Go with a smile!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Assimilation of the foreigner part 1

Multiculturalism / assimilation.
There have been debates about having a lot of foreigners in our midst. I’ve always thought that

Now, it is not easy to get along with mainlanders. There are several reasons for that that I will go into, and many of these reasons are hardly their fault. But they’re a problem.

Somebody said that he was ashamed of the fact that Singaporeans had such anti-PRC sentiments. But then, when I thought about it, are there any havens out there where the overseas Chinese welcome the mainlanders with open arms? Does it happen in Hong Kong? Does it happen in Taiwan? Don’t kid yourself.

There are a lot of things to admire about many of them. I’ve met many mainlanders who are polite, driven, considerate and smart. And I suppose many of them are from backwards places, they’ve got an incredible lack of self-awareness. That wouldn’t be their fault and we probably shouldn’t harp on that. But here are the rest of the issues:

1. Natural selection
China is a tough place. Has probably been that way for the last 200 years. Even when you’re not having Great Leap Forward induced famines, Cultural Revolutions or WWII, it’s also pretty tough. You’ve had to muscle your way around, be a little more street smart, and do a lot of things to get around that the average mollycoddled Singaporean would find fairly discomforting. And when you add to that fact that those who eventually made it to Singapore have had to elbow their way to the top of the heap… There are many ways of making it to the top. But unfortunately, being conniving and using dubious methods are among these many ways.

2. Cultural attitudes
It’s part of Chinese culture, and you know that I’m not uncritical of Chineseness. If you want a thorough critique of what it means to be Chinese, you can go no further than the “True Story of Ah Q”.

It’s the psychology of being the middle child, or the second best. The burden of a glorious past. There was a period of time when China had a more advanced civilisation than the Westerners. But China blew it big time and allowed the Westerners to catch up. Now we know that we have one of the greatest civilisations in the world, but, as of now, not the greatest. Maybe that will change, maybe not. So the Chinese temperament with regards to the rest of the world, simplistically speaking, is fairly mercurial. You have this sneaky feeling that you’re supposed to be one of the best, but still you aren’t.

Chinese culture is fairly conformist and stifling. We all know that. They’re pretty stubborn about holding on to certain mindsets, and when those mindsets clash with yours – well you can see all the sparks flying everywhere. At the same time, there is this insularity and cultural superiority. Many people have commented elsewhere that the Chinese actually have a lot in common with the Americans.

There are exceptions, of course, but by and large, the Chinese idea of excellence is that you do one or two good things, and you do them really well. So you have Chinese excelling in Olympic sports, classical music, calligraphy. Manufacturing and transport infrastructure. Eerily, the same things that the Japanese excel in. Stuff that you can excel through plenty and plenty of practice and grinding it out. If you can shoehorn the mind into a perfectible excellence in a very specific task, Chinese people will excel at it.

Creatively, not so good, even though you know you just don’t want to bet against Chinese ppl succeeding in any given thing. Stuff that requires ingenuity and lateral thinking, we might have a problem with it. But we can overcome those problems. Thus: research and development, IT, good but not so good. Stuff that has to do with spontaneity and improvisation: jazz or soccer? That’s the Chinese Achilles’ heel.

3. Chinese clans / expectations
And this conformity comes with another side effect: people from a certain area have an expectation of what being Chinese means. But it really means you know what Chinese in your hometown are like. There is this great diversity in China that people are not fully aware of, even amongst Chinese. Collectively they’re living this fantasy that China is this great homogeneous nation, and all Chinese people are alike. Which is why, when they come into contact with a different group of Chinese, a lot of expectations are dashed.

So you have that fatal combination where people are conformist enough to not really learn how to deal with diversity, and a cultural shock from people whom you originally expected to get along with, betraying your long cherished notions of what it really means to be Chinese. It’s like having distant relatives that turn out, to your eternal shame, to be clowns. It’s a situation that can very easily degenerate into mutual contempt.

I’ve had one mainlander who’s lived here for more than 10 years, whom I get along quite well with, nevertheless telling me that Singapore Chinese food is “not authentic”. Well Singaporean Chinese, until this new wave of immigrants came along, are largely from a relatively small part of China. Mainly the southern provinces. So Northern Chinese cuisine is relatively rare in Singapore.

We’ve had a great foretaste of this. There were a lot of rivalries between different dialect groups in Singapore, so much that we had to have a Speak Mandarin campaign in order to take away the flashpoints between the dialect groups. Because they can really get annoyed with each other to a greater extent than between Chinese and Malay.

