Korea Trip 2018

(Delayed post from 29 May 18. Wrote this on the plane and completely forgot about it.)

Second leg of my trip back from Korea to London. I had a domestic flight earlier in the day from Jeju to Seoul, allowed myself a 4-hour transfer period to change airport from Gimpo to Incheon, and managed to catch the flight from Seoul to London without any troubles. Life is good and so am I. I have enjoyed Korea a lot this time, in fact looking back all my trips to Korea have been more than enjoyable because of the context of where I was. In 2008 it felt like a reward trip for me for the completion of PSLE, in 2015 it was a self-reward trip for finishing BMT (and the first time I got to spend my own pay check without any worries), and this time it follows right after the completion of university and final year examinations, that I think I have worked quite hard for. It always feels better when you enter a holiday without any added stress of deadlines, examinations to work for and this trip was all of that.

I think what changed the most this trip from the last was the fact that I had, by now, understood the elements of most conversational Korean, and could comfortably ask people for directions (and understand their response), albeit in very broken grammar. I had imagined that I would improve much more after this trip, but I doubt this would be the case because I feel like my conversational Korean has stagnated, and I do need to make the active attempt to speak in proper grammar if not I will never improve beyond simple grammar and usage of conjunctions. Being able to converse simply, and read words however, made the trip much more fulfilling because you get to understand nuances of their lifestyle. Korea is, in my opinion, a very polite, orderly and respectful country, with elements of this reflected in the language itself. What I had encountered on a daily basis and probably a very superficial level of interaction showed me how civilised the society was. I think graciousness is always a plus point for a country, because it encourages so many more visitations, such as from people like me.

Nonetheless, I must say that I can understand why foreigners have been said to face discrimination and unpleasant experiences. The online scene of Korea was extremely foreigner-unfriendly, despite knowing basic Korean and being able to navigate around the online website without much issues other than the occasional Google Translate for technical terms I did not understand. It made it impossible for foreigners to attend music festivals and some events, such as SHINee’s 10th anniversary fanmeet. I was extremely upset when I found out that I could not even attempt to get a ticket because I did not have a Korean-registered phone number, and even sending my passport photocopy would not suffice because for some goddamn reason they needed your identity in the local database for some nonsense about secure payments. I guess I would have been unable to purchase tickets anyway, since their local website strangely did not even accept any MasterCard or Visa payments. It is unfortunate that I did not manage to go to their fanmeet despite coinciding my trip with their 10th anniversary, although I made sure to shut out those thoughts daily ever since I found it to be negatively affecting the preparation for my examinations. Another general unpleasant experience faced even by locals was when we failed to hail a cab for Edina back to her dormitory even after ~30 minutes, because most drivers were unwilling to pick up passengers for such a short ride. According to the frustrated expatriates on the internet, it seemed that the cab drivers would rather drive around and waste petrol to find a more valuable customer who would go a longer distance. We eventually managed to find a nice driver anyway.

Furthermore, it was a very K-Pop fulfilling trip for me, having managed to (vaguely) see Kim Bum Soo and IU albeit only 1cm in vision, TWICE at their concert, and Momoland, Zion.T, Melomance, Hyolyn, Highlight (or what I know to be Beast), Blackpink, and ending the night with PSY. The last impressive line-up was at IPSELENTI held by Korea University, which Edina kindly invited me to go for. I also found it quite sad that I no longer saw Super Junior, SHINee, SNSD and Wonder Girls on advertisements, when they were plastered all over the stores in Myeongdong a decade ago. I remember SHINee’s AMiGo playing in the cosmetic stores and hearing Wonder Girls everywhere instead of TWICE, which made all the trips into Etude House and Face Shop with my sister and mother a little better, given the disinterested 12-year-old me. I actually probably think I still am quite disinterested. In my last trip in 2015, I was hardly into the KPop world which meant that I knew little about what was going on around me, but in 2018 I felt ever more aware when Chung Ha’s songs were playing at many stores to my delight, and when it obviously seemed that Bboom Bboom by Momoland was doing very well in charts in Korea. Advertisements on the subway were dominated by congratulatory and birthday messages to celebrities mostly for Wanna One and EXO from what I have seen, and it seemed so normal to locals that people were walking along those advertising billboards without a second look. I was happy to see one huge banner at Hongik congratulating SHINee on their 10th anniversary.

I enjoyed my meals with Weixuan and Edina, and surprisingly did not get sick of the food despite eating the same ingredients many times. I had BBQ at least 3 times, naengmyeon, seafood ramen, oh god I am hungry just thinking about all this. These were great! It also struck me as pretty interesting how Korea does not have a tipping culture, and yet does not have service charge implemented into the bill at the same time. I feel like Korea is the only country I know right now where diners are not obliged to pay extra for their meals, and that what you see is what you get. I actually find this much better for splitting of expenses and budgeting, because it always is so difficult to split a £23.55 bill among friends. I think the most memorable meal would be 놀맨 (Nolman?) at Jeju — we failed to eat it as planned on our first day itinerary, but Weixuan managed to fit it in for our second day morning since we lived a 15-minute drive away from the store anyway. No regrets, because it was so extremely value-for-money, with all the seafood (crab, prawn) thrown into the ramen and it still being affordably priced at 8000 won. It was so aesthetically pleasing as well, with all the tourists in the store taking shots of their food, just like me. Furthermore, we were the 9th customer to obtain a queue number, which meant that we did not have to wait as long as 1-2 hours like the other guests who were standing around waiting for seats. I guess it is always good to be the first batch of customers.

