The Grass is Always Greener

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I left Beijing this summer needing a breath of fresh air. By the end of HBA, I had begun to feel a bit disenchanted with the place: the constant pollution, traffic jams, impatience with foreigners etc. Dealing with the suicide of one of my closest friends threw me into a state of dejection. I was lucky enough to have friends near and far offer their condolences through emails, letters and hugs. It drew me closer to people I didn’t even know before. Yet, it was hard for me to find importance in anything around me after losing someone who taught me how meaningful life could be. I was drained and I needed to get out.

Luckily, my month away from Beijing refreshed me. I was able to teach in rural China for a week, see Shanghai and explore Suzhou. I traveled Japan on an unlimited rail pass for a week and visited my friend in Singapore at Yale-NUS. From the least developed townships to the most developed cities, these places opened my eyes to new treasures Asia has to offer. This blog posts covers my adventures from the past month.

Building Bridges in Qingyuan

The day after HBA ended, I caught a train to the south of China to meet up with the students I was helping to lead for Yale’s Building Bridges Program. My co-leaders July, the organizational goddess, Bertie, the trusty struggle bus driver, and I all lead students hailing from Yale, Princeton, Peking University, Tsinghua, and the University of Wisconsin Madison. We planned an eclectic assortment of classes for high school students in a rural city in Zhejiang Province called Qingyuan. I taught them English, music theory, and aspects of American culture. Their English was surprisingly good and they were all extremely obedient in class. As soon as I called on a student, he or she would stand up, and answer my question without complaint. I was like a celebrity there. Many had never seen a westerner before, so I was constantly signing autographs or taking pictures with eager students. The perpetual attention ended up being a bit tiresome. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom without being followed to the door. So, it was nice to have a homeroom class of students with whom I had the opportunity to forge closer bonds.

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On the last day, I travelled to three of my students’ houses in the mountains nearby to meet their families and see where they grew up. Harvesting mushrooms was the specialty in the region, so all of them stockpiled large quantities of the packaged fungus in their houses for sale. Buddhism played an important role in peoples’ lives in this rural region. Although the public schools was completely secular, Buddhist shrines were tucked away in corners or were displayed on hilltops all throughout the village. There was a feeling of carefree happiness that filled the atmosphere during these summer days.

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(that character “fo” means Buddha in Chinese)

At the end of the trip, the Yalies and I went to Shanghai to meet with some alumni and sightsee. I fell in love with the place. It made me rethink the way I thought about returning to China. I probably won’t come back to Beijing to live long term again, but Shanghai is a place I could imagine doing so for a year or two if the opportunity ever presented itself. July, another trip leader from Hong Kong University who had studied abroad at Yale last year took us to her hometown of Suzhou half an hour away. We explored the ancient gardens around the city and I finally got to hear traditional Chinese opera.Image

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(Bertie, Me, Joanna, and July)

Japan

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Japan blew me away with its culture and extremely polite people. I never conceived how different the culture was between Japan and China. It was so mystifying, the way shrines and temples were hidden amongst trees, mist, and sentinels; everything fit together in perfect harmony with the surrounding environment while skyscrapers and mountains loomed in the background. It was good to have time to travel alone, with no one to report or attend to but myself. Since I only had a day or two in each city, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, I made a point of going on a few runs in each place to see as many sights as possible. The parks were a spiritual experience in Japan. The sushi was mouthwatering and ramen never tasted so good. I’ll never eat those plastic container-style meals in the same way again.

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(Spanish, Japanese, American, French)

I went to a famous club in Tokyo called Womb with my friend Jakub from Yale on a night when students could get in for free. It was a truly international night as Jakub’s Japanese friends showed us around, we danced with people from Spain, France, Greece, Switzerland, England, and China. The DJ’s were amazing and it was fun to dance to music inspired by Japanese video games.

