearly eight years and can see only light and dark, agrees. “If the employer would be willing to have a more open mind,” Vollo says, she is convinced that testing the visually impaired people on their performance using Excel and Microsoft Word applications is fair.

While the plight of the visually impaired and blind sometimes seems insurmountable, the center maintains a positive outlook.

In the classes themselves, the teachers, who are also visually impaired, are “there as models for the people who are coming in, particularly people who have been devastated by the loss of their sight, either totally or gradually,” says Reed. “ It’s very hard for some of them to understand it, to adjust to it, and to recognize that they have life ahead of them.”

Reed, a former training manager at JP Morgan Chase, has also worked on programs educating people about working with and employing people with disabilities.

In April, the center will host its fourth annual conference, “Success Breeds Success,” at Baruch.

“There’s been progress, which is part of the reason why we’re naming this ‘Success Breeds Success,’ because there have been some accomplishments and we need to empower people to go out there and make more accomplishments happen,” says Gourgey. “The people who are involved, you know the minorities and the groups that are involved, also have to be hugely involved in making our own rights realities for us.”

The conference, whose keynote speaker is Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer, will include workshops such as “Employment Success Stories,” which features a “panel comprised of blind or visually impaired employees and their placement specialists speaking about the process by which they developed an effective working partnership,” according to the conference schedule.

Half of the visually impaired and blind planning to attend, like Tarr, are returning attendees, according to Reed.

“It’s relatively new for me, this loss of my vision,” says Vollo, who is planning to attend this year’s conference for her first time. “I’m trying to get as much involved as possible with what’s going on and as a visually impaired, what’s out there for us for further education as well as jobs.”

Vegetarian Food Festival a Treat for Those Willing to Wait

Story and photos by Elsa Säätelä

With more than 3,500 visitors wedged inside (and many more unable to get in), the displays and main floor were jammed.

With more than 3,500 visitors wedged inside (and many more unable to get in), the displays and main floor were jammed.

With mock meatballs, ice cream made from unprocessed nuts and donuts and cupcakes made without eggs or dairy products, New York’s first Vegetarian Food Festival lured thousands of people to Chelsea on the first Sunday in April.

On a bright and chilly morning, long lines formed outside the Altman Building on West 18th Street, and about 3,500 people eventually made it inside, the organizers said.

“I tried to go to the vegetarian festival, but the line wrapped around two blocks and I couldn’t get in; it was insane,” said Silissa Kenney, a recent Baruch graduate. “You would’ve thought the Beatles were in there!”

Sixty-two vendors, including vegetarian and vegan restaurants, offered their wares. Many promoted local products, such as homemade tofu and fruit snacks made in Brooklyn.

Dessert was the festival’s main attraction.

“I always thought vegan food was super healthy and bad tasting,” said Pat Andrews, who describes himself as a “real meat eater” and says he came just to keep his wife company. After sampling a green tea cupcake, he said it was “one of the best I have ever had – and it’s vegan!”

One highlight of the festival was a donut-eating contest. Cheered on by the crowd, Karen Hoffman, at right end of table, won by eating six donuts.

One highlight of the festival was a donut-eating contest. Cheered on by the crowd, Karen Hoffman, at right end of table, won by eating six donuts.

The festival offered cupcake- and doughnut-eating competitions. Karen Hoffman won the latter, besting three competitors by polishing off six doughnuts, cheered on by a crowd of onlookers.

The doughnuts were supplied by Dun-Well, a new vegan bakery based in Manhattan, that supplied five dozen doughnuts, with flavors including strawberry-coconut and chocolate peanut.

”We wish we could have had our own stand and let everyone try our doughnuts,” said Dan Dunbar, a co-founder of Dun-Well. “But with the limited capacity for doughnut making that we have for the moment, baking enough donuts for an eight-hour-long event did not seem manageable or economically smart.”

Visitors could also sample heartier fare.

Foodswings, a Brooklyn-based vegan fast-food restaurant, offered variations on traditional American comfort food, with mock meatball sandwiches and vegan mac’n’cheese, with no dairy products. “The creamiest mac’n’cheese I ever had!” a woman in the crowd said, as her friend nodded, forking up another mouthful of gooey macaroni.

Not all the food was familiar. One young man grimaced after sampling raw kombucha, an ancient fermented tea drink that some people believe promotes health. “I have no idea what I just drank, but it sure tasted healthy,” he said.

Dan Dunbar, left, and Christopher Hollowell, the founders of Dun-Well Doughnuts, brought five dozen doughnuts from their bakery for to the doughnut-eating derby, and handed out the leftovers to the crowd.

Dan Dunbar, left, and Christopher Hollowell, the founders of Dun-Well Doughnuts, brought five dozen doughnuts from their bakery for to the doughnut-eating derby, and handed out the leftovers to the crowd.