I also visited many places this time, much thanks to Weixuan who planned the trip in great detail to fit it around both our schedules. I managed to go paragliding in Danyang, hiked Seoraksan National Park and took the gimmicky boat ride where Song Hye Kyo and Song Seung Hyun met again at the Abari Village in Seokcho, as well as spent 4 days in Jeju where I drove and stayed alive. The previous trips were based mostly around Seoul and Busan, typical tourist spots and tourist shopping, so I am thankful that I went to new places this time, and was a lot more in touch with nature than anything else. I must say hiking the last kilometre of the Seoraksan Park was extremely difficult for my post-examination body, with my thighs aching and the lactic acid rushing around my calves and thighs every time I stopped moving. Unfortunately, we did not get to climb Mount Hallasan because it was raining on the day we had planned it to be, and it was turning extremely foggy. I must say that the locals here are so lucky, having accessible national parks and mountains within their own country. It definitely encourages patriotism as well.

Driving around in Jeju was actually quite scary given that I had no driving experience on an automatic car and on the left hand drive, and furthermore I was not yet exposed to many dangerous elements of being on the road. The first 5 minutes were the scariest when leaving the airport, having to change lanes multiple times, and navigating left and right turns straightaway to get to where we wanted to, when I had not even warmed up much. I must admit that I had been an unsafe driver on many occasions: attempted a three-point-turn and ended up turning into a pole, rushed a right turn without signalling (which confused the traffic-following driver), and wrongly honked someone because I thought he did not know it was time to turn. I classify these as big problems because they would obviously have been major faults (instant failures) in a UK driving test. Nonetheless, all was okay because I paid for full insurance and managed to return the car safely after 4 days. I have to be on the roads more to make sure I stay alive! Truly envious of those who have great spatial awareness, it is as if they possess a bird-eye view of the car and can manoeuvre the cars into lots easily.

I realise the many things I have taken for granted that made my trip smoother this time. I love Asiana Airlines and their service (and extremely comfortable leg space), which made the start and end of my trip stress-free and enjoyable. I see the value in paying a premium in a trusted airline carrier now; they have such a good track record that the Captain was apologising to all passengers that there was a 10-minute delay due to ground traffic. Of course, I know I would not say the same if I could not afford it, and I do remember cutting back on a favoured airline experience to take a 6am Tiger Airways flight with my mother and sister just because we could save a huge sum of money. I probably should not have done that because plane comfort is extremely important for my mother. Overall, I thought I would not see Korea again after my last trip 3 years ago, but I guess I have been back. Since I am learning Korean now, I know I will eventually come back, hopefully with a better standard of spoken Korean the next time. I look forward to when that happens.


2200hrs in the library

Tomorrow I have my second exam at 2.30pm.

I do not feel too confident about it, mainly because I know I am not prepared and I will never be…..

Exam stress has been getting to me. But today I will like to think of it as: today I have 3 papers left, after tomorrow I will only have 2 left, and by the weekend I only have one exam left to prepare for.

It only gets easier from now on. Let’s go!

My privilege

The issue of privilege has been on my mind for quite a while, but I never put pen to paper about my thoughts. I think I was most triggered by three incidences:

1. I was once catching up with this fellow scholar after returning for summer. I have no idea what transpired in the conversation since it took place so long ago, but the famous “is the dress blue-black or white-gold?” popped up in the conversation. He then mentioned that he did not know what I was talking about, and muttered something along the lines of “I don’t read pointless things, it’s a waste of time.”

2. I was stalking a particular set of parents on Facebook (lol oops), and it occurred to me that this set of parents seemed very educated. The mother, in particular, had the “studied at NUS” tag on her public information, which struck me as unconventional for their generation. She had a Facebook post, within which the caption states how she is very happy that her 18-year-old daughter (in RGS) is now able to think critically and beyond the surface, having had a family table’s discussion about current affairs.

3. Most notably, it would be this example. I think you might read this, so please let me know if you are uncomfortable with this, I will remove it immediately. My friend has a sibling, who in my entire life I have believed to be extremely intelligent, as she topped her school for PSLE, subsequently studied in an excellent secondary school, and even so, never failed to top her class academically year after year. She did all of this despite being from a relatively underprivileged background compared to the rest of her peers in school, who mostly lived in landed estates, or private condominiums. Despite the stellar academic achievements which definitely had not fallen short of her expectations at the eventual A Levels, however, she did not manage to obtain several scholarship opportunities, and had to end up being, in my opinion, “over-qualified” for her undergraduate offers. My view is debatable.

I started thinking hard about this only when I enrolled in university, presumably because of the people all around me. It was getting easier and easier to normalise my privilege here, that the amazing opportunity to study abroad suddenly seemed very accessible to everyone when I was placed here in time. I loved to use A Levels as the reason to “dream big”, that I could do anything as long as I wanted to, and getting here was one example. But sometimes other thoughts occur to me. Did I really get to where I am because of my hard work? A relook at my childhood would see that my above-average academic performance started from young (debatable). In Primary 1, I scored a 29/50 for my English examination, I remember my mother screaming at this grade, and subsequently I started having English tuition. It then branched out to further tuition lessons for all subjects (i.e. English, Math, Science and Chinese) tuition with my tuition teacher, because the academic demands started getting heavier. All those lessons probably created a positive effect on my academic performance, because I started doing well in school. Straight Band 1s were attained easily. I could be that lazy kid who did not do homework every day, the kid that prioritised her leveling on MapleStory over a penmanship exercise, but these never held me back from the maintenance of an academic performance good enough for the “best class”. For all these reasons, I probably already started on a higher footing than everyone else. I had schoolmates getting into fights outside school, and receiving public caning by my OM who was a “retired policeman”. How did they become involved in these vices at such a young age? I could never empathise. I did well in all my Math examinations when I was younger, and people would ask me how I did so well when they could barely pass. I probably never understood why I could do better than the schoolmates who asked me those questions. Today, I would attribute it to tuition, that I had that few hours of personalised lessons to cater to my academic weaknesses every single week. Without which I never would have understood what happened in classes, given my atrocious attitude in class.

