All over in a week

It is awfully concerning how quickly time seems to pass. Tomorrow will be the first of 4 oral viva examinations, which will no doubt reveal how much I don’t know about optimisation algorithms in operations research… A week from today, the entire semester will have finished. I will be madly packing for a week trip to the Italian alps and hopefully not getting frostbite while I’m doing that. Perhaps it is just the experience of being a tourist student, but I do remember semesters at Sydney being much more of a struggle, especially towards the end of exams.

Although I have no felt the wrath of 8 exams in one session, I do feel like the UK system is rather conducive to and encourages laziness for a whole term (or two!) Students don’t have much incentive to learn the material in term 1, and it’s a wonder they even turn up (I wonder if I would…) The heavy emphasis on the examination (90% in the Stats department, and probably similar in maths) is rather daunting. It does not measure cumulative progress or allow for adequate feedback. The 10% midterm is nothing in comparison to the final exam. I feel that assignments that allow students to think about problems over time (period of a few weeks, perhaps) is more indicative of what would be experienced in the workplace or real life. Having noticed much blatant copying of ‘coursework’ from students in other subjects, I can see why there is no such problem solving encouraged here. In a similar vain, I feel as though students at UCL do not feel the inherent need to work hard. Many feel that their brand name university will get them a job straight out of university, which is probably true. Any student at Oxbridge, Imperial, LSE, UCL would definitely be put on top of the recruiting pile over, perhaps, Oxford Brookes.

Among my fellow flatmates, nearly all of whom are international, compare the UK education system to that in their home countries. It seems that many universities in the UK have let students off the hook, compared to their continental neighbours. I feel as though that it is due to some of the issues related to international students (that is also experienced in Australia) that causes this. It is absolutely apparent in my 3rd year inference course, where the lecturer had to ‘dumb down’ assessments because too many students were failing in previous years. Having seen the ‘revised assessments’ (and previous assessments), I cannot but feel for the academics who are pushed to pass as many students as possible, some (most…) of which who are paying international fees. This contradiction is evident also in Australia, as universities crave the goldmines that international students provide.

Academically, UCL has been an eyeopening experience and I will reflect on it further as I return to statistics at Sydney. For now, memorising algorithms awaits.


The beginning of the end

It’s been over a month since my last post, but I honestly don’t know where all the time has gone. I’m coming up to the 2 month mark on what I’m beginning to realise is an extremely short trip. I would used to say that I wanted to stay for a whole year, but now I am really beginning to feel this way. With two more mid-semester quizzes to go, another two weeks and I will be having my final exams. Being a student tourist is a whirlwind ride, but an amazing and eye opening experience at that. Although my travels aren’t over just yet, I can see the end of the rollercoaster. Before I know it I will again be sweltering through another Sydney summer.

If the past two months are anything to go by, I have affirmed many of the thoughts and feelings I have about myself. Having heard stories of people who went overseas and ended up bawling to parents back home, I was, at least, in the back of my mind, prepared for some homesickness. To the contrary, my assessment of myself as being an apt independent individual was not far fetched, after all. Even after some bungles whilst abroad, I think my parents knew that I could be independent and don’t have to call everyday to see if I haven’t lost my passport yet. Although my parents are not by any means controlling, I do enjoy the freedom of living by myself. Living at home is great – you save money, have food on the table and don’t pay the bills (well, some do!). But I feel that, especially at my age, that is perhaps too comfortable. Being a student without a full-time job is perhaps one of the best times to move out. You are charged with a number of responsibilities (bills, household chores, cooking, cleaning, the lot) and get to learn a lot about the people who you may end up living with. No doubt, there is no way a 19 year old can afford to move out (with their own money) in Sydney, but I digress. I do plan to utilise and maximise my time at home, though, when I am back. Most probably, I will be at home for another 2 years (for 3rd year and honours). After that, I think I would want to revert to being a student tourist again (because, why not?).

The idea of returning to London (or the UK) for a postgraduate degree has been at the midfront (between forefront and back?) of my mind since I decided to come here in the first place. In some ways, my semester abroad would be a taster of what the academics, lifestyle, culture and weather, among other things, were like in the UK. Whilst there is an intangible appeal that London has, Sydney will probably always be home. Even if I were to become a foreign national, I would always retain my Australian passport. London takes all the cakes for being the ‘top’ city in the world for X Y and Z, but perhaps it is only a city on my path, and not the destination. Ideally I would want to explore as much the world has to offer before finding a place to settle. In any case, I will be back to visit my flatmates at least, in the foreseeable future, and to look into whether I really want to return for further study.


You’re from around London? and the new family.