The Vegetarian Food Festival was the brainchild of Sarah Gross, for whom this was not the first act in promoting animal rights and a vegan lifestyle. In 2010, Gross founded Rescue Chocolate, which produces vegan chocolate and donates its profits to animal rescue organizations around the country.

After a trip to Boston’s Vegetarian Food Festival last fall, Gross decided to launch a food fest in New York. She contacted her friend Nira Paliwoda, an event planner, and the two vegetarians began promoting the event on Facebook and Twitter.

The social media sites helped Gross and Paliwoda attract volunteers and sponsors, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Aninalsand Yelp, the Internet search and review engine.

Admission was free, and vendors paid have stands. In addition to the free food samples given out, the vendors had the chance to sell products and bigger food portions.

“Most vendors are happy to pay a small fee to make the festival possible, and also see it as a great opportunity to promote their products,” Gross explains. “So in the end, it is a win-win situation for both us and them.”

At the Chicago Soybairy booth, a worker grated soy-based, dairy-free mock mozzarella for a pizza topping.

At the Chicago Soybairy booth, a worker grated soy-based, dairy-free mock mozzarella for a pizza topping.

The festival also featured dance, yoga, live music and lectures, with speakers talking about topics including vegan cooking and sustainable lifestyles. Alexandra Jamieson discussed her books Vegan Cooking for Dummies and The Great American Detox Diet, while Chloe Jo Davis, creator of GirlieGirlArmy, a Web-based guide to green living, discussed eco-friendly fashion.

A range of advocacy groups set up tables at the festival. For example, Amie Hamlin, executive director for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, handed out flyers promoting vegetarian, organic and local food in schools.

An hour before the festival closed, the line still stretched for two blocks, and those outside were turned away. But those who made it in seemed pleased.

“Me and my friend waited in line for over one hour to get in here, but it was definitely worth it,” said 22-year-old Maria McKinley, who came to the festival with her friend Luca Gonzales.” “The doughnut-eating competition was the best. It was gross but fun in its weird way. And who would have thought ‘vegan hippies’ do something like that?”

Tour Guide of the Toxic

By Benjamin Spencer

Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek, a fetid tributary of the East River, will not be an easy clean-up project for the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo by Benjamin Spencer.

Usually it’s not a great thing when your memory of the first time you met someone person is inseparable from a terrible, gag-inducing stink. But with Mitch Waxman, it comes with the territory.

A lifelong New York City resident, Waxman is an indie comic-book artist, photographer, advertising retoucher, prolific blogger and self-taught expert on Newtown Creek. In recent years, he has taken upon himself the task of giving curious visitors to the fetid, horribly polluted East River tributary a uniquely grand ecologic-historic tour. The experience is eye-opening – and often nose-wrinkling.

“You smell it?” Waxman asks as we approach a major combined sewer outfall at Maspeth Creek. He turns his face toward my friend Steven and me, his dark beard peppered with gray. I can only nod and try to keep from breathing in. “Come here in the summer, brother. Holy God!” he says, cackling.

“The funny thing is, this is actually what I do for exercise,” he says later as we hoof it past the Maspeth Creek tributary. “A lot of people run through parks. I walk through toxic waste dumps.”

Despite that less-than-glowing appraisal of the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest Superfund remediation site, Waxman’s infectious love of this area shines through. Pointing out the sights as he strides along – sidestepping refuse and muck, black trench coat flapping, digital SLR camera ever at the ready – he gleefully delves into the kind of gasp-inducing history that most communities would rather paper over.

One complication for future EPA dredgers, Waxman says, could be the tendency in the past century for waterfront gangs and organized crime to use Newtown as a dumping area for their – um – internal problems.

“You know,” says Waxman. “I have a bunch of friends who are on the job, and they say they’re gonna be pulling bodies out of this. This is gonna solve like half of New York’s murders.” (“On the job” means police officers.)

Of all the landmarks in New York City to develop a fascination – bordering on obsession – with, Newtown Creek might seem an odd choice. But Waxman has a fierce interest in all things neglected, misunderstood, or conveniently forgotten by the powers-that-be.

“It’s the kind of place which strains your sense of the real,” Waxman says of the creek. “The history of the watershed is so tremendous. So over the top. It’s just a magnetic, terrible, beautiful place which is largely unknown. And right in the dead- bang center of New York City.”

Waxman knows a lot about New York City, most of which he can recite from memory with the same casual ease as one might read from a newspaper. Though he now lives in Astoria, Queens, Waxman grew up in Canarsie and Flatbush in Brooklyn, the grandson of Jewish-Russian immigrants who fled persecution in Europe in the early part of the past century.

“My uncles fought in World War I, my dad in Korea, my cousins in Vietnam,” he says. His grandfather, he says, fought in France during WWI as well – though, as it turns out, he didn’t quite join up out of the usual swell of patriotism.

