Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in the southern hemisphere

So it's not really Thanksgiving here officially, but you can always be thankful whether it's an official holiday or not. My housemates and I were keen to do a big Thanksgiving dinner, and then we whittled that down to a small summer Thanksgiving, and finally we decided today that we'll just throw our "Thanksgiving" dinner whenever it's convenient, which is not today.

I think I'm going to pass on the classic list of what I'm grateful for, but rest assured that it centers mainly on the wonderful amazing people in my life and the blessing of being a child of God :).

I'm just going to share a short life lesson that really hit home this week. I've been focusing a great deal on what I don't have and what I want rather than on what I do have and what I need. I think that our default is the former even though it should really be on the latter. It's time to change the default setting, and what better time to do that than Thanksgiving?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Globalisation, identities, and everyday experiences

Let me begin with two separate yet related anecdotes:

1. On Sunday, I went with several friends most of whom are Chinese/Taiwanese (yes a political statement in itself) South African to a Portuguese Tavern in Milnerton. If you are bewildered by the multiple nationalities mentioned, just accept that globalisation is alive and well. The tavern was pretty standard, a smoky bar, a soccer game playing on a big screen, evening karaoke, and of course drunken regulars. Why were we there? Well, it was a friend’s birthday, and there’s a two meals for the price of one (the more expensive one) special at this place, known as Guzzler’s.

We decided to sit outside to avoid some of the smoke and the crowd. The view wasn’t bad, although the large parking lot and multi-storey flats obscured some of the view. However, enough of Devil’s Peak and the sunset were visible to make it almost picturesque. This is going to sound extremely pretentious, but the entire place reeked of mediocrity, with nothing particularly unique or distinguishable, which left you with a sort of bleak numb feeling. However, we decided to stay since we had driven all the way out, and reorganising 10 people can be a mission.

We were sitting and chatting amongst ourselves when one clearly inebriated unkempt older South African man approached our table and proceeded to introduce himself. He also “welcomed us” to the country. How thoughtful of him and his drunken companions cheering him on. Throughout the dinner, various comments kept drifting over.
Oh you are all such a beautiful people. Such beautiful women.
Look, they’re eating potatoes! I thought they only ate rice.
Don’t worry. I told the waitress that if you have problems communicating with her, I’ll interpret.

REALLY? While none of them were blatantly offensive comments, it was more the presumptuousness and frequency of the comments that were offensive. It was as if the concept of Chinese-South Africans had eluded their understanding completely. Is it such a radical notion to think that a person can have ties to more than one place, regardless of what he or she looks like, that there is really no universal monolithic Chinese, South African, American, fill in the blank, experience? There are of course shared cultures, languages and understandings, but these can transcend and cross expected boundaries.

2. Being an eternal optimist, I will end on an encouraging note. I was scanning radio stations in Cape Town, and stumbled across 89.5 FM on a Tuesday evening. I have been sorely missing NPR and its blend of journalism, pop culture, music programming, and general thoughtful inquisitiveness. And what should I find, but a radio program so similar yet also uniquely South African in content and accent?

Several interviews with musicians exploring multicultural musical experiences resonated with my Sunday experience, but this time in a good way. One Nigerian artist who was interviewed described the Billie Holiday project that she was working on, and the challenge that she felt approaching American blues coming from a different blues background. In her mind, she felt that experiences of African Americans that shaped the creation of blues in the US had evolved in a much different manner than the African style blues that she was more familiar with in Nigeria. She felt that of course there are elements that are shared and commonalities that exist, but the two can and should be distinguished. In other words, there are blues and then there are blues, and the two can happily co-exist and mix and cross pollinate yet still maintain their uniqueness.

The second artist interviewed grew up in Nigeria for the first 16 years of his life, and then moved to Germany. Since one parent is Nigerian and the other is German, he grew up with access to both places and cultures, and his music reflects this hybrid experience. He didn’t express feeling pressure to choose his favourite or to be just one or the other, and the resulting music is something soulful and new yet still familiar.

