Friday, July 29, 2005
life as a political being:
Second year is perhaps the most crucial year in my stay in AA. It is really the time when I realize my existence, responsibility and functions as a political being. Of course that fantastic political science class about contemporary american policies and the fact that i’m studying in possibly the most liberal campus in america wih daily debates from affirmative action to LGBT rights helped propel my interest in this direction, but my involvement in starting a new student organization named "World Service Team" also reinforces and make me think hard about my role in the society.
World Service Team (WST):
Initially, I was looking around for an organization that caters to comm service in developing countries on campus. And when i couldn't find one, i decided to start one. Of course things seem really bleak at the beginning. I was just a sophomore and i don't have any faculty backing. But what I lack in credibility and capacity i made up with 3 of the most capable and intelligent individuals I've come across in my freshmen year, Luke, Lauren & kim. i've already mentioned about luke and lauren earlier. kim is an international student from thailand who's possibly the most meticulous and organized person i've worked with & she's perhaps also the most patient and motherly person i'd work with in a long time. If there's one reason why we manage to set up this new organization and the expedition to Cambodia successfully, that'd be cos of these 3 outstanding ppl i've mangaed to convince to join me.
To digress abit, I took part in a volunteer service trip to Cambodia in 2002 prior to coming to michigan. That experience has a profound impact on the way i see the world and my obligation as someone living on the more fortunate side of the world. I know from the trip that seeing and reading about poverty that happens on the other side of the globe is 2 completely different matters & so i wanna fill in this need/ demand on campus by starting a student organization that will organizes a 1-month expedition to a developing country every yr. I want it to be entirely run by students and i want it to be a life-changing experience for every participant, so we will all come back and act as agents of social change. One of the first struggle i face is actually an internal psychological conflict that i know will surely arise for everyone involved in this sort of trip. "Why don't we just pour in the money we raised instead of spending on our travels there? Afterall, there's alot of help needed locally, we don't have to look that far to render our service." I struggled with this for a long time and I know I have to arrive at a clear and convincing answer before I can embark on this. After almost a year of pondering during my freshman year, i've come to the conclusion that comm service is not only about service, in fact it cannot only be based on the help the volunteers render. It's gotta be based on some kind of fulfilling LEARNING experience in order for it to be effective. Indeed, we probably inconvenience the locals alot by visiting and the help we render really doesn't amount to anything siginificant; but the cultural exchange and 1-st hand experience with the "other parts" of the world should and must agitate the participants to do more upon their return. In fact, i think that's the criteria of success for any community service. The success shouldn't be measured by what happens during the duration of the service, but what it does to all parties involved, which include even the locals; that it challenges our world-view and instills in us an urgency to do something, which is how i felt after my first time in cambodia. And i think that being placed in a completely foreign environment will serve as a strong catalyst to create this sort of commitment and urgency in the participants.
Disappointment and triumph:
So, after coming to terms with the rationale of starting this new organization, we began to get down to work. We wanna make sure that our first year will be a success, so we chose cambodia, the place where i've done my first overseas comm sevice. We started recruiting members, fund-raising, planning and liasing with the local contractors to build a school for the neighbourhood. It was alot of work which required alot of commitment. Clearly, the initial optimistic response from the many applicants are misguided as many began to quit half-way as it required too much time and effort and money on their parts. I was really dejected at one point and thought of giving up when we had only 9 ppl left in the team. With the sum of money we'd need to finance the construction of the sch, I wasn't confident of raising that sum. And it was really straining to be the one who's always motivating the rest. I know none will have the kind of passion i had, even among luke, kim & lauren, as i'm the only one who've done this sort of trip before and know the rewards it brings. Yet it was pretty exhaustive to remain passionate and sometime i thought i was preaching too much. At one point i was ready to give up. Fortunately, the other 3 somehow hang in there and miraculously, we had new members joining in and we ended up with 17 ppl going on the trip. And what a success this trip had been! Logistically, it was almost flawless with all the connections Kim had in the region. nobody had any major accidents except me, who almost lost my right index finger when i made a really deep cut while trying to open a paint ucket with my swiss knife. And most of all, we had a great bunch of ppl coming on the trip, who were willing to learn and fared realli well despite being completely placed out of their comfort zone. And once again the locals were fantastic host. They gave us their best treatment despite their apparent lack of materialistic wealth. I was also really glad to be back to the same orphanage where i met many of the kids, including Seyha, this kid that me and Tammy has been sponsoring for the past 3 yrs now. In all, I was beaming with satisfaction afer the trip. I'm really grateful that we held on to the end and that now with the first success of World Service Team, many more Michigan students will get the chance to experience life outside our comfort zone and hopefully change things for the better.
