Life : Sep 2004 to May 2005

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1) Life in Canada

I studied in the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto. This was one of three campuses that the University of Toronto has. The main downtown St. George campus is really huge and is within the downtown city area. The campus I attended was about an hour away through public transport and much smaller in size. I actually don’t like both campuses because mine is way too small and without life, while the situation of the main campus in the downtown area takes away the university feeling from university life there. You feel as though you’re in the city rather than in the university! I actually prefer studying in University of New South Wales better because it’s not too big or small and has a university-like atmosphere.

Because my campus is not close to downtown, life wasn’t that exciting. However, I did travel to downtown at least once a week to take my 3rd-level advanced Spanish subject. Life in my campus was quite dull I should say. Getting to know other International Development Studies (IDS) students and interacting with them was definitely well worth it but besides that the general student life wasn’t very active. I was involved in the International Development Studies Students Association (IDSSA) as we organized and planned various talks in relation to development fieldwork. On the 14th of November, I attended a Development Day program organized by Engineers Without Borders. I enjoyed the time thoroughly as about 20-30 students from the different study backgrounds came together to discuss about development issues. The program definitely gave me some ideas as to how to get students to think and learn about development issues.

Not only did the distance from downtown and the size of the campus affect the level of activity and social life one can have but I think the weather played a tremendous part too. I think it snowed at least 5 months during the time I was there. And if it didn’t snow, the weather was such that you don’t want to spend too long outdoors. Thus there becomes less outdoor activities and programs on and makes life less exciting. I was told that there’s a lot of stuff going on during Summer – which I didn’t stay on for. Comparing my time in Sydney with that of Toronto, I realized how much more political activities I was involved in when in Sydney. I attended many political rallies there and that definitely had a bit to do with the fact that there were many current political issues in the news then – e.g. the refugee crisis and the Iraq War. However, I also think that the reason why there’s less visible political activism in Toronto is because of the horrendous weather conditions and especially the snow which makes outdoor political activities extremely difficult when not in summer.

One of the things I’m glad I did during my time in Canada was creating this new webpage! I had wanted to do it for years but had always procrastinated. During my December holidays (of about 2 weeks), I decided that I should finally embark upon this project. I spent days reading Dreamweaver manuals online and using Dreamweaver to create what you’re seeing now! It’s not perfect but I’m self-taught and I’m quite happy with what I have so far!

Another very interesting event that happened to me during my holidays occurred on Christmas eve. Christmas eve night has always been one of the most special days for me for many years. The Christmas season is my favorite season in Singapore and I would usually spend the eve out with friends till very late. However, I realized that on that Christmas eve I didn’t really have anything planned. Most people left the residences/hostels during the holiday break to be with their families and all so there was actually very little activity in the University during that period. I woke up at 8am on Christmas eve morning and told myself that I really had to do something. I wasn’t going to spend my Christmas eve in a meaningless way and alone! I called a Malaysian friend of mine who was passionate about development and suggested that we go feed the homeless in the downtown area at night. We got some others involved and quickly went to the supermarket to buy some food and decided on the dishes to be cooked! We spent hours cooking some dishes we cooked for the first time. In the end, we brought Chicken Rice Casserole, Tuna-Macaroni Salad and Italian beefballs with us to the downtown area.

We alighted the train at Queens Station. It was freezing there (below -20 degrees Celcius) and we were really all unprepared for the weather. We all had frozen feet and at one time stopped for about 15 minutes at a 7-eleven shop to share a big cup of coffee between the 4 of us! We met a lot of people along the way. We talked to them and heard many interesting stories as we gave out the food. In one instance, we met a native Canadian who actually prayed for us calling upon the “Great Spirit”. That was a very touching moment. In another instance we entered a building to use the toilets. This was the Roy Thompson Hall where the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto was holding their annual Christmas eve service (I was actually invited to the Christmas service but didn’t want to fork up so much money. In the end I’m glad I spent my time on the streets instead!). We chatted with some of the ushers outside the hall as we were in the building and they asked us what we’re doing and where we’re from and all that. When they heard what we were doing, they kindly told us where we could find more homeless people to give out the food.

It was a really amazing experience. One thing I was pleasantly surprised is that we saw so many other Canadians giving out food or other necessities (e.g. blankets) to the homeless people. They were of course wiser than us – driving in cars rather than walking the streets! But I have to say I was impressed by the generosity of the Canadians overall. After that, I told myself I would do this once a month with my friends.