“Funny story,” Waxman says. “My grandfather got off the boat at Ellis Island. And a guy in a very nice set of clothes with a really nice haircut says to him, ‘Son, you wanna be an American?’ My grandfather goes, “Yes. I want to be an American.” So the guy says, ‘Sign here’. My grandfather signed. The guy says, ‘Welcome to the United States Army!’ And he didn’t even get to go into New York. They put him on a boat, they sent him back. He did basic (training) on the boat.”
Waxman laughs. “You know, all Jewish humor comes down to bein’ a schmuck. And that’s a classic schmuck story.”

Waxman himself narrowly avoided death, though perhaps not in quite such a dramatic fashion. After a very close call with his health seven years ago (chronicled by Waxman himself on the comics website, www.weirdass.net), Waxman started walking around the neighborhood for exercise. “I found the creek,” remembers Waxman. “I started looking into it, you know, started researching it – and Holy God, it’s the classic puddle, you know. You go to touch it and you go in up to your shoulder.”

Mitch Waxman

Mitch Waxman likes to take the curious on tours of Newtown Creek. Photo by Steven McCann.

That love of mysterious history informs his non-creek work, as well. When I suggest, on the evidence of his blog posts and comic-book artwork, that he might have a minor obsession with the early 20th century cult writer H.P. Lovecraft, he scoffs. “Minor? You haven’t been reading carefully enough. The guy was a genius who ‘saw’ the 20th Century and did very, very careful research. There’s a million little things he opined about that modern science is just proving.”

True to Lovecraftian form, Waxman’s comics, drawn mainly between the late 1980s and 2008, are replete with monsters, sci-fi mash-ups of history and mythology, and fedora-wearing gumshoe heroes. In his first major series, “Plasma Baby,” a four-issue black and white that he created while studying under comic visionaries such as Will Eisner at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he explored his fascination with the ancient Aztecs.

“They were clipped out of history just as they were attaining their apex,” he says of the Aztecs. “The analogy I always use is, imagine if Caligula’s Rome just disappeared one day, an entire culture at the apogee of their civilization, just gone.”

All very academic – but of course, this being Waxman’s “baby”, as it were, there is a twist. In this version of history, after 400 years of exile the Aztecs seek revenge on the world that deposed them by calling up a monster-sized infant formed of pure plasma to wreak havoc. The series’ subtitle is “Vengeance of the Aztecs.”

Another of Waxman’s projects was “The Starry Ones,” a long-running 3-D online comic written by Ancram Hudson, illustrated by Waxman and serialized on the pair’s website, (www.weirdass.net). Remarkably, Waxman and Hudson created an original, wildly colorful multi-panel entry nearly every week for 173 weeks (2000-2003), detailing an original universe of warring alien empires and mystical gods – complete with esoteric references to real ancient cultures and technologies.

For over 20 years Waxman has been involved in just about every aspect of comics – production, publishing, writing and drawing. But he says as he grew older, the long hours, low pay and sedentary nature of the work became more and more oppressive. As he puts it, the comics industry “eats its young and isn’t interested in its old.” And after he became, as he says, “fat and sick” seven years ago, he realized that the rigors of comic art had taken a dangerous toll on his mental and physical health.

“Comics is a really insular life,” he explains. “You stay home and you draw fuckin’ Spiderman for 18 hours a day.” At the same time, he says, the work is so sedentary that “your muscle tone turns to jelly. And it’s one of those things – you’re alone all the time, you’re sitting in front of the board. It makes you crazy.”
So, the last few panels Waxman drew in 2008 for weirdass.net might be his “swan song” in comics – at least for now.

But it is simply not in Waxman’s nature to sit on his laurels. He immediately relaunched himself in photography, freelance advertising, walking tours, and regular activities with the non-profit Newtown Creek Alliance, where, he jokes on his blog, he fulfills a role not unlike that of “Gleek the supermonkey” from the 1970’s cartoon show “Superfriends” – “often used as comic relief”. He started several blogs, the most renowned of which is the Newtown Pentacle (www.newtownpentacle.com). The site is a showcase both of Waxman’s peculiarly compelling urban landscape photography, and of his exhaustive historical research into New York City’s most sordid characters and events – along with stream-of-consciousness direct from his own fertile (okay, morbid) inner mind.

Waxman recently published a photo and history book chronicling the Newtown Creek area (“Newtown Creek for the Morbidly Curious) and a compendium of the first six months of his and Hudson’s “The Starry Ones” comics saga. As if all this weren’t enough, Waxman and his Newtown Creek Alliance cohort, Bernard Ente, lead frequent boat tours up the creek, and are slated to head up a Centennial celebration walk over the Hunter’s Point Avenue Bridge on Dec. 11. “This is all part of our ‘getting away with murder’ thing me and him do,” says Waxman of his and Ente’s exploits. He laughs almost disbelievingly. “We were parade marshals twice last year!”