The ultimate change agent - politician:
One new revelation after my second time in Cambodia is also linked to politics or more accurately, policies. I realized that things didn't change for the better or worse after my first trip to the orphanage. Life goes on the way it was in the village. Of course, we realized the limitation of our works, and I reckon that this sort of 1st-hand experience will provide a constant reminder of the many things that have yet to be done. But to really create change that has a significant impact, one has to move into a position with enough power to implement such changes. In other words, one needs to become a policy-maker, or to some, the equivalent of becoming a politician. It's indeed a chilling thought to me. There's alot of things I know I can help, and when I realize that to be most effective i need to be involved with policy-making, i was taken aback. I think that to be a politician or policy-maker require the highest moral standards and intellectual capacity and most of all, a great deal of personal sacrifice. Lacking any of these would mean that the policy-maker will much more harm than good. The motives might be noble, but the results could be disastrous.
Besides my work with World Service Team, I have also grown in 2 of my passions, movies and music. Joy Kuang, this bubbly HK girl became my movie khaki and we went to dig up alot of old classics and documentaries to watch from the library. The fact that I took only arts classes in my second term also means that i have much more time to spare. So I ended up going down the list of top movies listed on www.imdb.com and watching on average 3 movies a week. It helps that my school library has a kick-ass video collection and I can borrow up to 3 DVD at one go for free with my student ID.
Lets rock & roll!:
As for music, coming to America has revived my song-writing flair and exposed me to many great artists. I soon found myself frequenting open mics on campus and doing random shows for school events. My greatest musical high was during the concert that we organized as a fund-raiser for our Cambodia trip. I was playing a 3-way set with Luke Gyure, possibly the most talented song-writer i know personally and Texas Tea, this edgy funk-rock band with an amazing repertoire of originals. There were some 200 ppl watching the show and I was on fire. It’s the first time that I played a full set of my own songs and I was really glad that ppl seem to dig my songs.
The Bob-Marley lookalike professor:
I’ve also met a bunch of new friends in my second year, though none of them stands out as much as Prof Herbert Winful, the professor teaching my electro-magnetism class. First of all this dude doesn’t look at all like a typical professor, with his dreadlocks and funky dress sense he could easily pass off as a jamaican reggae star. And he was possibly the most “caring” teacher i’ve had in Michigan, in that he’s not like some other professors who’s here because of their research, he was here because he’s here to teach and he went thro great lengths to make sure we learn well. He’s the only professor whose office-hours were always overfilled with students. And mind you most of us actually don’t really have much to ask and were there just to have a chat with this great guy. Our relationship got to a great start from the first time i went to his office hour. I was carrying my guitar with me since I was gonna perform in some gig that evening. He was more interested in what i’ve got with my music than what I wanna ask about the homework. So a normal office-hour turned into a 30 min jamming session with him treating me to lunch and us talking everything on music. He was indeed a great friend and a great mentor and he had been the one who wrote some 4-5 recommendation letters for my various awards (one of them gave me a handsome US$5000!) and my graduate school application. We attended gigs together and he even organized a concert for students of our electro-magnetism class as he found out there’re many musicians in our midst. I mean, which professor will go through the length to do all that? At mid-50 he has retained his childlike curiosity/open-mindedness and humble demeanor; I think I’d model myself against him as I grow older. He’s definitely one guy i’d wanna keep in contact long after I’ve left ann arbor.