4. Little Emperors

China's one child policy purportedly has created a whole generation of people who are the only children of a family. Put aside the usual cliches that they are spoilt and pampered, I have heard that being the only child is like being a more extreme version of the eldest sibling. So they can also be headstrong and very rugged as well.

5. Breaking the rules

A lot of unwritten rules are broken. It is always an uncomfortble situation when somebody from a larger country is a guest in a smaller country. Would we expect the guest to know his place, when at the back of his mind, he's from a much bigger and mightier country than you?

We were brought up believing that the system would provide for us, that we could count on the system. They were brought up thinking that the way to get ahead is to game the system. Is it any wonder that our values are conflicting? We were brought up to treat Indians and Malays as, if not equals, then at least neighbours. Many ppl from China, when they come here - well you know what their attitudes towares non-Han minorities are like. You don't expect them to reverse that at a drop of the hat.

6. Benefits

Now I'm the beneficiary of a scholarship or a bursary. So it's not good form to begrudge others who are the same. But others won't think that way. And they could get really mad if it turned out that it isn't so much that many people from the mainland wanted to come to Singapore, but rather it was Singapore government officials going to China and visiting schools, and asking all their top students to come to Singapore and make life hell for our children.

I suppose the relationships that we have with all the other ethnic groups among the new arrivals are all different. But somehow mainlanders are the ones who get peoples' goats. There are many things that you would say about them that you wouldn't say about Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese. I suppose one factor is the assimilation problems.

Well the curry incident seems to bring into stark relief that one form of assimilation - the old style assimilation where you brought people of all races together has succeeded. And the outcome of a new facet of assimilation - of the mainlanders and Chinese - is still up in the air.

I think that foreigners are not only a good thing in Singapore (in spite of all that I've written) many people have pointed out that they are the only thing in Singapore, given that this city was founded in its current state by a white man, and populated by Chinese migrants, Peranakans, Malays, Indonesians and Indians. And in the years immediately following independence, Singapore has not accepted that many arrivals. Not too long ago, when Mao was still alive, mainlanders were the shadowy commie enemy. And then Singaporean Chinese and Mainland Chinese gradually drifted apart. In fact, as time went on, we became more westernised, even a little Malay.

So there was going to be quite a little bit of adjustment to do when both sides meet again following the year 2000, when the mainlanders started flooding in.

This little essay was a fragment that I penned many moons ago and it was sitting in my drafts folder, so I thought I'd just send it out. You can compare this to certain essays that have been published recently.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two college admission periods

There’s this essay making the rounds. It’s interesting for me to be reading this when I’m probably going to be graduating from an institution of higher learning for most probably the last time.

More than 15 years ago, after I finished JC, I applied to 6 schools. Three were regarded as “safety schools” although in hindsight they were pretty competitive. Maybe I would have been happy to get into them today. One was NUS, and the other two were good engineering schools from the Midwest. I had many things going for me at that time: I scored straight As in the “A”s. (Like I said before, I’m not a A student. I am an B student with an extra gear in the gearbox. I was involved in different ECAs – artistic ECAs, uniformed group ECAs and nerdy academic ECAs. There were glaring omissions. First, I did not take a lot of leadership roles. In fact, the only real leadership role I took, I would have to say I failed badly.

That left three schools that I really wanted to get into. One was Palm Tree, a second was Bottom of the Hill, and the third was Snowy Hill. All of them were big big places, with may reputable departments, where I felt would suit a restless and wandering mind like me. They weren’t small liberal arts colleges, although sometimes I wonder how those colleges would have served me. Problem is, small liberal arts colleges are not well known in Singapore. You couldn’t brandish an Amherst, or a Swarthmore or a maybe an Oberlin and expect people to care. But it might have been even better for me.

In the US, there are maybe 5 really big names and I didn’t apply to any of those 5. But anything else was fair game for me. In hindsight, it did boil down to what I wrote in the essay. I remember procrastinating on it for weeks, even months. I never had to write an application essay before, and it made me very nervous. A teenager had to explain to you what was the meaning of life. That essay determined whether you got into a great school or not.

The first two essays that I wrote were not great. I don’t know if I kept those essays, I’d have liked to see what I wrote back then. I think one of them (Palm Tree) asked me to talk about a conversation I had that was meaningful to me. I couldn’t answer that well. Another one just asked for an essay. I didn’t think that what I wrote was any good.