It’s been nearly a month since I arrived in London (again). This time, it was for the long (medium…short-ish) haul. Since the last update, I have had approximately two weeks of classes, finally experienced some of London’s infamous obnoxious weather and become comparably much more involved in university life. Thankfully the homesickness hasn’t set in, otherwise it’d be a tough 3 months to slog through. For some on my flat, this is a completely new experience; living away from home (only 2 hours train ride away, for some!), speaking in a different language on a daily basis, and adjusting to different education systems have cast a shadow on all the fun they are having as new students to UCL. I am sure I would feel the same feelings if I were to go on exchange to Japan, or some other foreign country, but perhaps I have chosen a place that is not so far removed from what I am used to. (After all, COLONY to EMPIRE’S CAPITAL, right?)

From all the progress reports I have read at USYD and with what people in other departments have told me about their own respective classes, I had the idea that students here studied… a lot. This is, after all, UCL, right? Perhaps it is endemic to the classes I take, but the above is certainly not the case for the statistics department. I would say 85-90% of my classes are populated with people from the following backgrounds, in order of decreasing proportion: international students from mainland China, international students from Hong Kong (who account for 85-90% of the classes), with 5-10% domestic/local students and the rest affiliates. Waiting outside lecture theatres, the main language one hears is Mandarin. This is followed by licks of Cantonese and then two American affiliates manage to find each other and speak (American) English. This is the opposite to what statistics is like at USYD. Granted, statistics at USYD is comparatively a weaker department and does not attract lectures that full up within 10 minutes of the lecture beginning. Although UCL claims to have students from 150 different countries, it does not specify the relative proportions of each… I hate to stereotype, but many internationals do not have much direction or drive in terms of their foreign education opportunities. Many are there just because they feel obliged, not engaging in classes at all. This is particularly evident in tutorials (of which I only have one…). This pattern is similar to what I have experienced in Australia, and students there are paying more than £15,000… Some of the Brits do know what’s going on and are focused on their goals, but this is rare.

It seems that although I may have the appearance of such an international student, I am not identified with them. Having met several Britons and Londoners, they all instinctively think that I am ‘from around London’ or ‘from around here – well, not originally – but you’re from England?’. Hearing these comments evokes a mix of feelings. One of the first things I think is, ‘Well, thank you!’. I came to London (England, the UK, Europe, this part of the world) to see if I could take on further studies, work or even live here. I think for many Aussies, and for anyone around the world for that matter, but Aussies especially, London and the UK has a certain intangible appeal. It was once the capital of ‘civilisation’ (the empire…) of the (Western) world and has so much more ‘history’ than Australia (Western history, because everyone discounts indigenous hunter gatherer culture, right? Right?). The comment makes me feel that I could be part of this culture and society and has had a positive impact on my settling-in here. However, I am somewhat disappointed that I could not be identified as an Australian by the English I spoke. I’ve always said that people say I have a slight American accent, but I think I do speak a rather Australian English. Apparently not. Oh well, I guess a neutral ‘English’ is fine for most intents and purposes. Time will tell whether I yearn for a coastal lifestyle, or am rather comfortable to live in a rainy and cold metropolis.

Part of the settling in has been living with my fellow flat mates. It is a truly wide mix of people, that, for the most part, come together well. I doubt the interests/habits part of the allocation process had much to do with it, but the fact that I have the people in my flat that I do, I think, is very lucky. It has only been a few weeks and everyone regards the flat as their family, which is endearing to say the least. Some of them will still be in London when I perhaps return for the UK round 2 (as it were…) and if not, I will have lifelong friends all over the world for a long time to come.

Until next time.


Here we go

It has been approximately one week since I left home (again), this time to live in London for 4 months. As with any new destination, the first two nights were spent questioning the whole point of this exercise, what I was even supposed to do, or why I have even bothered to plunge myself into new waters. However, the past few days have answered many of those questions and have strengthened my initial inclination for doing a semester on exchange.

From meeting and getting to know my flat mates, the actual enrollment process at UCL to interacting with some of the points of contact at UCL, I am so glad to be relieved with my choice of this university. The staff and teaching body are very welcoming and I began to feel a part of their student community. Though I have yet to meet lecturers or the affiliate tutor, I am sure they will not disappoint me in terms of being professional, helpful and insightful. One of my initial reasons for going on exchange was to have a taste of what a world-class education at a leading university would be like. No doubt, USYD is one of the best in the world, but I would go as far as to say that UCL is perhaps in a different league all together. I know it will be an eye-opening experience and will give a point of reference for studies back at home. I also chose UCL because of its place in the heart of London, one of the biggest cultural and financial hubs of the world. Working in London may very well be in the horizons and at the moment it seems that I could get used to living here. (I’ll wait until the winter comes to qualify that…) But, perhaps, I will miss the coastal lifestyle that is Sydney and yearn to leave by the end of the term (hopefully not!)

