The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: college

Wrap up, Start Over

The year of 2013 was momentous: I wrapped up a milestone in my life where I graduated from university, and was thus to embark on my next, into working life.

Instead, I boarded a ride into an extended period of self-doubt and uncertainty, as I failed to get a full-time paying job.

I learnt to challenge the notion of success and succeeding, and what it takes to succeed. I came to the conclusion that it is not so dependent on how skilled a person is, as it is knowing people and finding channels in which to succeed.

I lost the will to write for a while.

I found a reason to write again.

My year was peppered with moments of anxiety and helplessness, and as moments becomes days, and days turn to weeks, I was cast afloat. Perseverance struggled against despair, attrition reared its ugly face and slowly wore down the smiles, leaving behind a numb sombreness.

When one is steeped for so long in the cesspool of the unpleasant, one learn to be inured to its sting. But in learning to deaden the nerves that feel the unpleasant, so do the nerves that feel the pleasant and joy die out too, for they are the same thing. I have had not a reason to smile, but so did I not grimace as well, as I meandered the course, hoping, no that word is too strong, waiting for the happenstance that something better comes along for me to latch on to, to break this autopilot.

Because it is very tiring not to feel anything. The wilful denial of reacting to anything is exhausting — I’ve held my hand up to keep emotions at bay, and now my arms begin to tire.

Dare I even hope for hope this coming year?

Happy new year, everyone.

Where childhood education begins, childhood ends

Previously, I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system, and how divisive it was to the population’s children.

When you have schools that are seen as “elite” and schools that are seen as “neighbourhood” (regular), you have a nation of parents desperate and eager to send their offspring into these “elite” schools. As with demand and supply, seats are limited at these prestigious places and thus school children have to work ever so harder to outdo each other.

This means cram schools, or as they are called in Singapore, tuition centres.

After-school tutoring has become a thing where previously students who were slightly weaker went to to catch up, to a thing today where it is necessary to send one’s child to or else lose out to the other children, whom themselves are taking after-school tutoring and enrichment classes. It is reported that 97 percent of students in elementary and middle school in Singapore today are enrolled in tuition and enrichment centres, double from that of twenty years ago.

Children as young as in first and second grade are having to spend time after school going to these tuition centres, where they spend hours practising math drills.

Children in the Western world don’t even have proper homework until much later; perhaps some light reading exercises in the lower grades, but nothing in the likes of worksheets and homework assignment books.

There were many times in first and second grade where I have been punished (a smack on the palm with a wooden ruler) by the teacher for not having completed my homework.

And not even just homework, students begin taking year-end examinations as early as in first grade.

And so, going to tuition centres in Singapore to just keep up has become endemic, to the point that bringing a child up in such a competitive environment seems almost an affront the kid’s childhood. A Singaporean blogger Ian Tan notes:

For many parents, enrolling their children for tuition is not about the desire for top grades, but because of the fear that their children cannot catch up enough to get a decent passing grade.

Then, any free time the child has is sucked up by travelling to tuition classes or doing tuition homework. Where do they get the time to enjoy outdoor activities, learn new hobbies or other things that make them well-rounded individuals?

This is coupled by increasingly difficult standards of homework (actually only math, really) and exams that students receive, of which the same blogger notes:

…school teachers sometimes do not have the opportunity to reinforce the basics of simple arithmetic, and are forced to make their students do sums that are more useful in weeding out mathematical geniuses than genuinely impart knowledge. Within the cramped periods of each school day, it is simply impossible for teachers to cover all the bases in today’s punishing curriculum.

So if students have to resort to after-school tutoring to even maintain a level playing field, guess who loses out?

That’s right, those who can’t afford to send their kids to these tuition centres.

This situation of constantly having to bolster a child’s “education” with supplementary classes is socio-economically divisive — the rich can afford to keep their children at the top of cohort, who will end up being able to go to elite schools, and appear more attractive to employers when their educational resume boasts of top schools and top grades. Poorer families, where sometimes even the children might have to chip in at their parents’ stalls at the market or hawker centres, are just unable to keep chucking money at external agencies to help with their children’s education, locking them in a cycle that they currently are. Thankfully, given the level of subsidies and assistance available to students in the country, most students are able to go to high school (junior college, Centralised Institutes and polytechnics) and the local public universities (National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University), should they work hard enough, but most families will be locked into their socio-economic grouping and upward-mobility, of which education plays an important role, is incredibly hard.

