The First Semester of Being A Clueless Gaijin in Japan

So I am done with my first semester at Waseda University. Last week, actually, after my final examination for syntax. I’ve even had the time to go back home for Chinese New Year, which was great, really.

And then I sit and I think about the past four or five months. What a ride.

When I first saw the programme to Waseda on the USP website, some late night in March 2009 as I clicked through pages investigating my options for a tertiary education, I was a little apprehensive. It sounded good though, two years in Japan (that’s a lot compared to six months or a year of exchange!), plus a second degree from Waseda (doesn’t hurt to get alumni status elsewhere too) and wow, I did hear of Waseda’s repute back in Singapore

Only catch: I didn’t know Japanese, or have any interest in Japan at that point. Japanese buffets and food does not count.

But it didn’t matter anyway. Japan! Land of strange and cool gadgets! Tasty food! Yadayada! I didn’t even know how I would fund myself but I reckoned I would figure it out along the way, as I always have.

Fast forward four years. It’s 2013, September. I am at the airport, about to leave for Tokyo. My friends come to send me off, and I am truly touched by each of their efforts and happy that my two years in USP, Science, Campus Crusade and all the other activities I did were filled with memories and people I loved. But I still didn’t know Japanese, nor anything much about this country. Oops.

Landing and then setting up life here was the first hard bit. I’d been to Japan once to represent NUS at the Fuji TV Brain World Cup contest in 2012. Back then though, I had people to take me through everything and everything was easy. This time was the real deal: getting bombarded by Japanese left right centre, figuring out the bureaucratic procedures (do I want a baito? did I write my name correctly? how much of my firstborn’s life would I have to pledge in return for a bank account?). But hey, survived. Picked up a few basic phrases, developed my latent communication-by-body-language-and-huge-sign-language skills, set my room up, got hit by a choked cistern disaster, moved out, moved in again, resetup and hey, all set.

But the next bit was harder: figuring out the culture and integrating myself in as inconspicuously as possible. I can hear the HAHs in the background, as people snort that “Yingjie” and “inconspicuous” never fit into the same sentence, unless a negative particle sits somewhere in between. But well, I joined the Waseda fencing bukatsu, which I don’t regret one bit, because it’s what keeps me happy even when things get sian, getting good fencing and really getting stuffed into Japanese-only groups. My teammates have been amazing, of course. And then I went for class (this almost sounds like an afterthought).

I won’t deny it. Class was a little disappointing. I was used to the silence of NUS tutorials, but that was nothing compared to my Japanese classes where no one really said anything. So I put my hands up often, and ignored the looks and stares. I’m getting my education, thank you very much, even if you don’t quite want yours. But I loved some of my classes. I had good fun in sociolinguistics, because I had some good classmates to debate with, and good friends to sit beside in class and laugh at stupid silly jokes when things got dreary. I learnt quite a bit about physical geography from one of my classes. I went for a crash course in Japanese with Comprehensive Japanese 1. Hurt like hell, I didn’t do that well probably, but I had great teachers and fun classmates. And then there was Fundamentals of Generative Syntax, which blew my mind away. I had never really struggled with any syntax linguistics class that much actually, not until then. But I learnt lots, challenged the professor lots (he encouraged it) and learnt how to be braver about calling out theoretical problems. Thank you, Namai-sensei, for a true “college-level education”, as you wrote in the course bulletin. And thank you for the hours you spent in consultation helping me figure things out, debunking my theories and talking to me about Japan, graduate school and linguistics in general.

Then there were the Singaporeans: Wei Guo and Pei Ying especially. I had lots of opportunity to unload and destress from the pains of figuring out a foreign land and I really can’t thank all of you enough.

There has been so much to learn and assimilate in the past semester about Japan, and things in general. Culturally, socially and intellectually.

One semester in. Do I feel different? A little. Do I regret coming? No. As I wrote somewhere else, Tokyo will always have a place in my heart from now on: a familiar, special place I will come back to.

But for now, I must leave for home, and for the US (on my way to travel and attend EPIIC in Boston). See you in April, with your cherry blossoms, Tokyo.

Using Ender’s Game in Fencing

I stumbled across an article recently entitled “‘Ender’s Game’ and Maneuver Warfare“. Of course, I’ve spent the past six months making up for lost time where I didn’t devour the Ender’s Game universe, so I read this article too. Who wouldn’t be curious how a book for kids became a military classic?

And after reading it? Well, it talks about something I’ve come to appreciate recently: manoeuvre warfare. Sure, it sounds weird and unapplicable: I’m not going to war anytime soon, nor engage in combat. But the thing is, that’s simply the voice of someone blinkered to applications. Once you start to ask questions and try to find where it might be useful, you start to see strange but useful applications.

I’ve used it for fencing epee in Japan. Huh?!

First off, Japanese fencers (at least, those I train with in the Waseda University Fencing Team) are good. Technically, they’re far better than I am. I can’t beat anyone here on technique nor fitness nor skill, simply because they’ve been training longer hard faster than I have and with far more dedication than I have.

