“This is a huge tool, message, and inspiration to all of us who believe serious arts have a significant role in education and society much deeper than what we’ve experienced,’’ said Mark Churchill, the conservatory dean serving as director of El Sistema USA. “What it’s about is using the highest level of arts education, musical education to bring about social change.’’
Today, as I was walking down St. Michael’s Street, after finally joining the Oxford Union for the year - digression here: the Oxford Union section is so lovely; you’d never think such a space would be there, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself, it’s sort of random and therefore hidden - when I saw that shop sign I always only glimpsed whilst walking up or down Cornmarket Street: “The Mission”. All those times, I thought it must be some kind of charity organisation, like Goodwill, or Oxfam - which, incidentally, is so named because it began at Oxford, only found that out last week - so imagine my surprise, when I finally saw the fine print under that name:
In my amusement, I considered it. No, I hadn’t had lunch yet, and yes, a burrito sounds like a great idea. Especially for the purposes of assessing if this joint will help stave off the miss Anna’s/Boston blues.
So I got a burrito. Vegetarian, with the guacamole. Was served and rushed through the line in an oddly familiar manner. Peered over the familiar sunken-boxes filled with ingredients - some of the same ingredients I never learned to recognise. Received the familiar tin-foil package at the end. Knew how to peel open the package the right way and felt proud of that. Munched my way back to Pembroke college. Had the burrito gravy spill all over my hands when I got to the end.
"Hello, I’m Limmy, I’m a Visiting Student from Tufts, but I’m originally from Singapore."
If I had a penny for every time I’ve said that…
And here we are, on Sunday, 11th October 2009. I’ve officially been in England for a full week now, and I feel as though I’ve finally been given permission to exhale -
Mm. That feels good.
We’ve just made it through Freshers’ Week here at Oxford, the 0th Week of Michaelmas Term. It’s a relief to be on this side of the week - I’m pretty sure my energy reserve has been running on empty for at least the past 48 hours - but I have to say that it really did feel good to be in it! Oxford isn’t just a school, it really is a community and an experience, with practices and traditions and architecture and personalities that hold together and make it truly distinct and unique. I feel completely immersed in a comprehensive, cohesive culture; I really do feel a sense of being a member of something much larger than myself, something that reaches centuries back in time, spans across the globe, over governments and professions and societies and noteworthy lives of significance - and that somehow this literal millennium of elite privilege has been bestowed upon us frisky, insensible young things, to sit precariously upon my narrow shoulders, too small even for my Commoner’s gown. What is Oxford doing to me.
This past week has been day-on-day of social activity, a genuinely enjoyable mix of classy smart casual events, such as formal pre-dinner drinks and dinner with our tutors and fellows, all of us clad in academic dress, and goofy JCR events: the College Pride Bop, where we all wore the beloved Pembroke colour of PINK and had headphones on, in order to “silent disco” to our favorite 90s or early 2000s tracks (so much fun, absolutely no down-and-dirty grinding nonsense); the Name Bop, where we all had to come up with outfits based on our names - I wore neon-green sneakers and a neon-green scarf in an attempt to be “Lime” (Limmy, Li-Me, catching onto the pun here?); the pub crawl, where we visited - or should I say bombarded and crowded - the area’s quaint English pubs in series, decked out in our crazy Name Bop outfits. Throw a couple of late-night group conversations - one of which included the game “Articulate!”, great fun there - into the mix, and you’ve got one batch of very excited, very happy, very socially-fulfilled Freshers and Visiting Students that also quickly grow very tired. And erupt in Freshers’ Flu. (From which I’ve been safe so far. Phew.)
But let’s not forget that this is the University of Oxford. Already, I’ve written and turned in my first essay - today, before noon, was my given deadline! In this past week, we had to attend a few library inductions - one for each subject you’re taking, and one for the college library - which can actually be physically taxing, for us Social Science students especially, with the library being a solid 20-minute walk away. There were also talks, complete with explicit reminders that we are all expected to be full-time students here, putting in 40-hour weeks - and that we shouldn’t expect to be able to travel every weekend or party every day of the week or even wake up mid-morning like students in other universities/countries can, because there’s a reason why Oxford is internationally renowned. You know you’re part of something larger than life when it itself is its own legitimate rationale for a practice: Dining in hall is mandatory not only because it’s a wonderful way to get to know your peers and tutors - it is part of the Oxford tradition. Working hard is necessary not only because you’re a full-time student - it is part of the Oxford education.
And I simply adore all of this.
I love being a speck in this 1000-year history. I love the beautiful old architecture. I love observing traditions that I know must be older than I can even imagine - I take strange pleasure in wearing the unflattering article of clothing to achieve this. I love being respected enough as a person and student to be given the opportunity to learn directly from accomplished scholars and present myself and my ideas to them in social situations outside the classroom. I love being treated as an adult and given the reins to my education and my time. I love being a part of community that is so cognisant of its privileged position that it inhabits it with such fitting reverence, and yet is so comfortable with itself that the spirit of obnoxiousness and competitive hostility doesn’t prevail. Everyone I’ve met here so far has been nothing but friendly and genuine, not at all taking themselves too seriously, though they might take their work so. Humility and pride both seem to be in healthy balance here; it seems the constant reminders of what this institution stands for really puts people in their places, compelling them to take their work seriously, and yet reiterating to them that they could never be *too good* for anyone or anything, not when they live and learn in an institution that’s produced generation after generation of world leaders, and will see yet hundreds more pass through its portals.
