Monthly Archives: October 2013

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

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Amidst the calm of the storm of papers and midterms in installments of pages and pages of 12pt, double spaced, Times New Roman regurgitation of information, I decided to head down up to Philadelphia to try and learn a little more history. What we got instead was a really pleasant weekend and an opportunity to test out our “winter” clothes so that we may return them if they don’t insulate us sufficiently.

The most obvious learning journey was visiting the liberty bell and the Independence hall. Philadelphia was pretty quiet that Saturday morning, and pretty cold and windy but we managed to walk around without getting on the Metro, passing by these famous attractions. However, the city surprised us with even more tidbits of significant American history as we coincidentally – unplanned – passed by many other elements of American history and culture such as the First Bank of the United States, the Academy of Natural Sciences and City Hall which was constructed in 1871 but remained the tallest building in the city until 1987.

1 Liberty Bell
Compulsory tourist photo-op with the bell, a symbol of freedom for many, even those not from America.

Architecturally, Philadelphia had a different feel from Washington DC and passing through the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, we had a glimpse of a different look at what a college in America might look like. My travel-mates marveled a little at how much (slightly) grander things look and at the stadium lights in the distant. I very much prefer GW, and for a moment I was GW-homesick but it was quickly remedied with a halal Philly Cheese Steak and a good cheap haircut at a local barber.

2 Panorama Rocky Steps

3 Rocky
A travel mate quipped, “Is this based on a true story?” Sometimes, we reify fiction until it becomes real.

4 Art Museum
We were literally in 16:9 Widescreen because the buildings spread out; which also meant hours of walking.

5 Philly Cheese Steak
Arguably, the cheese steak was probably not “authentic”, but it was really good. A night of toilet terror left me weak on Sunday but it was worth it.

Embarrassingly, we enjoyed our time the most eating, staring at the mechanical dinosaur for 10 minutes waiting for it to move and running up the Rocky Steps.

 

Eid al Adha: Sacrifice

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Eid al Adha, loosely translated as the “festival of sacrifice”, is the second of two main religious “holidays” for Muslims. This day has multiple levels of meaningfulness. For us, this day honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), peace be upon him, to sacrifice his young first born son, Ismail (Ishmael), as an act of submission to Allah’s command, as well as Ismail’s willingness to be sacrificed by his father. Allah stopped Ibrahim and gave him a sheep to sacrifice instead. Muslims who can afford to will sacrifice a sheep and the meat would be distributed in 3 equal portions: 1 portion for the family of the person who performed the sacrifice, 1 portion for friends/relatives and 1 portion for the poor.

Muslims would go for Eid prayers in the morning at a mosque or a designated area. We will also recite the Takbir – loosely equivalent to “praises”. Halfway across the world, those on Hajj – or pilgrimage – would be doing the same, finishing a crescendo of the main bulk of Hajj physically and mentally demanding, but spiritually rejuvenating rituals they have been performing over the course of a week, rendering those whose pilgrimage was accepted as sincere, sinless, like a newborn baby.

I too joined in the celebrations that morning at the Islamic Center in Washington D.C., with mixed feelings. Sombre and full of repent over the weakness of my 23 year old soul. Yet, the day was purposeful as those who managed to fast the day (or days) before were promised great “rewards”.

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I walked to the Islamic Center with my roommate Reza. The mosque is along New Hampshire Ave, next to the Turkish Embassy.

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The mosque is just beautifully decorated and the smell of musk and sweet Arab incense and the East-African architecture made me feel like I was in Fez, Morocco. Okay, maybe because there were many East Africans here. I struggled in conversations with what little Arabic I knew but the experience reminded me of my small pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Everyone sat together, I was next to some Indonesian politicians; a secretary struggled to get his photo – I hope I was in the same frame. After a few short conversations with foreign service officers from different countries and a joke about how my Arabic sounded like I read from a children’s story book, Reza and I went out to eat an African rice dish given out for free to mosque visitors, Muslims as well as non-Muslims. We then walked down to Dupont Circle for some cake.