I end by quoting an observation by (yet again) the same blogger I’ve quoted twice before:

If a brilliant student comes from a disadvantaged background and goes to a school where most of the kids have no access to expensive tuition or sometimes even have to help out at their parent’s hawker stalls, what are his chances of reaching his real potential?

I see parents spend thousands of dollars sending their kids to swanky tuition centres (which themselves show off their wealthy clientele by displaying iPads and cute pets at the window dressing area). Yet I am fully aware that these are the top 10-20% of society.

Of course, these kids would have a far better chance of doing well at PSLE compared to equally bright kids who have never stepped into these tuition centres. To make things worse, the primary school exams and assessments of today are ridiculously hard even by adult standards. Without the aid of tutors or full-time mothers, most kids would be quickly “filtered” out by these trick questions.

When even banks flee from college loans

From CNBC:

The largest bank in the United States will stop making student loans in a few weeks.

Even banks, who have been known to fish around troubled waters for revenue, such as with mortgage-backed securities during the subprime mortgage crisis, are pulling out of providing further loans to college students who want to take out a loan.

Why? Because college tuition is mounting, and as college students take out more loans to be able to afford that, only to graduate into joblessness or low-paying jobs that are insufficient for them to service their repayments, many default on their loans, causing banks losses.

I bet the student loan sector is so dismal that even the most creative of banks cannot re-package it into a lucrative derivative product. Unless the investors are really that daft.

With over $1 trillion in outstanding loans, the second highest in the country, over $8 billion in default, and about 13% of payers defaulting within  three years of servicing their loan, no wonder JP Morgan Chase wants out of this rapidly-collapsing market.

And of course, loans from JP Mogan Chase are a variable prime rate subject to market forces, unlike federal loans, and should interest rates go up, more students are likely to default and less students will be willing to take these loans out.

It is not so much that the jobs students are taking are less capable of living a standard life than they were decades ago; job wage increment has been slight but at least still barely keeping with inflation (2-3% wage increase vs 2-3% inflation) in the past two years. Compare that with tuition increase in the past two years, which has increased by 4-5%, plus state funding for colleges have fallen 15% in the past six years.

The problem is most definitely with the free-wheeling increase of tuition costs with no seeming checks. I have written about this previously and how if we are to maintain the momentum of development and progress in the country, something must be done to the incendiary college side of rapidly rising tuition costs, rather than just working on the palliative side of the solution of providing more government aid.

Pre-packed life choices

Previously I wrote about the breakdown of the Singapore education system and how elitist and dichotomising it is. It is known as being competitive and stressful, but what is little known about it is by making one choose one’s path from as young as in middle school, it results in a situation where the “choice” involves very little choosing at all.

By the time we’re in secondary school (middle school), at the end of secondary two (eighth grade), Singaporean students start subject specialisation and are able to pick the subjects they would want to study for the rest of their secondary education. Like in the UK, students have options such as taking “triple science” (physics, chemistry and biology — reserved for top-performing classes usually), or go more of an “arts” route (literature, geography, history, drama, etc.). Students will also get the chance to take Advanced Math (calculus).

These choices don’t seem like they matter much at this stage, but they actually do. The subjects one picks determine which post-secondary school the student is able to enter, which in turn affects not only which university the student can enter but even the major the student can take.

For example, were I to go on an “Arts” route in secondary school (which I did) and took more humanities than sciences and math, I would not even have been able to enter what is called the “Science stream” in grammar school (high school), I’d have been only able to enter the “Arts stream,” because a good grade in math and science are a requirement to enter the “Science stream.”

In the British/Singaporean education system, where a student declares a major before he or she enters university, what majors one is able to declare is dependent on the subjects one took in grammar school. Want to declare Engineering? You’d need a good grade in physics or chemistry and math. Want to declare law as a major? Probably stellar grades in English, math, humanities, basically everything (I doubt law school would admit anyone with less than straight ‘A’s)

Having dropped Advanced Math in middle school, and not getting an ‘A’ in regular math for my ‘O’ levels, I was prematurely excluded from ever entering the “Science stream” in grammar school, which means that I could never have been able to even study any of the math or science majors in university in Singapore.

