And school begins again…

Alright, a post in the first successive day! Things look pretty bright for now! Anyway, I just had a week’s break in the middle of the semester and my school’s gonna start again tomorrow. At my university, the beginning of the second half of the semester also marks the period where we have mid-term tests (or exams, depending on how important you see them). Not all my classes use them to evaluate our performance, but most do. In fact, if you are an engineering student, like I am, or in any hard science courses, chances are, you’ll face tests and exams for most of your classes. I’m not too sure about classes in the social sciences, but I have the impression that most of them require students to turn in essays which they take a week or so to write. Well, a couple of friends doing social sciences told me that they occasionally have exams too, where they have to churn essays during a 2 hour period, but those tend to be restricted to lower-level classes (aka introductory modules). But I may be wrong.

So anyway, I’ll be having a test tomorrow in humans factors engineering, an area which I guess is pretty interesting and different for someone doing a pretty technical degree. For those who don’t know, it’s an area that concerns with the ergonomics and design of products and systems with an emphasis on the human user. The idea’s that for most objects or systems that we use every day, their usability is often being overlooked for their overall functionality, and basically what this field of knowledge aims to achieve is to place a larger consideration on how these things could be improved for the human user. For example, you have a remote control for a television which has many buttons to operate the various features of the television – which reflects its functionality pretty well. However, designing such a remote with the user in mind would require thinking about how the buttons should be arranged in an intuitive manner, how essential features should be given its own button on the remote while those which are redundant should grouped together for access via a single button or be hidden away in a virtual menu, or even thinking about how the potential audience would interact with the remote. Would an old person be able to maneuver his/her thumbs around the remote easily, or would someone with fat thumbs/fingers be able to depress the intended button accurately?

As this moment, this class seems to be pretty fixated upon qualitative improvements of such everyday devices, which is kind of disappointing actually. I would pretty much love to use numerical tools that I’ve picked up in my other classes to approach such problems instead. Data analysis immediately comes to mind. Sticking to the same remote example: how many times on average does a user depress button A? What are the most common button combinations that a user inputs in order to get to a particular menu? There are just so many ways that data can be used to analyze such human behavior, and it feels like this class is just missing it. Not to mention that it’s a great opportunity to put to use the stuff we’ve learnt before. I mean, perhaps a decade or two ago when data collection wasn’t as easy or viable, people needed to rely a little more on their perception and gut feeling to come up with user-friendly improvements. But in this day and age where we are easily flooded with excess data? Okay, maybe I could be missing the point of the class. Perhaps it has to do more with inculcating students with the need to consider the human aspects of objects and systems in their design stage than say, with the actual implementation and research into such means. In any case, the class is pretty interesting for now, and I’m still looking forward to see how the class progresses in the coming weeks.

Going back to the test that I’m going to face tomorrow, I guess I’m almost clueless on what to expect because there really hasn’t been much indication by my professors on the type of questions that would appear. Would it be based upon the methodology of this new approach to design, or is it going to test us on the pre-existing implementations of human-centered operations planning such as how to calculate the recommended weight limit for workers carrying heavy objects? I honestly hope that it’ll test our general understanding of the topic instead of being fixated upon specific examples which don’t serve any other purpose in the class other than being, well, just an example. The test’s gonna be closed book, so hopefully it isn’t going to be heavy on memorization of whatever has been done in class. I’m pretty sure many of my coursemates would have memorized a great deal for it (something natural you’d expect in an Asian university), but that way of learning… nah, it’s just way beyond me. I mean, I don’t really care about grades anyway. But, more on that next time…

Now, for the things that I did today, well, my parents and I went down to Goethe Institut in the afternoon. We wanted to take a look at the German classes they offered, primarily because we wanted to get an idea of how classes were being conducted there so that we could relay this information to my brother. Unfortunately it was closed, as we had expected. How’s my brother involved? Well in short, my parents and I think that my brother is a little too caught up in his own familiar environment with his friends, the things that he usually do, and that he’s gonna miss out on the great whole world out there in the future. Okay that might have sounded a little too gloomy, but we just thought it’ll be a great experience for him to pick up a new language, learn about a different culture, hopefully develop an interest for the world beyond, and be open to meeting new people and so on. You see, my brother isn’t exactly interested in the bigger world out there and I think it’s a great shame that he’s closing back from the world, even though we’re living in a time of greater globalization and interconnection.

