Monday, May 26, 2008


I've been listening to a lot of Chinese songs lately. And I've discovered that it's actually really rewarding to go look up the lyrics and learn the words because a lot of songs use the same vocabulary. Most of the songs out there are about love so... there's a lot of "buzz" words, especially among songs that are about the same things like the sad kinds about lost love, the motivational songs, etc. I've started a notebook (a while back) with all the Chinese words that I care about and want to learn. It's really exciting to see a word that you've written down, looked up the pinyin and English for, made into sentences, etc. used somewhere else and you can understand perfectly because you've put in all this effort. Let me assure you it's a lot of effort.

I've also discovered that since I've been putting an enormous amount of time into this that I've began to be able to decipher words that are similar to words that I know. People who have no background in Chinese are always like, "well, it can only be easy if you can remember all the characters!" But they fail to realize that a lot of these characters are very similar and you can guess their sound and meaning from words that you already know. It's not so different from languages like English that depend on an alphabet.

Okay, so I've always known this as a fact but it has never helped me until a couple of days ago. I was able to look at characters, guess at their pronunciation, and look up the pinyin instead of going through this guessing radicals and counting strokes business (it takes forever!). I've also been able to make use of the sentences given by my dictionary. I have Collins and I don't think it's very good. Some of the English translation is just bad. I've always had problems with their example sentences because they use some fairly sophisticated words in them. I think a good dictionary would try to give you a sentence that uses simple words but still show the meaning of the word that you looked up clearly. Anyway, it's not such a big problem now since I can usually read the sentences. Do you understand how annoying it is to look up other words in an example sentence? Especially Chinese words?

I also realized that my memory is really awful compared to... before college. I remember I had this Chinese-Chinese dictionary back in first grade. You know how you have to look up the radical, then it gives you a page number or some other number, and then you have to count the strokes of the rest of the character? Well, back then, I could remember which number corresponded to which radical. So I was able to skip the whole looking up the radical part. Which saves a lot of time. But now that I actually care about saving time, I can't do this at all. I even have to count the strokes of the radical because I'm lame like that! Um... all that was to show how much time knowing the pinyin helps.

Anyways, wish me luck on my Chinese exams on Wednesday!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wet, puffed pigeon

He looked a lot more wetter when we arrived at my window. He looked scrawny, messy feathers, and funny. Too bad I couldn't get the camera out fast enough. Lately, there have been a lot of male pigeons chasing after the female ones. They like to puff up, chase away the other males, and then try to impress the female. My window is a popular hangout, like a bar...
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What time do you think it is?

The time stamp says 9:38:34 pm. 9:38pm and still light out!
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

Hm... easyJet decided to have a sale again. So now tickets to Amsterdam are 19.99 pounds. I haven't booked this ferry thing yet and that's still 55 pounds. So... now I don't know... The flying option would be 19.99 plus about 15 pounds for getting to and from airports so 35 pounds. I would leave very early from Cambridge on a Saturday morning. For the ferry, I would have to leave Friday night and spend much more time traveling. Arg. Don't know what to do...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

on language learning

Taking a break from my massive cramming for Chinese exams... Again, I feel like I am totally not ready for these exams that are coming in a week. I think I could've put in a lot more work and in get a better grade than what I will get. You know, I figured out freshman year that if I wanted an A in a class, then instead of trying to see how much I need on the final to get an A, I need to decide in the beginning of the semester that I want an A in this class and therefore will put in the effort necessary. Since then, there have been many classes where I have wanted an A but I haven't found that will power to go through with, "it's enough to put in 3 hours but if I want an A, I need to put in an extra 2 hours". Maybe it's because there are too many things out there that I want to do. And if I actually put in the effort to get really stellar grades, I won't get to enjoy other things. Um... that would be me trying to comfort myself.

Anyway, this also happens to be how I feel about language learning. After blindly stepping off the plane and starting my summer in Germany, I suddenly found out why some people have so much motivation to learn other languages. All throughout middle school, I've told myself that I really don't like learning languages and that now that I've gotten a grasp of English, it's good enough. And actually, English is such a global language nowadays that I got by with it in Germany. But there's something about being able to understand a conversation in another language that's really exciting. I've always believe that culture differences and differences in ways of thinking is linked with language. The way people express themselves leads to the way things work.

I've also really appreciated how different languages relate to each other. In Denmark, we found that Danish is pretty similar to German. Similar enough that we can get by (with Mahalia's German, of course, not mine). I was talking with a friend in my college yesterday at dinner about different languages. He's from Finland and is fluent in Finnish, Swedish, German, Danish, Norwegian, English, and I'm probably missing something. When I said I wanted to start learning Spanish again (Spanish is not as popular here as it is in the States), he said that he would really like to learn a Latin language like Spanish because it would allow him to learn Italian and Portuguese quite easily.

