L'oiseau rebelle

Love is a rebellious bird that cannot be tamed

I've Moved Sunday, March 12, 2006

I've moved.

The content and themes of the new blog will be quite distinct from this one though.

As for this blog, I'm comtemplating closing it down entirely, until I realized that other bloggers have linked here. I might just keep a few posts standing, especially those which garnered some attention, which are almost inevitably my semi-logical rantings on Singapore.

L'oiseau rebelle 4:46 PM Permalink | | |

Liberal arts degrees Thursday, March 09, 2006

You might want to read this post by takchek first.

So what is the point of a general degree? Since my academic program can be considered a "general degree" program, I thought of the various paths which my fellow classmates have taken or will be taking. So, what are my fellow (honors) math majors doing/going to do, other than math graduate school?

On the job market: Actuary, investment banking, computer science-y thing

Grad school: Physics, biophysics, economics, statistics, piano performance.

Professional school: Medicine, law.

Notice none are teachers?

By "honors" math majors I mean those who are taking/have taken the advanced pure and/or "classical" applied math classes - I'm not counting those in the more specialized programs such as actuarial science or teacher certification, since they aren't exactly "general degree" programs. Since most people I know are from the previous and current graduating batch, and I don't know everyone, and the honors math community is very small, we're looking at a sample size of about 20 here.

Now that I'm more inclined to going into the job market than grad school, I've been thinking of how to bullshit market my skills effectively. Between my academic program and research experience, I've been able flesh out examples and write convincing arguments that I have the skills required/preferred for actuarial and finance type positions, as stated on the job ads.

In particular, I realized that after taking many pure math classes, my writing skills improved tremendously (although it is not necessarily evident on the blog since this is generally stream of consciousness writing). A lot more so than after taking humanities type classes. Recently I had a career counselor look over some cover letters I wrote, and he commented, "I must say something: you write very well. You have a way of being very concise, but yet very descriptive."

My thoughts: Isn't that what a math proof supposed to be?

I used to take forever to get to the point, now I can pack a whole lot of information into a few sentences. Having to write 7 or 8 convincing, logical and oftentimes complex arguments a week (last semester it was more like 25/week) probably helped too - lots of practice!

L'oiseau rebelle 4:09 PM Permalink | | |

Boycott Sunday, January 15, 2006

As some of you may know, I don't really hang out with the Singaporean group here. I have my group of Singaporean friends, but I rarely ever attend SSA events. In fact, the only events I've ever attended is my freshie orientation and Chinese New Year dinners. Despite almost living on a different planet from most of the Singaporeans studying here, I always thought it was great to keep up with friends and acquaintances, and my group of friends make up an entertaining table.

This year, I had doubts about attending the event, since most of my friends are either out of town around CNY, or have already graduated. And in an ironic twist, M can't make the event because he'll be in, of all places, Singapore.

What struck the nail into the coffin, however, is the email sent out by the organizers - with "Singaporeans only" scrawled all over it.


Sure, there might be limited seating available, but still, WTF????

For many years the event has been open to anyone who wishes to attend, the venue is still the same, why the change?????????

Even if the "rule" is unenforcable, but in principle, WTF??????

What about those people whose significant others are not Singaporean? A fellow Chinese would want to celebrate the event with the SO, whilst a non-Chinese would want to learn about Chinese customs if the relationship is serious.

I hate flogging the dead horse yet again, but even after writing this and this, I could never think up of such an insular action and attitude.

According to a friend who is/used to be (I'm not too sure which) pretty involved in the SSA, the event is organized by the freshies, who are so cliquish and insular that they hardly mix with the Singaporean seniors.

So I'm definitely not attending the event.

L'oiseau rebelle 1:31 PM Permalink | | |

Yet another rant on studying Chinese in Singapore Sunday, January 08, 2006

Now that I'm out of the Singapore education system, it never ceases to amaze me how a system can malfunction so badly that people who studied Chinese for 10 to 12 years, and actually passed the exams, can emerge with a terrible command of the language. Like me, who comfortably passed my Chinese exams without studying for them. My Chinese grades were usually in the B range, except for my short stint in Higher Chinese, where it is almost inevitable that my grades were lowest in the class.

At least I still have a decent ability at speaking the language, I can still pass off as being fluent, until the conversation meanders to a topic of some substance. There are people I know who can't even order tea at a Chinese restaurant. And there are people I know who got an A for the subject and can barely speak the language.

