Decision Making

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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Prior to this year, I never thought that choosing a university and a course to study would be this difficult. In hindsight, it does seem a little strange that I barely even prepared myself for this. Afterall, what I choose to pursue over the next four to five years largely determines what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. Well, not entirely, but picking a certain path does shut some doors for myself. And even if one chooses to believe that such things aren't exactly set in stone (which I think is true to a certain extent), making a decision that pertains to university does entail one committing a substantial amount of time and investing a substantial amount of money into it, at the very least.

Even as I was applying to schools, I was never fully certain of what I wanted. It was a truly daunting and disorienting experience. To add to that, I didn't get a perfect grade for A Levels, and thus had to adopt an "apply-and-see-what-I-get-before-deciding" mentality. To protect myself from rejection, I didn't really want to set my mind to anything. Thankfully, I didn't have any childhood ambition that I was absolutely determined to fulfill, so "failure" to get into any particular university or course wouldn't actually crush me. My confusion and lack of concrete plans even led me to suddenly toy with the idea of studying overseas.

There are many reasons why I've never seriously considered going overseas to receive an education. Although I cite cost as the main reason (it's really not just expenses alone, but is it worth it to attain a degree abroad if I can get one of a similar or better standard locally?), a huge part of me didn't want to leave the comfort of my home country, and the company of my family either. While I consider myself fairly independent and able to take care of myself, I do think that the emotional weight and burden that comes with being alone in a foreign land is extremely heavy, and incomparable to anything I've ever felt before. And to have to deal with academics on top of that would be a challenge. So, I threw out the prospect of being an exotic foreign student. Of course, I am in no position to discount the amazing growth and life-changing moments that'll come with such an experience, and I'm incredibly excited for my peers and close friends headed to various parts of the world in the months to come.

Speaking of peers, seeing so many of them knowing exactly what they want only added to my stress, although I only begun to understand the severity of it all when I was forced to make a decision. I was envious of those who seem so sure of their "true calling", most of them relating to distinguished professions such as medicine or law. Sure, I knew what I enjoyed doing and would love to do as a job--something to do with journalism, media, or the creative industry (especially after my 6-month internship)--but these areas didn't fit the conventional "practical" criteria that'll make typical Asian parents (i.e. mine) happy.

That said, I knew it wouldn't feel right if I were to choose a course I was entirely disinterested in. I'd be short-changing myself for sure.

As I was studying for A Levels, there was only one school I wanted to go to. I wouldn't say it was my "dream school", but for someone who hadn't really made up her mind on what she wanted to do in future, it came close. It was Yale-NUS, and I told most of my friends (and even colleagues) that it was my eventual goal to make it there. As an overseas education was out of the question for me (apart from long-term exchange programmes which I'd love to go on), I felt like this local liberal arts college would offer a good balance, giving its students a glimpse of the world while still remaining in the comfort of home. Reading about the subjects that were being taught there thrilled me, and at that point of time I felt like it was the school most suited to my interests and strengths.

While I didn't apply for early admission because I didn't think my terrible preliminary results (and possibly, terrible predicted grades) would carry me far into the selection rounds, I worked on my essays following the completion of my A Levels, and applied for a place there once I got my results. Eventually, I secured one. However, I found myself at a complete lost when the moment came for me to decide.

I was torn between a liberal arts education at Yale-NUS and a double degree programme at NUS to read Business Administration, and Communications & New Media. For one, I knew that my parents preferred the latter, which to my understanding is based primarily on pragmatic reasons. Both options offered starkly different experiences, with Yale-NUS requiring me to stay on campus, and go through the Common Curriculum for the first two years of my studies there before deciding on a major. If I chose NUS, I wouldn't have to stay on campus, and I'll probably be more involved in planning the modules I'd take. These were just a handful of the many considerations I had to deal with.

Ultimately, the decision was mine and mine alone. In the end, I chose relative stability, a more proven school system, and less risk. Forgoing my place at Yale-NUS was heartbreaking, especially since I've definitely put in quite a bit of effort in the attempt to get one (writing essays, gathering recommendation letters from teachers, and getting interviewed). All that as opposed to simply submitting a generic application on the NUS portal indicating my course preferences.

With that said, I can safely say that my final decision was made taking into account the most important consideration: my interest. I'm very lucky to have been offered a course that aligns very well with what comes the closest to my "passion". Communications & New Media is definitely something that I will enjoy studying, and hopefully find joy in pursuing in the future. In fact, I recently learnt that I'll get to (rather, have to) study several exposure modules of my choice at FASS such as Literature and Theatre Studies, and that's something I'm genuinely looking forward to. Though I'd have to admit that choosing to study Business is largely due to practicality, I am truly keen on learning more about marketing and the creative aspects related to this course/ industry.