I'm really glad that I now have some background in German and Spanish. I think once you've taken a beginner's course and 打好基础, the rest is really up to you. Once you've gotten the background, then you can move on to reading on your own, listening on your own. I really believe in listening. A lot more than I do reading or writing. Because listening to conversations lets you start to create your own. I think speaking is by far the hardest thing to do. With reading and writing, you can do that on your own pace. With listening, you only have to pick up key words. But to speak a sentence requires vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, thinking, and it's really about putting everything together.

But language learning takes a lot of time and dedication. The problem is, there are so many languages out there that I want to learn. I'm really glad that I took Chinese here. But if I had stayed at MIT, I think I would've taken Japanese. I just recently got a book titled Read and Think Spanish which contains articles written in Spanish with all the vocabulary on the margin for easy reference. It came with a CD as well. But... I don't have time in the next month to look at it! I have Chinese to study for now and projects to do. And I should probably try to learn a few key words in Dutch and French before I go to Amsterdam and Paris.

I should make a list of "key words to know". Here's a start: thank you, excuse me, hello, chicken, beef, pork, fish, (believe me, the biggest challenge is reading the menu), yes, no, [feel free to add].

Monday, May 19, 2008

Noise Pollution

After living in the City Center for a while now, here are 2 things that I vow I will NEVER do:
1. Go to a church that has bells for service.
2. Pay street performers

Why? Because they're both a source of noise pollution that is very irritating to people who live nearby. The churches here ring their bells for 2-3 hours every Sunday, like continuously. And on some days, like Monday night, they have bell ringing practices. That's right. People go and ring bells for fun. I read an article in some Cambridge university journal that was entitled "The Joy of Bell Ringing". I felt like writing them an angry letter telling them how annoying it is to hear bells ringing for 2 hours straight. What I really should do is find out how loud (in decibels) it is in my room when these bells ring and find out if it's over the limit to be considered noise pollution. I bet it is. I should do noise calculations for these people and show them that they're way, way too loud.

Same with street performers. Once there was this band, yes, a whole band, performing right under my window. They were loud and not very good. And yet, people crowd around, listening, and then pay them. Why would you ever pay for bad music? I don't think I will ever watch another street performance ever again.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Website for Learning Chinese

I just found the greatest website for Chinese learning ever:

This thing lets you enter in characters (like a paragraph in a newspaper article) and it can read it for you and put pinyin over the words for you. Amazingly useful.

Friday, May 16, 2008

more updates on travel plans

So the end of my stay in England is rapidly approaching its end. As you probably all know, I have lots of plans for what to do after ALL my academic stuff ends. The plans (to the left there) have not changed very much but it's always the little things that count.

Yalu is coming to visit me in a little more than a week and a half. I can't believe she's coming so soon! Our original plan included a 2 night stay in London which turned out to be wayy too expensive. So she's going to visit London on her own on Friday since I have class. And then we're going on a tour with Roots Travel that will take us to Salisbury, Stonehenge, and Avebury. All transportation costs and also speaking tour included. I've been wanting to do one of their trips for a while because they operate out of Cambridge and will basically take you to famous places. This day trip would not have been possible on our own because it would include a lot of waiting for trains and buses and would probably cost a lot more. So I'm very happy about how this worked out.

The next trip I have planned is to Amsterdam. Originally, I had planned to fly there on EasyJet and meeting Yalu and Anya (Yalu's roommate for the summer, also from MIT) there. Yesterday, one of our other friends, Xiumin, who is also working in France (but in Pau, not Paris) decided to join us for the trip. She has to take an overnight train and all but it's not too expensive and this actually makes it cheaper for the 3 of us since we were planning on booking a hotel with two beds and splitting the cost. However, an EasyJet flight is 50 GBP and I would imagine getting to and from two airports would cost me almost 20 GBP in addition.

So I started investigating other ways of getting to Amsterdam and found a ferry. There is a Netherlands ferry service that has overnight rides from a port in England to a port in Holland. I can buy a Rail+Surf ticket and all the trains that I take from Cambridge to Amsterdam plus a private cabin on the ferry would cost 55 GBP total. This would involve leaving Cambridge on Friday (June 6) at around 8pm, taking a train to Harwich International (a port in England), getting on an 8 hour overnight ferry, and then spending about 1-2 hours getting from the port in Holland to Amsterdam via Rotterdam. Don't ask me why this makes me excited but it does. I think it's the overnight ferry ride. I've never done this before. This is not just any ferry ride, this is a ferry ride with a private cabin (bed, shower, bathroom included). And I would get to ride through a lot of Holland and see the landscape. Granted, it's probably going to be extremely flat and uninteresting but whatever, I like trains. I'll get to "feel the distance".

