Monday, July 28, 2014

Why people hate being asian: A look back at the top blog post four years later

Have you ever looked at something you've written from the past? Did you find yourself impressed at the timelessness? Yeah, me neither.

I decided today to look back at this blog and remember that special year of my life where I was able to visit 14 countries and spend countless hours writing blog posts to share with my friends and family.

But I got distracted.

Did you know that this blog has generated 52,622 pageviews in its lifetime? And 11,116 of those views come from just one of the 102 posts overall? What the heck? Why all this hype for a personal travel blog? Read on past the jump for why:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poop Group + 5 Differences With Grad School

October is just flying by. I looked at the calendar today and couldn't believe it was already the 25th! Personally, I blame the weather. Every fall I look to chillier temperatures and changing leaves to signal the passage of time, but it's been hovering at or above 20 degrees for all of October so it still feels like I just started (cue the boos and rotten tomatoes from all of you living in colder climates). Anyway, undoubtedly time has passed quickly because I've hit my stride here at Stanford, a lot of which has to do with the research group I've gotten involved with - the Poop Group.

In case you didn't know, I'm aiming to do my PhD here in water and sanitation in the developing world. Invariably, that has to do with either cleaning poop or preventing poop from spreading, hence the name the Poop Group. It's a really special group; the people are smart and insightful, and I can see myself thriving here for years. I covered how I'm not sure if I can stay (hint: it rhymes with bunding), but at the moment I'm just worrying about what I can control. Following that thought, I'm preparing myself for when funding does appear by organizing myself and my thoughts: I spent my weekend writing my funding research proposal despite not having any competition to enter it in.

Except I hit a roadblock. I couldn't narrow myself down to an original topic. Every time I read something, I thought, "Wow, what a great idea...why couldn't I think of that?" So, I did what I always do in these situations. I took a step back and I prayed for guidance and for wisdom.

Now, when they say God works in mysterious ways, they definitely mean it. As I began my search for an original topic, I came across an article on anal cleansing techniques in Kenya, an area where there's a large gap in literature. As I read more and more, looking for bits and pieces in the literature and getting more and more excited, I knew I had found my topic. The ideas in my head were connecting faster than a bullet train in Shanghai - "I could look at this, or this. Hmm, I wonder how this affects this?" Essentially, I see it as an unstudied pathway for contamination; no one's looked at it before because it's taboo and, frankly, it's gross.

So, while I had always considered myself a water person, I now face the prospect of devoting the next five years of my life towards bum-wiping practices. And you know what? I absolutely love that! If I can contribute to global knowledge in this way, then I'm honoured that this is my part.

God definitely works in mysterious ways.

Of course, as is tradition, here's five things that I've already noticed are different about being in graduate school:
  1. Undergraduates are annoying. This is probably pretty obvious. Any time you move 'up' a level, you belittle the level you just came from. This really hit home for me when I was eating lunch the other day. I was in an undergraduate dining hall ($5.95 for all you can eat? Hells yeah!) and I couldn't help but overhear this nerdy, probably freshman, kid try to strike up a conversation with this girl.
    Guy: "Have you read Ayn Rand? I really don't think her theory of objectivism..."
    Girl: "Hmm no, I haven't."
    *Awkward silence*
    I thought this was the most hilarious thing since sliced bread (that's not a typo, sliced bread is hilarious). Boy am I glad to be done with those times in my life.

  2. Everyone is working on something cool. All of my peers work in labs or groups or on projects that are at the forefront of their fields. Cancer biology, radiology, materials science, environmental engineering...I don't think I've ever walked away from a conversation about someone's research thinking, "Man that topic sounds so boring."

  3. There are a surprising amount of older people. I half expected this, but I was still surprised at how many people had been working for a while and came back to do grad school. If I had to venture a guess, I'd probably say the distribution was bimodal, with a fair amount of people just graduated and a fair amount of people in that 26-28 range who've done other stuff.

  4. There are a surprising amount of married people. I guess this is kind of similar to #3, but for the first time ever many of my peers are married. I haven't quite figured out how this changes dynamics (it hasn't really yet for me), but it's neat to have a more diverse background of people to share experiences and get perspectives from.