So it’s quite clear I’m the underdog, and I’m outgunned in terms of capabilities and skill. But that just means that I have to resort to trying to gain a tactical advantage. As a fencing friend told me recently, the crux is to look for their mistakes and their weaknesses, and to exploit them.

So I do that. “I can’t beat her with bladework, she’s accurate with her wrist hits and uses a French grip. Time to try messing with distance and surprising her with a sudden dangerous attack.” Maybe I score a point there, or a few more if they don’t realise what I’m doing. “He’s got a very strong foil background and almost always manages to parry successfully, but tends to reserve his riposte for a hit he’s sure about. Maybe I’ll go fence him with a very absent blade and draw as many parries as I can with feints before giving a real one by closing the distance suddenly.” And I get the win, though very narrowly at 5-4.

I play to my strengths and try to beat my opponents strategically. It doesn’t always work, sometimes I really am too far below their level to manage to pull it off. But sometimes, on a good day, when they let their guard down, I get lucky. A mistake here, another mistake there, and I can squeak a small win out before they realise what mistakes I’m exploiting. And so it goes, after they either figure it out or I tell them (because they will ask, and they’re my teammates after all; you don’t hold back what you know), and then that tactic is useless for the next time because they’re now highly aware of what I’m doing.

Will I ever get to the level where I don’t need this? I don’t think so. I had a rocky start to fencing, especially epee. I didn’t get the right foundation, nor the right amount of training to be technically skilled. So this is my only hope of winning: to be tactically better than my opponents by learning to observe carefully, and then to outthink them. I can’t win everything, but hopefully this will help me do better as a fencer. This game has been called physical chess. If I can’t win at the physical bit, I’ll try winning at the chess bit.

It might just be the only way I can do it.

Defining My Sense of Home

I tend to use Facebook statuses to dump little bits of thought here and there with an article. A couple of lines here and there selected from an essay or an article I’ve read that I think is worth sharing, a couple of lines (okay, I write more than that often). But sometimes the ideas that I have floating around won’t just be dealt with scribbling into a small Facebook textbox (“What’s on your mind?”) and that’s when I come back to here for a long attempt to deal with it.

You might have seen whatever I write about here on Facebook in various posts, piecemeal and all. This is an attempt to synthesize them and make a bit more sense about them together.

I’ve had about 3 weeks back home since I landed at Changi fresh from 3 months in the US. And the last 21 days have been a busy whirlwind time spent catching up with friends, getting into the thick of my future profession and just soaking up as much of Singapore that I can before I go off again to Japan for a year (knowing how I feel, I will probably come back every few months, just because the cost of tickets back are cheaper than the heartache I’ll feel abroad).

In these 21 days though, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what home means to me.

Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic about relationships and ambition (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/relationships-are-more-important-than-ambition/275025/). It’s a nice article to read, though there are several assumptions there that need some unpacking and examination. The key bit that I took away though, was the quote at the very end of it after the protagonist in the article decided to return home to small town Louisiana after his sister’s death and in the process gave up his high-flying jetsetting career.

“Community means more than many of us realize,” he says. “It certainly means more than your job.”

My sense of home is defined by three things: the community I know, the sense of familiarity and my instinctive pride of being a Singaporean. So yes, the first part on community definitely does matter to me. The friends I’ve made here, the people I know. For me, this comes in bite-sized chunks experiences in each of the different communities that I’ve been involved in. I tell the freshmen in USP this whenever I can: “you get as much as you give, sometimes more”. That’s been my experience so far, the effort I’ve invested to get to know people and to contribute to this community has been returned in so much love and satisfaction. To have friends who I know will welcome me to crash on their couches at odd hours of the night if I need space, or others who I can always open up to and talk about anything, is a great comfort.

This applies in so many different contexts: school, church, fencing, etc. Everywhere I have invested, I have received and it’s these communities that root me here. In sum: this is home because I belong here to all the communities I have rooted myself in. This naturally leads on to the next point: sense of familiarity.

It’s a bit trickier to define though. What’s familiar, for one? Kit Chan wrote a column published on TODAY Online entitled “Home, surely, starts with what is made in Singapore” (http://www.todayonline.com/commentary/home-surely-starts-what-made-singapore). She talks about her decision to come home from working overseas as an artiste:

“I chose to move back home in 1998 — yes, coinciding with my debut performance of the song Home as providence would have it — because I knew that if I lived overseas for too long, I would sooner or later lose the connection I have with this place I have always called home, and along with it, all the relationships I have cultivated in my life.”

In that sense, she sums it up pretty nicely: the sense of familiarity for me is linked to the people and places I grew up and lived in. Spend too much time abroad, and you lose all that: people move on, places change. So you end up a tourist in your intended home after too long, realising that you’ve also shifted your sense of home to somewhere else you never thought you would shift it to. That’s also why I’ve been steadfastly refusing all these suggestions and hints from friends to look for love in Japan (“Japanese girls are so pretty leh!” or some variant of that line).