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It was interesting to hear westerners speak about their experiences working in Japan. I spoke with a woman at my hostel in Kyoto and another who had worked in Japan previously but had since moved to Singapore. They both commented on how hierarchical the culture can be. Both felt that women were placed on a lower plane than men in general. Japanese people, although extremely polite at first, are reticent to accept a foreigner as one of their own according to these two women. Only being there a week, however, I was showered with warm hospitality. This Japanese guy I met on the plane from Shanghai to Tokyo waited for me on the other side of customs without me even asking. He then made sure I got my Yen and rode the train with me to Ueno station where my hostel was located. I got lunch the next day with another Japanaese girl I met on the plane. She showed me Tokyo’s most famous shrine and taught me how to order at a ramen restaurant by using a machine placed at the entrance.

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(Saki Orima and me)

I was very lucky in Japan to meet these two hospitable Japanese youth, but also to meet up with Jakub in Tokyo and another friend from Yale, Deb, who was traveling in Kyoto at the time with her Japanese friend. One of the beauties of traveling alone was the spontaneity that kept it interesting.

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(Deb and me in Kyoto)

When I was in Kyoto, I watched Memoirs of a Geisha for the first time. What a profound, complex, insightful, film. The idea of patience and the cycles of life was a part of the movie that had a deep influence on me. I felt the seismic shifts of history throughout the film deep in my heart. The Geishas completely changed after WWII. So much of Japan did. Americans were ignorant, yet they were sent to all corners of the Earth. It made me think, no wonder cultures around the world feel bitter towards the States at times. They had beautiful art forms that were destroyed by the war. The unfortunate part was that the war wasn’t even started by Americans. We were just the ones who ended up controlling many parts of world after the war ended. These old cultures must have felt like teenagers were now ordering elders. What I loved about this movie was that it portrayed life in all its complexities. It was a profoundly sad story, full of so much unkindness, yet a heart-wrenchingly beautiful story. We must keep moving forward, no matter what life we were born into. “We cannot say to the sun, more sun, and we cannot tell the rain, less rain.” Although life is complex, and unkind at times, we humans really can find depth, beauty, happiness, and meaning in the life we are given.

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(the orange gates from the last scene in the film)

Singapore and Yale-NUS 

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Singapore showed me another example of what an Asian society can be like in its most developed form. I was visiting my freshman counselor from last year who was working at Yale-NUS this year. It was great to have time to bond with Ben in a setting where he didn’t have to be my counselor. The most fun we had was on the last day when he took me on a grand 10-hour tour of Singapore. We started from the government buildings, headed down to the Speakers corner where the government allows protests to take place, passed the Esplanade and cricket fields, walked under the hotel that has a boat on top of it, explored a bio park with giant man-made trees that look like they came from Avatar, ate a Singaporean-style dinner next to the seaside, and finished off the night with a surprise light-show on the inner harbor. The light show, which was projected on three sheets of sprayed water, culminated with the song “What a wonderful world” by Louie Armstrong and I sure felt that way by the end.

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(Ben and me in front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel)

I had many conversations with the students at Yale-NUS about how they envisioned the next four years building up their school from scratch. There has been a flurry of criticism over the founding of this new institution, yet it’s begun and the students, faculty and staff are moving forward with unabated energy and enthusiasm. They are creating a curriculum infused with ideas from both the East and West. Although the school is very much in its developing stages, it has the potential for great success.

The students at Yale-NUS share the same affability, spirit of inquiry, international mindset, and passion for life both inside and outside of the classroom that I feel amongst my peers at Yale. I’ve witnessed these Yale-NUS students starting a cappella groups, a finance club, Japanese culture appreciation club, a venue for discussing issues of sexuality, a debate team, sports teams and more. Although their school isn’t like Yale with 300+ years of history to build on and be proud of, there are students in this class that turned down offers from every Ivy League school. They came here to be trailblazers. They have the opportunity to start everything from scratch, which is both a daunting and exciting responsibility.

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Yale-NUS is a distinct institution from Yale and always will be. The student body, which is 60% Singaporean students and a whopping 40% international students provides for a diverse community of learners. It will always be greatly influenced by its Asian context. Its uniquely designed curriculum combining eastern and western elements requires students to take a four-class common curriculum in Political Philosophy, Social Institutions, Literature, and Scientific methods for the first two years. They are currently reading both the Ramayana and The Odyssey. They will then focus the last two years on students’ major requirements.