I guess this is a plea asking for an end to boxes. Yes, they might be neat and discrete, and make data collection,form filling and explanations much simpler. But, they ask us to deny parts of ourselves with detrimental effect. This applies to far more than race. None of us is any one thing. We may in fact be a compilation of seeming contradictions and jumbled ideas. We should stop ourselves and others from narrow definitions and prejudiced assumptions for the sake of comfortableness. I am not calling for an end to distinctiveness or a “pan” approach to all things, but rather for an acceptance and appreciation of the multiple and complex layers that make us who we are.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sunset and Dusk in Cape Town

Table Mountain

Sparkly Night lights

Devil's Peak

Camp's Bay at Sunset

Monday, August 31, 2009

And everything in between

Where to start? The past few weeks have been a flurry of details for banking, registration, proof of insurance, figuring out what I'll be studying. Of course interspersed with all the unpleasantness of paperwork have been the pleasures of building new friendships, renewing old friendships, and the general excitement of being back in Cape Town.

Apparently, this year's winter has been pretty mild with the exception of a few rainstorms where it feels like you're drowning as you walk up the mountain to campus. Some of the issues that we discussed in my research group involve the difficulties of finding acceptable alternative sewerage systems for informal settlements. No one wants to receive a system that they perceive as inferior, even if it actually isn't, but on the other hand, there are some locations where it's just not feasible or desirable to use conventional gravity fed waterborne sewage. So how do you prioritize environmental, social and political concerns? I guess "traditional" engineers tend to just trust that if the technical system works, then all the rest will follow. But especially given new challenges of unprecedented urban growth and development patterns the old approach needs modification. I.E. talk to people, and a lot of people, before you plunk any technology, no matter how good it looks on paper, down in the middle of their neighborhood. I'll definitely be posting again about infrastructure and service delivery, anyone reading this consider yourself forewarned!

The pictures above are from Green Point Stadium, which will be where the 2010 World Cup Finals are played, and from a stormwater channel behind one of the shopping centers near where I'm living. I think trying to reconcile why there are people who live on the street and have to do their laundry in stormwater sewers, while billions of rand are spent on building a shiny new stadium is one thing that I have to continuously struggle to understand.

To end this post, I'm going to fall back on an excerpt from an inspiring courageous writer/activist Arundhati Roy, on why we must keep striving for peace and justice no matter what:

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Head Spinning

So after 1 week in Cape Town...

There's a bit of information overload going on in my head right now. Especially after attending a really cool, unexpected lunch meeting with a professor in the Environmental and Geographical Science department at the University of Cape Town. My head is swirling with ideas about urban water management, sustainability, integrating disciplines... All of that stuff that sounds wonderful in theory, but is very hard to put into practice. But, I have hope!

Next up: A word to the wise, for anyone who wants to register as a full-time student at UCT, especially as an international student.

Have patience, have patience, have patience.

To apply, I was bounced back and forth between the international student office (IAPO), the regular admissions office, and the Faculty office for Engineering and the Built Environment. Starting during the second semester is unheard of (wouldn't recommend it).

Be insistent because if you're not, you might just be shuffled off into an infinite loop of offices telling you that you must do this one thing first before registering, yet you can't register without doing this other thing first.

Pay up front. International students are something of a money machine for the university, which I'm actually okay with considering the overarching global disparity that exists between sub-saharan Africa and most of the "western world". But still, on a personal level it hurts the pocket book.

Try to find accommodations with people who are of a different nationality and experience than yourself. It is a wonderful way to informally learn about the world and yourself, and is probably waaay better than forced "cross-cultural" experiences.

Those are my general tips for now. If anyone has any questions about the nitty gritty details of applying and/or registering let me know.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Following your dreams, even if no one else understands

This afternoon, my mom and I went to a newly opened dim sum restaurant in Johnson City. My parents' friend from church is the owner/chef so we decided to show our support with our stomachs. It's a very cute and cozy space on Main Street across from BAE, which of course is the largest source of business in that area. The main dishes offered are different varieties of noodles, fried rice, and dim sum "appetizers" such as fried green scallion pancake or red bean buns.