I’m not going to go too deep into this, but as someone who has travelled rather often, I’ve met so many people from different cultures, learnt so much from them, and really cherish the world for being the way it is: it’s rich and diverse. It’s an exceptionally humbling experience when you go out and explore the world, and to realize how separate (ironically) all of us are in this really connected world. The lives we live are all so different, yet similar in some way. Each person carries a rich story behind him/her, and of his/her family and friends, and it’s just amazing how we can learn more about ourselves just by learning about others. I remember having this amazing conversation with 2 friends in Paris, a Swiss and a Canadian, about living as children of immigrants in their country, their experiences, their process of grappling with their identities, and so on, and it’s easily one of the most memorable conversations that I’ve had. To keep things short, I really believe that it’s almost absolutely a positive thing that we reach out and learn more about the people and cultures around us. In fact, I’ll be pretty hard-pressed to find a reason to say otherwise. Of course, this kind of exploration is not something that everyone can afford, but I must say that it’s definitely a kind of experience that most people should undergo, if they can. It’s like the modern Grand Tour which the Europeans did in the old days, except that, there’s no fixed itinerary in the world we now live in.

Anyway, going back to the reason why I was looking at German, instead of other languages: there really isn’t one. My dad and I were trying to get my brother to look at a variety of languages such as Spanish or Korean, but he was equally uninterested, so we thought that German might be a good option, considering that he’s doing a diploma in mechanical engineering (and possibly a degree in the future). I mean, with Germany’s advanced industries and expertise in engineering, perhaps he’d be interested in picking up the language or even decide to further his studies over there in the future. But we’ll see about that.

Another place that I wanted to visit, which was unfortunately also closed (or it looked like it was), was the Eng Teng Association, an organization that aims to maintain ties among descendants in Singapore of Hakka immigrants from the 永定 (Mandarin: yǒng dìng) region in China. Set up to assist these immigrants when they arrived in large numbers in Singapore in the early 20th century, it most probably plays a more different role in recent times, such as organizing reunion events during important Chinese festivals, and essentially serves as the backbone and focal point for the community in Singapore. In fact, such associations are plentiful in areas where Chinese immigrants settle in Southeast-Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and besides having associations that cater to immigrants who come from the same geographical region, there are also associations that group together immigrants sharing the same surname, or those that united people who spoke the same language.

Well, to be precise, I’m not exactly a descendant of a Hakka immigrant from 永定 to Singapore during the 20th century. Instead, I share a patrilineal relationship to some ancestor who came from that region. My dad’s unable to ascertain exactly who and when this ancestor of ours left that place, presumably in search of a better life in Southeast-Asia, if we were to follow the stories of most Chinese immigrants who moved here. So basically I thought it’d be cool to give the place a visit, to learn more about the community, and hopefully meet new people. It’ll be a great experience to ‘reconnect with my ancestral roots’, as most people would say it, and I’m certainly looking forward to better understand the story of my ancestors if I have the chance to, even if it means trying to piece together and idea of what might have happened through the stories of other people.

Another thing that I’d really love to do is to pick up the Hakka language. I wouldn’t say that I’m expecting much by visiting or even joining the clan association, but I really hope that I would be able to be given the opportunity to learn and speak the language somehow. I really feel that being able to speak the language of my ancestors forms an important part of my identity and I’d really want to be able to pass it on to the younger generation (not necessarily my children!), so that the tradition and ties that bind people sharing a common identity live on. Unfortunately, the ability to speak Hakka sizzled out in my dad’s generation and my only hope is to look for other avenues where I can pick it up again. It’s sad that this language isn’t given much recognition in China or even in other Hakka-speaking areas, which puts downwards pressure on daily usage, but until the day where greater recognition arrives, I guess it’s only up to the living generation to keep it alive. I read that Taiwan has given recognition to Hakka and teaches it in schools, but with the perception of Mandarin being the ‘common tongue’ or ‘prestige dialect’, just as in many Chinese-populated regions, I wonder how well it’s going to keep up. It’s nonetheless a great start and great step towards preservation of the language, and hopefully gradual introduction into everyday life. The revival of Hebrew really amazes me when I think of the situation of the Chinese languages besides Mandarin and Cantonese; I wonder if ever would we find individuals dedicated and skilled enough to bring about a standardization and reintroduction of these Chinese languages into everyday use. Government policies in many Chinese-populated areas remain a huge obstacle to such efforts, if anything, but we’ll see.

And yea, so the association was closed and I couldn’t talk to anyone so I guess I’ve just got to go back another day. It’s pretty late right now; I just realized that I spent a lot of time rambling about my thoughts, which kind of revolved around the things that I did today. I guess it was pretty enjoyable penning my thoughts down somewhere and well, hopefully I’m able to keep up with publishing another post tomorrow!


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