All that because I chose to study literature and geography in middle school.

But when a child is forced to make these decisions that ultimately impact his or her life at the age of 14, 16 and 18, how is that child supposed to make those decisions when even people in their 20’s and 30’s don’t even know what they want to do with their lives?

As such, these students merely make pre-packed life choices — not knowing what they want to do with their lives, they can only shoot for the best they can achieve, and hope that it’d all work out. For example, most simply aim to enter “triple science” in secondary school. since those classes are reserved usually for the best, without consideration if they would actually want to pursue a career in science later on in life. Students figure that if they have the best grades possible, it gives them the most options later on.

In high school, students have to choose about three to four ‘A’ levels subjects to take. If the students mostly took science classes in middle school, chances are, they’d probably be going for the “Science stream” in high school as well, even though the “Arts stream” is available. To them, they think that taking the arts limits their options because they cannot envision getting into university through the arts, and hence default to taking the sciences and math. Students take subjects because they’re good at it, not because they like they subject.

In my high school, the ratio of science to arts classes was 31 to 8.

The majority of my high school peers in the “Science stream” ended up declaring engineering or business or some sort of science/math-related major to enter university, because that’s what they have been studying their entire lives from the point where they had to “make a choice.” They chose not to have to think about choice, and chose a default, pre-packed path in their life of math and science, because they’ve been told everyone needs that to get at least some sort of a job.

Did my friends want to become engineers and businessmen? They still don’t know what they want to do with their lives. But they know they have a career of math and science in which they can apply for jobs, because that’s what they studied in university.

In Singapore, it is not so much “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because the end is not so much a want as it is an inevitability.

Learning to be divided by education

I was explaining the Singapore education system to my friend from the States, and it turned out to be quite complicated:

For primary education (elementary school), we have a compulsory six years.

In secondary education (middle school), we have either a four-year program (Special/Express), or a four/five-year program (Normal Academic/Technical).

For post-secondary education (high school), we have either a two-year grammar school (Junior college), a three-year grammar school (Centralised Institute) or three-year vocational diploma program (Polytechnic). There is also a vocational institute known as the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

I was telling my friend about how children are subject to segregation by ability from as young as third grade. In third grade, we had to take a test to see if we could be admitted into the “Gifted” stream, comprising the top 1% of the student population. These students get to be schooled in an environment full of other “gifted” kids, where they probably develop mutant powers.  I did not make it into “Gifted,” most likely because I wasn’t very gifted. I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t gifted.

In fourth grade, we had our first serious, proper national-level examination that would ‘stream’ us into various ability bands. There was EM1, for kids who were ‘smart,’ EM2, for average kids (this band had the widest spectrum), and EM3, for kids who needed assistance with their studies. Needless to say everyone strove for EM1, and EM3 kids were given the snub. Elitism ran rampant amongst students and especially parents, even to the extent that some parents wouldn’t want their EM1 kids to hang out with EM3 kids. The Singapore government probably realised how divisive such a system was, and subsumed EM3 into EM2, but everyone knows EM3 still exists, and the last few classes of EM2 are the new de facto EM3. I didn’t make it into EM1, and I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t smart enough for it.

At the end of primary school, at sixth grade, students take their Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), which is scored out of 300. The score determines which secondary school a student can enter. More prestigious schools would have cut-offs at perhaps 250 or so, while less discriminating schools took in students at lower scores. In secondary school, there are multiple tracks. In “Special,” students take a four-year program with the option to take higher Mother Tongue or a third language. “Express” students take a four-year program without the language perks, and both “Special” and “Express” culminate in taking the ‘O’ Level examinations. There is the “Normal” track, divided into two types, “Normal (Academic)” where students take a five-year program, taking the ‘N’ Level on the fourth year, with the option for the ‘O’ Level on the fifth, and “Normal (Technical)” students take a four-year program with more technical subjects such as woodworking and finish up with the ‘N’ Level. I made it into “Express,” but I was kind of distraught to learn that I wasn’t “special.”