I had just finished JC. Those were two rough years. I hadn’t adjusted well to social life in JC, I thought that those people there were shallow and materialistic. (They were, but I also had a lot to learn from them.) I thought that life was more rotten than it really was. It wasn’t as great as secondary school, but everything is a downer if you want to compare it to the two most fun years of your life. It was becoming apparent that I didn’t have great life skills (in some respects). I tried out quite a few things and they didn’t seem to work. It was the eve of me joining the army and going into what my parents promised me would be the two most hellish years of my life. Things were pretty confusing at that point in time. And you are asking me what the meaning of life is?

Of the three essays, the one that was actually any good was the one I sent to Snowy Hill. I heard from a friend that they liked boy’s scouts, so I played up my experience in the boy’s scouts. But one of the main points of that essay was my father’s story. I didn’t have a Horatio Alger story. But my father was a self made man. So, unusually, I put in 1 or 2 paragraphs that he grew up in a slum and I’m – and you can see that I was vague about this – a continuation of that story. So I don’t know if I gamed the process, but yes, I presented my best side to the admissions committee. And in a way, since everybody presents their best side to the admissions committee, it’s pretty fair.

After that, long story short, I was out of Palm Tree, I was out of Bottom of the Hill. (Yeh, I know Crazy Frog studied at those two places). But I got into Snowy Hill. It was a bit iffy, but I suppose you only really needed to get into one good school. You go there.

Something else happened after that. I couldn’t go to Snowy Hill immediately, because I had to go into the army. In the meantime, it was my sister’s turn to apply to university. And at that time, she was the golden girl. She applied to a few universities that I didn’t dare apply to, and she got into every one of them. I remember being a little irritated when she was asking me, damn, which one should I get into. Bitch, I didn’t get into a single one of these shining places.

But something interesting came up. She told me, I’m going to study at Prestigious University. You could apply to Prestigious University, and you could tell them that your sister is studying in Prestigious University. I decided against it for various reasons. First, I wouldn’t have gotten in on my own. Second, I didn’t want to be riding on my sister’s coattails. Third, it wasn’t a university that I would have chosen on my own accord. There were a few things that Snowy Hill were pretty good at that my sister’s more famous university didn’t have. For example, a good engineering school. And last and most important reason – I had accepted a place in Snowy Hill and told them that I would start school there in 2 years. I was also told that universities routinely exchange data with each other. If I had been caught applying to another university, I might have lost my place in Snowy Hill. That would have been a complete disaster for me. Although I could have also applied to other places as a cover.

What would it have been like if I had studied at Prestigious University? Life would most definitely have been more hectic. Unlike Snowy Hill, which was in a rural area, Prestigious University was in a city and life would have been different. I would have expected my sis to take care of me for a while. But knowing what I now know, I would also have done my fair share of taking care of my sister. So in a way my sister asking me to apply to Prestigious University was opening up to the possibility of me taking care of her. My cousin was a postdoc there for a year. I would have met more people that I knew from JC. As it is, there were only one or two people in Snowy Hill that I knew from my pre- snowy Hill life. It was almost as though going to Snowy Hill sliced my life neatly into two halves that were (and still are) relatively independent of each other.

Still, it wasn’t as drastic a break as my sister who – since she left for the US more than 15 years ago, she’s never been in Singapore for more than 6 months at one stretch. And knowing what I know now, yes, if I had gone to Prestigious University, she would have taken care of me in many ways, but I would also have taken care of her in other ways that I could not have expected. Just like right now that I’m back in the States.

What was it like in Snowy Hill? Did I deserve to be there? On balance I would have to say yes, although it’s not an obvious yes. At that time that I wrote my essays, I didn’t really understand the meaning of life. Then I went into army. And I learnt for the first time about life outside my bubble. And I still didn’t really understand the meaning of life. It was only during that fabled second year of college that things generally clicked.

Around the time that I went in there, I was still fairly immature. Not as immature as I would have been if I went there before army, thank god. So army wasn’t a waste of time. It prepared me to make use of this great educational opportunity, although in many ways it didn’t prepare me enough. And during my first few years, I was thinking, well I’m not at Prestigious University. The lower division courses were so easy. Well after that I took the higher division courses and in a very short span of time I no longer complained that the coursework was too easy. Problem solved.

When I went in there, I had a certain few objectives in mind.