Now that I'm studying a couple other languages, might I suggest some changes to the pedagogy of Chinese instruction in Singapore:

Firstly, the Chinese system is structured such that memorization is essential for doing well in the exams. When PRC scholars complain that they have to resort to memorizing those vocabulary handbooks in order to do well in the exams, you know something is very wrong. Now, some degree of memorization is definitely necessary when learning a language, but a language is a living, breathing thing, not an inanimate object that blindly follows a set of rules. Memorization is uninteresting, tedious, and bloody annoying. So students like me think of the language as uninteresting, tedious and bloody annoying. Now you know why students dislike the language. And why we can't use it properly.

And the material covered in class is bloody boring! Those passages in those crappy textbooks we use basically cover two topics: "Be a good student, this is how you should follow our Chinese traditions, don't question the teacher, don't disobey authority, you'll fare better being a sheep, maaaaaa..." and traditional stories, ancient folklore, watered down versions of the literature, etc. Now, the second is somewhat interesting, if not for the moralizing that goes behind almost every one of the stories. Where are the stories of modern China, INTERESTING newspaper articles, and basically things that hold our interest? Now, yes curriculum shouldn't be tailored entirely to the students' interests, but in language studies, you can always pick interesting topics. What about discussing pertinent topics like politics and economics? And why is newspaper reading almost always relegated to second priority? (Top priority, of course, is going through that bloody textbook and memorizing every word and sentence structure you can find in there.) Where's the interesting literature? Why are the writers we are exposed (and I grudgingly use that word) to born 5000 years ago? It's not that ancient writers are boring, but we need variety.

Also, there is so little emphasis on oral skills. Oral practice is almost entirely restricted to reciting the textbook out loud, which does nothing for our ability to speak the language. Which probably explains the phenomenon of A students who can't speak the language to save their lives. This is probably based on the outmoded Chinese tradition of "students/children should be seen but not heard" - why should we hear a student/child's opinion? Why not have lively debates in class, or discuss an INTERESTING newspaper article, event, and oh yes, films.

Although the second and third points is a result of the first - if there's a set syllabus to memorize, then class time will be spent memorizing all the boring stuff, and little time is left for interesting things like literature and current events.

So why do you think many students think of Chinese as a dead, outmoded language that is full of outdated and archaic traditions, and for those with libertarian tendencies like me, a symbol of oppression? And hence develop an adverse reaction to learning it?

Actually, I once had a Chinese teacher who stimulated some interest in the language. By then, I was too jaded by the crap in the system. She was genuinely interested in the language and culture, which was why she wanted to be a teacher, and her enthusiasm showed. She was a lot more open minded than most Chinese teachers I've ever had. And she made a tremendous effort to make lessons interesting, a la the stuff I outlined above. It did help that she didn't teach me in a major exam year, and it wasn't Higher Chinese, so there weren't many students taking the class and she was practically the only teacher. That is, she sets the exams.

I remember she once gave us a newspaper article that lamented the lack of interest in Chinese on the part of the youth, about overhearing a conversation that revolved around "I hate Chinese". We needed to write a response as a composition exercise. Instead of taking the predictable and safe route of "oh it's so sad that students aren't interested in their heritage", I wrote what was basically a more diplomatic version of what I just wrote. It was my best essay ever, because I was actually engaged in the topic (unlike complaint letters about neighbor's bird shitting on your windows). Because of her open-mindedness, it was also my best grade on an essay ever; I didn't get 100% because of I couldn't always string together sentences correctly.

Next, studying a language without endless, mindless, repetitive drills...

L'oiseau rebelle 4:01 PM Permalink | | |

Degree Duration Friday, January 06, 2006

I was reading this post when this struck me, as you can see I wrote some preliminary ideas in the comments box.

In much of the Singaporean community, it is common 'wisdom' that finishing an American undergrad degree program in 3 years (instead of the standard 4) saves money.

In much of the Singaporean community, there is also a warped obsession in finishing in 3 years. I get terribly sick and bloody annoyed when I hear "Why does University A grant only X number of credits for A-Levels, when University B grants Y>>X credits, how can I/my son/my daughter finish the degree in 3 years?". Solution? Transfer to University B, which is usually of lower ranking and prestige than University A. Simple, right?