Finally, we get to post-secondary education, where there’s a two-year and three-year grammar school (Junior College and Centralised Institute respectively), or a three-year vocational diploma at a Polytechnic or a two-year vocational course at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). Entry into any of these post-secondary institutions require the ‘O’ or ‘N’ levels, and specifically for the JC, CI and Polytechnics, the ‘O’ levels (‘O’ levels stand for “Ordinary” levels, ‘N’ stands for “Normal”). Getting into grammar school is pretty competitive, as there are only 16 of them in the entire country of a population of 5.5 million. Many who do not go into grammar school usually go to a Polytechnic. However, the difference between grammar school and vocational institutes is that the majority of seats in university are more or less set aside for grammar school students, where perhaps 65-70% of the student body makes it into university, as opposed to perhaps 10% from a polytechnic. Thus, for those who wish to end up in college, the pressure to enter a grammar school is really high, unless one is really confident of being on top of the cohort in polytechnic. Even then, to get to enter college a year earlier is certainly a boon for those set on entering college.

But even within grammar schools and polytechnics, they are not ranked equally. We have what is informally known as ‘elite’ junior colleges and ‘neighbourhood’ junior colleges, where the junior colleges with more stringent entry requirements tend to produce more stellar students who get to go farther and further.

‘Elite’ junior colleges tend to have resources to prepare their students prepare for further education anywhere, even overseas, while most ‘neighbourhood’ junior college students are more or less expected to stay local. Not that local universities are any bad, but when you’re talking about the reaching the limits of Oxbridge and the Ivies, most ‘neighbourhood’ JC students would never even dream of such endeavours.

I only made it into a ‘neighbourhood’ JC, having come from a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school as well, and today, there is no distress — I have come to hold it as a badge of honour.

Despite my odds of never having been ‘gifted,’ ‘special,’ or ‘elite,’ I have been able to, through dogged determination, been able to hold ranks with those who have achieved those labels.

Handing over keys

Today marks the day that I should be handing over the keys to the circus club at New York University I helped create. A part of me doesn’t want to — I want to be able to still wield the access to the store and be able to keep my unicycle and other equipment on site. But all things must come to an end, and we must learn to let go.

It is not as if I’ll stop doing circus after today; even if I can’t attend the sessions of the school’s circus club, I will still do my own circus sessions. After all, you started out doing public circus even before the club at NYU started.

Rain clouds have gathered and the skies are grey. A fitting sombre farewell or reluctance to let me go?

I’d rather have blue skies and sunny weather, and let the transition happen as unnoticeable as possible, while still enjoying circus that I’ve grown accustomed to setting up each week.

Making the progress of the country affordable

From the New York Times:

Obama to Offer Plans to Ease Burden of Paying for College

It is about time the wildly sky-rocketing prices of a college education be addressed. While not actually depressing or stemming the increase in tuition, offering more aid is just as good a solution as any.

It must be, and I believe it is, recognised that a college education is ultimately how a country can begin progress. Oh don’t get me wrong, a college education is not necessary for an individual to be successful and happy in life — a person who has never been to college, through innovation, hard work and the right mixture of conditions can live the life he or she wants to. I’m talking about advancement and success at a national level.

A lot of the “better life” we talk about is made capable through invention — green energy, more effective farming methods, waste reduction technologies, communication, etc. — all these are the results of research and development, most if not all, made possible by researchers and scientists who have had to start in college. There are not many prodigies around who, without having to go to college, are capable of inventions at a scale enough to impact a nation as a whole; most innovations are from the toil of thousands of regular scientists who become proficient at what they do from having received the know-how and training from college and university. If a prodigy is the equivalent of a hundred scientists, rather than focus trying to find the wayward genius, it makes more sense to groom a hundred scientists instead.

If the very basic step of even attaining a bachelors remains out of reach to many because “college is too expensive”, and there might be countless untapped future inventors and pioneers waiting for the right academic environment to unleash their potential, a lot of talent and potential is wasted; all that is achieved is college heads having their pockets lined with more money.

Why is college the vital stepping stone, and not say, high school, to a country’s advancement? It is true to say that every step along of the path of education contributes to innovation’s path, but high schools being unaffordable is not quite a problem in this country, college is.