Apparently, this very kind-hearted woman has been wanting to open a restaurant for a long time. When the opportunity arose, she seized the opportunity with little prior experience, but with a great deal of enthusiasm and determination. Maybe the location isn't the best, but after speaking with her and her husband this afternoon, it seems like the main challenge will be figuring out how to attract BAE employees who only have 30 minutes for lunch with a limited staff (only one person cooking, and one waiter). Granted, there are only four tables which could probably seat at most 20-25 people. But, if all of the orders come within a short period, trying to prepare that much food on a conventional home sized stove is very challenging.

My mom and I enjoyed the noodles and dim sum QinTian pancake (fried dough with pork, tastes better than it sounds). While we ate, we tried to offer suggestions on how to maximize the 30 minutes of peak demand (12:30-1pm); perhaps try different menu options, sandwiches are quick and easy to make, offer a pre-made lunch special, encourage people to call ahead and place their orders. When we finished eating, the owner wasn't going to let us pay since we were friends and that's part of Chinese culture. We tried to pay and sneak out the door, but she caught us on our way out, and made us take half of the money back. Ai yah... still, it was a very nice gesture.

I am a big supporter of local family owned businesses that are quaint and personal. I know it's not going to be easy for this family to establish a strong reputation, build a loyal clientele, and to figure out the "perfect" menu. But, it's nice to see people taking risks to follow a long-cherished dream. I really hope and pray for their success. It's an inspiration for me, since I'm not exactly following a typically prescribed path, and many people might even suggest that I'm making a poorly informed decision, but if it's what you've dreamed and prayed about, why can't people just be happy and supportive? By the way, those noodles were quite tasty so spread the word.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

One of those weeks

It's been one of those weeks, where it seems like things are finally coming together. I finished working on the garden see: Summer Terraced Garden Project. And, I heard back from the admissions office from the program I've been trying to get into for four months!

I recognize that God has blessed me in so many ways, and not just during weeks like these. But sometimes I am so easily discouraged. Whenever that persistent nagging voice in my head makes me feel afraid to hope for the best, I will try to keep these words in my mind:

“Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?'” (Luke 12:22-26, NIV)

Sometimes we need to recognize that we are not in control, and really, worrying never helped anyone.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Inaction Frustrations

I'll make this brief, but I think one of my biggest frustrations in life is inaction. Especially, when something very small can make a huge difference in someone's life. I won't go into details into my specific case, but I think many people have probably experienced similar frustrations.

I'm all for procrastination when it affects only ME. But, if my inaction, i.e. procrastination begins to have an effect on someone else, then it's time to do something!

Okay, enough of complaining for now. Back to working on the garden rain or shine!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Just Common Sense?

A memo to myself and anyone else who ever happens to stumble across this:

I had something akin to, but just short of an ephiphany this week. In the US, and other countries I am sure, we spend so much time obsessing about our appearance and weight. One way in which our obsession is manifested is through gym membership. These memberships can range from an inexpensive local community center fee to the all inclusive, personal trainer, spring water from the fountain fitness center experience. Now, I am all for fitness, health and well-being. However, what if we turned some of our energy toward community service and various forms of social activism? The emphasis is on the active part.

For example, instead of running on a treadmill at the gym, what if we saved some of that money, trained outside, and entered one of those charitable fundraising sporting events that are so popular these days? Eg. Blue Planet Run events, MS Walk, Relay for Life, etc.

Or, I've discovered through my gardening project that lifting rocks all day and digging trenches will indeed develop back, shoulder, and arm muscles (and soreness). How about helping out with a river clean up or community gardening project?

Try volunteering as a coach for the Boys and Girls club and giving everyone on your team a piggy back ride, another great work out. Although, for me that was limited to the 6and under crowd, since I'm only marginally taller than said children.