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Eid al Adha is a day that holds deep meaning for Muslims who seek a relationship with their creator. Below is a video of the Takbir we recited:

 

 

Waiting on the world to change

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“Due to the federal government shutdown, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed.”

I regret not exploring the museums and the zoo early on in this semester. To be honest, I was pacing myself, hoping to use trips to the museums as material for the blog. It has been 3 weeks and I just hope things get sorted out quickly and for the good.
I went to Orlando, Florida last weekend to escape the gloomy situation here.

disneyWaltMagic KingdomThe heat and humidity was a change to a more familiar weather that I am accustomed to. Visits to the theme parks helped to cheer me up a little and I found solace in retail therapy in the various premium outlets.

Back in DC, the weather was cold and wet. It’s optimum weather to laze around and not do anything, but it has been a few days since we saw any sun.blogphoto4blogphoto5blogphoto6Even free cupcakes didn’t seem to brighten the days.I hope the museums open soon. I wouldn’t mind sauntering through rows of exhibits on culture, history and nature in any weather!

The Journey of a Seeker: Midterm

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I feel I would be leaving out a large portion of my exchange experience if I do not share my reflections of it, even if it means I am not posting pictures and exciting videos of my “adventures”.

What am I doing here? I don’t mean this in a bad way.

What do I stand to gain from a SGD$12, 000 debt-incurring (exaggeration) bomb of a trip around the world? What does this proletariat hope to achieve? What do I bring home? How do I find a way to rationalize this?

Some of you have an idea. Some of you are here for a year, and can apply for an internship. Some of you are not here for a year and will be staying for a spring internship. You would gain work experience and a professional network.

What about someone like me who is only here for a semester?

At this moment, some of you will be asking why did I apply for exchange if I do not know what I am applying for. I do know what I applied for. I had to write an essay about why I applied and what I hoped to learn.

My application basically read, in summary, that I am a seeker of knowledge on a journey of learning. I begged for a chance to know why people were so crazy about exchange trips when they came back. I wondered why exchanges are “life-changing” and why people miss being away from their exchange universities.

This blog post during my midterms is the halfway point of my semester-long participant observation. Like an essay half-written, surely, by now, I must have gathered some tidbits of lessons. Surely, by now, I must have some idea of what an exchange is about.

There is this uncanny craze about “Buzzfeed” amongst students. I know because I see all of you on it when I’m trying to pay attention being the only one writing down notes on paper. Here are 3 lessons I have so far:

3. You only know you love something when you miss being away from it.

I have 101 things about Singapore I would like to change. However, I want to go back and change it myself (and this could be me feeding off the spirit of change-making in GWU).

Among the things I miss about Singapore include a world class medical and healthcare system that is affordable and accessible. I got stung by a bee a few weeks ago and I panicked and searched for coverage in my insurance network and opened a new tab on Google chrome to look at WebMD which seems to always tell me I have 2 weeks to live. Now I have a list of 101 things I love about Singapore.

This is probably an unintended effect of being on exchange. I seriously do not mean to say DC is less than any city in the world. I really love it here, government shutdown and all (sorry for those without jobs or pay at the moment).

This moment of separation is like a $12, 000 timeout. It’s an investment I am making to be someone who would function better once I return to my society. The desire to return is not just a longing for familiarity. It is a desire to go back home and make concrete actions. For instance, I miss my family and therefore I want to go home and spend time with them.

I broke away from the monotony of island life to come up with an endless list of things to do back home for my personal development, for the betterment of my relationships with my loved ones, for my future career and so on. Missing home is emotional, but it is also a cognitive function that allows one to focus on what matters most and build up a determination to accomplish more.

Let D be determination/homesickness measured by the number of months and C be the number things to change and T be things you want to do when you get back. Let P be the measure of positive effect on an exchange student.

P = D x (C + T)

D and C are always positive integers. Therefore there will always be a positive effect on you. C and T might be zero. If it is, think of something.

2. Happiness

The second lesson I got was about searching for happiness.