See the world, come home for love

I saw this line online on a Facebook Cover photo someone had. And it struck me pretty much immediately. It means two things to me: that if I do find a partner, it’ll have to be someone who is willing to build their life in Singapore with me, because that’s one thing I don’t want to compromise upon. So it’s not fair to expect a non-Singaporean to want to do that either. And the second bit that’s important though (and probably what the original writer intended) was the idea that home is where love is. That’s how I feel about Singapore, that’s where the people who love me are (not that my friends overseas suck or what, but there’s nothing like Singapore to me).

I watched this video (“Come Home” by SteadiProductions) while in Chapel Hill, yearning for home. The video is lovely, the lyrics beautiful (“when you hurt/when you burn/come back home”) and the images of the Singapore I know stirring. Heck, doesn’t hurt either the lead actress sure is pretty! But it was the sense of familiarity that did it for me: watching scenes of life that I was familiar with and hearing the song remind me that I had a Home to go back to, that there was somewhere I could always fall back on. It’s this sense of familiarity that keeps me back here. I could lose it, and go somewhere else. But it’s like when you’re in a romantic relationship: someone could objectively point out that you should break-up and find someone better, and that when you’re done, you probably will be happier and you will look back to realise that it would have been the logical choice. But while you’re in it, you don’t want to throw it away. I could go to somewhere else in the world and develop that sense of familiarity, it’s a function of time spent in a place. But I am also aware that my desire is to not lose that sense of familiarity in Singapore and get it somewhere else. So beyond just the idea that I am Singaporean and love Singapore because it’s an accidental product of birth here, I also actively desire to maintain this love, accident or not.

So we come to the last one: the sense of pride in being Singaporean. Unlike the first two though, the last one cannot really be explained. It just is: from the flushing of my cheeks as I hear Majulah Singapura played each morning at flag raising, the swelling of my chest at the National Day Parade when the Chinooks fly past with the giant Singapore flag, the excitement I feel when we win something (however small) in the sporting arena, or even when people tell me “Oh Singapore, I’ve been there! It’s a nice place.”

It can only be summed up by the quote I discovered in this video I watched while in transit at Narita Airport:

Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca

There might not be anything to shout about for Singapore on a world scale. We might be second-best, or even last in anything we compete in; our city ugly and dirty perhaps in fifty years time. But I will still love my country and be proud of it, because it is mine. Not because it is great, but it is mine, and it is all I have to love.

The 4-week reaffirmation of where I’m going

So my last post was a while ago, before I got back from Chapel Hill and San Francisco. Then I blinked and three weeks of my MOE Teaching Attachment flashed by.

It’s been a blast, of course. The first couple of days were incredibly jetlagged, no doubt due to my usual “hit the ground running and die later” approach to being home. But I got a great mentor, and I’ve been fortunate to get a pretty thorough exposure to Beatty Secondary School in the past three weeks. I’ve sat through staff meetings, professional development exercises, school assemblies and various lessons. I’ve hovered at the back of the various classes that my mentor takes: 1E2, 1T1, 4T1. I’ve been exposed to others as well: PE  lessons with the Secondary 2 and 3 students (where I learnt that I suck at wushu), Thinking Skills and English lessons with 2E4. I got to celebrate National Day, teach a lesson package I developed by myself from scratch on answering skills for Biology essays. I got to work with a range of standards in classes: from the top class that takes the heaviest combination possible to those who are struggling to pass their N-levels in two weeks.

Conclusion? I love this my job.

I love the days when I drag myself into school all sleepy but cheer up when my students wave to me. I love the moments when I swoop down on an unsuspecting student who has been guilty of multitasking and then sheepishly stuffs his storybook into his bag sufficiently chastened to focus on the lesson at hand. I love giving my individual attention to the Secondary 4 Technical students and bantering with them in whatever Mandarin and Hokkien I can muster to reduce the distance, and then cajoling them to follow my instructions. I love squatting down at the side of a struggling student who is all quiet in class and lost trying to catch up with what’s going on in the main lesson, then slowly going through the material until he gets up to speed. I love watching them develop their own confidence to attempt questions they left blank in their preliminary exams: “you see, you did it all by yourself and that wasn’t hard right?” Especially when they break into a smile after hitting the final calculation and getting the same answer that’s on the board. I love challenging the Secondary 3 triple science students to think a little beyond the textbook: “so based on what you know, what do you think might be the reason?” Befuddled looks, then that “ah-hah” moment as everything pieces together in their minds.

I love sitting in the library getting some work done and then having students come up to ask me questions. I love it even more when it devolves into stuff out of curriculum, and then even further when a bunch of them come and we talk about their dreams and aspirations, the choices that they soon have to make: JC/poly, what to study, where to study and what they want for their life. I love walking by students at the canteen and then getting to chat with them and hear stuff they won’t ever say in a classroom, knowing that they’re comfortable with me. I love sitting in the main staffroom and hearing my colleagues talk about their students, each worrying about the weaker ones and yet taking pride in their achievements. I love being around students, if only because their struggles remind me of my struggles when I was a student, and their worries my worries.

This attachment has been the most tiring time I’ve had in a long while, but also the most satisfying. I have a week left. I will miss these students when I leave, and I will miss the experiences I’ve had in this attachment. But it’s not forever, and I can now look forward to the years I have after I graduate from university, knowing full well that for me, things can only get better (even though uni already is pretty awesome).