1. I will learn about mathematics and science and a few things about engineering and IT
2. I will learn about the arts. I will also learn the meaning of life.
3. I will learn about America
4. I will get a girlfriend and understand what it’s like.
5. I will get into graduate school.

To varying degrees, I accomplished these goals. But there were a lot of other goals that I did not accomplish, and I didn’t set them as goals.

1. Make a lot of connections with people. At least become a member of the cosmopolitan elite.
2. Learn how to drink and take drugs.
3. Learn how to climb the corporate ladder.
4. Know what you really want to do with your life.
5. Form a rock and roll band that would change the world.

And when I did learn about these objectives, it was perhaps a little too late to go about them. You can only accomplish what you set out to do. Or maybe you accomplish something that leads to something unexpected. But if you didn’t set out to do a certain something, it’s unlikely you’d get very far with it.

There is one interesting thing about Snowy Hill that I didn’t really talk about much. I didn’t graduate from Snowy Hill with fantastic results. Like I said, I’m not an A student. I’m a B student with an extra gear. I probably would not have done well in Labyrinth university. In Singapore universities, there is more rote learning involved. I would have had people hammer me academically. I would not have scored top results. I would not have had the freedom to take courses all over the place as though I were in a liberal arts school. What US universities valued more was creativity and problem solving. And they rewarded you for that. They gave you the toughest problems that tested your creativity to the max, and if you got through that, they would be relatively generous with your grades. The truth was that I was afraid of going to Labyrinth university because I knew that they would have chewed me up and spat me out. I wanted to go to university in America because it was a place that suited me better. That was also one big factor behind me – 15 years later, when considering grad school – to give up my place in Labyrinth University and head for Mexico.

That tells you something about people from US universities. They aren't really as rigorously trained in a narrow field of knowledge as people in Singaporean unis. The exams can be a little more lax. But they aim for a deeper understanding of the subject and also a more creative problem solving mindset than in Singaporean unis. Subsequently, the strengths of the graduates from these places are different. The Singapore graduates will more detail oriented. They will be more perfect in a narrow sense. They will be more hardworking and usually they will give you more throughput. They are more dependable and able to grind things out. But when you want something more special, something sparky and creative, a seemingly simple solution to a deep problem, look for the American university graduate.

Unlike a lot of people who found themselves in Snowy Hill, I hadn’t made it the center of my life. It was something that a lot of Americans aspired to. I’ll tell you a dirty secret – 6 months before I had applied to Snowy Hill, I hadn’t heard of Snowy Hill. Similarly, when I was applying to grad school, I hadn’t seriously considered Mexico until I had compiled my list of universities I wanted to apply to. But no matter, I am glad that I studied in Snowy Hill and Mexico. They were the types of schools I wanted to attend, and I don’t have much regrets about them. Although right now I’m wondering what I’d have been like if I had studied in a liberal arts college, or if I had gone to Prestigious University.

Maybe I almost accidently stumbled upon going to Snowy Hill, I didn’t value it as much as I should have. I would have been a better person for it. I did the right things – I was adventurous in my choice of ECAs. I learnt a lot of things, even though there were people who were smarter, sharper and more curious than I was. I did well for my exams – at least the one which really mattered.

But when you go to a top class university like Snowy Hill, it usually means that you’re there to build connections. Or at least know the right professors who will give you that last push to get to certain places in life. I didn’t concentrate too much on that angle, even as I was aware of it. I had been living in a bubble for most of my life up till then. Maybe in some ways I’m still living in a bubble. It was an elitist bubble, although paradoxically it does make the world look more egalitarian than it really is – you see all the people around you, and they seem to be in the same social class as you, and you don’t realize until you step out of that bubble that people outside that bubble look at you as though you’re something special.

The only souvenir that I bought from Snowy Hill was a sweater with “Snowy Hill” on it. As you know, we don’t wear sweaters in Singapore. So I only really started wearing that sweater often when I came here to Mexico. I was commenting that I had two sweaters – one with “Snowy Hill” on it, and the other had “Facebook” on it. And both of them provoke commentary, because they suggest that you attended Snowy Hill (true) or worked with Facebook (false), and therefore you are a member of a special club. Well that’s the funny thing. In my first year in Snowy Hill, I was wondering what it would have been to attend Prestigious University. After that, I got used to the amount of work that they were accustomed to throwing down on the students there, so you never thought that you were in a second rate place. And after I left Snowy Hill – you see, for various reasons, even though it shaped me in so many ways, and even though that’s where I had my first girlfriend and my first wank, where I learnt to be an adult and cook for myself, and pay my own rents, and maintain my own eBay store, I never truly felt at home there. And it was very weird that people would just stick that label on me for both good reasons and bad. (I’m looking at you, Sniper!) The funny thing is that now that I’m out of Snowy Hill, people will do a double take and blink hard at you when you tell them that you attended Snowy Hill. It is not a name as big as Prestigious University, but it is something. People treat you more like an American when you’re wearing that sweater, rather than wondering if you’re some fresh off the boat Chinaman.