  5. You can take library books out for entire terms! This is my most exciting one. Are you like me? Do you hate having to return your library books every three weeks? (*crickets chirp*) As a grad student, you don't have to return books until you're bloody damn well done reading them. I think I just might read my books twice, just to get the full value out of them.
So as you can see I'm adjusting pretty well to extended-library-privilege graduate life. My research stuff is rolling and I'm already feeling that smug sense of superiority over undergraduates. Clearly, I've arrived.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stolen Recipes - Heidi's Sweet Potatoes

I love cooking. And from time to time I'll be so impressed by something I ate that I'll try to make it myself at home. Stolen Recipes is a series about these attempts at expanding my cooking repertoire.

In my second year at Waterloo, I had a Thanksgiving potluck at my house for all of my friends from out of town. All of my four roommates went home for the long weekend, so obviously I took the opportunity to hold a huuuuuuge party! Actually it was more like an intimate dinner party. I remember playing Cranium.

Anyway, I always remembered this one sweet potato dish that my friend Heidi made that year. So, when it came for me to go to a Thanksgiving potluck this year (with the Canadian club at Stanford), I figured, why not try my hand?

Ingredients You're Supposed to Use
As many sweet potatoes as you'd like (I had 5)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons of honey
juice of 1 lime (~ 1 tablespoon)
4 minced garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon of chili powder
1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon of allspice

Here's a note from Heidi on the spices: 
Feel free to play around with the spices too - I've done it with just cinnamon & ginger before and it was still yummy :)
Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step One: Unfortunately, my spice collection when I was trying to make this wasn't quite as varied as the recipe needed, so I thought I would just add a little bit of what I had and rely more on the natural sweet potato taste. The only spice I had in the house was oregano (talk about unprepared) so, after some googling to find out that that combination wouldn't be awful, I mixed the oil, honey, lime juice and oregano into a bowl and hoped for the best:
Make sure you get the honey that comes in the bear bottle.

Step Two:
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them up into 1" chunks. Obviously if you cut them smaller they'll cook quicker. I happened to have some squash too so I added that in as well (it's the lighter orange).
I might have left them a bit too big.

Step Three: Coat the pieces in the bowl and spread them out on to a baking tray.
This is the fun part, the sweet sticky fun part.

Step Four:
 This isn't actually a step, it's just a picture of my setup. My kitchen is really small :(. Also, you're supposed to spread them in a single layer on a baking tray but, unfortunately for me again, the only piece of bakeware I had was this glass dish so I had to make due with what I had.
Don't do what Donny Don't does. Use a baking tray.

Step Five:
 Put it in the oven! I lowered the rack so my big bowl was in the middle. Now it's very important here to keep an eye on them and stir a couple times - they tend to stick because of the honey. You should only need to keep them in there for about 45 minutes (or until the desired tenderness).
I also realized after I had put it in that I don't have oven mitts.

Here's a picture of what they looked like at about halfway cooked: You can see that the lighter orange squash pieces are more soft, but some of the sweet potatoes are still harder. In my case, mixing also allowed me to get a more homogeneous batch of pieces.
You could say the squash pieces got squashed!... I'll show myself out.

And voila! Your kitchen will smell of sweet potatoes and your stomach will be growling. Pair with some lovely turkey and cranberries and you'll have yourself a fine Thanksgiving dinner.
Despite all of my deviations from the recipe, they tasted maaarvelous! I think you can't really mess up sweet potatoes too much. They're like God's gift to unprepared cooks.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Thanksgiving + 5 Things I Hate About Living in the United States

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! As I finish my second week of classes and begin my third, I'm glad that Thanksgiving's here so that, in spite of the uncertainty in my studies, I can reflect on what I am thankful for. I'm really thankful this week for being able to indulge my intellectual, athletic and my spiritual sides:

My intellectual side was stimulated when I attended a really neat seminar on Friday by Aquacue. It's a startup that takes data on water use at the household level, performs analysis on the data, and then provides the analytics to households or water utilities managers in order to better manage their water. They help people find leaks, optimize usage and change behaviour. I loved this idea because it's everything I'm about. I'm a big proponent of utilizing today's technology (in Aquacue's case: cell phone technology, cloud computing and social media) to help solve environmental problems. In my experience, the environmental engineering field is really slow to adopt these kinds of changes, so I'm excited to hear about the innovation that is happening to it. The seminar reminded me how fortunate I am to be at this school so I'm thankful that I have the opportunities that I do right now.