I won't ever know if I'd regret the choice I made, because I'll never have an accurate basis for comparison. What I do know, however, is that I do still have the ability to take active steps to ensure that my decision is the right one. It is slightly intimidating embarking on the double degree programme, but here's to strength and persistence to pull through all five years (yes...five). 
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Bagan, Burma

Monday, July 4, 2016

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Burma, or Myanmar, has always been one of the countries that I read a lot about (especially since it was one of the case studies in Southeast Asian History that I was made to study extensively about for the A Level examinations), but never really imagined stepping into. It wasn't that I didn't want to, but it was a country that I never really considered. It has recently been gaining a lot of traction though, as an up and coming tourist destination, I daresay because of the 2015 General Elections where a non-military party and president was elected into power. 

Since then, Myanmar has been opening its doors up a lot more, and welcoming international visitors and influences. While I had to apply for a Visa to enter the country, Singaporeans don't have to do so from December this year onwards, so I still feel a bit hipster going there before it became relatively more mainstream (heh heh). Of course, this trip wouldn't have been possible without Swan suggesting it in the first place. She's Burmese, and is my secondary school classmate and good friend. Over Whatsapp one day, she casually suggested having a few of us fly over to visit during the summer break, and I fell in love with the idea. 

Truth be told, I wasn't entirely confident of the trip materialising but following a bit of planning (mostly Swan), booking of plane tickets (mostly Sarah), and trips to Peninsula Plaza (to get our Visas done), Sarah and I headed off to the land of Aung San on the morning of 20 June. And with that, I shall let the photographs do most of the talking. I decided that I'll recap my trip in a chronological order as this trip is a very short one, and I think the order of events is pretty important in telling this particular story. 

We flew from Changi Airport to Yangon International Airport. It was a short three hour (or even less) flight, which thankfully went very smoothly. 

Although our initial plan was to spend most of our time in Yangon, where Swan lives - which explains why we booked our flight to Yangon - June is when it experiences monsoon weather, and thus it wasn't a wise idea to stay there. As such, we spent the bulk of our time in Myanmar in Bagan, one of the oldest cities in the country, and had to commute there (more of that later). 

On the plane with Sarah. 

Neither of us brought a pen along for the trip, and so we couldn't fill up the visitor card on the plane. When I was half asleep, I saw an air steward walking down the aisle carrying what I thought was a container of pens (I wasn't wearing my spectacles) and decided to take the opportunity to ask him for one. He looked so confused at my request and I had to repeat it a few times... before realising that he was in fact carrying a tray with cup noodles and the "pens" I saw were chopsticks. He did have a pen in his pocket though, which he fumbled to find but hey, we filled up our arrival cards in the end.

When we landed at the airport, we were greeted by Swan, her sister Myat Su, her niece Mee Mee and her nephew Gui Gui. And with that, we begun our nine hour drive to Bagan! 

In the car. 

Sleepy and comfy buddies. 

Before the road trip, we first headed to a supermarket to stock up on junk food and other "necessities". I absolutely love grocery shopping, and was pleasantly surprised by the wide selection of international imported goods in Myanmar. In particular, there was a whole load of South Korean snacks and foodstuff, which is interesting to note. 

This was absolutely delicious - it's a Burmese snack, but it reminded me a lot of the Indian snack "Muruku" that we have here, that I love. Sarah and I wiped out the entire packet... to much regret later on. 

Pit stop at a gas station! At this point, we probably had around three to four more hours to go, with spirits still up. 

The streets and vibe of Myanmar actually really reminded me of Cambodia in many ways, although the roads were slightly more developed. I thought that the whole situation was very apt especially since my Kampuchea trip took place almost exactly a year ago, and I had actually only recently just received the letter I wrote to myself when I was there. It was a very timely reminder for me to revisit the learning points and perspectives I was lucky enough to be exposed to last year, because they are so important in life and in shaping the person I hope to become. 

We reached our hotel, Razagyo Hotel, at around 10pm, and we ended up sleeping after washing up (instead of partying the night away). 

The view from our room! It's a small but very cosy hotel, and we might have been one of the few (or in fact, the only) guests staying there as we didn't bump into anyone else.  

Mornings with pork floss bear. 

Gearing up for the day ahead. 

We had breakfast at the hotel dining room (where we were the only ones), which was extremely filling. It was quite funny because our waiter ended up becoming our guide for the day... although that doesn't seem very amusing when I type it out like that.  

All! That! Bacon! 