On the 1st day of arrival in my dorm room, i wrote on a piece of paper these following words;
"1. Learn about the american culture
2. Learn to be independent
3. Learn to be disciplined
4. Learn to be open-minded
5. Live life to the max"
this piece of paper has been in front of my desk for all 3 yrs in michigan. thou i hardly really notice it, i'm always recharged when i happen to glance thro it as it reminded me why i'm here.
Roommate from Kansas:
The most impt thing that i'd say i've gained in my first year is possibly my roommate, Luke Meinzen, this tall, opinionated yet extremely smart dude i lived with in a refugee-like room with a 3rd roommate who was, well, still exploring his sexual inclination. Anyway, i've learnt a ton of things from luke, like basic rules of Football, downing beer in 2 seconds and all the basic activities (go figure~) associated with a freshman year. I even stayed with his folks over christmas thou i was utterly disappointed with the fact that it doesn't snow in Kansas in December. But besides all the weekend partying and late-night farting, we've had some insightful exchange of ideas abt things east and west. And i'm glad both of us were open-minded enough to hear each other out. That laid a good basis for our work together when we both started the new student organization next yr.
the 3 musketeers:
there're 2 other dudes living on the same floor that i've kept in close contact after freshman yr. Henry and Ryan...we shared the same immense passion of music and movies...we've attended a few shows together (including watching White Stripes at Detroit's Masonic Temple) and crashed a few parties...between beers and late-night movies, i've come to know them well and they provide me with another window into what it is to be an american...and to be frank, there're so many different kinds of americans. I'm always lost for words when ppl back home ask me what americans are really like. Fact is there's such a wide spectrum of them who even varies in some very fundamental ideologies that it's unfair to talk of them as a whole. Personally, i was shocked to find so many non-whites when i arrive in ann arbor...i was definitely ignorant but i wonder how many who like me conjure up an image of america based on hollywood movies and sitcoms, which are of course dominated by the fairer skins...
Another interesting character i met durin my first y is Lauren Nielsen. She's a nursing student whom i was working with as the co-site leader on a 10 days community service to McAllen, Texas. The trip itself wasn't all that fulfilling but i was glad to know Lauren, for she'd turn out to be my 2nd camaraderie when we started the new student organization next yr
qualitative & quantitative thinking:
Besides meeting new friends, i was thriving in the american education system. Its flexibility and breadth had given me the opportunity to dwelve into matters that does not evolve around numbers. I was developing a strong interest in psychology, economics and political science and thro these arts classes, i was finally able to improve my qualitative skills, which frankly speaking is really lacking after being ignored for my first 21 years. And soon I decided that i wanna do a double degree in electrical engineering and organizational studies (basically a collection of social sciences with an organizational focus). I thought this'd equip me with the qualitative and quantitative skills i'd need in my future. Althou i didn't hold out to this plan eventually, my fling with the double degree program means that i ended up graduating with many additional credits in the arts. Thou they don't contribute to my eventual degree in EE, they've laid a solid foundation in arousing my interest in the social sciences...
the 1st 8 months flew past and i decided to spend another 2 months in ann arbor to do spring classes. Tammy joined me during these 2 months and we had the most amazing time living together in a perfect estate named "Willowtree". It was really like honeymoon since i really have no other commitment besides sch work, and she has none besides cooking and watching sitcoms. It was really a great relaxing and romantic 2 months and we both treasured it alot since this sort of days with no worries are a luxury in this fast-paced modern world. During this time, i also really gotta know beng hoe and william very well, who prove to be my weekend PS2 khakis and occasional personal driver (i call them the Lexus Brothers since both of them drive Lexus). They're 2 really impressive minds with loads of ambition to match, i think they'd go far in life.