A look back, then the head goes back forward.

So I was helping to peer advise an incoming freshman to USP this year who happens to want to go to Waseda University for the same programme I’m on and unfortunately, studies in the Faculty of Science in NUS. Which happens to be one of the most inflexible and rigid faculties when it comes to classes, and where schedules and module mapping nearly impossible to small liberal arts colleges that really fit the arts side more than being a balance.

And then she asked “how did you do it, really? how did you manage to finish all you did in the last two years?” I gave her the quick answer: “I don’t know, really, I just kept going on.”

But that’s not the truth. The truth is, I only made it so far on the determination and grit that I found somewhere. Reaching this point though, required the support of the friends and family that kept me going. So this is where I sort of think about what I’ve done here in the midway point of my degree (more or less).

Crazy plans like what I am doing always begin with an idea. They start small, but they get nurtured by the friends around you. For this, I have Min Xun, Benjamin Choi and a whole host of others to thank. I really still owe it to her: “do you think they’d let me double major with a double degree?”; “well if you don’t try, you won’t know right?” and then there’s Ben’s sagely advice when I was killing myself academically and the constant support. All the Nocturna folks here helped a ton too: suppers and company, laughs and cheers. Scoldings when I needed them, and for making me feel like I had something to come back to other than studying each day in the RC. My #06-100 suitemates too: Justin, Brian, Aaron, Jianyi, Hewlett, Wu Chao, Jin Hui (and yes Justin, your putting up with my idiosyncrasies day in day out is greatly appreciated). The honorary members too: Shona, Ming Ting, Gwen and Laura. You guys were the best company I could have asked for.

I think a special mention has to go out to the USP Life Sciences folks, and the NUS Science Crusade girls who were my lecture buddies for the first three semesters. Especially in the crucial Year 2 Semester 1, where I had horrible 8 hour lecture days that were consecutive. I really appreciate how you all: Edna, Stella, Meredith, Tasneem, Chester, Geelyn, Jie Min, took turns bringing me coffee and food so I could spend the 25 minute breaks in between lectures lying down on chairs in the lecture theatre instead to catch up on sleep.

So yeah, I look back now: how did I do it? I did it with the help of my friends. Or to borrow a turn of phrase from the The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends”. Thanks, guys.

A Tribute To My 4 Year Love Affair with Timbuk2 Bags

So today, I bought a Timbuk2 Especial Messenger and a Timbuk2 Commute 2.0, both in Medium and black, from the Hayes Street Timbuk2 retail store. It’s a bit strange to finally come to San Francisco and visit this place, because I’ve had an unnatural obsession with messenger bags and other cycling/commuting paraphernalia from San Francisco since I got my first Timbuk2 around September 2010.

I mean, since then, I’ve owned 8 Timbuk2 bags, in messenger and backpack formats, as well as 2 bags from Rickshaw Bagworks (founded by Rob Honeycutt and Mark Dwight, the former of which founded Timbuk2 and the latter was a former CEO of the company). Oh, and a Rickshaw Folio for my Moleskine planner, which most people who work with me would have seen me using regularly. Today, my 9th and 10th bag joined me and I thought, well, time to do a small tribute.

10 is a nice number anyway. So here goes, in chronological order:

Bag #1: Timbuk2 Classic Messenger in Small size, green/yellow/green colour pattern (September 2010)

So I made my first foray into this at an Epicentre selling Apple products. Flush with vouchers from some iPod Touch gaming challenge (I had walked around various stores on Orchard Road playing Flight Control in 1 hour and setting high scores), I had $90 of vouchers that were expiring and nothing that caught my eye. Until I saw a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger. The colours weren’t what I was looking for, but it seemed alright and I had heard of the brand before, recommended by the guy who runs Bonkers Link in Queensway. Topped up about $20 for it and walked away with my first Timbuk2. It was a little too small eventually, and the colours not my type, but hey, I still have it and it’s still good.

Bag #2: Timbuk2 Mavericks Messenger in Medium size, black/grey/black colour pattern (December 2010)

I finished my military service and suddenly discovered that Timbuk2 had made a waterproof messenger that I thought was really neat. Of course, when international shipping is so expensive, you don’t think about it much. Then somewhere on an online forum, someone started a mass order of bags internationally. I jumped at the chance to pick up a Mavericks for SGD$150 and hey presto, second Timbuk2. This one went with me to Shanghai just a few days later and I spent a cold December there with this snug on my back. I sold it in June 2011 though, still on the quest for The Perfect Bag.

Bag #3: Timbuk2 Hemlock Backpack in Small size, mission6 nylon black with red logo binding (February 2011)

Timbuk2 had a sale, and I had my eyes all peeled. USD$45 for a Hemlock that was in black with a touch of red (my favourite colour combination). I took it and had a lot of fun with the rolltop. Ultimately though, small proved to be a bit too small for me and I sold it eventually. I still like the look though, it was great (though to some chagrin, I could never get it to look as good as it did in the pictures when the models carried the bags).