Following breakfast, our trip around old Bagan, the land of pagodas, started! There's really so many - I think the numbers go up to the thousands, and you'll see one no matter where you looked. Some were abandoned while some were still occupied, all with its own distinct charm and history. 

Unfortunately, I was unable to get the names, or accurately remember every story behind the pagodas we visited. Our guide has such an extensive and rich collection of stories though, and we listened to them through Swan, who patiently translated everything he said. 

Hit the bell three or five times for good measure. 

Some traditional accessories were being sold. 

The strays in Myanmar - there were so many, and they were just like the Singapore Specials we have here. 

Although it doesn't look like it, we're actually pretty high above ground and climbing up there was quite the adventure. 

Our guide impressing Swan's sister with his vast knowledge. He's the same age as Swan, Sarah and myself. 

Tried pretty hard to capture the stupas in the background together with the farmer and his cows. I'd say I did a decent job. 

Our view! 

Lonely, I'm Mr Lonely, I have nobody for my own. 

Puppets have always intrigued me, and I was actually quite tempted to buy one home... but these gave off a slightly eerie vibe so I decided against it. The craftsmanship is great though, as with most handcrafted Burmese products. 

He wasn't Mr Lonely for long - the stall owner soon put up his buddies for sale too. 

A lot of the photographs I took were overexposed. Sigh. 

If I'm not wrong, this slightly run-down and very old temple was still occupied by several monks. 

Hello, doggy. 

Only Swan looks happy here (heh heh). Heat too much to bear? But really though, the heat in Myanmar was insane. I daresay it's even hotter than in Singapore. 

Well, this was kinda awkward to pose for. 

Swan and our guide! 

Great representation of our friendship. #dontbeapotato. But thanks for everything on this trip, Swan. 

After we visited a couple of pagodas, we headed to a restaurant for lunch. Before the trip, I was really excited to find out what Burmese cuisine entailed because a searches on Google barely got me any results. Swan's eating habits do offer me a tiny hint of what it is though - spicy! And indeed it was, which I absolutely loved. From what I've tried over my time in Myanmar, Burmese food is made up of extremely flavourful and tasty Asian-style dishes. 

I was lucky enough to have these two cats stay by my side during part of the meal. I've definitely gotten better at forming a bond with animals through my internship

Fried chicken - Burmese chickens are really skinny. 

Sweet and sour fish. 

Boiled vegetables, ordered on the request of Miss Sarah Wong. 

Gui Gui with his fried noodles. 

The dish in focus is my favourite of the entire meal - spicy eel! It was insanely spicy (Swan approved) but it tasted so good. I went overboard though, and might have eaten much more than my stomach could bear. More about that later. 

Our guide mentioned that he had one of these statues at home, which was fitting since his family actually owns a horse. 

Stalls by the roadside. 

Before heading back to our hotel for a short afternoon break, we stopped by a lacquerware workshop, where we got to witness the amazing craftmanship and patience that goes behind every single piece of lacquerware. After seeing the processes that went behind making each bowl or plate, it definitely felt strange if we left without purchasing anything (not that we were pressured into it). I actually feel honoured owning a cake stand that took so much effort to make. 

Each piece has a base of bamboo (I know right, what?), before being layered with many layers of lacquer sap taken from the lacquer tree. Each layer takes a long time to dry completely, and I can't begin to imagine how tedious it must be. The intricate designs are painstakingly carved in by hand, and we actually saw it being done. Several ladies were just sitting there with a needle in hand drawing fine designs and details onto each piece of lacquer. Following that, the colour has to be added on one after the other. The end product is definitely worth its slightly higher price tag. In fact, the person-in-charge even invited Swan to step onto one of his bowls - it held up. 

Following that, we headed back to the hotel for a bit before making our way out again, to visit a couple more temples.  

This was definitely my favourite one. Gold leaf was used everywhere. The amazing architecture works looked especially gorgeous under the bright sun rays. 

Our guide with Gui Gui. 

We had initially wanted to catch the sunset from the top of a stupa, but we got carried away with one of the interesting backstories of Bagan's kings and missed the sunset. A real pity, but we got to do something else that was pretty exciting too - horse riding!

Our guide definitely went out of his way to give us a great experience in Bagan. He was always so friendly and smiley - although occasionally it got awkward due to the language barrier. Anyway, horse-riding was on our to-do-in-Myanmar list, and it so happened that his brother owns a horse! He called them over, and gave us a ride on the cart. 

Horse-riding did feel rather cruel though, and I don't think I'll be going on one anytime soon, or ever. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating experience and I can see why such an activity can be appealing to some. 