The next time we went to feed the homeless again was on 21st January. However that was the last time we did it as subsequently I was quite busy with other stuff. I was busy starting a club in my University to spread awareness of development issues to high school students. The club was called Students for International Development and it began in December 2004 when I started to email friends and friends’ friends who were interested in the idea of going to high schools to share about development issues. For about 3 to 4 months, I spent a lot of time organizing meetings and all that. We decided to focus on HIV/AIDS in Zambia and Africa and eventually prepared a multimedia Powerpoint presentation and case studies which were used in 4 class presentations in a high school on the 20th of April.

Leading this club was probably the most valuable experience of my whole time in Canada and I was glad to have done that even though it took a lot of my time and effort. Development education is something I’ve always wanted to do in future and to have gotten a taste of the challenges involved in raising awareness of development issues among young people will definitely help me in future as I start my NGO promoting development education among the youths in Singapore.

In the midst of all this, I did a lot of research and found out that the term “development education” is actually a widely used term to describe an education of international development issues. I got to know a lot of websites in the UK that was dedicated solely to promoting development education. I also found books specifically on the subject and also a thesis about it from the University library. I also learnt that the term “global education” is also widely used and similar in meaning to “development education”. A final term that I encountered was “global citizenship”. This was a term I had come across before but during this time I began to reflect more upon it and I started to like it such that I’m hoping to have the term “global citizenship” in the name of the NGO I hope to start in future. Indeed, I see that “global citizenship” is all about being a more responsible global citizen and this involves understanding more about global and development issues and being involved in development too.

I went to my first ever cooking class on February 10th. It was on cooking Paella and thus I couldn’t resist! I’ve been cooking this delicious Spanish rich dish for a couple of years and still wanted to improve so I jumped at the opportunity of attending the class. It was a bit expensive but then I thought that was ok since I have always wanted to master this dish! I was the youngest in the cooking class and perhaps one of the most interested in the class. Most of the others were sent by the companies and thus probably only had a cursory interest in Spanish food and Paella! It was an interesting experience overall. There was one head chef with two assistants. Rather than us just standing at one side and watching the chefs cook the food, we were all called to participate in cooking the dishes – cutting the vegetables…etc. However, I would have preferred to just watch as I could observe better how all the dishes were cooked – and not just the one particular dish I was helping out on. However, in the end I did learn a few tips that would help me in my journey towards cooking the perfect Paella!

On the 19th and 20th of March, I attended the Youth Challenge International “Global Issues” Youth Action forum. Again, it was another valuable experience of learning and interacting with other young people passionate about international development. The first day was filled with talks while the second day a group of us went to an AIDS Hospice called Casey House and the Planned Parenthood of Toronto. The time at Casey House was very educational for all of us and especially for myself as I got to know more about HIV/AIDS. I have to admit I came out very depressed hearing about this virus and how it’s probably impossible to find a cure for it. But I’m definitely glad I got to know more about HIV/AIDS.

I have to shamefully admit that I spent quite a lot of time watching movies and TV serials – all downloaded onto my computer through my university’s intranet! I watched some excellent movies like the 6 hour BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. I also rewatched “Before Sunrise” before watching “Before Sunset”. I remember watching “Before Sunrise” in the theatres when it came out more than 5 years back and I loved it so much but seldom talked about it with anyone because nobody else had watched it! Both movies would place second in my all-time favorite list – behind “Dead Poets Society” but just ahead of “Pay It Foward”. Some other good movies I watched were “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Chasing Amy”. And some of the more thought-provoking ones were “Butterfly Effect”, “The Game”, “Saw”, “Se7en”, “Phonebooth” and “Swordfish”. The latter two (or maybe even five) resonates with my inclination towards utilitarianism, the last one most obviously so. The latter five are about personalities that commit evil yet one could argue that it’s for the sake of the common good. Swordfish is about a group of people robbing a bank of billions of dollars for the purpose of… funding anti-terrorist terrorist activities! That’s basically doing wrong in order to prevent more wrong! Now, is that right or wrong? You decide…

In addition to movies, I watched so many episodes of “Friends” – perhaps almost up to 80% of every episode ever created! I never really watched friends before – I have seldom watched TV for the past 5 years or so! – but now I’m a big fan. In addition, I watched both the seasons of the “The L Word”.