It may not seem like a lot, but that was all I needed. I did well enough in PSLE to go to a good (not the best!) secondary school, and therefore ended up with highly-motivated peers in my classes and a great education curriculum. It probably led me all the way to today, because RV was where I heard talks about an overseas education, where I found the fire in me to strive and attain an overseas scholarship, and where I heard of people topping the nation for A Levels. Things in which I have succeeded in doing, except the last. I think the normal perception of me by other people is that I have it all, and that is not wrong. I have a great family, I have a great education, and I potentially have a great future ahead with my scholarship. What more could I ask for?

In spite of all I have said, in the process of growing up I have always felt less than my peers. I have wished on many occasions that my parents belonged to the “new generation of parents”. I never had a single musical instrument lesson until I requested for piano lessons when I was 17, when people were getting Grade 8 piano certifications at 12. I never attended swimming lessons until I was 13, and felt really awkward around all the other kids who were half my age and half my size. Why did my parents not think it was necessary at an earlier age? Interestingly, the strongest feelings of inferiority, however, hit me when I arrived in London, a feat I thought I had achieved only because I did well relative to my peers. In a city like London, it really is easy to feel small and insignificant. I have never been so surrounded by wealthy people, friends/acquaintances who have been in the best schools all their life (eg. RGPS/RGS/RJC), and have never met so many people who knew that going overseas to study was a path they were definitely going to take ever since they were in their teenage years. I never knew that international schools were so sought after by parents in another part of the world, because it gave their children a larger gateway to colleges. I never knew that so many people our age go to airport lounges, and that people our age book their seats on Business and First Class flights because comfort is necessary on long-haul flights. I think I did not even know the lounge existed until I got here. I have never been exposed to so many “first world problems” in my life, that people did not want to stay in HDBs because of the low ceiling, and that long-haul budget flights like Norwegian were obviously avoided without a thought because of the 13-hour discomfort.

People here shared different sets of concerns, that it was about acquiring a good Master’s programme for scholarship holders (i.e. Ivy League/Oxbridge), and it was about acquiring a good summer/spring internship for better graduate prospects. People casted their nets wide ever since they were a teenager, some people knew that certain undergraduate degrees provided them a competitive edge in an industry they long sought an interest in (eg. Economics for perhaps the finance industry), and therefore involved themselves in relevant internships and work opportunities before they even enrolled in their undergraduate degrees. I never had this sort of a social circle even when I was back in RV, safe to say an “elite school”, and these were all little pockets of information that I only learnt about when I came to London and looked through pages after pages of LinkedIn accounts. How would I ever know? How would I ever know what was “Big 4” for accounting, what was “Big 3” for consulting, and what was “FMCG”? Without my scholarship, how would I ever know that I could apply to all these overseas universities? My parents never told me to try. Most importantly, how did they know? Notwithstanding what I said above about how I may seem to a third party to have it all, it was really easy to lose myself in all this inferiority, to constantly feel not enough relative to everyone else here. Why was I not born smarter, so that I did not have to worry so much about my grades at university? Why was I not born richer, so that I could worry less about future prospects?

In my three abovementioned examples, I would dare say that 1 and 2 had the blessing of educated parents who had a hand in creating larger mental capacities and critical thinking skills in them. I had a friend who told me that her father preferred her to take degrees like Economics and Mathematics because she would be learning hard technical knowledge, instead of general Business Management degrees. Both of us were only 16 then, I didn’t even know. My parents never finished primary and secondary education individually, how would they know to advise me? I never spoke about current affairs or higher education at the dinner table. I spent most of the time talking about pointless things with my family members, maybe the blue-black/white-gold dress, and in more meaningful topics, the occasional interjection about the stock market. I never talked about worldly affairs with my family that made my problems and interests seem trivial and meaningless in comparison. Example 3 was a painful one to cite, because I am certain that most people around her knew that she was bright and deserved better compared to what she received. But maybe she was disadvantaged in this game of life because she started off on a different footing from the rest of her peers. At the point of face-to-face interviews within her scholarship applications, she would not know what she did not know. Perhaps she would not have been as adequately prepared as her many peers who had civil servant parents filling in the gaps in his/her knowledge base about government service. I find that this is the real issue of privilege, that it is bestowed upon us and normalised (or not) in our lives, that it becomes weaved into what makes us, us. It would never have been effectively communicated to me that my academic performance interrelated with my socioeconomic status – I was just doing my own part, going through the life that seemed to paved itself out slowly. I started to reflect and realise that people might probably look at what I have achieved, and perhaps irritably think to themselves to how I whine about expensive flight tickets when I managed to pay for it anyway. Maybe even the cost of driving lessons was something I took for granted too, as not any college student can afford it. Perhaps they might also wonder why I got so upset about being rejected from Oxford, when most people my age do not even bother applying as an overseas education is nothing more than a pipe dream. Most fundamentally, how could I say that I worked hard for everything I have achieved thus far, when I had tuition to better my performance at primary school level? I have become so blinded by the view from where I am standing, that I have forgotten about everything else in my life that has allowed me to stand here today.