I also have begun to live somewhat self-sufficiently, in a student dormitory. I don’t think I was mentally ready for college at the beginning of 2013, so this is perhaps a good time to start to become independent. Living in single rooms with en suites helps when living with 6 other people – I cannot imagine what it is like during the mornings in shared-bathroom accommodation! Much of the chat in the flat goes on in the kitchen, decked with two stove-top ovens (hobs, they call it…), shelves, two mini fridges and two freezers. The ratio of fridges to freezers should really be three to one, since the freezers are rather empty right now. There are two US exchange students, one French fresher, one Swiss fresher, a London fresher and myself. I think this is a really good mix of people, contrasted to some where whole floors have all US exchange students, or all British freshers. Everyone seems to be on the same page, too, which is a bonus. Hopefully I can become independent and move out after the honours year, perhaps overseas for further study or work. In any case, I think it would be in another metropolis like Sydney or London, but perhaps six months in the Japanese country would do me some good.

I can only anticipate good things to come in the next few months. It will hopefully be dotted with travel all over Europe, finishing off with a week in Japan. A week of contrasting culture and language will be intense, but I think I’ve got it covered. I am ready to start classes (it is already week 9 at USYD!) and cannot wait to be immersed in subjects that will direct my further studies. My initial feelings of ‘YOLO-just-go-do-something-interesting-for-once’ are slowly (or quickly, however you want to slice the cake) being realised and I could not be more glad for taking a jump into the darkness.

Here are some snaps of London by night! (Sony RX-100 M1)








On language and being a citizen of the world

Throughout the last six and a half weeks, I have had the opportunity of hearing a myriad of different languages and dialects. Among them, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, German, Italian, Dutch, Turkish, Greek, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.As a language student, it was an intellectual feast at every destination, whether it be road signs, menus, talking to waiters or other tourists. Perhaps the only thing possible when listening to a completely foreign language is to listen for the rhythm of it. Every language has a unique rhythm and I think it captures a lot about the flavour and character of it. French has its accented syllables at the end of words, Italian in the middle and German being very similar with English. To my ear, Greek had a similar feel to Spanish, although they are traditionally quite different. Having a extra language or two, whether it be a few words or native fluency, makes things a lot easier in general. Whether it be asking where the toilet is, overhearing arguments, overhearing people talk about you who think you don’t speak their language, or helping Japanese grannies recline a seat before three of them snapped the handle off. Language, especially abroad, is a passport in itself.

In a conversation with a friend, he suggested that for travel, that there should be a default, ‘standard’ language to assist in communication, and this would be, of course, English, Whilst this has been adopted by industries like aviation, where language barriers could cause planes to fall out of the sky, I did not agree with the idea of having a default language. It was rather easy for him to say this, since we are from an English speaking country. Granted, this has become the case in many parts of the world, especially in Europe and various places in Asia. Obviously the choice of English is completely arbitrary, only becoming such a dominant language due to the British Empire. In many respects, English is linguistically rather ugly and intuitively nonsensical. It seems the Angles had not much idea of sticking to one root language (early on, anyway), resulting in a mish-mash of multi-rooted words and letter combinations which make no sense, among other things. 

Perhaps language in the world should be treated like currency. ‘In X-land, we only speak X-ese and Y-nese’. But this is not in the spirit of spreading culture and language. Maybe everyone should speak all the languages. That would certainly be a terrific solution, when we get microchip brain implants at birth, somewhere in the future. A turn of a dial, a push of a button and viola, je parle français! Whilst it is rather unreasonable to expect all travelers to learn a comprehensible level of X before they go to X-land, the effort you do put into familiarising yourself with the basics of a language definitely pay off. Discounts, hostels going from no beds to ‘Oh, we have a bed for you.’ Perhaps the French are known best for their rather snobbish attitude toward English. Solely English speakers sometimes get bad treatment, get ignored, the list goes on (maybe it’s just Parisians?) It seems absurd, unfair, unjust! But it is reasonable – when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and speak Romansh. No, wait, Latin. (The fact that Latin is dead today says something about the Roman Empire, doesn’t it?)

Taking a step back from this, it we think of the basic purpose of language, it is to communicate. If this is achieved, then the proverbial deed is done. But language is, after all, so much more than that. It is a cross section of a culture, a people, their history, their social structure. Empire, subdued native peoples, minorities that are discriminated – all of this is accessible through language. This is one of the main reasons I enjoy studying languages, apart from the linguistics of it all (and communication). That is why I don’t understand when people say they do not like studying languages. It is an inherent part of being a human being. If you speak one, a second or a third are not that far off, if studied early on and in proper instruction. The way we think about foreign languages and its instruction in places like Australia reminds me of people’s reaction to mathematics. ‘Oh, I could never do maths…’ or ‘I hated maths at school’. ‘I was so bad at languages’ is in a very similar vain. But language and mathematics education should be for another post. That’s all for now.