All in all, it hasn’t been a bad recovery for Mitch Waxman.

“You know something?” he says. “I’m lucky. In midstream, I actually found something new I’m very interested in, and it’s led to a whole new group of people that I never thought I’d be meeting. So, you know. It’s cool.”

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT MITCH AND HIS MUSE:
http://www.newtowncreekalliance.org
http://www.newtownpentacle.com
http://www.weirdass.net and http://weirdasscomics.wordpress.com

The Medicine Man From the East

Story and photos by Sabrina Khan

Pailly Su

Pailly Su, an herbalist, carefully custom-mixes herbs for customers at his Shun An Tong Health Herbal shop in Flushing.

His fingers run over rusty metal cabinets labeled with Chinese symbols, then he extracts what he needs and measures a few scraps of licorice on an old red scale. He adds a handful of bark-like herbs, scraps of various green and brown plants and some earthy roots whose obscure names, like astragulus and cassia, are known only to a wise few and almanacs. Wrapping the ingredients in a zip-lock container, he hands ingredients to the “10 flavor nutritious soup” to a customer.

Pailly Su, an herbalist, doesn’t consider himself a doctor, but his customers often prefer him to their certified physicians, he says. They act as his patients and that’s what he calls them. He sits them in a room in the back of the store where they can discuss their symptoms and checks their pulse to gauge their needs. He then writes a prescription of the herbs best suited for them, which are all available in his shop, the Shun An Tong Health Herbal Corp.

“I’ve been shopping here 30 years,” said Linda Chen, a customer. “I love it, the quality is unbelievable.”

Housed beside a jewelry counter in the same space, the herbal shop is easy to walk by unless one knows what to look for. Loyal customers enter the establishment and immediately head to the far left, to greet Su or his wife behind the counter, sweet and pungent aromas engulfing their senses. Mrs. Su chooses not to share her first name but always assists customers with smiles even if she has trouble communicating with them. Sometimes a niece, Susan Su, comes to help and to translate for English-speaking patrons.

Born into a family of herbalists in Taiwan in 1944, Su learned the language of the trade in his grandfather’s shop, a 75-year-old family business. “There are thousands of formulas and functions for each herb,” he says in Mandarin as his niece translates, and what he didn’t learn from able hands, he “learned from a lot of books.”

When Su immigrated to the United States in 1981, he brought an extensive knowledge of Eastern herbs and remedies. Noticing a rising Asian population in Flushing, Queens, he decided to open the herbal pharmacy three years later. Shun An Tong became the first herbal establishment in Flushing and has been tending to clients for the past 26 years.

Clients must first make appointments with Su, who “treats” only six to 10 people a day. The back room used for checkups could easily be confused with a storage space if not for a few adornments, including a framed piece of calligraphy on the far wall.

Posters

Old meets new, as a chart of acupuncture points in the ear hangs alongside a Daily News calendar, inside the shop.

For patients, there are two red wooden chairs with cushions embroidered in an Asian pattern, strange pieces of furniture in an otherwise simple space. Patients may notice an out-of-place, straw cowboy hat hung across from them, a black bandana tied around it. A map of acupuncture points and a 2010 calendar from the Daily News are tacked on an adjacent wall. Su’s seat faces a computer monitor, atop a table stacked with neatly strewn books and papers; stapled charts and prescriptions dating back to a patient’s first visit, written vertically in Mandarin. He refers to these to recall a patient’s history.

As he traces a patient’s problems, Su’s eyes carry a knowing, ancient weight. Gold-rimmed glasses cast oval shapes around his aged eyes, while wrinkles of Eastern wisdom laced with Western ideas trace his features. Long, sharp sideburns curve over his cheeks and tufts of graying black hair peek out of a worn New York Yankees cap. Rather than the flowing robe of an herbalist in ancient drawings, Su wears a down jacket and gray slacks.

Su is reluctant to share much about himself, except when he lets his guard down and attempts to ramble in scrambled English and good-natured laughs. He appears modest, his character elusive, exuding mystery, or perhaps just quietude. Susan Su says he is old fashioned and private, from an era that believes too much talk is unbecoming.

Yet Su is proud that his business has been covered by “Channel One, Channel Seven, and My 9,” counting them off of his fingers. The shop was even used in a 1996 film. “I closed one day, they make a movie,” he adds. But his shop is promoted mostly “mouth by mouth,” he explains, or from newspaper ads.

Most of his customers were Asians when he started out. He knew that many preferred herbal remedies to Western medications, and these early patrons spread the word about Shun An Tong. Today, “30 percent are Americans,” he says proudly, and curious to understand his remedies, “Some Americans ask too much questions, and my English not too well,” he says with smile. “They want to know one by one, little by little, about the herbal.”