Bag #4: Timbuk2 Zeitgeist Backpack in Medium size, red/grey colour scheme (April 2011)

After selling the Hemlock, I was still searching for the Perfect Backpack. And this is as close as it gets. I walked into Bonkers Link one day and walked out with a SGD$125 Zeitgeist. I still think the Zeitgeist has an amazing sillhouette for a pack. It’s roomy, has the Swing-Around Access (though I have left the zip open and let my MacBook Pro swing to the floor D:). This is still in my possession and I love it, with the small problem of a small hole on the base of the pack. It doesn’t affect the usage for now, but the worry wart in me is still deciding if I can live with it. This was my workhorse for two years: went to work with it, went to school with it. This one accompanied me around Canberra in Australia when I went for the ANU-XSA Global Cross-Disciplinary Tournament in 2011. Only complaint was that it didn’t have moulded back panels, but this feature has only appeared in the newer series of backpacks. I’ll figure out what to do with this when I get back to Singapore.

Bag #5: Timbuk2 Catapult Cycling Messenger in Medium, grey/blue/grey colour scheme (December 2011)

Black Friday or Christmas sale. Or something. I saw the chance to get this new Catapult model for pretty cheap (USD$40 or so) and I figured it filled a niche that was unoccupied. Till today, it’s my go to for a quick jaunt out: holds my Folio, Kindle, pencil case and a book or my Bible. I shipped it to a friend in the US, he brought it back for me and I was all happy. Still am happy with this one.

Bag #6: Timbuk2 Lightbrite Cycling Messenger in Medium, black/grey/black with red logo (December 2011)

In the same order that I placed for the Catapult, I saw the new Lightbrite messenger. The old Mavericks had irked me a bit for some reasons, one of which was the fact that the foldover mechanism, while excellent at keeping stuff dry, also got a bit annoying when trying to stuff a pen or a something into the bag without opening it completely. So I saw the Lightbrite, with the red light stripe and logo with the black base and decided to give the fabric a go again! This one has been good: I went loads of places with it. I brought it to Iran in February 2012 and it was my load bag for school when I was lazy to empty out my Zeitgeist. Which does happen pretty often. It went along with me to Chapel Hill and I brought it with me for the trips to Dallas/Fort Worth and San Francisco. Most importantly, it was snugly on my back when I whizzed around the streets of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge despite the bone-chilling winds. I liked having the pocket feature where I could stuff my wallet or whatever in without opening the bag. Only complaint was that the waterproofing coating was a bit finicky and wore off after a year, and the fabric was too light to hold a shape (why I eventually sent it back for warranty issues), so the bag could look floppy if I didn’t fill it completely. I’ll miss this guy though.

Bag #7: Timbuk2 Yield Laptop Backpack, black/herringbone/black with red bindings (February 2013)

So errr, again, sale (I see a pattern here, guys :P). This worked out to about SGD$60 and I got it despite my misgivings about the herringbone tweed pattern (I thought it was a bit too hipster). It did grow on me eventually though, and I started using it in April 2013 for trips back home over the weekend. More importantly, this was my go-to bag for my 3 months in Chapel Hill. I carried it pretty much everywhere: classes, weekend trips to Boston, New York City, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth and to San Francisco. It had two pockets easily accessible (top loading for camera/passport/sunglasses; front panel for miscellany) and most importantly, EXTERNAL WATER BOTTLE SLOT. Drawstring toploading design meant I could stuff a lot of things inside, including clothes for my weekend trips and jackets when Chapel Hill was still chilly early summer. Only gripe was the laptop compartment was hard to reach and placing the internal pocket organiser on the part nearer the back meant the pockets kept catching on files when I stuffed files in at the back. Waterproofing gave issues though, so I got it returned for the warranty (I really like how Timbuk2 stands by their bags and is really willing to swop if issues arise).

Bag #8: Timbuk2 Showdown Backpack, green/yellow patterning (July 2013)

This screamed out for purchase. I was in Memphis, somewhere in transit on my flight back from Dallas/Fort Worth. I saw this on sale at USD$49. And the salesman told me that with any purchase (however small), he’d discount it to $25. I got myself new Comply foam tips for my Westone UM-1s and…a new bag. I’ve loving this one so far: the size is just right for class, the organisation great and it fills up nicely. Plus, laptop compartment is more like my Zeitgeist! Time will tell how this guy fares.

Bag #9: Timbuk2 Commute 2.0, black/black/black (July 2013)

This one was from the pilgrimage to Hayes. I had been planning this for a bit: I was about to start my teaching attachment in the schools, I needed a messenger that would hold my laptop (I dislike putting my laptop across my back, it’s too heavy) and yet work as a satchel-style bag. So an all black one was in line, and the annoying TSA experiences with laptops got me to choose the Commute 2.0. I’ll find out how this works in the next few weeks.