My athletic side was also stimulated this week. I found great mental relief this week by going to the pool regularly. I swim 1000m (10 laps of the olympic sized pool) and it takes me a long, long time. The first time I did it it took me 43 minutes, which is more than 4 minutes a lap. I was never a really good swimmer but, like my quest to find a PhD supervisor, I considered it a work in progress. So the next time I did it I got it down to 41 minutes. And then on Friday I got it to 38 minutes! It's getting there, but there's something very satisfying about setting a goal and reaching it. Besides that, it was a great week for watching sports as the hockey season started again and I watched my first college football game! Stanford's quarterback Andrew Luck is a special player and it was a treat to be able to watch him before he goes first overall in the NFL draft. I'm thankful that I get to stimulate my athletic side with the world class facilities I have available to me here.

Finally, I'm very, very thankful that I've been able to find a home church and fellowship group to be apart of while I'm here. Yesterday at church I heard the head pastor speak for the first time. And lo and behold it's famous Christian author John Ortberg! He delivered a masterful sermon about common misconceptions about the bible where he tackled its supposed literal truth, the alleged contradictions and its applicability to life in the twenty-first century. Needless to say, we were all blown away. So I'm thankful that every facet of my life has been taken care of.

That said, life here in the U.S. isn't all roses and daises. Since I've moved here I've had to get used to some pretty annoying things. So, in the interest of equal time, here are 5 things that I hate (so far) about living in the United States:

  1. Expensive Health Insurance. For my first year here my health insurance is over $3,000. And that doesn't include dental subsidies or vision or anything like that. And there's these weird rules like I had to get a second shot of some vaccine I had as a kid and get a test for something I didn't need to in Canada. Health insurance, why you have to be so complicated?
  2. Can't Stream Hockey Night in Canada. I know, I know. Last week I fawned over how consuming media was much easier with an American IP address. Well, now that hockey started I'm eating my words just a little bit. I forgot that, to stream HNIC from the CBC web site, you need a Canadian IP. On the plus side, maybe I can actually afford to go to a hockey game in real life down here...
  3. Imperial Units of Measurement. Though I'm gradually getting used to the use of miles for distance (and fortunately Canadians use feet and inches for height and pounds for weight), I still cannot for the life of me figure out what the temperature is. This has been especially crappy this week since it rained all week and was pretty cold some days. I mean, do you really even feel the one fahrenheit degree of difference? Why did they make the increments so small?
  4. Crazy U.S. Politics. The two-party system is at the core of the craziness with politics here. There is such divisiveness that people flock to the extremes, demonizing the other party rather than focusing on the common ground. It's such a dysfunctional system and it continues to baffle me.
  5. All the Bills Look the Same. I'm always fumbling in my wallet every time I have to pay for something in cash. With dollar bills, I can never tell if I have a lot of money or if I just have a wallet full of ones. The one plus is that I have much less change. Not sure if that's worth it though. I know they're supposed to be adding tinges of colours to bills, but I haven't noticed a difference yet.
Back to Thanksgiving. Tonight I'm going to a dinner sponsored by the Canadian club on campus so I'll get my portion of turkey. I'm making these sweet (as in awesome) sweet (as in sugary) potatoes from a recipe I got from my friend Heidi, who made them one Thanksgiving in Waterloo. I hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving as much as I'm going to!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Ethical Dilemma + 5 Things I Love About Living in the United States

For a week where I only had nine hours of lecture (only three classes), it felt like I had a lot of ups and downs. At first I was freaking out because I had too much free time. I figured I should be working in a lab or participating in research or something that would help me reach my goal of getting into the PhD program.