The notion inspired him to write a bilingual book of herbal recipes, Oriental Herbal Cook Book For Good Health (I), in 1993, aimed at second-generation Asian Americans who cannot read the Chinese recipes. He also did a Chinese-language radio program about herbal remedies from 1990 to 1998.

But the early days were harder. “It was difficult to open the business,” because there were still few Asians in the area and “very few suppliers” to order the single herbs, he says. Now, there are many, “Some Taiwan, some China, some Japan, some Hong Kong.” The shop carries more than single herbs though. Most raw herbs come from China, but a lot of products like packaged powders and pills come from the others.

Though the ancient customs of herbs have lasted many years, Su feels that things have changed in the business since he first opened. His rent was initially $1680, and now is “about $17,000,” he says with a deep, hearty laugh. And he has had to adapt to his variety of customers. He says he takes ethnicity into account, because the measurements of the herbal ingredients differ by racial body types, as well as on a patient’s needs and size. But he says the most popular herb among all his customers is ginseng because it’s “Good for energy and maintains immune system.”

Despite the rising popularity of herbal supplements, Su says he only makes enough to survive. Today, three similar establishments are on the same street, and others are nearby on Main Street. Few of their owners are even familiar with Su’s store name or his own. The competition, Su says, means “now I make nothing,” just enough to eat.

And the future of his shop is uncertain. He’d like to pass it on to one of his four children, one boy and three girls. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll sell it. But no timetable is in place.

At present, Su is happy and satisfied with the business. He begins each day over a cup of coffee and the newspaper, ready to see customers bearing problems and good news. Mrs. Su happily shares pictures of babies whose mothers faced infertility issues and came for help. A few months later, they came to thank him.

Susan Su points out various items for Ms. Chen, the customer: fruit of wolfberry, ginseng, herbal teas “I think the way you treat your customers is very important,” she says. Her uncle, she adds, “is very honest, to the client,” he does “his best to help anybody that needs help. That’s why he has been able to survive this long.”

Male Eating Disorders Are the Latest Trend in the Fashion Industry

By Kerri Jarema

Last fall, fashion powerhouse Ralph Lauren released an advertisement featuring Filippa Hamilton, a 5-foot 10-inch, 120-pound female model whose thin frame was so extremely Photoshopped that her waist appeared smaller than her head.

Outrage in the blogosphere and entertainment news media put Ralph Lauren on the defensive. But a similar — and growing — problem among male fashion models is getting much less attention.

A number of recent studies have found increases in anorexia and bulimia among men. One quarter of all those who suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, are men, up from 15 percent in 1990, according to a 2007 Harvard University study. Other studies of men with eating disorders have found the sharpest increases in the gay community.

No one knows for certain why the number of male sufferers has risen, but some people are pointing fingers, at least in part, at the fashion industry.

Jason Stame, an agent at Red Model Management, acknowledges that in the fashion industry the aesthetic has shifted drastically. “The fashion industry has always sought a specific body type,” says Stame. “Before it was mostly a brawny macho type.” Now, he says, “it’s pretty much been taken over by the waifish skinny men.”

Designers have the last word on what body type is in and modeling agencies have little control over what models do to stay current, says Stame. “I don’t encourage extreme weight loss, although what one is told on a go-see is something I can’t control,” he says. “At Red Model Management, we try to recruit a specific male: tall, and versatile, meaning someone who isn’t afraid to put on or lose a little muscle if asked.”

One look at the models populating the runways of big-name designers like Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen makes it clear that many designers are, in fact, seeking out a particularly emaciated male frame to display their clothes.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average weight for an adult male in the United States is 189.8 pounds — putting the average man in a suit size of 42 to 44. But pieces that designers create for runway and fashion shoots use a 38 or 40 in men’s suits, Christopher Muther wrote in The Boston Globe.

The problem has been exacerbated by European designers. When European retailers like Zara come to the States, they bring their smaller, European sizes with them. A man who fits in a size 34 in a store like the Gap won’t be able to squeeze into a size 34 at Zara.

Joseph Culp, a male model with Red Model Management who is considered a “thin frame” model, agrees that designers have a lot to do with the current skinny obsession, but says agents also play a role. “If anything, I feel agencies put a lot of pressure on models, too. In order to stay in, we have to pass like, an inspection – they check our weight, physique, et cetera,” Culp says.

Culp says his own thin physique is not due to unhealthy eating habits. “I’ve always been lucky in the sense that I look like this,” he says. “I’m thin.”

“I’m even luckier that this is what a lot of major European designers want for their collections.” He adds, “A lot of people have eating disorders in this industry, but that’s mostly for people who are a little more muscular than me.”

The bottom line is that it’s the thinnest models who appear on most runways and in fashion spreads, even for more moderately priced designers. One New York resident who feels the pressure to be very slim is Colin Owens.