Despite these differences, however, Yale-NUS is building a sense of community in the image of what we have at Yale. After spending a summer living in Berkeley college on Yale’s campus, bonding, taking classes with Yale faculty, getting a taste for what life at Yale is like, the NUS Yalies look up to us in many ways. When I stumbled upon the a cappella group rehearsal (I happened to be wearing my Yale Spizzwink tap shirt), I was treated as a superstar. They know about us. Now it’s time for us to engage with them.

Singapore is a great place to bring the liberal arts to Asia. The economy there is booming and the society is stable, which is providing an excellent environment for people who now want to expand their perspective on the world and begin to think critically about their place in it. Singapore is a diverse place with 4 official languages and myriad ethnic groups. I ordered my food in Chinese from local vendors, talked with Singaporean cab divers about their roots in India or Malaysia, and communicated with expats from all around the world. It’s a model in urban development, public transportation, and 1st world amenities. Singapore is a place we 21st century American citizens should experience and study. As Mark Twain said “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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(there’s an infinity pool right next to the Yale-NUS campus currently under construction)

We must appreciate the differences in context between American and Singapore. Singapore was only founded 40 years ago and yet has jumped from the bottom of the developing world to the ranks of the 1st world economies. It is a parliamentary democracy, albeit a virtual single party one at the moment. The People’s Action Party’s influence is slowly starting to equalize, however, as more dissenting party representatives get elected into office. Singapore, like numerous Asian countries, has a history of religious and ethnic violence, so any restrictions on free speech have the aim of mitigating conflict between these groups. It has been important for the Singaporean government to establish rule of law before its democracy could flourish. Now that Singaporean society has reached a more stable point, its era for political pluralism is beginning to awaken. We must hope true freedom of speech will be established as people become more educated and tolerance becomes the norm.

The Singaporean government is footing the majority of the bill for the Yale-NUS project while Yale is offering faculty, curriculum and goal-related support. We can’t call this endeavor colonialist because Singapore invited Yale to share its educational vision and help create a model for the liberal arts in Asia. It would have been morally pompous for Yale to reject such an open-minded invitation. Many people have argued that Yale is compromising its values by involving itself in a place that criminalizes “homosexual acts” and puts restricts on free speech. We must give consideration to the fact, however, that as recently as 1962, sodomy was a felony in all 50 states across the U.S. Some states retained those laws up until the Supreme Court ruling of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. These laws are similar in nature to Singapore’s law banning “homosexual acts”, a law that is never enforced according to gay students and allies here in Singapore. In addition, Singapore hosted an event this past June called Pink Dot where over 21,000 people dressed in pink gathered in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park to celebrate the LBGT community and represent inclusivity. The Singaporean government sanctioned this event.

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(The place where Pink dot took place)

The founding of Yale-NUS doesn’t signify a relinquishing of Yale’s values, but a signal of its willingness to engage with the international community. Students at Yale or on Yale-NUS’s campus should continue to consider Asian values with a critical eye, in the same way students on both campuses should be able to challenge aspects of American society that are morally dubious. Yale-NUS is fostering an environment where that kind of questioning is able to take place and offering a new angle from which to consider these issues.

Despite all the potential, there are still some incomplete parts to the picture as well. It is still unsettling that an academic institution won’t release its founding document and that certain laws in Singapore still restrict the type of free speech we have in the States.

The main point my peers and I have to remember back in New Haven, however, is that Yale students have the opportunity to influence Yale-NUS in a big way. We can offer insight into starting clubs, how our organizations work, and what pitfalls to avoid. By visiting Yale-NUS on exchange, students and faculty can add new perspective to the classes and take back new ideas to the United States. I encourage the administrations at both Yale and Yale-NUS to help create venues where members of Yale student organizations can share insight with NUS Yalies who are in the early stages of forming similar organizations. Our organizations should create bonds with their sister organizations at Yale NUS and host joint conferences in both Singapore and the US. Let’s make the most of this opportunity for cross cultural understanding and engage with each other.

Back in Beijing

Coming back to Beijing, after a month of clean air, wasn’t something I was the most excited about to be honest. I didn’t get enough sleep this summer at HBA, I was feeling a bit sick, I was sad to be culminating a month of exciting travel, etc., but I was determined to see Beijing in a new light. I needed to find more of its hidden treasures.