Prior to Michigan:
i was filled with apprehension and excitement much like most of us who's never gone overseas to study. Well, strictly speaking, this is the second time i have to do this sort of overseas education since I've already gone through a rather tough time adjusting to life when my family migrated to singapore from HK. That was tough because i don't speak mandarin nor english...but a least culturally speaking, Singapore is as close as it gets in terms of lifestyle to the one i used to live growing up in HK. US is a different story. To be frank, even though i never say it loud, i think i used to suffer a sense of ethnic inferiority (is that how u spell it?) before i flew off to michigan. I mean, from the ads and movies, everything beautiful and powerful seem to have donned a caucasian skin. And I was wondering how can i fit in, and eventually excel in this new environment.
Music vs overseas education:
Besides this internal glamorization of anything western, i was at the crossroads of deciding what i really wanna do with my career. Usually this decision is only forced upon fresh graduates, not incoming freshman. But i'm glad that i was compelled to think deeply about it when i was offered a contract by BMG Asia. The contract itself isn't all that great, but its potential to lead me on a completely different route (pursuing music) has driven me to think hard about what i want to do with my life. I know i'm fortunate enough to be in this position of dilemma, choosing between becoming a rock star (of course it's more of an illusion but hey, bob dylan aint all that pretty) and a scholarship to study overseas. At one point I was ready to give up the scholarship and try out music. But given the vehement reaction from my folks (they wanna disown me if i do that), i turn the other way. So i chose a path that's much less romantic than what my usual i'd-live-my-own-life self would prefer. But the decision has a huge impact on my following 3 years in Michigan. It really gives me alot of motivation to excel in Michigan. I wanna do great things in Michigan, in return of the passion i have to give up (of course i still play in gigs and stuff in Ann Arbor..but that's still not a rock star haha).
Away from home:
Another thing was of course being away from my family. That's made easier for me since i've practically lived away from home after serving in the military for the past 2.5 years. The most agnozing thing thou was that i'd have to face a long distance relationship with my best friend-turned-gf now that i'm going overseas. Both of us had our doubts and i'm so glad that eventually we held out those 3 yrs (much to her credits actually) and now we're officially engaged. i think i'm the luckiest man on earth. anyway, things doesn't look all that gloosy back then and i was definitely thinkin alot of how we're gonna last thro my overseas days.
No more aerospace:
Another impt decision i made prior to coming to michigan is that i've changed my mind about my major. i know i'm still gonna work in engineerin field but i know aerospace is not for me. i found out from my 1 month attachment to ST Aero that i wont need a aerospace degree to do aicraft maintenance and that it's really a pretty narrow field. I think what I really want is to learn to fly a plane, not how to fix or even design one.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
Thank you 田龙, I really appreciate it.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
despite broken arms and buttocks, these solder sculptures still stand strong..
a Qin solder in a standard kung fu pose...
Friday, July 15, 2005
We attended a great talk by this world-renowned archeologist, Hen Wei, who gave us a passionate recount of his 40 years venture in making impt discoveries near Xi An...it seems that his specialty is in ancient emperor's tomb and his detailed description about the symbolic importance of the tomb's shape, the stories behind all the amazing discoveries & the frequent blunders he encountered in his quest make his speech a really inspiring one...while it wasn't exactly a 'lecture on chinese history" as the slogan proclaims, the session is definitely an eye opener for most of us...
after the talk, it was free time for the rest of the day in Xi An...our group made our way to the central area of Xi An (bounded by the ancient walls)...this is one of the many street-side hawker that we passed by...
cant resist not putting this pic taken by JA...hee..
we made our way to the 'bell tower' in the evening...it's a bit like the triump de arc of paris where traffic go around the stucture in the middle...u can get a pretty good view of the nearby triving night life from the top of the tower..