In these thoughts, I hope to keep grounded and remember that what I have achieved today was not a mere product of my hard work, but my efforts against a backdrop of my relatively positive socioeconomic background. I hope to always remember that I am probably living the dream of someone else’s, especially in the worst days when I get extremely discouraged be it in my studies or my work. I will endeavour to be more careful with my sentences, especially when I complain incessantly about things that people may not even have the chances of embarking on, eg. long-haul flights. I will also be wary of dismissing views and opinions as “pointless” and “meaningless”, something I have unfortunately found myself on about in recent years, because not everyone has had the opportunities to grow as I have. Most importantly, rather than wishing my parents/I were richer, I hope I remember to always be thankful for the memory of a wonderful childhood.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

– The Great Gatsby

Driving Hell

I am very tempted to forgo this post to rewatch another episode of 甄嬛传, a nightly activity that I look forward to while daydreaming in the library these few afternoons, but I ought to document this milestone in my life.

I finally obtained my driving license. Damn it.

I do not complain very much about driving on this platform, but I complain so much to my friends around me, especially on Dayre. Here are the valuable screencaps of me being a ranty bird. Monday (or Sunday) blues were so damn real. I am getting shudders thinking about how I felt in the weekend before a driving lesson. It felt so ridiculous to me that I was paying so much (£30/hour) to dread something so much. I actually felt ridiculous too, because I do not think any of my friends felt this stressed and this much hate for their driving lessons. People just seem to get it over and done with. People can actually chiong their lessons to get to their test dates more quickly! How do they do that?!

One day Bowei asked me why I hated driving so much. “What’s the point of learning if you hate the act of driving?” and I realised my biggest problem was the unhappiness with the style of instruction. In almost every lesson leading up to the test I made mistakes of course, stupid ones included. Some include turning without signalling, some include making right turns without checking for oncoming traffic because I was blocked by a huge vehicle, some include using the wrong reference points for parallel/reverse parking, some include using the hand brake when my foot was still on the accelerator, and some include changing down to gear 2 even when I was going at 30 miles. All the time I get too closed to parked cars because UK roads are built so narrowly yet designated as a two-way road expecting two cars to fit through, and a couple of times I have bumped up on low kerbs.

Of course everyone makes mistakes, but what was horrible was how I felt after each mistake. The scoldings would come immediately, and if I may quote, “tell me why you did what you did (the mistake)”, “I want to know your thought process”, and on harsher occasions, “are you crazy? why would you do that?”, “how can you do the first roundabout perfectly and completely mess up on the second?!”, “you are going so slow on the dual carriageway you are a road hazard to all other the road users! Look how many cars are overtaking you!”. And when I start getting used to a high speed, “Pinky, are you speeding now? Earlier you were always afraid of speeding up, and now you are being too aggressive.” Many more comments during the driving lesson continue. I find it hard to justify why I did what I did, because most of the time, I would just like to tell her that it was a simple case of me, for the lack of a better word, fucking up. But I just keep quiet and… feel bad about myself. A bad lesson in the morning can easily spoil my entire day, especially since 2 hours of intense concentration while manoeuvring on the road can really be mentally taxing.

In fact, the problem was not with my instructor, because I have changed instructors once (male to female) and the style of instruction does not differ too much. Aloysius also once mentioned that he gets these irritating questions all the time. These comments arose from their need to be “in control” of the driving lesson, and the need to actively criticise on the move. In fact I already prefer my second instructor much more because of how quickly I improved in the first few lessons compared to the driving lessons with my previous instructor who never catered to my progress and initial ability. I think what made my lessons worse was that I was never exposed to UK roads while scooting about in my father’s car. Singapore’s roads are so much calmer despite all the road rage, and it took me a long time to come to terms with meeting traffic (the narrow road hate) and roundabouts. Gear change is a headache on roundabouts because I have to count exits, change lanes (mirrors and signal), all while trying to watch my speedo to make sure I change up/down my gears on the move. Some people get a kick out of this multi-tasking nonsense. I am not one of them – I am not a natural and I know this very well.

I am glad I pushed on despite feeling like shit almost every lesson, and I have made it here. I took a long time, and the process was definitely expensive, but I would like to think that spending more on driving lessons is still cheaper than a potential accident *touchwood* if I am not skilled enough to deal with hazardous road users and incidents. At least I am now confident enough to operate a car on my own, to go at 70mph on country lanes, and up to 50mph on busy dual carriageways. Confident enough to pull off at an angle on an uphill road without rolling back. Unfortunately, I failed my first attempt at the driving test in the first minute when parking downhill because I rolled and nearly hit the car behind me (instructor had to brake – an instant fail). I attribute that completely to test nerves, and was really glad to get parallel parking the second time round because I would have had time to warm up during the test before being asked to conduct a manoeuvre. And I passed the second time round, down to good luck with quiet Saturday traffic on the narrow roads, and perhaps simply because I was a more confident driver when lane-changing on fast roads.