I should backtrack. My program is a one-year Master's where, if you want to continue to a PhD, you have to fill out a form indicating so around January. However, PhD students aren't admitted without full funding (i.e. enough money to cover tuition + living + a stipend). This funding can come from three sources: a scholarship or award, the professor's own grant funding or a teaching assistant position. Herein lies the source of my anxiety. As a Canadian student, I'm not eligible for the major PhD scholarships in the U.S., so I have to rely on my Canadian funding (which is about a third of tuition) and essentially the professor's funding. So I have been scouring the internet for all scholarships open to me and also doing my best to show my professor that I'm serious and would be an asset to her team.

This led me to an ethical decision I had to make on Thursday. My professor is very popular, so there is competition from my classmates for research opportunities in her group. On Thursday, she held open office hours so anyone could go talk to her about research. A friend of mine, also interested in working with the professor, didn't know about it. The best career move would have been to not tell my friend, but it would also be a pretty jerk move on my part. So what did I do?

We'll get to that at the end. Let's proceed for now with the five things that I already love about living here in the United States.

1.  Netflix - I heard many great things about Netflix in the U.S. and, their separation of streaming video and DVD rentals notwithstanding, they delivered on my expectations. It's great for watching almost any genre of movie and catching up on television shows that I've heard about but never got the chance to watch. I've already watched a handful of documentaries (finally saw Food Inc, for example) and am starting Friday Night Lights. I wish they had the current seasons of things (like Breaking Bad), but I can't really complain about their massive library. The quality is good and their recommendations are pretty spot on. (By the way, in case you wanted to tell me they have Netflix in Canada, I know. The library is much smaller and much worse)

2. - Amazon in the States has everything you could possibly imagine. Here's a list of things I bought off Amazon since I've been here:
  • A book on data visualization
  • A microwave
  • A set of sheets for my bed
  • A textbook for my microbiology class
  • A cooking pot
  • A 24-pack of CLIF energy bars
And it's only been three weeks! Plus, with Amazon Student, I get free 2-day shipping on anything. Definitely made it easier to get the little things I need without having to go to the store.

3. Pandora - Pandora is an online radio service that suggests songs to you based on only one song that you input. It uses things like rhythm, beat and harmony when suggesting songs, so I find it much better than Grooveshark for music recommendation purposes. For someone who's not really an audiophile, I was really impressed with how easy and accurate it was. There are loads of other services too, like Spotify, Rdio and, but with Pandora I just put in the name of a song I liked and instantly I was listening to stuff I liked. I don't know if it's that easy with the other services, but at least I didn't have to sign up for Pandora before instantly using it (I signed up after I realized how much I liked it). 

4. Other Online Retailers - You may be seeing a trend. I love online shopping, so for once it's nice not to have to pay exorbitant shipping to ship stuff to my house! I anticipate I'll be getting a lot more of stuff from retailers like Forever21 and American Eagle, where I've shopped before only when there was a free shipping sale. A lot of the time, the prices are just cheaper when you have an American I.P. too. I think most retailers aren't eager to adjust their prices to reflect the equality between the Canadian and American dollars.

5. Biking - I'll add this last one so it doesn't seem like I'm a huge nerd. I guess this isn't really an American thing, but more of a Stanford thing. Stanford is flat and big, so naturally biking is the most preferred method of transportation. It's really changed my life, actually. I don't walk anywhere! And I only really learned to ride the bike this summer (I never learned as a kid), so for me it's been a reclamation of a lost part of my childhood. I'm exploring different buildings, going outside my comfort zone and taking it off sweet jumps (okay, not really, but I just love that scene from Napoleon Dynamite).

Back to the ethical decision I had to make. In coming to the States I was starting new again. In my experience, every time you move you get to recreate who you are to some extent. No one knows who you are, so you get to decide who you are, even if it's not who you were. But who I am is someone who's watched way too many after-school specials as a kid. I knew that if I intentionally didn't tell my friend about the professor's office hours, it would surely come back to me in some sort of karmic retribution. I know this because it happened to Zack Morris, to T.J. Detweiler and to Urkel. 