Bag #10: Timbuk2 Especial Cycling Messenger in Medium size, black/grey/black (July 2013)

After settling the warranty issues with my Yield and my Lightbrite, I had a LOT of store credit. And I had a 15% discount from the SF Bicycling Coalition tie-up with Timbuk2. I was getting the Commute 2.0 for sure, but I still had a lot of credit left. And so my eyes settled on their top of the line Especial Cycling Messenger that Shawn Quek had bought (he says he probably was the first to own it in Singapore and yes I believe him) a few months ago. Shawn and I are Timbuk2 fans, probably the only ones who are this crazy together. He’s had a few, and he was oozing all over his Especial when he first saw it online. I looked at the price and dismissed it (why the hell would I pay so much for something so high-end?!) But with a lot of credit, and a budget for a bag that wasn’t used, this caught my eye. Ah heck, just get it lah. There we went. I now have an Especial Cycling Messenger, which seems strangely appropriate to cap my crazy obsession with Timbuk2 bags. This, and the Commute 2.0 will follow me to Tokyo later this year and brave a year of travelling around Japan. Let’s see how it holds up (I’m excited already!)

So there you have it, 10 Timbuk2 bags in 4 years. What of the rest, you say?

I have two Rickshaw Bagworks bags and a Moleskine planner Folio:

Bag #1: Rickshaw Zero Messenger in Medium size, waterproof Black X-Pac fabric with red bindings and custom buckles (August 2011)

Again, Fiona was the one who brought this back for me after picking it up from the Rickshaw factory. They gave me a sweet discount, plus they threw in goodies like button badges and Smartphone Strapcase (they messed my order up the first time and were really awesome about it). Oh, and they also sent me a Simple Pocket, and a Deluxe Organiser pocket. If there’s any company that really topped my list for great customer service, it’s them. I got a very nicely tricked out bag for a very affordable price. It’s my go-to bag for walking around town when I don’t have that much to carry, only problem is well, it doesn’t fit all my school stuff AND my MacBook Pro that well. Still my favourite combination though, since I have a matching Folio with the same X-Pac fabric and red binding.

Bag #2: Rickshaw Zero Messenger in Large size, grey with custom Pivotal Labs embroidery (February 2013)

So my friend works at Pivotal Labs, who ordered these for their employees in 2012. I like the Pivotal Labs logo, and this was in grey, so when she asked me if I wanted it (she knew I liked Rickshaw Bagworks stuff, and it was too big for her), I jumped at it. I love the size (handles files and enough clothes for a weekend well) and it’s got so much canvas! Excellent for pinning all the buttons that I pick up from wherever I travel to.

Folio #1: Rickshaw Folio, black with red trimming (August 2013)

This is the constant that wraps my precious Moleskine Weekly Planner. It holds my planner, my Field Notes notebook where I scribble my thoughts, my pens, little knick knacks and my name cards. It has been EVERYWHERE with me: Canberra in Australia, Tehran in Iran, Tioman in Malaysia, Tokyo in Japan, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Chapel Hill and almost every place in the US (except when I really couldn’t squeeze it in). It’s braved a lot of stuff and still looks great. While yes, it did cost me USD$50, which was a bit on the high end. But this is one thing I never regretted buying.

So that’s my 4 year obsession there. Will there be bag #11 and #12? Maybe, maybe not. I will start getting them for friends soon, but hopefully the current compliment of the Showdown, the Commute 2.0, the Catapult and the Especial Messenger will be enough to deal with all my needs. Over and out, for now.

Why I Am Doing Biology, Linguistics, USP and International Liberal Studies

So I stumbled on an article in The New York Times dating back to November 17th, 2002 entitled “For Students Seeking Edge, One Major Just Isn’t Enough“.

And well, I thought to myself, perhaps I should pen down somewhere why I do what I am doing now, in my decision to pursue in effect, a triple major in biology, linguistics and international liberal studies. I’ve had scattered thoughts about it all around, but I’m at the stage now where I can decide to drop the idea and graduate immediately (one nice perk of overloading is that I’ve managed to meet university requirements to get a B.Sc in just two years). Or I can press on, spend the next three years in pursuit of what some might describe as paper-chasing and others as “wasting your time”.

So again, I would begin by considering what university means to me. To me, university isn’t so much about taking classes and enjoying yourself. Sure, that’s great to have, to explore the intellectual interests you want to, but I think there’s ultimately the recognition that university entails a preparation and a training. Not for the workforce, as others might argue, but to think as a person and to get ready to tackle the rest of the intellectual challenges that life might throw down your way. This then leads into my next bit: the point of majoring in something.

Lots of people have told me to just enjoy taking classes ad-hoc in whatever I’m interested in. It’s tempting, for sure. You don’t have to worry about meeting academic requirements, nor do you have to worry about weird professors that have decreed that as a biology student, this esoteric course in statistics is necessary (who needs statistics in biology anyway, eh?) But that’s not quite how I see it either. I can definitely pursue a far more exciting range of classes and interests if I just took what I wanted and cherry-picked my way around things. But the major is important to me, because it represents a course of study planned and designed by people who have far more experience in this field of study than me. I might not like all of it, but it is the best way of making sure that I get a broad view of the basics as much as I can (though admittedly, the second major in English Language at NUS is really so flexible I feel like it doesn’t matter anyway). It’s a way of studying that the university then decides: yep, I will stand by the integrity of this undergraduate’s education in this subject matter at my university.