Let’s face it, you’re away from the things you take for granted. You can’t download movies on the snail paced wifi. You don’t have your local favorite food or drink. You’re away from the people you love. You’re away from friends.

This isolation begs you to search for a new happiness. The happiness of an exchange student. And the methodology involved in your personal search for it tells a story.

Who do you first think of when you want to call home? That person will give you happiness. Provided you’re not calling home for only for money. In that case, you seek happiness in greenbacks. If you’re happy with money and you’re rich, you’ll be fine. If you’re not rich, or do not have the potential to be, you’ll have to search it somewhere else.

What do you need the most in the dorm? How about in the fridge? What do you like about your roommates? What kind of company do you find precious? What do you think of when you’re alone? What do you reach out for, metaphorically?

The best drink is just plain water. The best food, honey, is the vomit of bees. The best perfume or smell, musk, is the secretion of a deer. And sex, is putting excretory parts of 2 bodies together. Even “nature” is telling you, sometimes, happiness can be found in simplicity or even in disgusting places.

Sometimes happiness is a frozen pizza while writing take home papers for midterms. Sometimes happiness is waking up on time for midterms. Sometimes happiness is not having midterms. It’s about appreciating what you have. All that, just from midterms.

Personally, when I go home, I’m getting up earlier to do more things that I have made habits here that I don’t do in Singapore, like taking a morning walk to get a free cupcake and eat it by the river. Having breakfast with my family or with friends in school would be an equivalent. Increasing my P quotient here (refer to lesson 3). Happiness also takes effort. A smile requires some muscles to move. That means you have to get off your bed and go to class you lazy bum. Carpe as much happiness that Diem offers.

1. Continue to go on “Journeys”

By journey, I mean exploring life.

In a class I had on Mount Vernon, we read Plato’s Apology, an account of the trial of Socrates in which the latter proclaims “the life which is unexamined is not worth living”. This statement read aloud in a room of fellow goofy wannabe philosophers struck a chord with me.

Look what reflecting in this blog has done so far. That’s 2 lessons right there not including this one.

To learn, you have to seek. To live, you have to examine. Otherwise, you’re just waiting to die.

My biggest lesson about exchange so far is that I observe and as life continues, I continue to observe and there’s always something to learn.

It could be that you learn about the limits of your body. Like how I’ll never be able to cycle up Columbia heights in my current shape.

It could be that you learn about your academic life: what kind of lessons are most conducive to learning, what are the qualities of a good student or professor, how different your home college is for better or worse, what are your strategies for success or your plans to just enjoy life as a student.

I guess it’s my lesson for you too, and for any prospective exchange student.

This is an investment for you to open your eyes in a situation where very few things are familiar. Observing and examining life is like recalibrating your smart phone compass in a figure-8 movement. Just do it, otherwise you can’t see what’s on your life map thanks to the annoying notice.

You don’t have to be on exchange to examine.  You don’t have to be on exchange to be happy. You don’t have to be on exchange to miss and love things or to make to do lists.

But while you’re on exchange, you better start examining exchange life and finding things to do or learn.

Malay-Muslim

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It’s not classy to take pot shots at one’s own country now that one is thousands of miles away. However, I feel, the following has been and will be a significant part of my exchange experience.

My identity, being a Malay and Muslim, does not really stand out here in the diversity of students in GWU. Yet, somehow, I feel who I am matters in the sense of the nuances that it brings to my perspective of life in DC.

Academic Performance

I am reminded again here, like in my freshman year, of the desire to do well. It has something to do with being new to the environment, having to revisit my identity and express it.

I must first give some form of context for you to follow. Firstly, being Malay in Singapore is socially interpreted as being Muslim to the same extent that Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese are just perceived as a monolithic “Asian”. Secondly, the academic “underperformance” of Malays as and our “general socio-economic well being” behind the other major ethnic groups are among the most discussed social issues in Singapore. A local equivalent – although really much different – is probably a mixture of the African-American and Native American social issues the American society may be concerned with.