College does not really concern me anymore. If things go well (and there’s a good chance that they won’t, but that’s another blog entry!) then I will graduate, and I will live in the real world again, and this will be a very different real world, so there’s a fair amount of apprehension involved. I will no longer be taking exams or taking courses for credit. I will very likely continue to do research, write papers, attend online lectures, maybe teach. Most definitely learn. Formal education has ended, but informal education continues.

I had spent 2 years trying to get into grad school. Not 100% sustained effort, but it did take something out of me, because I was working at the same time. The story this time is not that interesting. I already knew how to write essays. Since I had to switch disciplines, I had to take a standardized test in order to convince people that I knew something about computer science. Most of that effort was about studying for that standardized test. The other more substantial part of that effort was finding my three letters. In school, it was easy. I had plenty of teachers who were all willing to testify on my behalf, and, most likely, bend the truth a little in order to give me that push to get in.

What was really difficult was finding those three letters. The first two were easy. One was from a colleague with whom I had worked on a big IT project, and who could truthfully testify about my abilities as an IT engineer. Let’s call him Mr Engineer. Mr Engineer had left my company 2 years earlier than I did. At that time, I requested for him to keep it a secret from my soon-to-be former colleagues. Although one of my bosses was also a holder of a masters in computer science. I sometimes discussed computer science with him, but I didn’t let out that I was actually going to do that degree until later.

A second one was – when I was in Snowy Hill, I worked as a tutor for freshmen who needed help for Physics. And he mentioned a few times before that if we did a good job, he would be somebody that you could turn to for letters. So I was fortunate that I already had two letters ready.

The third letter would prove to be one of the toughest. When people look at my Snowy Hill transcript, they would see a lot of classes from a lot of departments. But most of the classes could be justified on grounds of “it satisfies certain requirements towards certain qualifications that I’m trying to earn.” However, in my last semester, I took three courses which had nothing to do with that. Two of these courses (neural networks and computer architecture) I took because I had already decided what I was going to do for a master’s degree, and those two courses would form the bridge to a path that I would take nine years later. In fact, in a very nice symmetry, during my first academic term in Mexico, I took three courses that were more advanced versions of courses that I took as an undergraduate - neural networks, computer architecture and algorithms. The latter two were compulsory and I would much rather not take them again, but they ended up being useful in their own way.

I did well for the neural networks course, even though I skipped a lot of the lectures. I visited the professor in his office, and it was a horrendous place: it looked like a dungeon, there were papers everywhere, and it was – bar none, one of the messiest offices I had ever seen. We talked for a while, and I asked him about his stuff. He gave some answers that were pretty incomprehensible – well I’m just an undergrad getting into his work, and he doesn’t have anything meaningful to say unless it’s too cheem for me to understand, so you get the picture. Eventually I asked him whether or not he could write me a letter for grad school applications. He said yes, certainly.

It was this professor that I asked letters from. And it was pretty tenuous: it was based on a course I took from him, I did little extra work with him, I only had one meaningful conversation with him. In fact, he was teaching neural networks, and I kinda turned my nose up at neural networks in those days. Turns out I was wrong. Turns out that almost everything I learnt in machine learning is somehow obliquely related to neural networks. I was not a believer in neural networks and I would soon be proven wrong in a big way.

He wrote me a letter that was good enough to get into a grad school. In fact, that was difficult. I emailed him in August and asked for a letter. He said yes. By November the letter hadn’t come yet. I started getting frantic. I called him long distance once or twice. I never got to speak to him, but I left a message at the receptionist’s. And finally, he wrote that letter, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had even asked one or two others to write me a letter, but I got no responses from either of them. That’s the thing – it was a large stroke of luck that I had somebody who could vouch for me after not being in contact with them for nine years.