It’s like how EL2201 (Structure of Sentences and Meanings) was a compulsory course when I was clearing my minor requirements prior to upgrading it to my second major. It’s not exactly the most “artsy” of courses, but it laid a lot of foundational work for syntax and grammar. I might have done less than I hoped for it (I did pretty well on the final, but that wasn’t enough to drag my lacklustre CA grades up enough to make an A), but I felt like it gave me a good taste of what the discipline entailed (and of course, other would-be EL majors ended up changing majors after it). So in that sense, a major represents a commitment towards a field of study: enough that it would lay the basics for future exploration in it, either formally as a graduate student, or perhaps to teach it to pre-university students. That’s why I chose biology as my first major and linguistics as my second major: I wanted to get the firm foundation in biology before heading out to teach it.

So, why international liberal studies? What’s the whole jimgang thing about Waseda about? Simply put: exposure. I wanted a double degree programme to give me more depth. So Waseda made the shortlist simply because it counted as a DDP. But as time went by, I realised it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind intellectually: it was more diffuse than I expected a second degree to be. And my understanding of liberal arts also changed: it wasn’t a field of study per se, but a style of education which mattered. But along with this, I realised that Waseda could make up for it in other ways. A chance to do things outside of my majors, for instance (with all my Year 3 modules in Waseda mapped to something that counts to my requirements in Singapore, only Year 5 really counts). I have no Unrestricted Electives in NUS, USP and then the linguistics major eating them up (or as I say sometimes, I have -15 UEs because I’m going way beyond my 200 MC requirement). But hey, Year 5 doesn’t count, by order from the Registrar’s Office. So Year 5 is when I get to explore other things: business classes, international relations, perhaps?

And there’s the last bit of why Waseda: because it’s 2 full years overseas. I’ve always been chicken about this studying abroad thing. I knew I couldn’t bear to leave Singapore for all that long as an undergraduate (3-4 years abroad felt like forever) and so I only applied to the two Singaporean schools I wanted (guess the one I didn’t want, har har). Being here in UNC Chapel Hill has confirmed that for me: 3 months and I’m missing home so much that small reminders of Singapore stab me right in the heart. But a year in Japan (hopefully) isn’t that bad. Timezone’s closer, culturally I get food I connect more with, and the idea that I’m just an 8 hour flight away that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg comforts me. I will have to spend longer than that abroad if I want to get my Masters and my PhD (if I ever stump up the courage to study even more than now), but this is probably as good a compromise as it gets.

So yes, the plan is more or less set already: National University of Singapore, University Scholars Programme Class of 2017, B.Sc (Hons) in Life Sciences (with a Specialisation in Biomedical Sciences) and a Second Major in English Language, B.A. (Waseda University, Japan).

3 more years of study, 3 more years of slogging. I hope this works out. And I hope it prepares me for to be a better teacher in the future. See you at Commencement 2017, if I make it there.

The two week countdown: preparing to leave.

Three months is a strange time. It’s not long enough to completely root yourself anywhere, yet it’s not short enough to transiently go without feeling a thing. 10 weekends in Chapel Hill (I arrived on a Sunday and leave on a Saturday), take away those that I was out travelling (Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth) and that’s really not a lot. I cancelled my plans to go to D.C. this coming weekend because I realised it was my last weekend in Chapel Hill. D.C. can wait, being able to just enjoy the thought of strolling down Franklin Street, walking to Carrboro (can you believe I’ve only been there once so far?!) and hanging out with the people I’ve gotten to know the past three months is probably something that will be really hard to do after this.

KJ (the guy who lives opposite the hallway) moved to Ram Village for his Fall semester rooming yesterday. I will miss dropping in on his room to talk tech stuff and just hang out, as well as Edgardo who’s there sometimes. I’ve grown used to walking by the lounge on my way to my room to see Gayatri studying there with her anatomy or organic chemistry textbooks and Zach just chilling with his humongous headphones. Sure, I’m meeting KJ in San Francisco, we’re even going to the airport together on the 27th (even though we have differing flights but to the same place). But it’s not the same, knowing that once you leave you’ll never return.

So I’m planning, of course, to come back. To be here in Spring 2014 during my two month break from Waseda University and hopefully with a slot to attend Tufts’ EPIIC 2014 (they have educational innovation as a theme this coming year zomg!) But again, with these long range plans, it’s always hard to be sure. Will I have enough money to do it? Will the stars align and schedules fit? Will it even be the same if I’m back here just for a few days? Will I do my Masters here? I fully understand now why Benjamin might want to stay on at Carnegie Mellon for his Masters instead of running off to say, Stanford. Sure, it’s nice to have a change of scenery. But your chance to interact with a specific group of people in this context only really comes once. It might be easy to decide before meeting them: “hey, I’ll go to universities around the world and broaden my experiences and network”. But then you get there and decide: “maybe leaving is really damn hard”.