After I took my placement test for ACC a couple days ago, I went a local Beijing hospital to get a cough I had been having for the past month checked up on. The doctor was the mother of one of the students from my Building Bridges trip and she accompanied us to teach classes on healthy living. I thought I might need some antibiotics and since she told me to email her if I ever needed anything, I was hoping she could help me out. She sure did. I walked in to the hospital where she worked and the first 3 floors were flooded with people – what you would expect of a hospital located in a city with over 20million people. I walked to the 8th floor VIP lounge and I paid 5 yuan, not even a U.S. dollar, for the visit. She gave me some meds that totaled about 11 USD and I was on my way. When expats try and go to Western doctors in China, they have to pay thousands of dollars. My friend here at ACC told me she paid 8,000 yuan for one visit. With an exchange rate of 6.18yuan to 1USD…. I’ll let you do the math. It’s all about the guanxi here in China – who you know. I was so grateful that this doctor was willing to help me, and it was a great cultural experience to see what the doctor’s office is like in China. My Chinese friends tell me doctors aren’t as respected here in China as they are in the U.S. because their salaries are much lower on average compared to doctors in the West and they have too many patients to take care of.

Last evening we had a welcome reception for ACC. The food was delicious and there was too much of it. The kids that were here over the summer at ACC were very welcoming and excited to take us to their favorite pizza place/bar later that night. I was missing Yale so much the past couple days. Missing all my bros in the Spizzwinks as they’re going through rush trying to pick new freshman. Missing my Tour Guiding friends as I receive all their emails trying to cover empty tours. Missing my friends in the Yale Political Union as they debate cool topics and hear Herman Cain speak (what an experience that must have been). Missing jamming on the cello in YSO and with Caitlin, George and Hanoi. Missing Master Pitti, Alicia Camacho, Dean L and all my Stilesian betheren. Yale is such a warm place where I am embraced and celebrated for who I am. It’s something that I never took for granted last year, but something I will hold even closer to my heart when I return.

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(In Shanghai)

Going out last ended up being a great time. The kids here seem fun and laid back. I have a great roommate from Sweden and new acquaintances from schools all over America. I got back today though, and during registration was immediately greeted in a curt tone with “Give me your passport. You need to get a new visa.” At the hospital, people cut me in line and literally shoved in front of me before I had even completed the transaction of getting my change. The baffling thing is that once you talk to the Chinese in their language, they are extremely friendly and caring people. It is true they have certain codes of conduct at formal meals and gatherings, but in public, they can seem devoid of manners from a westerner’s perspective.  When I was walking home thinking about how to approach Beijing, I found a park nestled amongst the trees in front of Minzu University, where my Chinese program is located. People were outside eating meat skewers and playing Chinese chess. Couples were holding hands on the benches in the 11:00pm shadows of the trees. I walked on the moonlight grass and breathed in the cool air that signaled the arrival of autumn. Beijing has tons to offer. I just need to rediscover it.

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6 responses to “The Grass is Always Greener”

  1. Cindy Jaros says :

    Phil you are an amazing writer and an even more amazing young man. You are destined for greatness! I’m truly blessed and honored to know you and be a part of your life! When you get the chance, please read the book Memoirs of a Geisha! One of my all time favorites, I’ve read it like 3 times. It gives so much more insight and detail than the movie! (Great move also!) You take care of yourself and be safe in all your travels!! God Bless and Te Amo!! Cindy

  2. ma beth garrett says :

    awesome education of life and thank you for sharing such wonderful insights! much happiness to you

  3. Isaac Gallegos says :

    I really enjoyed this Phil,it was like taking a trip down a river and not knowing what was going to be around the next bend,but whatever it was you knew it would be new and exciting.Bravo!Maestro Phil!

  4. infinite monkey theorem says :

    Interesting and insightful article. I taped “Memoirs” but have yet to watch it. It just received a massive priority boost. I look forward to reading your continuing adventures!

  5. Florence says :

    I really like how your article ends with a positive note!
    Lets hope the grass always gets greener!

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