Friday, July 29, 2005

Reflection on Michigan Days (Continued)...

2nd yr:

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.

Why WST?
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 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.


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