It didn’t get me into Palm Tree or Bottom of the Hill. But I knew that those places were untouchable, and getting in would be like winning the lottery. I applied to those places, still, because you really have to buy a lottery ticket. It got me into Mexico. Mexico is not even as well known as Snowy Hill. But to enter that particular department in Mexico, it was more selective than me trying to enter Snowy Hill. There were plenty of people all over the world trying to attend Mexico. I would be competing with all the Chinese and Indians and Americans. In fact I tried to get into Labyrinth university – I thought my chances were 50-50, but I still got in. Then after that I figured that I probably would have gotten into Labyrinth anyway. That was easy. Getting in Mexico was the one that was 50-50, and I got in. Palm Tree and Bottom of the Hill were the long shots and I didn’t get those.

Around the time that I got accepted for Labyrinth – that was the end of the year. It was the only university which accepted students to start school in the middle of the academic year. Around that time, there were two people who could work on this super-large project that I had worked on with Mr Engineer. I had managed to successfully push it to the other guy, but he suddenly left the company. I had made him promise to tell me earlier than the bosses. He kept his promise, but he told me 2 hours before he threw letter. Of course I couldn’t blame him for that.

And so the last six months of my working with the company were in some kind of a frenzy. My workload was jacked up because of the other guy who left. I suddenly had three things on my plate: part time studies with Labyrinth university, taking over stuff from that other guy, and handing stuff over to new colleagues who were going to take my stuff over. Over and on top of my personal responsibilities. It goes without saying that time mostly flew in a blur. And after that the offer from Mexico came in, together with Palm Tree and Bottom of the Hill rejecting me for the second time, more than 15 years after the first. Then suddenly I had to really make a decision that was until then – hypothetical. Would I say goodbye to Singapore for the second time? It was surprisingly difficult to make. It could have gone either way. Going to Mexico was extremely expensive. Tuition was higher, and most importantly I would give up my job. But working and studying at the same time would have been pretty insane for me. Eventually, I opted for the Mexico adventure. As an aside, I'm reading that "Big Decision Time" entry that I had posted earlier. It's kinda funny but I actually had to think for a while who persons A-I were!

The first few years of my work life with the company weren’t easy. But eventually I settled down. It was pretty OK. It was like secondary school – the first half of secondary school was pretty traumatic, and the second half was pretty wonderful.

And then I spent around 2 years trying to get this masters and change the course of my life. And if I succeed – in spite of what some people have heard, I’ve not succeeded yet. Where I am right now, I’m 10km away from the end of a marathon, and for those people who have run marathons before, you know that this is where things really get difficult. Anybody knows – because these 10 km are run after your legs have given way, they can feel longer than the first 32 km. And since I’ve actually done that before, anything can happen. It was noontime in Singapore. I was dangerously low on fluids. My legs were cramped up. The milestones seemed so far from each other. I told myself, that everything depended on my success. If I succeeded, I would have a finisher’s medal, I would have that t-shirt, and I could get on with life without any regrets. If I failed, I would have to come back and run another marathon in 6 months or 1 year. I was walking – limping, actually. I didn’t have to run. But I could not afford to stop or sit down. I couldn’t even afford to think about finishing the marathon. I only allowed myself that after I passed 40. And only at that home stretch, having passed 42 and having less than 200 m to go to the entrance of City Hall, did it hit me that I was at the end.

For some reason I suddenly thought about shingot and his attempt to leave the company we worked for. Funny thing is, I, for some reason, see myself working there again, at least for a short period of time. I would have unfinished business there. I thought about peoples’ departure from that company. Some people started work in some incredible multinational corporation and liked it there so much. Other people worked in less well known places but still it had better working conditions than the company we left. Some left for academia and are working towards PhDs. I salute those hardworking people. Crazy Frog, who started a PhD 1 (or was it 2?) year before I left. He paid me a visit 6 months ago, because he also knew another guy from the same department as me. Mr Nice Guy, we were wondering why on earth he was doing a strange PhD. I haven’t caught up with him lately. And there was Nat, who was on one of the craziest adventures that you can think of, and coming to the end of it. I’m sorry, I haven’t had the time to read his regular updates.

But I would have to say that I’m also on a pretty crazy adventure. Most people who quit the company do so in the knowledge that they have another job to go to. I didn’t. Crazy Frog didn’t – and he has mouths to feed! Nat – good luck hunting for another job. I would need to cross three big obstacles to get to the other side. First one, as you can see, was getting into a master’s degree program. I did that. Second one was finding a job. I also did that. The third one is completing the master's program. The third one sounds the easiest, but it's actually one of the hardest. So many people complete this program that you don't really think about it, but actually it's the part that takes the most out of you.

