Author Archives: nghuiping

About nghuiping

I like to eat, sleep and play. I think happiness is the key to life :) River Valley NCC (G) Delta '12 River Valley 4G '12

I am leaving (left) London for good

Over the past few days I have been to places that I occasionally go to and consciously thought to myself that it would be my last time here, like the Waterloo rail station when I travel to New Malden, or some other cities. But when the time is ticking to the final few hours in London, it struck me that I am also counting the lasts for all the places I frequented very much, such as Oxford Circus, Soho (mainly Wardour and Dean Street), and even UCL since my student card is now of expired status. In fact, my student ID will no longer need a place in my wallet. I will henceforth no longer belong to the categories that I proudly proclaim to others: “Londoner”, “a student at UCL”, or simply “I study overseas.” These were elements of myself that I enjoyed telling others all these years, sometimes in a toned-down Singaporean accent at the British immigration counters.

I loved London more with each passing year. My opinions and emotions were very conflicted in the first year. I felt like a tourist in this city, and I could not belong. I did not understand why Sundays were so quiet and dead, that it felt mildly depressing waking up to a weekend morning in the winter. In a beautiful, bustling and bright city, I felt lonely in the nights. Why does Sainsbury close at 6pm? Why does it turn dark so quickly in the winter, as early as 3-4pm? Why is it cold all the freaking time? I hardly got used to the flat culture here as well, although admittedly living with that nightmarish flatmate next to me was more fun and exciting (moaning sounds) that I could overlook the horror of her not washing dishes for weeks. It was still a mild annoyance at the back of my head, that I was in a shared space of people I do not know very well, and vice versa – this meant that I could not even express my annoyance to anyone, not even when her dishes started to take up the entire sink, and when her pan obviously stank from a week-old carbonara. No one was willing to wash it because this had happened way too much, and me, I was just a stranger with a name to my flatmates. All the hopes of having great conversations with new people just dissolved into nothingness, when I found myself hoping that the kitchen and bathrooms were empty each time I came back home. I could not get along easily with my flatmates. It took great effort to listen intently on their accents and I am sure they felt the same as they probably felt bad having me repeat what I wanted to express. The conversations never flowed smoothly, they were all mere variations of “you alright?” and “how’s your day”, and I hoped for familiarity so much. I looked upon Instagram posts of fellow schoolmates enjoying hall life and orientation camps in their various new institutions with envy. My friends seemed to all be fitting well in university hall life and made many more friends, which made me rethink my considerations for coming here. I wanted good conversations into late night too, and I wished we could enjoy jokes over bubble tea instead of cheap alcohol too. Lectures and assignments were also very different from what I had been used to, to the extent that it was difficult to adapt. I often started on my essays earlier than my British counterparts, but I just could not do well (i.e. falling short of a First). I struggled to make friends outside of the international student body despite trying; in my weekly lectures when I expected to not have Weixuan with me, I intentionally turned up to lectures later just so I would not be the lonely one standing awkwardly outside the lecture hall in the crowd of noise and laughter.

Because of all these I missed home, I missed home so so so much. I missed the comfort of home that allowed me to always wake up to someone, I missed my familiarity of places, and less awkward social interactions with people. “Meeting new people”, “getting out of my Singaporean bubble”, my foot. None of that shit happened, other than becoming more independent for sure. Many weeks I also painfully saw people meeting up over drinks and meals that I obviously could not be a part of. I missed many birthday parties, and I missed my family holidays. I do not remember crying over homesickness, but it did once get quite bad to the point that I had to delete all social media accounts for a few days when it came to RV’s 60th anniversary and the 74th MIDS commissioning parade. “I wish I could be there” continually occurred to me whenever my group of friends met up. I do not think anyone would ever feel this way if they never have been away from home for a prolonged period of time, the “cons” of migration I learnt in H2 Geography about cultural misfit and the lack of assimilation into the local community were strongly felt by me. I started communicating to people that an overseas education is far more glamorised than it should be, but I often found it difficult to put these thoughts across because I have had this overseas experience that most people within my social circle never underwent. I started becoming more withdrawn and kept these thoughts to myself, for the fear of coming off as unaware and insensitive. I knew that whenever I said something along the lines of “I know, my position is enviable, but…”, these would easily get dismissed. How could I have any rights to complain, when the world was at my feet, when I was being paid to study, and when it was a conscious decision to leave home? How am I supposed to convince people that overseas institutions are not degree mills, when it seemed that we were always travelling and enjoying ourselves? I travelled the most in my first year, but I missed home in each of those travels. Honestly, I wish I could go back in time to negate these thoughts.

Overall, Year 1 was the year I struggled to grapple with the idea of London being my second home, and having to constantly seek familiarity in unfamiliarity. I think everyone has faced these struggles, struggling to find a group of friends that we can connect emotionally with, and to find a footing in our lonely city. But I suppose your attitudes towards these things shift when they occur to you one too many, and your emotional mechanism just deals with it better gradually. Every phase in your life presents its own challenges, and I gradually dealt with those. I had no close British friends yes, but I found Korean, and I found the piano. On a usual school-going day, classes would likely conclude by noon, and on my most hardworking days I would do readings until evening, after which I would dedicate an hour to the piano, and two hours to Korean subsequently. I learnt a lot in those slow and lonely months. It was a coping mechanism through those lonely nights, that now instead of listening to old songs and feeling bitterly nostalgic, I could listen to Korean songs and learn. Week by week, I saved a lot of money by not having friends and not enjoying drinks. In no time it was the examinations and in no time I was headed home. It passed extremely quickly without me doing much, especially since my mobile phone had died on me and I had deemed it too troublesome to get a new one since my WhatsApp number was associated to my old phone.

