Japan and returning home…

I sit in the domestic departures lounge at Narita International Airport Terminal 2, waiting for bag drop and check-in to open for JQ12 bound for the Gold Coast. I managed to keep my checked baggage under 25kg, at 24.87kg, so I won’t be copping any nasty charges by Jetstar at the gate. The transit from Niseko to Narita was rushed – our ride to the train station was halted due to heavy snow and ice, followed by missing a train, rushing through security at New Chitose and then finally arriving at Narita. Thankfully Japanese trains are on time and reliable, unlike some other transport systems in the world…

It was my second time in Japan, but I feel like I have a strong connection to the country already. No doubt it is because of past study of Japanese, but also because, perhaps, I really identify with some of the aspects of the culture. An adherence to schedules, politeness, professionalism, service, speed, among other things. It’s just a place that works, like clockwork. It almost seems robotic, with 店員さん (shop assistants) aimlessly shouting いっらしゃいませ!ご覧下さいませ! on repeat. I think they are trained to impart a certain nasal aspect when they say this, because it always seems to be sharp on the nose. But then it seems all too organic – the architecture, the hospitality, the food. I sometimes wonder what China would have turned into, had it not fell to the communists all those years ago. I feel that Japan’s culture permeates its everyday life, whereas China’s culture is overshadowed by its crippling lack of social compassion, ‘community’ awareness and ways of thinking. The features of Japanese culture I mentioned above remind me of a European country, though – Switzerland. The two both embrace a strong sense of national identity and share many commonalities.

Visiting Niseko was probably one of the better decisions I have made on my trip. Taking snowboarding lessons, experiencing the powder on Mt Niseko, eating the terribly cheap food and having ‘Japan’ turn into a predominantly Australian resort was great – the locals knew you were a foreigner, but the foreigners thought you were a local. Of course, until you began to speak English. A week or two in the snow would have been ideal, but having already boarded at Livigno, I think 4 days was a good amount of time. Nevertheless, I will most definitely return to Hokkaido and continue snowboarding. New hobby?

This is the last stop before returning to Australia. Wow. 5 months abroad, 10 countries, many more cities and a lifetime of memories, it all ends soon. No, actually, I think it is the beginning of another thing. The past 6 months have affirmed my interest in travelling, given me a global perspective on the world, and sparked my interest in many other places to visit. It feels like every part of the world is distinct, and it’s true, the world is an incredibly diverse place. But the more people I observe, the more I feel like we are all just animals minding our own (or others’) business. I guess the best way to see this is at an airport. Flight attendants at work, police patrolling, travelers rushing for their gates, people struggling with their luggage – there is nothing, I feel, inherently special about anyone. Of course, everyone is special in their own unique ways, but perhaps I am viewing things rather plainly.

The next two years will be busy – I have planned it so. With small trips dotted throughout those two years, the next big trip will probably be in 2017. I think the Americas are on the card, followed by South East Asia. At the moment, I am just dreading the heat of the Gold Coast and Sydney…-5 degrees to 33 degrees Celsius will be a sweaty change…

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When it all comes to an end, and that realisation…

Although I opened up with editor as soon as my last final exam had finished, I had not fully comprehended the situation at that time, nor were my thoughts collected about the last 3 months. As with completing any significant event, I feel it is necessary to reflect on what was done, what was gained from it and where the experience steers the individual in the near (and/or far, perhaps), future. So what did I do? In short, I got on a plane to the UK and decided to complete a semester of my undergraduate studies at UCL. What did I gain from it? Perhaps the most significant thing I gained from this experience living abroad was confidence in myself on a multitude of levels – confidence that I can be an independent individual in terms of simply living without familiar friends or family nearby, confidence in my academic pursuits, confidence in being able to navigate social (or otherwise) circumstances appropriately. Obviously the experience was not just affirming what I had known previously, but had shown me that what I thought could be, is. Perhaps an example of this is my growing interest in cookery. No doubt I have Mum to thank for exposing me to this when I was growing up, but the last few months have been a good time period to experiment with food a little without the kitchen being occupied all the time (at home). I built on a small repertoire of dishes and skills and found cooking to be a relaxing hobby, with its the obvious fruit of the labour. My series of good results from the academics gives me confidence in knowing I can take on 3rd year head on, as well. Living with 6 other people in a small space has at times been testing, but for the most part, an incredible experience. They became my home away from home and I am in no doubt that I have made life-long friends that are from all part of the world.

What is more glaring after this trip is the so-called fear of freedom crisis (danisnotonfire’s YouTube video encapsulates this perfectly). As I come to realise that I am at a sort of infinite fork in the road, the magnitude of this ‘choice’ becomes worrying. Of course but this time in my life, with the given skill set and knowledge I have (or will attain), there are several choices that are particularly prominent in this sea of choice. I know, having choice, it’s the worst – I HAVE CHOICES! (But I have to make them… – or do I?) But see, a PMI (plus minus interesting) doesn’t really work for life. You will never know the consequences of your actions, but hindsight will most of the time be 20/20. With some of the ideas I have been toying with, I am unsure whether it is my insecure self band-wagoning on popular, ‘elusive’, ‘lucrative’ career paths, or I really enjoy those things. Time, of course, will always tell. There are many things I want to do, achieve, dabble in, but would I want to be a so-called jack of all trades and master of none? At the moment, there are a handful of things that feature prominence in my conscience in terms of interests. First would be mathematics (and statistics) – this is rather an academic pursuit for me, rather than a hobby. Second would be language learning and foreign languages. Sadly, my introductory Polish course did not work out at all, however I am raring to get back into French in Sydney, as well as polish up my Japanese. I have talked about language learning in the past, but perhaps the thing I enjoy most about language learning is that it engulfs the mind in a sort of foggy maze and the more one learns and understands, the more interesting and fun the maze becomes, almost a game. Thirdly, certainly a hobby, is cuisine! I guess recently I have been really thinking about the food I eat, it’s preparation etc., as well as my own cooking. Perhaps this will turn into a foodie blog in the future, but I digress. These are just a few things that I may be interested in pursuing in the near future. Within each is a sub-path, a sub-route, etc. Perhaps I should let things pan out for themselves, but I feel this is without ambition and lacks passion. But should one decide on their life path at 19? I would say no – picking degrees shows that things can change very quickly. At this point, I want to do so many things, experience all the experiences. Multitasking, anyone?

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Tomorrow, I depart for Hamburg to spend New Year’s with friends. Then to Japan, and finally home! Time has wings…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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