If you ever find yourself DRIVING to the gym and hopping on a stationary bicycle to pedal away for an hour, please try and do this outside on a moving bicycle if at all possible and skip the drive. If you walk door to door canvassing for a worthy cause, that's a great workout too. Yes, I know sometimes it's cold outside and/or that trainer is really cute and keeps you motivated, but there are so many creative ways to exercise and to help make the world a little better. The possibilities are endless once you start thinking about it.

I hereby pledge to make my "workouts" count for something beyond my own personal gain as often as possible. A vague promise, but it's a start.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Gardening Project

I've been working on making a terraced garden in our backyard. It involves much more work than I anticipated, but it's been keeping me busy, and digging for hours and other forms of manual labor is a great workout. Much better than sitting around the house watching our 5 channels. Yes, we no longer have cable.

That is not the only reason I want to make a garden though. For some reason this year I've become very interested in growing things, learning about composting, and trying to understand the differences between organic gardening and permaculture. As I am still learning, this will be an incomplete entry, but I'm going to try and document the garden as it progresses. Let's hope the weather cooperates. The part that I am most excited for is of course choosing the plants to go in the garden and watching them grow.

We have rabbits, birds, and deer galore so trying to work out a peaceful compromise with all garden inhabitants should be another challenge and pleasure.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Postgraduation Musings

So now that I have graduated, I know the meaning of life, the secret of happiness, and my purpose on this earth... well, not exactly. But, I do believe and hope that I am headed in a God-centered direction.

Senior week and graduation were over in a blur, as expected. For anyone who missed the Senior Engineering prank, check it out because it was pretty epic and fun:
Click here to see the video

I had a countdown to graduation going for so long 126 days (but who's counting now?) that it feels a little strange NOT to be eagerly anticipating it. Cheryl and I had a long conversation yesterday, and we realized that it is going to be a challenge for us to live in the present. Not in a "live for the moment" kind of way, but in a way where we appreciate who we are with, what we are doing, and where we are just as it is without constantly expecting something better just around the corner.

I highly recommend reading the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis for anyone and everyone. It is both cleverly written and offers insight into how good intentions can go awry if we're not careful and conscientious every step of the way.

Now I just have to remember to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Graduation

I still can't fathom the fact that I will be graduating, along with my class mates of 4 years, on Sunday. A friend used the term 'crucible' to describe our experience at Swarthmore. It may sound like an exaggeration to some, but I would say that's a fair description. It's been a test that has refined us and tested our characters beyond what we previously thought possible.

I've never been good at saying goodbye. Who is really? Therefore, I've decided to say my farewells for now rather than adopting the attitude of 'have a nice life'. I believe that God will allow us to remain present in the lives' of those we care about, and paths can cross unexpectedly.

Speaking of God. Going to Chapter Camp last week was one of the best experiences I've had this year. Spending a week reading through Genesis, discussing bible applications for postgraduate life, and spending time with wonderful people is such a blessing. I think my biggest lesson learned was about the importance of relationships in our lives with God and being part of a true community. God has plans and a purpose for each of us if we choose to follow, and I think we all left camp committed to do so. There is of course the fear that it was just a 'spiritual high' which will fade once we succumb to the pressures of the "real world," but I believe that the lessons go deeper than that.

Onwards to the next chapters of our lives, but I have to take a moment to express my gratitude for the experiences I've had.

Monday, March 09, 2009

March comes in like a lion

Goes out like a lamb?

Well, we'll see. The beginning of March brought the largest snow storm of the year to the Philly area! But no snow day :(. This past week before break was pretty stressful, but there was enough goodness mixed in that it was a net positive!

I'm really appreciating these last weeks at Swarthmore. I realize that the goodbyes will be painful, even though I am ready to leave. It will be a great relief to know that I have some postgraduation plans nailed down, but I feel like something is brewing. I can see an outline through the clouds of uncertainty finally.