The government is investing in the country’s future when it decides to give students access to their own ingenuity by helping make the tools affordable; knowledge, and an environment to inspire.

Le regard neuf de l’enfant sauve même les trottoirs de l’usure

enfantThe fresh perspectives of a child will save even the sidewalk from attrition — Romain Gary

I learnt this phrase from a friend from France who turned up at my weekly circus. We talked about haiku and I mentioned about the naive perspectives of children being one of the most beautiful things about it, and he told me about this quote. I found it poignant and decide to illustrate it.

Every day I wake up less and less sure of myself — I open my email inbox with my breath held, expecting to be disappointed. Expectations were met. No response from any of the jobs I have applied at.

Every time I write I become less and less sure of my ability — I used to think that being capable got you places, and I was sure that I was pretty capable. Now am I less confident that that is the case, or that maybe I’m not that capable after all.

And then I realise that perhaps what I need is a fresh perspective to stop this attrition of the self and of the mind. I left college with a font of hope and optimism, and thought that sufficient to last me till I transition into the next phase of my life; where I start working. I guess I did not consider that this transition might take longer than I expected, and hoping to merely brave this foray with what I had would not be sufficient.

I will need to renew my view on how I take each day that does not bring me the news I so fervently wish.

Sorrowful Rice 黯然销魂饭

Sorrowful rice

I tried making my own char siew, or Chinese barbecue roast pork, for the first time today. People usually buy them because nobody owns a spit and a fire pit, but I learnt that you can actually cook it in the oven, and char it on the stove top!

Given that I now have a batch of char siew, a natural dish to make with it would be what is known as “Sorrowful Rice” or 黯然销魂饭. The dish is essentially regular ol’ char siew rice, or char siew over steamed white rice, with a side of a sunny-side up and some vegetables.

“Sorrowful Rice” is actually the name of a dish from a movie, God of Cookery (食神).

In it, the protagonist Stephen Chow competes in a competition and strives to create the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted. He reaches into his sorrow and memory of a woman, who made him a bowl of char siew rice when he was downtrodden, and she supposedly took a bullet for him. With that, he created the “Sorrowful Rice.”

The sorrow is apparently onions.

I reach into my sorrow and create my own “Sorrowful Rice.”

Grandma, you never got to see me graduate college. You never even got to see me off as I left for New York later that year. You never got to see me do the ‘triumphant return.’ I have yet to return, and it seems I am becoming quite the prodigal son. Will you still be proud of me, even if I am struggling to make something of myself and having racked up a colossal collegiate debt?

What will you say, if you learn that I do not wish to return to the land where you are buried?

On 28th May, 2009, at around 5 AM, you passed away in the hospital. I remember, because I wrote it down.

I also wrote down having heard you cry when Great Grandmother died. It was really painful.

A grandson should never live to see his grandmother cry. Or any old people cry.

I wrote that down in my logs. In my mind, it seemed impossible that you were one to sob uncontrollably, for you were my stoic grandmother; frustrating at times, but always well-meaning and grandmotherly.

I also remember, and wrote down when your youngest son, my uncle, passed away. By traditions and customs, you were not allowed to attend his wake. I can only imagine what grief it must be — grief I didn’t want to imagine, because I remembered the grief you had at Great Grandmother’s funeral.

Many times whenever I am doing something, I would think, “What if she could see me now?” And then I remembered that you can’t, and I am reminded of the finality of death.

Uncle (叔叔), I wrote down what you told me when I visited you on 12th April, 2008.

The first few things he said to me were, “Is the army stressful?” and then he went on about how I should learn to take things easy and learn how to let things go. However I feel that it was more for the benefit of himself, as if he were repeating these to remind himself exactly what he has to do.

But he seems ailing in his road to recovery. He doesn’t wish to pick himself up, saying how exhausted he is and all, and all he does is lie in bed. He doesn’t move much, not even to leave the room or to sit on a sofa. That is bad.

Hope he perks up soon? I’ve even offered going out with him for photography as bribes.

What I did not write down, but I always remember was when you asked me that day, “So what are your plans for college?”

“I’m probably going to apply for college in the United States,” I said.