Yes, yes I know, I should probably be working on graduating, but I just had to burn off the urge to write one more blog entry. So there.


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Why I’m taking this post-graduate degree

In the days shortly after I got accepted into Mexico, I was already enrolled in Labyrinth, and I had to decide whether or not to switch. Anyway, now that those days are sufficiently long gone, I do have time to think. Some of this stuff I've already known for quite some time. Here are the reasons why I'm taking a grad program now:

1. Because I’ve always wanted a post-graduate degree. Because I’ve felt that my formal education was missing one or two things.
2. Because I miss acquiring knowledge for its sake. But then again, I have to face up to the fact that this phase of my life is well and truly over. Because it would be almost the last chance for me to go to school – if I didn’t make use of my contacts in postgrad to get into school now, I would never have that chance again.
3. Because a proper engineering degree opens a lot of doors, in terms of my being able to learn new things on my own. Because it would give me options for my career in the future. (But maybe not.) Perhaps it would allow me to pursue work that would be more like research. Or maybe not.
4. Because I was tired of working in the same job for a long time and I needed a break. (although, given the amount of energy I need to rev up for a degree, this really isn’t that much of a break at all.)
5. Because I wanted to challenge myself.
6. Because I wanted to catch up with my sister.
7. Because I wanted to experience life in the US again. But this isn’t really that important. This is also a frivolous reason, but it's pretty amazing the amount of cheap and good music you can get here. Of course the price is that you have to give up eating cheap and good food.
8. Maybe having a fresh new focus in life would recharge me and focus my mind more on work, rather than lapsing into the pattern that it has always had, which is to keep on being getting distracted because I couldn't stand my current situation.

I still remember how hectic my time in Labyrinth university was, going to classes 2 times a week right after work, and then going right to bed at midnight, with barely enough time to digest what you just studied. No time to do projects. But I'm also reaching a state of funk right now at Mexico. The dream is that I would suddenly morph into some kind of a genius whiz kid here and everything would be easy. That's not the way that it works out.

I knew what I had left behind. I had left behind friends and family. Yes, I'm not the sort of person who puts personal relations as #1 priority but you do feel these things nevertheless. I left a Singapore which had suddenly and drastically undergone a great degree of social change and I wouldn't know how things would turn out if I had stayed. I left a workplace where the possibilities were not exhausted and which I could not rule out joining back again in the future.

The manner in which I left was not dissimilar to a former colleague of mine, the ghost. He had talked about leaving for one whole year prior to leaving. And it got to be that some of us started wondering if he was really going to leave. And when he did leave, in a way it was surprising because he actually did what he said he was going to do. And in a way it was not surprising because he did what he said he was going to do. I suppose my manner of leaving was a little sneaky, but not totally surprising. A significant number of people who were there when I left, especially the people who were not in managerial positions, had left right after me. I'm wondering if my leaving had "inspired" them to leave, until I thought about my own situation: it wasn't so much the fact that any of them had left - it was the fact that so many of them did.

There was also the fact that I had been looking after my grandmother for the last one or two years that I was in Singapore. She died two months after I left. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have lived longer if I hadn't left. But I also know that I can't make her leave forever. You don't kill a person. Nobody ever kills a person. Even a murderer at the most can change a person's death of death by bringing it forward. Whatever you do or do not do, that person will eventually die.

It's pretty wonderful for the first few months. It felt like I had been released from pushing a stone. But after that when I really got into the business of doing some research and reading papers, I realised how much hard work it was going to be. Getting up to speed on things, and understanding the material in grad courses was quite a bitch. And this was not like in undergraduate days, where there were easy courses. Every single course you took had to be a grad level course. There was less material, but whatever material was there would take you forever to digest and understand. The grading was very lenient but you always felt that you earned that grade fair and square.

I went back home after just one quarter to pay my last respects to my grandmother. That was the last time I was back in Singapore. I met up with friends and former colleagues. And that was the last of my carefree days. After that I had to find an internship. I failed. And that made me even more panicked. I tried to find a project to do. I also failed. I did find work to do so I wasn't totally panicked but it wasn't easy. I had papers that I really scratched my head over - I have to say that I could understand any paper that I had to read and make a presentation about, but it was really slow for me to get through them. And there were courses where we had to read 4 papers every week - I had to pretend I really understood what was going on in the class and bullshit my way through exams. I had to take two classes on certain subjects that I didn't particularly care for so I bullshitted my way through them. I'm not sure if my brain was slowing down, but it just felt like the mathematics was more painful than back during my undergraduate days.