I’ve been preparing for Waseda in the past few weeks: sorting out housing arrangements, flight plans, talking about visas and researching life in Tokyo. It’s almost time, and it’s strange to be almost there after, what, one and a half years of being on the double degree programme waiting for it and maybe even four years since I first heard about the programme browsing the USP website post-A-level results and saying, YES, YES, YES (what the hell was liberal arts though, I only knew then it was a nice cool term bandied around by the admissions counselors that sounded hipz). So yeah, getting there will be the end of a certain sense of anticipation. But it’ll also be the start of something new that the control freak in me worries about: will I be as comfortable as I am in USP or in UNC, what if I hate my roommate, what if I get all homesick (very real possibility, seeing how I’ve been the past three months) and what if I get so sick of studying (I’ve had two full years of overloading and summer sessions and special terms and I really want my break from all the worrying and exams and all).

The clock’s ticking. I have to start wrapping my life up here: packing my bags and figuring out how to bring back the purchases (not all are mine, I’m a Amazon mule for folks), writing my goodbye notes and making sure my last delivery purchases arrive. And then Room 117, which has “Yingjie Lan” on the door will have that piece of paper removed and a new one tacked on for the two people who will live here in Fall.

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to study here at Chapel Hill: it’s on the radar somewhere and I think it’ll be nice to be a bona fide Tar Heel, even if I’m just a Masters student. But for now, to make the most of the last two weeks and then go back to my sunny, sweaty tropical island home.

At least, if I’m sad there, I can stuff my face with the food that has always made me happy. Biscuits and gravy, Southern fried chicken and sweet tea can be dealt with another time.

The Experience of Home

So those of you who know me well would know that as of now, I’m somewhere in North Carolina, USA. To be a little more precise, I’m in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’ve been here since the 12th of May 2013, and I’m here for another two weeks or so until the 27th of July, when I fly off to San Francisco for a week’s break after my exams.

So what am I here for? I’m here for a summer lab exchange programme between NUS and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), where I spend 12 weeks in a lab of my choosing here, and take a class each in their Summer Sessions I & II. Well, I ended up taking 2 classes on top of my research in Summer II, but that’s another story that involves paperwork, bureaucracy and a lot of running around. And an awesome professor who agreed to take me individually for a independent reading class, but that’s not for today.

Instead, I sit here in Caribou Coffee off Franklin Street writing when I should really be studying for my BIOL 450 test on anatomical neurobiology, which is Monday and I’m horribly doomed for it. There’s something more important I want to pen down first though, and that’s about my conception and feelings about Home.

The past two months in Chapel Hill have been great. I’ve had an awesome reception by the Study Abroad Office at UNC, stumbled into good Christian fellowship with the Every Nation folks, live in a dorm (Lewis) with friendly people I can click with on my floor, joined the UNC fencing club where I’ve had great coaching and substantial improvement in my game. My lab experience has been interesting, I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve had excellent professors and TAs in my classes (BIOL 201, BIOL 450 and LING 296). Nothing to complain about, certainly.

And yeah, I’ve done what the usual exchange student does: buy host university merchandise, which at UNC is quite a challenge to find something you don’t like (the Daniels Student Stores has UNC logos on everything you need from birth to death, quite possibly including Tar Heel coffins). I have a UNC pin on my cap and my nice Columbia allweather jacket that I’ll be wearing for the next few years at least when I walk around in bad weather or good weather will have Carolina Blue stitching and UNC logos. Sounds good, you say.

Yet today, I remembered what Home was to me, and meant to me. I’ve been missing Singapore like crazy, much as I love the place here. Even as I await our 48th year of independence on the 9th of August and look forward to National Day back home, I know it will be hard to leave when my last two weeks are up. (I stopped writing at this point because the Every Nation folks I had been waiting for arrived and we went off to get Yopo, but coming back to it, yes, it’s going to be hard to leave without planning to come back.)

Today I stood at the Daniels Student Stores and saw a shirt that was nice. It had a picture of the North Carolina state map on it and it was in my favourite blend of American Apparel material. But well, it had the words “HOME” on it, and as I stood there contemplating buying it, it struck me that I only have two homes where that might be appropriate. As much as Chapel Hill will hold a beloved place in my heart, the physical place I call home will still be a small, sweaty tropical island in South-East Asia, and the eternal home I yearn for not defined by a physical location, but the sweet presence of my heavenly Father.

A special place in my heart, but not my home.
Chapel Hill, NC: A special place in my heart, but not home.

I may have walked out of the Student Stores emptyhanded, but I was reminded again of what Home was to me, and I am glad for that.

Writing the write things.

So I used to write at LiveJournal. But along the way, I stopped (somewhere after National Service ended) and life got horribly busy. But it’s not possible to stop dumping my brain out somewhere anyway, writing has a certain catharsis to it. So I decided it was time to do it on my own, on my own dusty domain that hasn’t been done.

And you’re here at Write Things (http://writethings.uncubed.org/). Hello you.

So be warned, this is a random (and I hope, eclectic) collection of my thoughts. It’s not written for an audience in particular, except maybe an octogenarian version of myself. But if you’d like to, you’re welcome to read it. If you have thoughts, leave a comment, or pop me an email. I promise to try to reply, but what can one really really promise in life anyway?