“That’s nice. What are you going to be studying there?” he asked.


“Journalism? That’s good. I wanted to be a journalist too when I was younger, but I never studied hard, and I couldn’t be one. You should study hard and become one for me.”

You passed away a week later.

I graduated journalism school, but I have yet to find a job in journalism. I am going to keep trying, uncle. With the memories of that robot dinosaur you gave me as a kid, and also that toy guy that you disabled the recoil feature for because it scared me, I will become the journalist you couldn’t be. I could not keep the promise to go do photography with you, but I will try my darndest best with this one.

I should ease up with the onions. This is too much sorrow for me.

Graduation: We did it! What is ‘it’?

About a month and a half ago, I graduated with my bachelors from New York University. It was a pretty grand affair. The Yankee Stadium was awash with a sea of purple and camera flashes, and while a sizeable portion of the student body was not impressed that their commencement speaker was David Boies, the lawyer who got Prop 8 overturned, I thought it was pretty rad.

However, I just could not muster up the enthusiasm to enjoy the ceremony. Around me, friends were congratulating each other, high-fiving, taking pictures of themselves in graduation regalia.

diditI just didn’t feel it. People were telling each other, “We did it!” But, what is it about “it” that we did that is so worth congratulating?

Perhaps I was reluctant to be ending a period in my life where I didn’t have to worry about finding jobs and entering the “real world?” Perhaps I was unhappy to be leaving friends I’ve made in my four years?

No, not really. University for me has always been a gateway for me to enter the world of journalism. I practically entered college with my major declared. No fudging around classes, wondering what life was going to be for me when I left college — no, I did college for what lies after. I was eager to start my foray into professional journalism. And no, while I had a handful of friends at college, my closest friends in the city were mostly outside of college (circus, online communities, etc), and the close friends I made in college are still in the city anyway. Also, it is not as if I am one to bemoan having to leave people behind; after all I am not stranger to uprooting myself. I left a lifetime of friends and family 9000 miles behind to be here.

What I was not enthused about was of the zeitgeist of “We did it!” What was particularly hard about college that surviving it made it an ordeal worth congratulating? A student who puts in conscientious and regular effort into his or her school work will find that making it to graduation is not that big a deal. Perhaps we now live in a culture where “keeping up the good work” has become a rarity and that one who displays it should be congratulated.

Or perhaps I grew up in a culture where such things are expected of you. Insert Asian stereotypes here, but verily making it to the finishing line doesn’t turn heads, doesn’t make eyelids bat. Distinctions do. I was not a spectacular student, and I even lapsed at school work at times, but I can say that I consistently put in effort in college, and I came out okay. I didn’t graduate with Latin honours, but my grades were not abysmal (3.5 out of a 4? I’ll take it.). I am sure if I put in more effort, I’d have gotten better grades and all that but that is no more than a numbers’ chase.

One’s path in college, no matter the classes taken, is predictable. One is expected to put in a certain amount of work into it, and at the end of the day, you come out unscathed and meeting expectations. Do we congratulate people for meeting expectations? Maybe we do, but people at graduation make it out to be such a big deal it is as if people enter college with the expectations that they are all going to flunk out, and that having made it to graduation actually is exceeding expectations.

Why would anyone want to enter college expecting to fail anyway?

What I would say “We did it!” to would be more of the unexpected things one does in college; things that a student endeavours at his or her own risk with no idea what the outcome would be. Things I would celebrate are:

  • Having started a community of my own, the NYU Violet Circus Arts
  • Making the effort to immerse myself in the local cultures, such as having performed at the Howl! Festival
  • Learning to extend myself in ways I’d never have done back home, such as forming friendships online, etc

The common denominator of the above seem to be about forging and integrating into communities, and they don’t seem like much, but these are things that were quite unknown to me back home. Going to gaming meetups from Reddit groups? Would never even have touched Reddit back home. Talking to random poi spinners in the park and subsequently being introduced to the local scene of fire spinning and circus arts? People scarcely even publicly practice circus arts, and that’s not to say that there are very many.

In comparison, having done these as a student was above and beyond what I felt was expected of me as a student. The true growth came not understanding of linguistics and journalism in the classrooms, but from what I made myself do outside of them.