So – and some of you may already guess my tone while trying to be politically correct here – that it stands as an “achievement” that a Malay is here in GWU and doing well in school.

What more if he scores full marks for an essay, topped his class, and claimed a free cupcake from Sprinkles.

For most students here, doing well in college is just a product of effort and an expression of academic desire and is part and parcel of college life. Some people get As. Just a fact of college life.

For me though, having been through an education experience that included various extents of racial ideas and emotions, doing well is proving a point.

Sometimes “doing well” is disproving the idea that my culture and religion is in any way inferior to the nauseating overtures of Confucianism stuffed down our throats in an attempt to somehow demonstrate Asian values. Also – and this is rare and some of you may find it strange that such ideas still persist – “doing well” shows that I am biologically and genetically equal with my fellow Chinese Singaporeans. Not to mention that a good “academic performance” in seeking knowledge, is not merely “Asian” in the state-defined Confucian sense, but is also part of my identity as well.

“Race” is a messy and complicated issue that would hardly fit on this blog post even if I talked about it in all my posts.

Just to keep things simple for now: even though my grades don’t count and I just need to get a pass, getting an A in GWU meant something to me, no matter how small the assignment or test, because it has always meant something to me throughout my life as a Malay and a Muslim. I am not overly competitive. It just means that aside from being grateful, I have a small emotional dynamic to the psychological process of grading that would lead me to say something like:

“I am happy to be a Malay-Muslim doing well in my short time in GWU”.

Religious and Secular

My imagination of life for a Muslim here would be one that is much more difficult than life in Singapore. After more than a month here, a simple comparison tells a different story.

Food is something I take for granted in Singapore. Two words: abundance and cheap.

Therefore, I can safely put aside that variable, despite my Halal dietary requirements, because any Singaporean would argue that the food here is more expensive, or that certain ingredients are hard to find.

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Enjoying a hearty but relatively “cheaper” meal in Mehran’s, a Halal Indian food outlet in the area.

The expression of the “religious” and “secular” presents itself as the independent variable.

As in Singapore, there are mosques here in DC, which are accessible by private and public transportation. There are even similar niche religious-activities I would usually go for.

What is different though is where religion expresses itself in public areas, especially schools, which would usually be reserved as “secular” in Singapore. A heated and sensitive issue is the wearing of hijabs for those in uniforms such as students or nurses.

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Sitting amongst locals and foreigners in an Islamic center sharing stories after a session of the remembrance of  “God” and the prophet (peace be upon him). I wore this in the Metro all the way to Shady Grove where this event was held in an attempt at participant observation. Hardly an eyebrow was raised throughout the journey.

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The issue of footbaths in American colleges: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/world/americas/07iht-muslims.4.7022566.html?_r=0

A weaving of religious into the secular goes for all religions here. There are churches among buildings here in the Campus.

The most commonly heard “reprimanding”-statement used by politicians and community leaders alike in Singapore when we ask for more “space” for us to practice, is that if space is given to one, space must be given to all; something along the lines of: “if we allow you to pray in school, then we must also built temples for the Buddhists and churches for the Christians”.

A footbath here is a huge blessing, let alone an entire room. In Singapore, prayer areas for Muslims are unofficial and technically illegal (sometimes it is a hidden staircase) and ablution (that’s washing parts of our body before we pray) is a messy process.

Being a Muslim undergraduate in Singapore is an enriching and lively experience. The experience here in GWU is similar, if not better in many ways.

Defense

Again, it’s not classy to take “pot shots”, and I did not intend to at all throughout this post. I am merely highlighting some of the key differences in student life.

Despite my own qualms with education in Singapore, I am somewhat proud to be its product.

In proud defense, my home university is ranked 29th in the world by “Times Higher Education”, 22nd in “World Reputation” by the same evaluator, 24th by QS World University Rankings, 17th in the world for the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, 2nd in Asia.

For god’s sakes we’re not in China, we speak English and certainly, we’re among the best schools in the world – and I have a free cupcake from Sprinkles for my A-graded essay to prove it.