I - there's that word again - bullshitted my way into a job offer, and I thought that my troubles were gone, that I would be totally vindicated at last. But no, there's one big thing in the way of me graduating. All master's candidates have to finish a project. And it's this project that's giving me problems right now.

It was supposed to be simple. There was this grad student doing a project that required some algorithms that I had studied in Labyrinth Uni but not in University of Mexico. So naturally I thought, "well that's for me, then." Then after he's finished explaining everything to me, he tells me that he's graduating and he's going back home somewhere back in Asia. I flip out, but then I think, "well he explained the ideas behind a new project for me, so I think it's possible for me to carry on his work." Then I do my research, and then it's "oh my God his ideas are wrong, they're not going to work!". And it looks as though my project is going to be a failure, until his professor emails me out of the blue and tells me, "we've tried to submit a paper together, and it got rejected. I'd like you to join us and we can have a second shot at this." Well that was the high point. As I've later discovered, this professor really spreads himself thinly, and he never seems to have time for me. I think back to the times when I've been the ones supervising master's projects, and every time I think back on how the students look like pests to me, it makes me shudder that my professor is thinking exactly the same thing.

Problem is, after all this, I'm a little tired. In fact, I feel as sian as I did when I was about to leave my job. I'm just wondering if it's a matter of - if I stay at one thing for too long, I'd get sian of it eventually. I've found that it's a distressingly short period of time between when I first encounter a project and find a lot of enthusiasm for it, and when I get sick of it. It could be as short as 1 week. Then I'm stuck doing something I feel really sian about. I suppose that's what it's like to write a thesis, even though I'm doing a project - something that's theoretically less rigorous than a thesis.

Truth be told, I probably didn't study as much as I would have liked. If I were honest I would say I spent too much time surfing and reading the news instead of meeting people and learning about engineering. But I'd still say I learnt a lot. Maybe I was forced to read a lot of news because my brain would get so tired of the work. Maybe I didn't have a tight focus on which aspect of engineering I wanted to study, and my energies got dissipated in too many different directions. That was only supposed to happen in Snowy Hill when I was doing liberal arts, but somehow it also happened here.

Well time is running out on me. I have to produce a project in a couple of months' time otherwise I'm fucked. And I might have to look for a new job. So in a way this is the most stressful time of all. Maybe there's more work to do in coursework because people will force you to run on a treadmill. But in a way this is like topography, where you are given a map and a compass and you walk and walk until you reach a checkpoint. And if you don't reach that checkpoint, you can forget about going back to camp.

So I'm on my last lap now, and in many ways the most crucial lap. And the problem is - with any race you run, whether it's a 2.4 or a marathon, the last, most crucial period is at the end, and also when you're at your most tired. You just have to grit your teeth and keep on going.


Blogger SingaporeMemoryProject said...

Dear Sir,

On behalf of the National Library Board (NLB), we would like to invite you to pledge your blog to the Singapore Memory Project as part of efforts to collect memories that are already manifested in existing online channels.

The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) is a national initiative to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials. Spearheaded by NLB, the SMP aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

By pledging your blog to SMP, you are affirming that every memory matters. Whether your posts are an account of your daily life, or an expression of your thoughts, the SMP hopes to find a home for your memories so that it can help build towards an understanding of Singapore. You will also receive a badge that you can display on your blog in recognition of your contributions.

Contributors to this blog pledging initiative will be listed on Singapore Memory portal’s blog pledging webpage. All blogs pledged to SMP will archived using NLB’s web harvesting software, in addition to images of each blog’s landing page.

If you are keen to pledge your blog to SMP, simply fill up our response form at this following URL: http://singaporememory.simulation.com.sg/Public/Pledge.

You may find out more about this initiative at http://www.iremember.sg/?page_id=2822.

We are looking forward to your contribution.

Simulation Software & Technology (S2T) Pte Ltd
583 Orchard Road #14-02 Forum The Shopping Mall S(238884), Singapore
|w: www.simulation.com.sg

11:24 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

No, not interested.

If you read my blog, I'm not in Singapore right now. Sometimes I write about my life in the states. Sometimes I write about commentary on Singapore. What I won't write about is my direct experience with Singapore.

Ask me again when I've moved back to Singapore in 4-5 years.

12:38 PM