“I want to have the ‘hip’ look,” says Culp, who is 21. “All the guys under 30 in Williamsburg and the Village are skinny, wearing black jeans and plaid – that’s what’s hot right now.”

“I wouldn’t say I have an eating disorder. I just think that I have to eat less to be the kind of person I want to be. I want to wear certain clothes and I want to have a certain persona — being thin fits the type, no matter how I get there.”

One former male model, who asked to be called only by his first name, Jamie, left the industry in 2006 after three years of working and says part of the problem with male eating disorders is that no one notices them. “I saw guys not eating,” says Jamie. “But everyone pays so much attention to women and eating disorders. By the time they notice the guys have gotten sickly skinny, it’s become an extreme problem — someone needs to start speaking out about healthy standards for male models, too.”

Like the Photoshopped Ralph Lauren ad featuring Hamilton, gay magazines also promote images of skinny men.

Yet, even as male models get thinner and thinner, the discussion of how the fashion industry impacts eating disorders continues to largely exclude men.

Cutting Eyeballs in the Window

By Silissa Kenney

Passersby look in on a live surgery at Park Avenue Laser Vision on East 25th St.
Photograph by Remi Hu
     Passersby look in on a live surgery at Park Avenue Laser Vision
on East 25th St.

Imagine that you’re walking down the street and come across live surgery being performed in an office window. It looks so easy and painless, you decide to get the surgery yourself. Sound unlikely?

At Park Avenue Laser Vision on East 25th Street, Dr. Emil William Chynn performs Lasek with only a sheet of glass separating the operating room from the sidewalk. “We’re always doing new things here,” says Dr. Chynn.

Lasek (laser epithelial keratomileusi) is a vision-correcting surgery similar to the better-known Lasik (laser in situ keratomileusi). Both surgeries aim to reshape the cornea, the outer layer of the eye. In Lasik, a flap in the cornea is cut and the corneal tissue is reshaped, then the flap is replaced; in Lasek, no flap is cut, and the outer layer of the cornea, the epithelium, is peeled back using an alcohol solution, then replaced or removed. Lasek seeks to avoid the flap-related complications of Lasik, though it has its own complications, including dry eyes, incomplete or inaccurate vision correction and post-op infection.

Dr. Chynn, 44, earned a medical degree at Columbia, completed his residency at Harvard and also has an M.B.A. from New York University and has three patents. He spends a lot of time thinking up new ways to attract new patients.

“There are no returning customers here, so the better job we do, the less customers,” says Dr. Chynn, “so we keep needing to think about finding new customers.”

One day last month, Justo Cruz, 25, lay in what looks like a dentist chair, about to undergo the surgery. Gripping a blue stress ball in his right hand, he was noticeably nervous. At his side was his wife, Arlene, offering words of encouragement to go along with the Valium he had been given to ease anxiety.

“You’re gonna be able to see Lexus clear and perfect!” says Arlene Cruz to her husband referring to their daughter.

Justo Cruz resting after surgery while his wife, Arlene, lends support.
Photograph by Silissa Kenney
     Justo Cruz resting after surgery while his wife, Arlene, lends support.

Dr. Chynn aims to gain patients by making use of the Internet, discounts and testimonials. Even his employees are walking advertisements. Nearly all of Dr. Chynn’s staff have had Lasik or Lasek.

Patrick Bailey, a patient coordinator at Park Avenue Laser, has had Lasek himself.

“Sometimes when you’re selling something, a testimonial can go a long way to building trust,” says Bailey.

Bailey even pitches the practice at the bus stop. When fellow commuters noticed that he could see two blocks down the road, he handed out his card. “We could probably do something for you, too,” he told them.

Bailey estimates that about a third of new patients are drawn in by the Web site (www.parkavenuelaser.com), which has a blog; links to media coverage by Fox News, ABC News, The New York Times and others, and a “virtual laser simulator” so patients can practice what it will be like on surgery day.

Park Avenue Laser also has Facebook page, though to date it has only nine “fans,” and a Twitter account — where the staff is encouraged to post individually once a day — with 27 followers. On Oct. 15, the front desk manager posted, “If you can guess what I ordered from Shake Shack for lunch, I’ll give you a $100 discount!”

Dr. Chynn offers a number of discounts, including for referring a friend and a corporate or group discount if friends come together for surgery. It’s the discount he offers if patients post their surgery on YouTube that has received some attention — and some criticism.

“It’s disappointing to see commercialism creeping into what should be a very altruistic profession,” Ruth Fischbach, a bioethics professor and the director of the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University, told The New York Times in an article that Park Avenue Laser has posted on its site.

Cutting Eyeballs in the Window
Photograph by Remi Hu

And Alison Preszler, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau, in the same article expressed concern about the effect on consumers. “With paid testimonials you’re running the risk that the consumer’s opinion was skewed by dollar signs, and isn’t necessarily telling the truth,” she said.