First fail and second pass test sheet respectively, because I think I would like to remember my failures. I had initially envisioned my first test to be my pass, and hoped that it would reverse the curse of 19 March 2011, when I sadly led the team to obtain 6th for FSD partly attributed to a folly of mine. No, of course the date remained a curse even after 7 years later. I failed my driving test, and when I returned home that afternoon, I received my email rejection from Oxford. What a horrible day it was, and I decided to just take a nap. I will remember this shitty date for life.

Here’s the picture that everyone takes with their pass certificate and vehicle when they finally pass (as seen on many driving school websites), and this is mine.

Of course, despite all I have said about my instructor, I am genuinely thankful for her. I think any other instructor would easily have been worse (some scream and shout!), and I am thankful to the exposure of the different road types in central London. Driving in central London is a known nightmare, but I think I could do that very well now because of her. Afterall, their job is to make you a confident and skilled driver, and not necessarily a happy one. I hope these skills are transferable to the Singaporean context, and I hope to find myself on the local roads very soon too 🙂

Lesvos, Greece

An excerpt from a book I read recently about Lesvos, which I will not title just in case it redirects people to my blog. It was just a coincidental mention in the book I was reading a few days ago, because previously I do not think I had ever heard of Lesvos as an island.

For all the fieldwork that I did not necessarily enjoy (eg. coring with my feet sinking in the mud), jumping around sleepily from site to site because I was mostly asleep in the vehicles, and being made to identify rocks and vegetation that I had absolutely no clue about while the rest of my coursemates earnestly answered to – I actually really enjoyed the field trip.

The comparison is often made with Mallorca, the second year Physical Geography trip, where I chose to undertake a bathymetry project in the lake. While I undoubtedly learnt much from that trip, with amazing breakfast and dinner buffets every single day, I was mostly confined to one place for the entire duration of the fieldwork, which was S’Albufereta Nature Reserve. Fieldwork in Mallorca was actually much more intense, with daily fieldwork till early evening in this place, and continuation in the lab till 10pm after our dinner buffet. It was an extremely focused trip working on one research project, and for that reason the lazy and selfish natures of people were exposed a lot. I think it possibly arises from the fact that the graded component was a 90% coursework that would have little to do with your participation in the groupwork or presentation at the end of the trip, and many made use of this to cut corners in the joint efforts. I went away from the trip unhappy with quite a few people.

Lesvos was slightly different through, as the number of people who were interested in the trip contracted even more in range (from 20+ to 14 this trip). From the North where our hotel was, we set out to the central and eastern parts on certain days, and to the west on other days, to “read the landscape” by studying vegetation distribution, rainfall distribution, and how the faulting systems present on the island had shaped the terrain and the species distribution to be what they were. I can remember way more beautiful sights in my head compared to the ones in Mallorca – driving (and eventually climbing) through the mountain that was only lined with rows and rows of Pinus brutia and Pinus nigra for tree coring, stopping in the middle of Megali Limni coring with a professor who published many papers on Lesvos Island, being beaten by hailstones yet reassured that “we will go back” for the fieldwork, and actually having fun brushing and cleaning the rocks at the museum visit.

The only complaints I have about the trip are probably quite trivial, the lack of sleep (I went away with <7 hours on most days given how tiring the days were) and the food that obviously could not compare to Mallorca. I could say with certainty now that I do not think I would appreciate Greek food. But in all other unnamed aspects I preferred the trip of Lesvos so much more.

Chronis and Mark were also excellent people to go on the trip with, professors I was always very scared of in GEOG1002 and GEOG1005 in Year 1. I remember setting out from house for class early “because it was Mark Maslin”, as he would chase out people who arrived in the class later than 5 minutes past the start of the lesson. I also remember being afraid to use my laptop in GEOG1005, because the module already had printed notes that we may use, yet I was (quite) obsessed with organising my notes neatly for all modules to ease easily into examination preparation. I would never expect him to be happily siding the rest of us students, when he commented that he thought Chronis was going to stop midway to get food before driving all the way back to the hotel near midnight (he was hungry like us!). Nor responding to James by saying "I could not have said it better!" when he mentioned that we should quickly get to the ash layer in Megali Limni so we could "fuck off" from the site. It was funny to watch the banter between the both of them.

Chronis was also extremely nice, far for the cranky professor I thought he was back in Year 1. He listened to a few wilful (or maybe one…) students who were unhappy with the others, paid more attention to us after that, and continually tried to initiate conversations with us, even though it was admittedly difficult to get over the awkwardness for me. He gave a speech on the last day of the trip at the restaurant where the professors paid for our meals, and mentioned that this would be our last taught module of our undergraduate years. I am thankful that my last memory of a lecture was and would be on a beautiful island that people would not ordinarily travel to, because we had to change planes at Athens as there are no direct flights through to Mytilini. Lastly, he also went along with us to the Pirates pub after dinner where the two professors ended up dancing together with students, that I was happy to experience even though the choice of music was so terrible. It served as a good conclusion to the trip that had composed of a near all-nighter (slept at 5.15am and woke up at 8.15am), late nights on 5 other nights, terrible eating habits and daily motion sickness on the vehicles.

I look like shit here regrettably, but this picture is to mark this post: I will always remember these faces.