So some Singaporeans take summer school, sometimes more than once, to be able to fulfill degree requirements in 3 years. I'm not disparaging everyone who has done summer school, I know people who do so for various reasons, and I've done so myself, except that it was at a very much cheaper place. (I wanted to see that particular school too, and I've since decided never to apply there for grad school.) But if you wanted to finish in 3 years under the guise of saving money, you might be surprised to learn that little money is saved.

In most colleges, summer school costs as much per credit as the regular term. So that $1000+ per credit price tag (at my college) that you've been complaining about is still there. You pay almost the same amount in tuition whether you did summer school or you finished your degree in 3.5 or 4 years. You still have to pay for lodging, food, etc, at very similar rates to the regular term time. Unless you sublet, but most Singaporeans move off campus, and live in their own apartments during summer. So your living expenses do not reduce by very much. In other words, there is little money saved.

Unless you take classes at the local community college, but then, community colleges have less than zero prestige and the people there are stupid, isn't it?

Actually, I think the CC option is brilliant, especially if you're doing classes you'd loathe to take during the regular term. The local CC charges around $70 per credit, compared to $1000+ per credit for my college. As an Indonesian friend who clued me in to this idea said, "Even if I take a cab there every day, I still save a lot of money." The caveat is that most universities won't accept CC credit after you have junior standing.

Anyway, after performing this calculation, I just wonder, are these Singaporeans unthinking sheep who take in common 'wisdom' unquestioningly, or are they more concerned about 'face' and 'losing to' their peers/their peers' children, who are so smart that they can finish the degree in the shortest time possible?

Why are Singaporeans obsessed with numbers anyway?

My motivation for finishing in 3 years? I'm not charitable enough to contribute any more towards the Pay Administrators More Fund, when I can slave away get paid to take very similar classes. And I'm eagerly awaiting financial independence (or the closest approximation to, considering the grad student stipend). On my financial declaration forms for grad school apps, I just wrote "Department funding", whether that's an option or not.

L'oiseau rebelle 10:14 PM Permalink | | |

On Insularity Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I should be studying, but I need a break. So you just have to bear with my crap.

I was just thinking about the issue of interacting with non-Asians whilst studying overseas, and in particular, the perception that the locals aren't very friendly. There are very insular people of all races and cultural backgrounds around. They also do not (hopefully!) represent the entire racial/cultural group.

But maybe we should look from the other side of the story. I have heard about the "other side" of the Singaporean story, and let's just say that insularity is the mildest of the gripes. To give you a flavor of the story, I refer to a comment that a friend has just made about a particular country that is not Singapore:

The land of "by the book" or "where's the book?"

But anyway. Sometimes, if you appear to be part of an insular group, it's difficult for people outside the group to approach you. Just think of the ways the PRCs are viewed in Singapore. My JC class was more than 50% PRC, and not all of them fit the stereotype. About half of them are really cool people who are great to hang out with, who are willing to look beyond cultural barriers to mix with the Singaporeans (yes there are cultural barriers, I'm sure most of us know this by now), and count amongst my closest JC friends. Although it did nothing for my Chinese language ability. Except that now I can pretend that I've a mainland Chinese accent.

The other half fit the stereotype perfectly, and I don't particularly fancy having one-way conversations, if at all. So I didn't really get to know most of this half after spending 2 years together as a class.

This semester M took a first-year graduate physics class. The demographic of the physics dept is quite interesting actually. Contrary to popular opinion about Asian ability in math and science, the undergrad physics students, and especially the best students, are almost all white. So naturally most of his friends in the dept are white. I won't be too surprised if people who don't know him think that he's Asian-American. There are a lot more Asians amongst the grad students, and mostly from East Asian countries. I'm not sure whether there's any polarization, or what degree of polarization there is in the dept, but his lab has only one other Asian (and it's a huge lab), whilst there's a lab where the only non-Asian is the PI. Most labs are probably in-between.

Anyway, he says that there's a sizable group of Asians in this class that he took, who mostly kept to themselves, or at least gave the appearance of doing so. He has his group of friends who are mostly white taking the class with him. He found it difficult to communicate with this Asian group, despite coming from a similar cultural background. If he found it difficult, how do you think the non-Asians will perceive this group?

Extrapolate this to "Singaporean group" and "Department of X Engineering", and it might explain why some Singaporeans find the Americans (or any other non-Asian) unfriendly. It might not be that they're unfriendly. They just might not "know" how to interact either. Interaction, after all, is a two-way thing.