All good things come to an end

Tonight marks the last night before the long commute home begins. It starts with a 6hr 20min ferry to the port of Piraeus, then overnight in Athens, early flight to London, bus transfer to another London airport, flight from London to Kuala Lumpur and then Kuala Lumpur to Sydney. I dread the jet lag that awaits, but at the same time unsure of what to expect. I haven’t experienced such a time difference in the past and am secretly doubtful that I will feel any of the effects. Of course, it is a real phenomena, researched and documented, but I will report on that later.

I will have traveled for 45 days, visited 9 countries, 20 cities and 2 islands. I can’t put a finger on a favourite or least favourite place. Each place has a different flavour and it’s rather different to compare oranges to apples. There are experiences that stand out, though. Hot air ballooning at Kapadokya was incredible, as the photos evidence. As always, there are small things that make the whole experience a lot more interesting. Name dropping to find dozens of mutual friends, meeting people from Europe who have once lived 2 streets away from you, or meet a pair of people over several islands, or meet people who are doing exchange at the same university at the same time as you! It’s all been a bit surreal. I can now understand why some people travel so much. You cannot replace the experience with anything at home, nor can you recreate it. Even if the travel is domestic, you gain so much in terms of new perspectives, experiences, acquaintances… the list goes on. You learn a lot more about yourself, what you actually enjoy, what you actually dislike, what you really want out of travel. I’ve found that travel, for me, is about relaxing and doing things when you want to, how you want to. Although travelling with company has its great benefits: constant company, safety, etc., traveling alone forces you to meet new people and spend time getting to know them. In every hostel, though, there have been, without fail, Australians, with most of them twenty-somethings looking a break from their lives at home. I have not met a younger person than myself that is travelling either on their own or in a group. I guess this says a lot, but I don’t think much of it.

I currently write from the Istros Cafe at the Athinios Port of Santorini. The port is hectic, whistles blowing, people squinting at tickets, buses and cars rolling off huge ferries. This place is completely dead in winter, though, so I guess they have to have as much traffic whilst the sun still shines bright. The Greek Islands definitely keep Greece afloat while it has its bankruptcy. I feel that I should have visited more of the islands, some of the smaller, less touristy ones, but you can always come back. ‘I wish I did XYZ’ is rather redundant – the world isn’t going to slip away. Well, Venice might.

Home will be good. A solid month to relax, get in the right head space for living in London and just a time to do not much at all. I am so glad to have ended on several high notes and met so many fascinating people. See you on the flight back home.



On my own in Greece

At the moment, I am sitting at a table at the Mpaipaktaphs restaurant in Monastiraki square. I have just finished a rather pleasant meal of grilled bream in tomato relish with rice and bread. I was sold by an empty stomach and a rather persistent, but friendly Filipina sales lady. Unlike in Turkey, the bread is not free and limitless, but I was charged 30 Euro cents for a large (rather stale) slice. No matter, I was aware of this thanks to my tour guide in Turkey. “What are you doing all the way in Athens?” i asked, as she chauffeured two Greek girls to a nearby table. “Working!” she replied, her face having, “What else?” written all over it. The places people will go to stay afloat. But Greece? Really? Was the economy booming that much that you came all the way from Manila to Athens for work? Anyway.

I overlook the square, which is bustling, even on a Wednesday afternoon. It is touristy, with flea markets and souvenir stores, but the locals also trawl this area. There is Mediterranean music in the background, an old man selling balloons to children, food and conversation. A couple of hours in and I am feeling very comfortable in this city. Travelling alone could be frightening and daunting, but I can definitely see how liberating it can be. It is 3PM – the restaurants are slowing down, tense clouds begin to creep into the square, but all the while tourists continue to flow through the markets.

The City Circus Hostel had good first impressions on me. Located in a quiet street near the metro station of Monastriaki, it had 3 stories. Clean, with ample common space and a laptop available, it was a functional hostel. I talked to one guy who was in my room shortly after I checked in. I made the first move, “Where are you from?” It turned out that he is from Zurich, Switzerland and studied English in Sydney, living in the next suburb to me in a street where a friend of mine lives! It was one of those moments, just like when mutual friends are found between hostel room mates, or when you meet people in another city after staying with them in another (all of which happened!) In some senses, travel is rather magical and I am honestly so glad I decided to take a leap into the unknown. Nothing can replace the experience and I am absolutely looking forward to living in London (despite the pound and the weather). Home will be good, too, of course, I do have things to do when I’m back in Sydney, though. Some of them include: getting a replacement drivers license, ISIC card, Debit MasterCard, learning some C++, Francais, some pre-reading for UCL and some cooking in preparation for a poor student’s budget. I will also be doing more driving in lieu of a P’s license…but I suspect I won’t get it until 2015.

I finish here, as the Filipino lady stops another tourist couple. I will make my way to the Acropolis for a free tour of the city. Ciao!