Some of us rounded out our week with a night of "fake karaoke," which was so much fun and very low key. Wow, I used to have such terrible music taste. Maybe in 10 years I'll look back and think that same thought of myself at this very moment, but I hope not.

No crazy or intense spring break plans for me just some needed rest and relaxation. I started off by going with Melissa and Jessica to a farmer's market in Lancaster, then going for a leisurely buggy ride through Amish country, and rounding off the evening with Cranium and chatting. I definitely recommend trying spaghetti pizza for anyone headed out to Lancaster, PA. Next time I must also vist a smorgasborg and have some shoefly pie.

Hopefully, I'll get some applications finished and study for the FEs. Not terribly exciting, but that's to come. Home sweet home for a few days.

By the way spring forward is not as cool as fall back, in reference to DST. I say we just keep gaining an extra hour every 6 months.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


So I know it's not a big deal that I don't have all of my post-graduation plans in place yet. Okay, let's be real. Nothing has materialized yet. It's so frustrating because I have a very clear picture of what I want to do, but figuring out how to fund it is driving me a little crazy.

I am acknowledging right now that the fact that I have the time and opportunity to be this frustrated is a privilege, but nevertheless, it's still frustrating. I really am laying my trust in God, but I feel that I need to do my part too. As in apply for a number of opportunities. Not willy-nilly, but with very targeted goals. I have a pretty clear picture of what I want the next two years to look like. However trying to find funding for my ideas is as clear is mud. It seems impossible to find things that don't involve begging wealthy people and/or applying to every scholarship under the sun and tons of paperwork.

If anybody out there reads this by chance and has any suggestions for how I can fund graduate studies in Cape Town, South Africa you are more than welcome to leave a post. In fact I would be eternally grateful for any viable (and legal) suggestions.

I'm going to stay positive, and I apologize for the oft-mocked "rant blog," but sometimes it's so cathartic. You can stop reading now if you haven't already.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

100 days and more

Isaiah 40:31
But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint. (NKJV)

In these uncertain times, we need to wait on the Lord, but it's definitely one of those things that's easier said and done. I believe that perseverance is critical, but it can be extremely frustrating when you feel like you're putting in 100% and getting 0% back.

My mind has been focused on the immediacy of graduation of late, but clearly this verse has applications for all times of our life. A modern translation, (hope people don't find this too irreverent), "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming swimming..." (Dory from Finding Nemo). Let's hope we're headed in the right direction.

love and prayers

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Instead of working

I realized that I can only work for 15 minutes without a break. Is that bad? Well it is what it is.

My countdown until graduation got me to thinking (102 days by the way)... Is it going to be really anticlimatic? After 4 years of learning, enjoying, and struggling in college, what will the day after graduation feel like?

I know that it is just one part of life, and not even something that everyone gets to participate in. I know that I am so blessed to have this opportunity to take 4 years to learn something, figure out who I am, try to chart a course in life. So I'm going to try not to countdown and just take it one day at a time.

Sappy, but true.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Second Saturday Impromptu Poem

This weekend I went to Second Saturday at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia with several other Swatties. We decided that there should be full audience participation so we started passing around a paper asking everyone to contribute their own 6 word line in response to the line preceding theirs. Everyone added their own unique twist, some people didn't follow the 6 world rule, but hey some rules were meant to be broken. Here is the surprisingly poignant result (each line from a different author):

What can bring you joy today?
Chocolate donuts or chocolate cake yummy.
Hearing ocean tides when under stress.
Makes me relax and lets go.
Towards the streets I sing it.
Droppin' mad beats, I wing it.
Gotta recognize my words are ill shit
Hit list, devil dipped, flip this
If you give me one wish, I'll ask for more
But that doesn't mean I'm greedy.
Jaz, on the other hand, tends
its garden with an unrushed amble.
Soft steps, soft scents, soft speech.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Music Comfort

Freshly Ground, "Potbelly"