So I told her, and she went, and it turns out the professor was thinking of her all this time and even suggested a project she could work on with a Post Doc. This is, of course, the kind of opportunity I was hoping for. So did I mess up my chances? Who knows. I think time will tell. Even if I did shoot myself in the foot, I would probably do it again. Sometimes in the after-school special, you don't get rewarded for your honesty.

Then again, sometimes it just takes a while.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On The Necessity of Democracy

I was asked recently where I plan to live after I finish graduate school here in the United States. Would I return to Canada or stay in the U.S.? I think I surprised the person when I answered, "Possibly neither of those."

This summer, as I followed the political posturing during the debt limit ceiling debacle in the U.S. Congress, I became increasingly disillusioned with democracy in America. Did I want to live long term in a country where the will of the people makes it logical to put unnecessary warfare before the health, well-being and education of its citizens? Or where the front runners for a major party openly and bafflingly demonstrate ignorance of basic science and economics? It's scary.

It became clear to me that in a democracy where corporate lobbyists and unbalanced media distort the equality of every voice the increased probability of having national interests hijacked by vocal, uneducated minorities (who are easily swayed) is what upset me about the whole situation. It happened in Canada too, with the HST being repealed by referendum in BC. Here was something that was a long-term policy solution endorsed by economists. Shouldn't we have deferred to experts on matters that aren't our expertise or, at the very least, given it one or two more years before striking it down?

Of course, the real reason it was struck down wasn't because of economic incentive (though that played a role as certain industries were hurt more than others supposedly gained); it was due to dishonest politicians who promised the HST wouldn't be brought in. But the whole thing left me uneasy; the movement was based on revenge rather than reason. "Democracy is prone to such movements," I thought to myself. In a system of where each person has a voice, invariably the loudest ones will be most influential; unfortunately the loudest and most confident ones are often the most ignorant and least knowledgeable.

In a circuitous way, this leads me back to the beginning of this post, when I was asked where I want to live after I graduate. Is it bad that Asia jumps immediately to mind? In a place like Singapore, where one party has ruled since the country was formed, you can have a Western standard of living and live comfortably as long as you forego that great pinnacle of Western civilization - democracy. But is it all that bad? Sure, you give up a few civil liberties, but in exchange you receive a low crime rate, a clean city and world-class amenities. And with China trending upwards and the U.S. trending downwards, who's to say that the U.S. will continue to be a superpower at all? Maybe it's Asia's time now.

To me this viewpoint is new; if you had asked me during my time in Singapore if I could have lived there permanently I would've responded with a resounding, "No." But as I started to think more logically, the idea grew and grew. Why not live in a place where the the best economists run the economy? ...where leading urban planners plan the city? ...where education and knowledge are more powerful than ignorance?

Of course I'm aware of the adage that if you let the someone take an inch, they'll take a mile; the implication being that I shouldn't be so eager to give away my hard-earned civil liberties. And of course I'm sure my position would be much different if I were an oppressed minority. If I were Indian or Malay, why would I want to live in Chinese-dominated Singapore where the government is much less likely to do things that I agree with? But I'm not. I'm a foreign-educated Chinese person. And I could probably stretch my personal capital much further in Singapore than in the U.S., where I'm less desirable.

I don't know if I ever will live in Singapore again, but the important thing is that I am not outright dismissing it as an option any more. When I was younger, my parents told me to keep my Hong Kong ID updated in case I ever go back to work in the future. At the time, I thought that was insane; why would I ever leave North America? But the current state of the U.S. and the high quality of life in Asia (coupled with attractive avenues for future research) have led me to re-think things. Who really needs to chew gum, anyway?

Monday, September 19, 2011

This is What a World-Class Campus Looks Like - The Environment & Energy Building

This is What a World-Class Campus Looks Like is a new series where I show you all the stuff that blows my mind about the Stanford University campus.
The Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building.
When my parents came to visit Stanford, I made sure to take them to see the new Environment & Energy building in the Engineering quad. This is the building where my program is located and where I'll have lab classes. I wanted them to get a sense of what makes this school different; it's not just the increased prestige and opportunity, it's something you can appreciate on a day-to-day basis.