As you might be able to tell already, it’s simply overwhelming. All of it. I’m still rather shell-shocked.
I’ve always known Oxford is a good university, but I really didn’t know how good. It didn’t hit me when I was applying, it didn’t hit me when I got my acceptance to the programme, my estimation of how incredible it was probably even dipped every time a friend made mention of it or teased me for it during the arduous, dry 5-month Summer wait - which made getting here, and all of this, even more of a stunner.
Tomorrow, I have my first tutorial, and then the day after, my first lecture. And I’m really, really excited.
I’ve always been a good starter of things, but an inconsistent finisher. I’ve resolved to rectify that.
So here I am, returning to write about the short trip my Mum and I took to Bangkok this summer. I had intended to continue blogging on a daily basis from my sister’s iPod Touch, but alas, the limited nature of battery power worked against me. Which means that instead of the day-by-day breakdown, I’ll just be recording the highlights:
Half-day City Tour We joined a group of fellow Singaporeans - a group of relatives on holiday - for a half-day city tour, which included visits to two Buddhist temples, a gems factory-store, a honey factory-store, and ended with a drop-off at Chatuchat, a prime tourist destination. The Buddhist temples were very ornate and elaborate; the devotion of the Thais and the importance that they place on their religion was very apparent. Chatuchat actually turned out to be a poor locale for us, as my mother and I soon sweated off any mood or energy for shopping. We found the heat so insufferable that we couldn’t appreciate most of what was in front of us, so after maybe 2 hours or so, we quickly whisked ourselves off to Central World, a shopping mall, in a cab. This was the unfortunate night on which I lost my room key card, fumbling for the map of the city to figure out our route back to the hotel from Central World. Needless to say, though the day went very well, I ended it in a grumpy, horrid mood, tired and unnecessarily frustrated, which my poor mother had to put up with. Sorry, Mum!
Platinum Mall We really did end up spending most of our time in Bangkok at Platinum Mall! We sadly missed a tour out to see the floating markets, so we made our 3rd and final full day in Bangkok a Shopping Day (note capital letters), spending all our time in Platinum. We even had lunch at their food court upstairs, which - weirdly enough - sold bird’s nest and shark’s fin for cheap. Dinner was luxurious, by our standards, spent enjoying room service in the comfort of our lovely hotel. It was glorious, admittedly, to be lazy for just that one night after 3 days of constant walking on uneven pavements (on which my Mum actually tripped and fell once) past intense traffic and smog and engulfed in sticky humidity - bleaugh. Travelling and shopping is legitimate, if light, exercise.
Thai People They are the most sweet-natured society of people I’ve encountered. We heard no one so much as raise their voice, be it to us or to each other, and everyone smiles back when you smile at them, no reservations. All part of the culture. If I had to move to Thailand anytime in the future, and if for some really unlikely reason I can’t seem to enjoy anything about life in the country, I expect the people - if not the awesome food! - will be its saving grace.
Thailand really is an intriguing place, in its own very distinctive yet very quiet, calm sense. I’d definitely like to return and spend more time in it in the future.
It feels natural to leave. I haven’t been very emotional about this whole affair at all. 5 months is too long to wait, un-applied and unoccupied with a meaty internship or project.
The weird part is, I have close to no images about how my life will look like after I get there tonight. My path of thought just goes right off the cliff, sharply turns to blank nothingness at the subject. Maybe past experience has taught me too well - my mind knows that whatever I manage to conjure up with my imagination will be drastically different from the real thing anyway, so it refuses to try. It bothers me a little, this whole state of things, that I’m so calm and ready to be launched into near complete uncertainty - yet putting it in those terms strangely spurs me to be proud of myself, in a roundabout way; proud of this funny, still stoic that sits, taking all this in, typing all this down while in her pyjamas on her last morning in her country for the year, unpertubed.
If there was one thing I wish I could take with me, it would be my bed.
If there’s one thing I’ll remember about this morning, it would be the haze. It’s gotten so bad these few days; today is no different. The sky is definitely not blue. The light quality is as dim as it would be if it were just before rain - a depressing tease. Geographical trade-offs are a funny thing; We’re constantly told that Indonesia sends us these white shrouds every year, with their farmers’ use of slash-and-burn tactics in clearing forest land for cultivation, yet we’re never reminded that Indonesia shielded us from the tsunami in 2006, and bears the brunt of the region’s tectonic activity. That’s different, you say, they can stop burning; we can’t stop tsunamis or earthquakes from happening. Well, can you stop taking the bus to work? I’m sure it feels just about as necessary - in fact, probably more necessary - to those farmers, that’s the issue that needs to be dealt with. They need to be given alternatives to provide new perspectives and change priorities.