L'oiseau rebelle 2:07 PM Permalink | | |

What am I getting myself into? Friday, December 09, 2005

Conversation snippet from today. A, a fellow undergrad and I were talking a bit about grad school applications, B is a grad student in my class.

A: I'm mailing off my application to University X today, so I can send by priority mail and it'll still reach them on time.

B: You're applying to X?

A: Yeah.

B: I heard they aren't very supportive of their grad students.

A: I did hear about that, but I think I'm motivated enough to survive there.

B: I mean, they really aren't supportive of their grad students. And it's not just about getting lost in the crowd. For example, their grad students aren't supplied with chalk. Over here, we get supplied with pens and paper. Which is considered above average.

L'oiseau rebelle 4:03 PM Permalink | | |

On cultural interactions & studying overseas Friday, December 02, 2005

Let's see, my this post inspired takchek to write this, which linked to Wind's post on the self segregration (is ghettoification too strong a word?) of Singaporeans, Xue's reactions to Wind's post, which in turn inspired Olandario to write a response, along the lines of "Does getting to know Asians only mean you're not making full use of your overseas education?" (My freshman comp instructor is going to kill me for that sentence.)

What constitutes "making full use of my overseas education" is a question which I have been mulling for quite a long time, since another way to stating the question is "how can I justify the immense amount of $$$".

The tentative answer that I've been able to come up with so far is: if I take up the opportunities presented to me here that would not have been available to me if I had studied in Singapore.

Of course, there is no narrow definition of "taking up opportunities", since some people may love working in a top research lab, some people may take advantage of the college's connections to Wall Street (or fill in anything else here), some people may want to experience (or study about) a different culture, some people may want to... well this list certainly isn't definitive at all. To each their own, but I fail to see the point of embarking on an expensive education if all the things you do during your college days can be done in Singapore. (And you can live independently in Singapore. Really. And generally, coursework in America really isn't that great - Europe is a better option if you wish to focus on coursework. On the issue of coursework, also refer to yesterday's post.)

And on the issue of cross-cultural communication, it's certainly up to the individual to choose whether to befriend exclusively Singaporeans and/or Asians, or to expand your circles of friendships. For me, I'm not inclined to know people from just one ethnic group in the first place, plus, as I've mentioned in a comment to takchek's post, due to the demographic of my department, interacting with non-Asians is almost essential to my academic survival. On the other hand, in some majors you can get by without even talking to a non-Singaporean, although I fail to see good reasons for this. I think I've matured academically by interacting with my classmates, as I get to understand their motivations, their definitions of success, their intellectual approaches towards the subject, and their homework/time management habits, which are generally quite different from the "typical" Singaporean (and maybe Asian), and definitely different from the American stereotype.

Take my SOP, for example. My proofreaders (so far, I'll be approaching one or two more people) are an American and a Swiss - I don't see the point of having all my proofreaders be from a very similar cultural background (one of the two is not even in my department), since they would probably echo most of the things I say, and maybe sharpen a few sentences. One of my proofreaders has gotten back to me, and offered a number of stylistic changes that M and I didn't pick up, and it greatly improves the tone, direction and the intent of the essay. I wouldn't be adding a line about the tolling bells of death though. Which is why although M and I both read each other's essays, we know we are not each other's best proofreaders, since we are not only from similar cultural backgrounds, but we've been discussing this for ages, and our essays are practically carbon copies of each other, just fill in "physics" or "math" at the relevant parts.

And in exchange for proofreading my SOP, I'll soon have to proofread 20 pages of a dissertation. The math proofs part of course. I wouldn't understand the other 980 pages.

Which is why I didn't particularly like Wind's statement that "we know that Singaporean partners are mostly quite good in their studies and wouldn't drag you down" (Wind, if you're reading this, I'm not targeting you). This attitude is quite prevalent amongst Singaporeans actually, especially those in the engineering school. Whilst I understand that there are non-Singaporeans/Asians who aren't particularly interested in their academic work, and they'll be totally annoying to work with, there are also many other motivated and hardworking and intelligent non-Singaporeans/Asians - it's an individual's prerogative to find out who they are. After a year or two in a particular dept, is it really that hard to tell who are the good students and who are not? Unless you've been sleeping in or skipping class, or are totally oblivious to your surroundings.

Whilst I respect each individual's decisions and philosophy, it sometimes helps to ponder: what are my motivations for studying overseas? Am I getting the best out of my bloody expensive education?

L'oiseau rebelle 5:40 PM Permalink | | |

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