Dissertation Adventures

I am currently sitting in the library at 5.45pm, unfortunately a tad too early for my intended printing adventures. I arrived in the library shortly after 10.30pm last night and even then, I had to wait for a couple more hours before the library was empty enough to mess around with the printers and pull the paper trays in and out to the annoyance of everyone seated near the huge laser printers. I have read thestudentroom enough these days to know that our dissertation is nothing more than a piece of assignment that we look back on one year into the future and feel embarrassed about, but to me the dissertation brought together all I have learnt in these three years about independent learning. The entire piece of assignment originated from our own research interests, and the directions towards which our research methods flowed were all decisions that we had the autonomy to make. After more than a year from my initial intentions to work on this topic, I am finally printing my dissertation. Similar to how I would always remember H1 Project Work to be a part of my life, I think the dissertation journey would be immensely rewarding to look back on.

How I chose my topic

After having obtained 54/55 for my Methods in Physical Geography course last year, I started getting afraid about my initial decisions to do Physical Geography. I do not aspire to be the top of my course, but 54/55 is clearly a shitty mark. Singaporean scholar? No way. I started beating myself up over my academic choices. Do I actually understand the point of fieldwork? Did I even learn anything on the trip to Mallorca? Am I bad at analysing field samples? Why did I choose the more Science-y track when I am not gifted in this at all? These questions made me fear the choice of my dissertation topic, because I feared putting so much effort into something that would not reap rewards (i.e. higher than the 68s and 69s that I have been getting…). We were encouraged to attend a dissertation workshop, which of course I did attend, and where most of the seniors cited how important it was to “enjoy what you were doing” and “choose a topic that interests you”. Ben Page once gave me some advice on choosing a topic, that it was important to think about what made you special, and areas in which you would have an advantage in. I started having a lot of ideas for a Human Geography topic mostly arising from my personal interests in Korea and China, but those were not helping because I was no longer on the Human Geography track. I still had absolutely no idea what I could do pertaining to Physical Geography, especially since I thought that originality counted for a lot. I thought about doing something related to hydrology because that was one of the most interesting (and practicable) field areas today, but it was so over-done, there were students working on that same topic every year in a different locality with a different software and different climate change projections. I also could not imagine having to sit down in front of the computer even as a form of ‘fieldwork’, because data collection involved getting figures on precipitation inputs and evapotranspiration for example. It was honestly difficult as well, and I was not confident of coming up with outputs that could parallel the amazing work by seniors who got published. I was thinking of doing on something on ecology too, but I was not well-acquainted with native and invasive species in Singapore.

Approximately 2-3 weeks before the deadline of the dissertation outline form, I chanced upon a Mothership article on Facebook, and this caught my interest. I had honestly not known of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio river restoration programme prior to this, and river restoration was something that I was quite drawn to, because I had learnt it since JC. The initial misleading article published by Today also showed the inadequacy in geographical knowledge by many Singaporeans because we were living in an urban heartland, as it had noted that the floodwaters “swelled the banks”. River-floodplain systems perform this very purpose, to hold floodwaters rather than the artificial quick channelisation of stormwaters downstream to an area where it is designated for flood control, and I found this interesting. I consulted some papers and decided on looking at water chemistry and ecological impacts, and for this field area I consulted my Ecology professor Dr. Jan A. He suggested the use of bioindicators such as dragonflies and mayflies to look at ecological conditions, on top of collecting water chemistry parameters. I was initially apprehensive because of the fact that I was afraid of insects, but I approached that research topic keenly because it sounded plausible, and I liked how the fieldwork could be completely conducted by myself.

I submitted my dissertation outline form, with the title “Assessing the ecological impacts of river restoration: case study of Kallang River in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (Singapore)”, and requested for Jan as my dissertation supervisor. I intended to conduct dragonfly surveys in both an unrestored and a restored section of the Kallang River, as well as a natural area to see how similar or different dragonfly populations are in these 3 areas. I got lucky, and I got my first choice supervisor! The subsequent submission of the dissertation proposal had me emailing a lot of people to make fieldwork a little easier for me when I eventually went home to conduct fieldwork, such as representatives from PUB and NParks, and professional odonatologists in Singapore. The UCL Geography department also allowed me to bring the fieldwork equipment home together with Fumi, and for that I was very very thankful. Most people were very helpful in this entire process, although it was quite a hassle to apply for research permits because of the bureaucracy within the statutory boards. I remember Jan mentioned during one of the meetings that he was very shocked that Singapore was so strict on their research permits, and I was too, especially how I would perceive for the application process to be earlier for a local. I had to submit proposals after proposals, risk assessments after risk assessments, and I also had to mail the original signed documents to the office. I guess it may be a good thing, that it only goes to show how well-managed and maintained our nature reserves are? Also because I was not too familiar with the ecology language, I got 68 (omfg again?) for my dissertation proposal. But I was thankful for corrections and mistakes made earlier in the dissertation proposal, because it helped me narrow my field research a lot more.