wat's a bell tower without its bell...legend has it that if you were to hit/knock the bell 10 times, it'd bring you 10 differnt luck...of course luck comes with a price tag..$10 RMB for 3 knocks & $30 RMB for all 10 knocks...
and finally a group pic in front of the bell tower...from left to right..JC, Gladys, Tallon, Me, Ah Shun, Lan Zao, Sophia, Pearly, Ah Hua, Jimmy...
entrance to the cave dwellings that the locals live....while it's burning outside in the open, it was really cooling inside the cave...
the interior of the "cave dwelling" makes for a cosy home for the old couple living here..
i bought a total of 4 kg of peach from this man for a total of 2 renminbi (US$0.25!)...
We made a visit to a rural primary school near Xi An in the morning...it reminded me a bit of cambodia althou i'd say the facility here is still slightly better and there are definitely more teachers and better reading materials...i soon found out that this school has been one of the 'improvement projects' undertaken by some HK volunteers...once again this reinforces my conclusion that volunteer work is needed to keep oneself agitated abt issues...the most influential way for someone to bring abt substantial change is by becomin a policy-maker..
the main square of the school with the national flag
me and my buddy Tallon posing behind the school's table tennis table...behind us is the slogan "safe journey to school"
a regular class in session during our visit...the slogan above the black board reads "study hard, pursue excellence"....i found out later that these kids were having their annual exam the day we arrived...i hope that we didn't cause too much disturbance...anyway, they're taking their exams 1 month after the national norm as the children had a 1 month break a while ago so that they can stay home to help out with the harvest season in the fields...
me with 2 of the boys in the class...all of them are required to wear this red cloth tied around their neck in school...i think it's supposed to serve as a reminder of the efforts of the revolution in the early years of PRC...
one of the school teacher grabbed me and Tallon and presented his caligraphy to us...iw as pleasantly surprised...it's a simple chinese poem welcoming us to his school...after some talk i found out that this dude's been teachin math for 40 years! and yes he's smoking while he took the pic with us...
Thursday, July 14, 2005
after we checked into our hotel...this mainland delegate with the nickname "shu tiao" or lierally french fries cos his chinese name sounds like tat, brought us to one of the main eatery street in central xi an for some supper...the place was supposed to be the muslim quater and sure enough there were many shops selling mutton...i ended up having a bottle of bear and we finally made our way back to the hotel at 2+am....it's been a long day..
arrival at the xi an airport...there are 2 things i felt immediately once i'm off the plane..hot and humid!
once we set off from the airport, we were driven to one of the main gate of the castle wall that used to protect this ancient capital of china...this wall is definitely more grand than any of the castle wall i've seen in europe, and it's not even the great wall!
another view of the castle wall..great pic by JA again...
after our visit to the 'chen's house'...we went to some art museum where we attended a talk about the development of the 'zhu triangle' special business admin district...the woman giving the talk spoke in english...while i admire her courage in speakin in a foreign language in front of a bunch of native-speakers...i regret that her limitation with the langauge really restricted her delivery...so i was kind of disappointed with the talk...not exactly that inspiring or informative...but at least now i know there are a few special business admin districts in china, which were handpicked by teng xiao ping (if i'm not wrong) during the thrust to adopt an open policy 2 decades ago..
another buffet style lunch..
at the guongzhou airport, where we board a plane to Xi An...first impression of a china airline...pretty good except that it has a long way to go in terms of food or on-flight entertainment if it were to catch up to top airlines such as SIA...
on the fifth day, we first paid a visit to this house/pension built by a collection of really rich folks whose sue names are all 'chen'...granted it's relatively new (constructed late into the qin dynasty), but eh architecture details are still pretty amazing....check out the pics...
this long corridor connects the 3 main open areas in the 'chen's house'...