Dr. Chynn doesn’t think there is any ethical problem. The discount is only $100 on a surgery that might cost $5,000, he says, and the payment is just a way to compensate people for the time and energy it takes to post the surgery on the Internet.

For his videos, a camera is attached to the laser, so the eyeball is the star. The video, says Dr. Chynn, is just a way for people to see exactly what happens during surgery and to provide visual understanding of how Lasek differs from Lasik. He estimates that around 5 percent of his patients agree to post their surgery online.

Seeing a surgery can be more powerful than just hearing about it, which is where the ideas to perform the procedure in the window and to post videos come in. Dr. Chynn also tries to get people through the door by offering free seminars, inviting people to be in the O.R. during a surgery and having events. Before Halloween, the Twitter account was buzzing with invitations to a Halloween party and to watch surgery. “Best costume gets a special offer!” announced the Twitter post. On Nov. 24, he’ll hold an early Thanksgiving event complete with refreshments and live surgery.

Once potential patients show interest, getting them to commit is the goal, and the whole staff is schooled on how to best ensure that a patient decides to have the procedure. At an early-morning marketing meeting, Dr. Chynn delivers a pep talk.

“If you have chatty patient who speaks well and is enthusiastic, ask him to email … so we can put them up on the blog,” Dr. Chynn tells the staff. Or if an email from a patient might be informative, that should go on the blog too, “even if it’s a patient problem,” he says.

Cutting Eyeballs in the Window
Photograph by Remi Hu

Dr. Chynn tells the staff that every time they see Adam Weiss, hired to do public relations for the practice, they are to present a sales dilemma they had in the last week so that Weiss can instruct them on what they might have done better. Knowing about a potential patient—what her worries are, what other practice they might be considering—is vital, says Dr. Chynn.

“I like to use a dating analogy,” says Dr.Chynn. “You like a guy and you want to date him, but there is another girl involved. What are you going to find out about her? Everything. You have to know your competition.”

Lasik still dominates the vision-correction market, according to the 2008 survey by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists, “US Trends in Refractive Surgery.” Ninety-six percent of those surveyed now do, or plan to, perform Lasik, while the number is 30 percent for Lasek.

Though the overall economy is struggling to recover, Dr. Chynn says he hasn’t seen the volume of his business decline. And he has kept his advertising efforts constant throughout the economic downturn.

As Dr. Chynn leans over Cruz, people on the sidewalk do stop to watch.

“I saw the guy doing surgery and I was like, wow, it’s pretty amazing,” said Tim Petryri, 20, who stopped to watch, even though he doesn’t wear glasses or contacts. But even he is a possible avenue to new patients.

“If you meet anyone, tell them about us!” says a Park Avenue Laser employee standing outside with Petryri.

When the surgery is over — about two minutes for each eye — Cruz moves to a comfortable recliner outside the OR. The procedure was “a little stingy at first, but it goes away,” says Cruz, speaking with his eyes closed as per post-op instructions. “I didn’t even feel that he was touching my eyeball.”

He noticed an improvement in his vision immediately. “It felt like a miracle. I definitely recommend this place.”

Click here to watch video of a surgery.

Eggs for the Infertile

A Growing Business Courts College Students

By Dennis Martin

Eggs for the Infertile
Photograph by Tong Wu

Images of smiling newborns hang on the wall right next to a “used books for sale” sign on college campuses throughout New York City. The advertisements have something in common: the transfer of something of value from one person to another.

“I chose 30 colleges in the five boroughs,” says Hilary Marshak, who had posters of her egg-donation agency, MyDonor, placed at Baruch and 30 other four-year institutions.

A licensed social worker and psychotherapist, Marshak sees herself as a “matchmaker,” because she gets to decide “who’s a good match for each other and bring them together.”

MyDonor is an agency, licensed by the New York State Department of Health, that matches women who donate their eggs with women who will use in vitro fertilization to become pregnant.

MyDonor has only been operating for two years, but Marshak says that business is growing.

“In a normal day, I’ll get two or three … maybe four or five” applications, she says.

Ninety-eight percent of her clients are college students, she says, so MyDonor pays companies that specialize in advertising at colleges.

Potential donors can apply online at mydonor.net where they must answer some very personal questions, ranging from the number of abortions they’ve had to sexual encounters the’ve experienced. Once the application is completed, an interview is scheduled, where applicants are informed of the procedure, which requires self-injection of fertility medication for up to 21 days to stimulate ovarian production. Next, a psychological evaluation is performed. Applicants who are approved are sent to fertility clinics where they are matched with recipients.

Women can earn $5,000 to $9,000 at the completion of a cycle, depending on the fertility clinic and prior donation experience, while brokers like Marshak receive $2,000 from a client.

According to mydonor.net, participants are called “donors” because the American Society of Reproductive Medicine does not allow participants to be paid for their eggs, only their time.