Fieldwork in Singapore

I forgot how immensely exhausting fieldwork was, especially in the hot sunny Singapore where we had to cope with sweltering under the hot sun. OBike was a saviour during this period, because I could cycle for free up and down the length of the Kallang River to do fieldwork on both the unrestored and restored section. For a few consecutive days, I took the hour-long ride to Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to collect water samples, and carry out my dragonfly surveys alone. In the nature reserves (and Coney Island), there were also a lot of mosquito bites to deal with while hunting for those elusive dragonflies, and these made me extremely irritable during the whole fieldwork process. Furthermore, although dragonfly abundance counts were high in the parks, they were shockingly lacking within the nature reserves, and these were research findings that definitely could not contribute to my analyses. HT was in Life Sciences back when he was in NUS, and he too agreed that these findings were not going to be helpful to my dissertation. I started fearing for the choice of my dissertation topic again, because the data I would be able to collect would not be enough. I tried heading to different parts of the nature reserve, but I never managed to find a water body that was teeming with dragonflies as I would have expected in nature reserves. With insufficient data from insufficient homework done prior to the fieldwork process, I decided that there was nothing I could do to make the dragonflies appear miraculously, and I would head back to UK to seek for more advice. Moreover, I overestimated my ability to conduct fieldwork in Singapore because I was held back from my desire to obtain COC by the end of my second VA. Since I struggled to get my COC throughout July and August as frequently documented, I extended my VA slightly and that meant even less time for my fieldwork when I was already running out of time. It also meant that I could not submit my dissertation progress report on time. I was not able to conduct the monthly visits to the parks as agreed in the contract with my dissertation supervisor, and that meant I could not do checks on the vegetation growth and monthly species surveys to see if anything changed. I was left with a short 2 weeks for fieldwork, and during then I was also rushing my Master’s application for the Schwarzman programme (which I got bitterly rejected from late last year).

During this period, I would like to thank Yujie who helped me calibrate my pH meter, Aloysius who lent me his camera, and Bowei for coming along for one of my field surveys. I would most importantly like to thank HT who ferried me from venue to venue, who drove me to Temasek Club on very smelly sunny days with tons of mosquito bites to take a comforting cold shower, and most of all, for having had similar research interests back when he was at school. He seemed to be more interested than I was at times, excitedly videoing spiders spinning their preys when we were at an area for a dragonfly lookout.

Booting down to 1.0 unit and back to 1.5 unit

I headed back to UK and rushed to submit my dissertation progress report that was already handed in late relative to the rest of the cohort. I was very lost at this point in time with the direction of my dissertation, because I clearly knew that my data was insufficient especially with regard to the protected areas, yet I did not know what to do. In my first meeting with my supervisor after summer, he recommended that I drop to the 1.0 unit dissertation because he was worried that my data would disallow me from reaching a depth of analysis to reach the word count of 12,000 words, and I have to admit, I was very very very upset. To provide some context, all students are registered under the 1.5 unit dissertation (a weighting of 3 out of 8 modules), and are expected to tailor their research plans for that. Usually, only students who have extenuating circumstances are allowed to drop to the 1.0 unit dissertation, because it may have been challenging to conduct fieldwork during summer for some people. I now belonged to that category, maybe because of my summer commitments, but mostly because of having done insufficient homework on the difficulty of conducting species surveys in Singapore. I knew that my data was lacking, I knew that he meant well for me, and I knew that this was a good move for my grades, but I could not help but feel extremely beaten and upset. True enough, all that effort beforehand had culminated in a regret for my dissertation topic, because the fieldwork was unpractical. I started wondering why I did not embark on other topics, the topics that I initially shunned because the data collection process only involves sitting in front of the computer, because fieldwork clearly proved too difficult for me.

I decided to chin up and work hard anyway, and started to accept that I would have to be happy with a Second Upper Class degree because the dissertation was a great chance to boost my grades, and I had currently just aborted that opportunity. Until one day I happened to chance upon the ‘Dragonflies of Singapore’ Facebook group, and I realised how this presented a golden opportunity for data collection similar to what we have learnt about OpenSource information. I would later learn that the proper term for this is called ‘Citizen Science’, where voluntary information from enthusiasts are merged with knowledge from professionals and experts. I collated species sightings from the group, and ended up with a species list much longer than what I had initially gotten. It also presented an opportunity to collect data from many other parks and water bodies all across Singapore, and I realised this was something I could capitalise on. After a week of gathering data and information, I spoke to my supervisor, who was shocked at the unending list of species. One session later, I saw the potential of a more critical analysis to my data, and sheepishly asked for permission to do the 1.5 unit dissertation. I was putting way too much effort into something that was only worth the weight of two modules! He initially said that it might not be possible given how we were expected to confirm modules earlier this academic year, but advised me to speak to the departmental tutor. And so I did.

I think this whole process showed me how much you can ‘make things happen’ as long as you wish to, a phrase that was often used back when I was in MIDS Wing. The most ridiculous requests, like securing early, the cancellation of bunk checks, are truly all possible as long as you dare to seek and ask. I arranged a session with the departmental tutor, and ended up waiting outside his office in queue. Thank god he was an amazing guy, and all he said was ‘as long as you are willing, of course we are more than happy to support you, the dissertation is all about you!’, or something along the lines of that. I emailed Geog Office after that, and was quickly booted up to the 1.5 unit dissertation. Here, I would like to document the email exchanges between my professors and I.

The first email I sent to the departmental tutor to ask whether it was possible, but the email went ignored. Carl is an amazing professor and therefore I believe that he probably missed my email accidentally amidst the mass of emails that get to him everyday. He must have been very busy. I refused to abort my idea even though my dissertation supervisor said that it might not be possible at this (late) stage, especially as UCL responded to students’ feedback to release the examination timetables earlier which necessitated us to confirm our modules quite early in the academic year. I decided to drop in during his office hours then.

and these were all the e-mail exchanges that followed in chronological order. I was extremely surprised at the efficiency of the Geog Office this time, and was also extremely thankful for the prompt email responses by Jan even though he must receive many many many e-mails every single day.