I also watched the brilliant movie “Hotel Rwanda”. I hope there will be more such movies to educate the world about global development problems (Another great movie I watched like that was the excellent Brazilian movie “City of God”.) Anyway, I was so inspired by Hotel Rwanada that I did my 2nd semester Spanish oral multimedia presentation on the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. In my 1st semester, I also touched on an interesting topic very close to my heart as I presented on Peter Singer’s view of the responsibility of the rich to the poor. I remember working on the presentation for days. I was one of the first to present and I thought an oral presentation meant memorizing one’s speech and then speaking straight to the class – without much notes at hand. So I spent days just memorizing my speech! What happened in the end was that most people actually read a lot from notes so I kinda felt stupid putting in so much effort! But I tell you it’s not easy memorizing a 10-minute speech. It would take a lot of time already in English, what more in Spanish!

2) New York City!

Just before I left Canada for Singapore, I went on a trip to New York City that was organized by the University of Toronto Arts Collective (UTAC). We stayed three nights at the Chelsea Hostel which was located at the 20th Street and between the 7th and 8th Avenues. Our journey started at 12 midnight (5th/6th of May) on a bus. We arrived about 12 hours later at our hostel. Upon getting my room (I stayed with 3 other students in a small room of two double-decker beds), a friend and I walked for about 5 hours through Greenwich, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown and then till the World Trade Centre. All these places were basically at lower Manhatten. There we took a train north to the Manhatten Mall before walking back by 9pm.

On the 7th of May (Saturday), we started off early at 8am and walked through pretty much the same places though we did a bit of shopping and headed to the Seaport and walked past Wall Street. At 6pm, we arrived at Jersey Gardens which is a huge factory outlet located at New Jersey. More shopping followed! Then we took bus 111 to the port authority in NYC. From about 9:30pm till 11pm, we went around Times Square – including entering Toys R Us. Following this was a long walk back to our hostel.

I went to the UN building in the morning of the 8th of May. I took a tour which lasted for about 50 minutes and got to see the General Assembly and the Security Council rooms. Ha, naturally I really enjoyed this part of the trip. I bought some stuff at the stores and I wish I had more time to spend at the bookstore! At 2pm, I left for Pier 42 with a friend for a 3-hour cruise from 4:30pm. On the way back, we walked past Trump Building (entering it for a while), Rockerfeller building and a bit of Central Park before catching a bus back.

In the end, I didn’t have time to visit the Musems nor did I walk Central Park during the day. Other places outside of Manhatten like Harlem and Brooklyn were also skipped. Although most of the time was spent at lower Manhatten, it’s really nice just to spend time walking it.

I was too sleepy to wake up early on the last day (9th) though I should have! The bus for Toronto left at 12pm and we arrived back around midnight.

3) Trip back to Singapore on SIA

I had an extremely pleasant trip back to Singapore. Originally, I was meant to take a Northwest plane to Detriot, then Tokyo, then Singapore. However, as the plane from Detriot to Tokyo was full, there was a call for people to voluntarily give up their seat. The airlines would take care of your accommodation – if you had to take the plane the next day – and they would also give you a Northwest credit voucher worth US$750. I thought since I wasn’t in any urgent need to reach Singapore, I would give up my seat. This was too good a deal to resist!

It gets even better! Because they found out that my ultimate destination was Singapore, they managed to get me on an SIA plane that flew straight from Los Angeles to Singapore! This was on that new non-stop Airbus flight and it was SIA! I never ever take SIA unless there’s a great special offer making their flights cheaper than the other airlines, which is seldom. So Northwest flew me to LA and then I caught the SIA plane. Man, the SIA plane was so comfortable. There were only maximum three seats between the aisles and the window and aisles. Read: more room! And the best thing was that the plane was so empty that noone was sitting beside me. In all, I had an extremely comfortable flight on one of the best Airlines in the world and to top it up, I received a US$750 credit voucher for free! The only problem now is that Northwest (or KLM, which I can fly also with the voucher) doesn’t really fly to many places from Singapore. I could perhaps go to Tokyo or Paris but I’m not exactly crazy about those two places considering I’ll probably be spending lots of money on my stay there. So I haven’t decided if I’ll use it yet. Too bad it ain’t transferable or redeemable for cash! Oh well, at least I enjoyed my free SIA flight!

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