This photo is really funny. 

So is this one. 

We then headed back to the hotel for dinner of rice and (yummy) dishes. Throughout the meal, I felt a little dizzy, but didn't think it was anything serious. However, it seemed to get worse when I headed back up into our room.

And that's when things started going a little awry. I started feeling a bit nauseous and had to run to the toilet to vomit. I thought that was it, because back in Singapore, once I vomited I would feel better immediately. Thus, I tried going back to sleep. However, I was woken up once again with a terrible headache. This time, by the time I could make it to the toilet, I pulled a Merlion, vomiting all over our room floor and over Sarah's bed. (I'm so sorry!) 

The cycle of trying to sleep, dizzy spells and eventual vomit continued all through the night... so yes, no one really got a lot of sleep that night. It was frightening yet funny at the same time, to see my puke turn from solid-ish food - or as Sarah put it, "this smells just like dinner" - to liquid. 

I felt terrible physically, as well as emotionally terrible for all the trouble I caused all through the night. Not only did Sarah have to move over to share a bed with Swan, she woke up every single time I puked throughout the whole night, making sure that I was alright. Thank you so much guys, I'm super grateful and incredibly touched for all the care and concern. Friendship level x 100000, y'all have definitely seen me in one of my physically worst states. 

The next morning, I was feeling slightly better, although I was too scared to eat anything. Of course, Thenzy (the pork floss bear) is able to cheer anyone up. 

Thank you for the love. 

Fortunately, Swan's sister is a doctor (I'm really super lucky!) and she gave me some medicine. Apparently all the hotel staff knew I was unwell because they helped buy some of the medication too. I stayed in to sleep while the rest had breakfast, but again, I felt so bad because they had to cancel cycling plans because of me. Sigh, I didn't expect my digestive system to react in this way because it hasn't acted up so extremely before. 

I started running a fever, and had to take some more medicine for that too.

We had to check out from the hotel that morning though, to make our way back to Yangon. At the start of the car ride, I was feeling extremely cold and was wondering how I'd even make it through the nine hour drive. Thankfully, it got a lot better as we drove, and I basically just slept 90% of the way. While I felt like a big burden, I honestly can't express my gratitude towards Sarah, Swan, Swan's sister, and the entire family for showering me with so much love. 

After drifting in and out of dreamland, we made it back to Yangon, to Swan's home! Our mini trip to Bagan was such an interesting experience, from our hilarious driver (who doesn't even know he's funny) to our wonderful guide, as well as the amazing hospitality and warmth given to us by the hotel staff. Everyone was just so friendly (well, except for the driver) and I'm truly blown away by the level of service and professionalism. 

As with most of my overseas trips, I'm always on a conscious look out for takeaways in the form of actual learning points in order to facilitate personal growth and development. This time, while I didn't get to interact much with locals and spent the bulk of my time feeling sick, one thing's for sure: the Burmese definitely take a lot of pride in their respective jobs whether or not they have real passion for what they do, which is really respectable. That's something I should keep in mind. 

Our last night together - we spent it together on one bed, talking till we slowly dozed off one by one. 

The next morning, where we made our way to Yangon International Airport. 

Busy streets, but at least most of the traffic rules were followed (unlike in Cambodia). 

We made a mini stopover at Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where the National League for Democracy party headquarters is located to. Despite it being a very "tourist" thing to do, being able to see her residence in person was pretty exciting to me. I mean, to be so close to someone that plays such an important part in shaping Burmese history and future felt surreal. Plus, I didn't study and memorize all the feats her dad did for Burma in A Level History for nothing, yes? 

Swan's mum brought us to the second international terminal in Yangon, and I don't think it's fully in operation yet because there weren't many people around. It was clean and beautiful. The KFC outlet there had just opened, and was actually still in its "trial stage". It's apparently one of the three outlets in the whole of Myanmar, all of which had only opened late last year following the country's opening up to foreign influences and trade. 

Thankfully, I was well enough by then to devour the fried chicken. And the Burmese version has got my stamp of approval, for sure. It was so crispy, and it definitely satisfied by near-empty stomach. 

And with that, our little adventure to Burma came to an end.  

This trip was definitely a unique, one-of-a-kind travel experience. Not only did I get to visit a country that is undergoing rapid change, and one that I have immense interest in, in terms of its history, background and where it is headed to under new leadership, I got to do it with two of my good friends. It was also the first time I fell sick while abroad, but through it all I learnt to let my guard down and expose my vulnerable self, instead of trying to put up a strong front in front of others. Of course, I had it easy too - I have been so well taken care of. 

Rejuvenated, and blessed. 
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