All the work after that

Since November, and the approval of my upgrade to a 1.5 unit module, I have been doing work non-stop on my dissertation. In November and December I led a relatively disciplined lifestyle with regard to academic work: I would do work for my GEOG3057 blog every Monday, work for my GEOG3038 every Thursday, and dissertation on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Saturday I would work on my Master’s applications, although this fell short most of the time because I always felt a psychological need to ‘reward’ myself from all the earlier days of work. I enjoyed those days in the library because I never felt like I was dragging myself to do work – the March deadline meant that I was doing work at my own pace. I allowed myself to do things very very slowly as long as there were improvements and advancements day-to-day, and this allowed me to enjoy the dissertation process very much.

Here are some of the notable things that look extremely simple but required a lot of effort on my part:

1. Learning all the R Studio vegan, ape and betapair packages. I cannot believe I actually created a phylogenetic tree by myself. I remember telling Jan that I was intending to use the phylogenetic alpha-diversity indices, and how he said he was worried about that because I did not have taxonomic information. I told him I did, and I had already created a taxonomic tree in R. He was extremely surprised, in a good way, and I will remember this meeting to be one of great motivational boost to me.
2. Relearning MATLAB from my nightmare in Year 2 and producing all the box plots and bar graphs for my dissertation. For one simple-looking box plot, I had up to 100 commands, to specifically adjust the colours, width, borders, error bars, tick marks, axes labels, and subplot positioning.
3. Relearning CANOCO from Year 2 (not that much of a nightmare) and struggling to edit the diagrams each time. I had to move the labels one by one to ensure that they did not overlap each other and confuse. It was also a challenge to interpret the diagrams because there were much more elements compared to what I had learnt in the previous academic year, and I thank Anson for lending me his personal copy on a book for these statistical analyses.
4. Struggling to understand the taxonomic mathematical formulas published in papers. I have to thank Bowei for this, because the literal loss in contact with Maths meant that I no longer understood any mathematical notations, with one being double summation.
5. Spending days after days after days poring over the same Excel sheet with all the species data. Compilation of data was difficult because it was important to tailor them to the format required by the specific software required. At this stage I have forgotten quite a lot of the problems I met along the way, but it was most difficult feeding data into R Studio as the functions never seemed to work (Error: Error: Error: Error:). I also realised I messed up on one occasion when I indicated one location wrongly as an urban park instead of a nature park. I had to redo every single analysis, and I had to do this again when my professor advised me to re-order my sites for more order.

After all that analysis, came the writing. I had an entire month dedicated to writing, re-reading most of the papers I had once glanced over in my dissertation proposal. I think I felt happiest when I finished the final sub-section of my Discussion and the Conclusion section on the same day. By that stage, I thought I was more or less done with the ‘difficult’ parts, and now all that was left was proper referencing, formatting, and correction of the mistakes that I had inadvertently made in my unfiltered writing. I made it in time for my first draft, and by then, I knew that not many changes could be made anymore. I no longer had the time for an additional data analysis, I no longer had the freedom of time to re-order analyses and come up with any stray ideas.


The year has passed very fast with the frequent library visits, and today, I am here waiting to print out my dissertation. Because of the shift in focus, my dissertation topic has been changed to ‘Using Odonata to assess the impacts of river restoration in Singpaore’s Kallang River’. My research goals and objectives have deviated very much from the original submission of my proposal, but this was what we were told to be prepared for, and I am glad that my research has headed in this direction. I have put in a lot of effort in this compared to the rest of all my modules, and I do hope for a good outcome, especially after all the cumbersome administrative trouble that I had to go through, and that I had to make others go through. I know I will be upset eventually if I do not get a First Class mark for this assignment and thereafter this blog post will never come, therefore I would like to document the dissertation journey first. At this point, I think I enjoyed this whole process, and I cannot wait to submit it after the library clears out enough for me to print my dissertation in full tonight.

Here, I would like to express my gratitude most to Jan. He has been readily responding to my emails, even though at the start it might appear that I was an unmotivated individual who could not care less about carrying out academic work over summer. He has been keeping up with me more than I have kept up with him, constantly asking for weekly and at most fortnightly meetings to check on my progress, and I know I have to be very thankful for his approach because it has forced me to constantly make progress on my work before seeing him every week. Most of all, I am extremely appreciative of how he constantly reaffirms my intentions, and for constantly giving me that motivation boost that I was making good progress, because it motivated me to continue working harder. In the future, I think I will look back at my final year and remember the dissertation process as something that was extremely rewarding and enjoyable. I also count my blessings that I had the privilege to be stressed and worried over academic work, because that meant that I had no other pressing worries like financial inability, illness or serious personal issues. I would therefore hope for this blog post to serve as a memory to always look back and laugh on.

The dragonfly that gets featured on my dissertation title page, the Neurothemis fluctuans, the most common dragonfly in Singapore, and also the first dragonfly I sighted at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park on the first day of fieldwork. Taken with Aloysius’s camera.

Edit (14/03/18):

And finally, it is in 🙂

I thought it was going to be crowded at the library for printing and Map Room for binding from Friday, which would not be ideal especially since I wanted to use my own 100gsm paper to enhance the appearance of coloured figures on my dissertation. I had to remove all the 80gsm paper from the 5 paper trays, load my own and in this process hold everyone up, and so I decided to act two days earlier. Even so I had to wait until late night (as seen) to make sure that no one accidentally printed on my paper. In the end Nick says I am the first one to submit… truly kiasu.

I know there are still a lot of mistakes and slight improvements to be made, as with any assignment, but this will be the cut off point for myself. Now to get over the coursework inertia to start on others…