“Money corrupts people in every part of this industry,” says Julia Derek, a former egg donor.

At 24, Derek, a Swedish exchange student at George Mason University in Virginia, donated her eggs 12 times as a way to earn cash.

“I did it so many times I got a hormone imbalance and I got severely depressed,” says Derek, now a fitness expert in New York City. “I couldn’t stop crying and I had severe headaches. It took months to get back to normal.”

Derek chronicled her experience in Confessions of a Serial Egg Donor published by Adrenaline Books in 2004.

She says agencies like MyDonor that target college students for their eggs are unethical.

“They should only target women who are more emotionally mature, from 28 and above,” says Derek.

At MyDonor, Marshak accepts donors ages 20 to 29 and says college students are most desired because women in their 20s are the most fertile and because many recipients believe their baby will inherit “smart” genes.

She says barren women often seek someone else’s eggs, because the procedure allows them to experience pregnancy. “There is a real drive in women to actually bear a child,” she insists.

One MyDonor client, who asked that her name not be disclosed, says she can’t imagine women missing out on childbirth. The 25-year-old says she donated 20 eggs last year because she wanted infertile women to have a chance to experience childbirth. She
received $8,000.

“I am proud of myself for giving something so special to another woman,” says the donor, a graduate of Marymount Manhattan College. So would she do it again?

“In a heart beat.”

But Justine D’Amour, 20, a junior at Baruch, is skeptical about the procedure, saying, “The thought of a ‘little me’ running around somewhere” is bothersome.

Breast Cancer’s Forgotten Victims

It’s Not Just a Woman’s Disease

By Dennis Martin

Forgotten Victims
Illustration by Michael Dunn

Mike and Margaret Partain’s 19th wedding anniversary was a day shattered by grief. While most couples celebrate their marriages with a candlelight dinner, Mike and Margaret could have been holding a candlelight vigil instead.

“He fell apart,” says Margaret, when the couple learned on their anniversary that Mike had cancer. “It was a shock.”

But at age 39, Mike’s 2.5-centimeter tumor didn’t grow in his prostate, the most common form of cancer in men. Instead, it grew in his chest. “I think it was more a shock that it was breast cancer,” says Margaret.

While the prognosis is comparable for both men and women who are diagnosed, women are about 100 times more likely to get breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. With those lopsided statistics, it isn’t surprising that breast cancer is thought of as a female disease. But it still makes Nancy Nick livid.

“We jump up and down and scream at the TV,” says Nick, a male breast cancer advocate, describing her and her staff’s reaction when male victims are routinely ignored by the media. “What about the men?”

“Every October, Breast Cancer Awareness month, everywhere you look, ‘pink’ is the theme,” says Nick.

So in 1995, she established the John W. Nick Foundation in honor of her father, who died at 58. He didn’t know that men could get breast cancer and was finally diagnosed years after he first visited a doctor with symptoms. After a short remission, he learned the cancer had spread to his bones, and he died in 1991. Nancy Nick wanted to educate others about male breast cancer. She created the pink and blue ribbon – the company’s logo – as a symbol of the message to the public.

“They’re amazing,” says a singer in New York City who ran in the 2007 NYC Half-Marathon wearing the pink and blue ribbon for her late father.

The singer, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy, compares her dad’s calm resolve in battling the disease with that of a “quiet soldier.”

“If it were me, I don’t know how much I would have kept fighting,” she says, describing the pain her father experienced as horrific.

“The radiation was so intense, it literally degenerated his vertebrae,” she recalls, and that necessitated surgery to have pins placed in her father’s back. He also developed a “massive burn” on one of his hands as a side effect of chemotherapy.

“His hand was burning. The chemo started eating away the interior of that hand,” she says. The skin graft on his hand had to be dressed every day.

At 45, four days after her birthday, the “quiet soldier” died.

“He died so young,” she says.

Like breast cancer in women, the exact causes of male breast cancer are unknown. Men with higher levels of estrogen, those who test positive for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 breast mutation genes and those with a family history of breast cancer may be at higher risk.

Margaret Partain now believes her husband Mike’s diagnosis was caused by environmental factors.

“At first I was very skeptical,” says the mother of four, who inadvertently discovered the lump in her husband’s right breast after an embrace.

But after learning through the media that chemicals in the water supply at Camp Lejeune – a military base in North Carolina where Mike was born and raised – was the cause of other men developing male breast cancer, as well as other cancers and birth defects, Margaret is now convinced.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, is continuing to investigate water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and more than 1,000 former residents have filed claims for health problems.

Looking forward, Margaret hopes for more wedding anniversaries with Mike, who is now in remission. “I put a lot of faith in God that this will be something that he would overcome,” she says.

For information about male breast cancer, visit http://www.johnwnickfoundation.org/index.html.

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