Wednesday, July 13, 2005
The evening proceeded on with several performances by the delegates (which definitely show signs that they were put up hastily) and some relatively much more professional show hired by the local officials...there was this guy who perform with various kinds of traditional chinese instrument, including a leaf! then there was this super enthusiastic guy with the sax and shakin his bong bong and got the crowd going even though i personally think his music suck...but the most amazing performance will have to be the traditional mask-changing magician (in the pic above)...basically she can change her mask in 1/100 of a second and i'm really not kidding...there was this time she changed her 'face' from a brown mask to a totally black one right in front of me (probably just a feet away) without covering up her face for even one bit...you've gotta see it to believe it!
And finally, the night ended with this...a whole delegation singing the CSP song on the stage...frankly speaking, it wasn't as united as it seemed in this pic...many of us still feel kind of awkward for the zealous enthusiasm and an almost forced-upon obligation (guess they call it "group think" in psychology) to follow wat everyone's doing...i mean...we only know each other for 4 days...and now we are singing songs abt csp and china...i don't mean to be disrespectful of anything that's gone thro thus far...in fact i'm really impressed with the organization of the whole trip, considering the size of our delegation...but this sort of reminds of the 'conformation manaufacturing' that i read about in some books...for a moment i thought we were doing it (all the singing and cheering and shouting that we're zhong guo ren) are all abit of a show for the officials...or for the video camera man...the thought that i actually got used to this sort of zealous-singing or 'show of unity' over the rest of the trip frightens me now as it just shows how easy one can fall back to the comfortable zone of conformation...for sure, i do feel a sense of unity with my teammates towards the end of the trip...but the almost-daily onslaught of such supposedly emotion-arousing acts still put me into a rather uneasy position...perhaps i'm just not good with showing too much emotion for occasionally i do see some sincere expressions or even tears when we started singing those patriotic songs...
So we finally set off for mainland china on the 4th day... we took a ferry to Pangyu, Guangzhou where i saw this machine that's probably used for security purpose at the custom...not exactly that high tech but i was really intrigued by the english instruction...i guess this is how english would be written the chinese way...
Me and Sophia looks on when the waitress put down our first plate...it was the first official meal in a restaurant that we've had on the trip (all the previous meals are either free-time meals or university food) so i dunno wat to expect...i can tell u it wasn't classic..but it's definitely decent... We then visited this HUGE university town/city...this place is absoltely enormous...i'd say it's probably bigger than the whole town of tampines and consists of 10 different universities' campus...we attended this talk about the planning and construction of this "education hub" and it's really impressive how much thought and resources the govt has put into this plan...i just hope that they'd continue to give strong financial support to these univerisiies after the project's completion...alot more is needed if this education hub were to fulfill its potential as a place of education excellence.. A map of the whole unviversity town...there are no physical barriers between the different campus so as to facilitate communication among the students of the diff universities...there are also so large scale facility such as a big stadium that the universities would have to share and as such ensure maximum utilization of these big scale facilities...
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
In the afternoon, we were received by the commissioner of foreign affairs of the PRC in HK SAR...here he's giving a speech, in English! I guess i shouldn't be that surprised by his command of english since he's probably one of the top chinese diplomat to hold this post..
from left to right, me, hua zai (this dude from mainland who has an uncanny resemblance to jay zhou...expert with the drums and smooth with ladies..haha), jimmy (damn funny dude from Manchester & US & HK...his guy's been all over...we had some great chats on our different business ideas...THE character in our group) & JA (malaysian who's reading his phd in my field at Tokyo Institute of tech...only guy older than me in the group but has the curious heart and an open mind that matches any of the other 'youths' in the group)
Arrival of HK SAR Chief Executive, Donald Zheng
And our group picture with Donald Zheng made it into one of the HK newspaper the next day! (i'm the guy squating down in the front..extreme right)
Monday, July 11, 2005
My group mates on the other side of the suspect idenification room with one-side see-thro window panel...
A barber shop...the tube thingy (which will rotate when switched on) on the right is a common signature of a barber shop...i think it's also common with the barber shops here in singapore..