A return to London to begin Year 2 was filled with dread and worry. I remember returning on a gloomy Sunday morning, seeing the unopened Goodge Street food stall, the familiar underground staff, and feeling so extremely lonely. These feelings quickly dissipated however, as I started changing my lifestyle habits in Years 2 and 3 with the savings I had from the year earlier. I loved my lifestyle in Years 2 and 3. I have associated my pace of life in London as what has mostly defined my London student experience, and due to what we associate with student life I think it could only be memorable. In the midst of the busy and stressful seasons, I still could always find time to grab a meal at Soho, and I could always find time to watch dramas mindlessly without feeling guilty in the late nights. I continued to busy myself with Korean language because I was a terribly slow learner, which meant that I spent many days and hours studying the language. I had my Wednesdays and Friday evenings filled in Years 2 and 3, Saturday mornings filled in Year 3 when I started attending classes in SOAS. Other than that, I found myself mostly in the Science Library catching up on what I deemed unsatisfactory grades, looking forward to going home that night to watch more cheesy Korean dramas or listen to trashy Korean songs as part of my intended exposure to listening and reading Korean. Listening to Chinese music at night on headphones also no longer made it painfully nostalgic like it did in Year 1, instead it made me feel more relaxed and at peace.

I lived day by day with a routine that could not get any simpler especially through the holidays when there were zero contact hours. Most of my weekday and weekend nights were also free after 7pm, the time when I generally would call it a day at the library or when my Korean language lessons end on Wednesdays and Fridays. I would take this time to have meals with my friends, and often walk through Dean Street hurriedly to meet a friend at Leicester Square, or somewhere close by (or what we Singaporeans term as Chinatown). Walking through Wardour Street with Peng Ning and Nicole made me realise that I have unwittingly tried the food in so many outlets along that food street. I also frequented Gaza Cafe at Soho, where I would often head for dessert with the company of KPop MVs. On a few occasions when I am feeling it, I would leave the library earlier than 7pm and walk alone through the streets of Oxford Circus and Covent Garden as well. I would buy a fried chicken breast from Good Friend (a spin-off of Shihlin in Singapore), bubble tea usually from Happylemon unless the queues were too long, and some bread from Chinatown for breakfast the next morning. My Asian eating habits never left me. I would walk in circles and circles for hours around the entire West End area until I felt like going home. I did this pretty often, sometimes in response to a trigger that my time in London was running out. I enjoyed being among the crowd, the crowd of tourists taking pictures in every angle with the grand entrance pillars. Seeing families and couples go by me no longer made me homesick or nostalgic, but it made me happy seeing people travel together. It made me feel extremely lucky to be living this city, a stark contrast from the feelings of loneliness felt whenever I saw crowds in my earlier years.

After the massive travelling in Year 1, I also found that travelling excessively to more places did not necessarily bring me as much happiness as staying in a single place for a longer number of days, and enjoying the sights slowly. In all honesty, I also got lazier to plan itineraries and make travel plans — if I were to be self-entitled here, there were so many elements of travel: flight tickets that are usually difficult to purchase immediately at the initial stages of planning, accommodation plans that would usually require a rough itinerary to deem the best place to stay, and the itinerary. These would get quite tiring after a bit of repetition, and quite a bit of trouble for the 3-day to 4-day travels that most of us were only permitted due to our timetables. Coursework also started to become more intense and it meant that our holidays became busier with time, which could not make travelling worry-free. Over the years, I hence travelled less by choice, but it made my time in each city more memorable.

Now that I am home in Singapore, I feel at odds with myself. In the future I am unlikely to continue having any affiliations with this city, as I will never marry into an English family, nor will I ever seek employment in this country. I am undoubtedly happy to be back in my comfort zone, being able to take buses without checking the GPS every 3 minutes to check my location, being able to walk to the train station without even an inch of thought about locating it, being able to order food or buy things with my accent, very comfortably. Yet my overall detachment from the city of London as a whole makes me feel really sad, that I no longer belong to London, and now that I am here it seems as if the ‘me’ there and then had never even existed in the first place. Global cities like London are just a transient piece of land for the many who create associations and move on somewhere after a number of years, being rooted fundamentally in a different place. I am just one of the many who had the honour of calling London his or her home once upon a time. Even today, looking at Instagram stories of people travelling in London makes me feel slightly odd, and seeing pictures of the many corners of the UCL campus I once frequented washes an extremely strange sense of nostalgia over me. I struggle to put a word to this feeling, that the entire overseas experience felt little more than a dream, my piece of the London dream that has now concluded for good.

Despite the differing feelings felt through my time in London, I thank these 3 years for letting me see so much, think so much, and most importantly, grow so much. Thank you for allowing me to realise my dream of studying and living abroad. I think London has changed me in ways that I am unable to put a finger to myself, be it through the sights and sounds, the academic components, or even through the wild thoughts that were triggered in the long and quiet winter nights. For the rest of my life, my undergraduate years will be a huge part of how I define myself.


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.