After Amsterdam, I'm going back to Paris with Yalu and friends and spending a week in Paris. Still debating whether or not I want to do some day trips out of Paris in that week or just stay in Paris the whole time. I can get a rail pass and do some day trips, which might be fun. But it would not be bad to just explore Paris.

Then I'm coming back up to England to meet my parents and brother. I think we've also decided not to book any hotels in London because it is too expensive. I found out that it is actually not that expensive for the 4 of us to go to London on a day ticket with National Express (bus service). My mom just wants to see Cambridge, Oxford, and London anyway. And there is a bus that goes to Oxford for about 2-3 GBP per person, per way. That's really, really cheap for things around here.

I'm just really glad that things are working themselves out. I have had all these plans before but haven't booked anything. I think once all the details are settled, I can finally look forward to going. It's always the details that are complicated. I think I would enjoy a backpacking Europe trip. Just buy a rail pass and go. And won't have to worry or think about all these details until it's actually necessary. But... if it hadn't been for thinking about these trips and doing some research, I don't think I would've found all these great deals....

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Engineering Projects

Today was quite a busy day. After Chinese class, I rushed over to engineering for my 2 projects. Let me just say that I was not impressed by these projects. During my first project, the professor said that this project requires us to work in groups and that this is something new for them. Some accreditators came and commented on the lack of group projects and teamwork in the department. So the teaching office put a requirement to do at least one group project in the third year. That's right, in the third year, one project, and that's it!! Far cry from my engineering classes at MIT where we were required to work in groups of 3 to do homework and only have to turn in one set of answers. What's really lame about this is the requirements for this first project. We were split up into groups of 4 or 5 to design something. We have to make 2 presentations on it but only 1 person presents during each of the two 15 minute presentations. Even my teammates were baffled by this one. And then, we're supposed to write 2 reports, individually. How are we supposed to do a project together when we're have to write individual projects? It's like in middle school when the teacher assigns you to do a group project and no one wants to work with anyone else so we would just split up the work, do our own research, and then come together in the last minute. That's so stupid. In my engineering design labs sophomore year, we had to work in groups for everything. And all my memories involve writing one report per group and our group would get together, sit in a computer lab, and write this thing together. We might be writing different sections but we're all there, discussing the project and proofreading each other's papers. I think making us turn in only one report makes it important that we (the team members) talk to each other. Because you can't really just copy and paste everyone's writing together, like in middle school. Everything has to make sense, reference each other, and flow together. Don't worry, I'll definitely let the project leaders know what my opinion of their "group work" is.

And in my other project, the lecturer handed us huge stacks of notes. He said that last year's group said that he lectured too much so this year he's just going to give us all the notes, skip them in the lectures, and let us read them ourselves. Dude, if you don't go over it in lecture, it must not be important. That's my view anyway. He's trying to chuck a whole semester's worth of geology and soil mechanics at us. I really feel sorry for people who haven't done soil mechanics. They must be so lost. I don't mind lectures though. Better than fake group work.

After this, I went to dinner, picked up the sleeping bags and travel journal that I ordered from Amazon, and forgot all about a talk that I was planning to go to. Luckily, Mahalia reminded me by sending an email. We met up on the way and go there a little late. The topic of the talk was "The Maoist Discourse and the Mobilization of Emotions under Mao" by Dr Yu Liu from the Departement of Politics. I think this was her dissertation. It was very interesting. She mostly talked about the Cultural Revolution. After hearing her talk, I have a renewed interest in learning history through a historian's point of view. I feel that "history" wasn't taught properly in primary and secondary school. I learned a whole lot of facts but not much about "how were people persuaded to do...", "how did they feel about...", and all the human aspects of history. It is, after all, a humanity subject, a social science.

This is one of the reasons why I'm really looking forward to going home this summer. I can go to the library, borrow lots of books like always, and read again. I didn't get to do this last summer in Germany. The Oakland libraries generally meets my needs since I always have a bizillion interests. I don't know where I am going to find the time to explore them all.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Aarhus, Denmark: The airport

For the second biggest city in Denmark, the Aarhus airport is very small (and very far away from the city). There are only 2 gates and less than 10 flights a day, mostly going to Copenhagen. But it has this garden outside for passengers to enjoy once you've gotten through security. I thought this was very nice of them. I think airports need this kind of stuff.

Some last thought on this city. Everyone we talked to spoke English, which was amazing. We picked up a few words of Danish like thank you (Tag), salmon (laks)... yes, very important stuff. Danish is also very similar to German so we got around just fine. Things are more orderly than in England. There are bike paths and on intersections, the bike paths even separate into turning and not turning. I was very impressed. Cars stopped for us, which does not happen in England.

On Sunday, there was a big football match and huge gathering of people near the church. There was also lots of police with their vans eyeing these fans. At first we weren't sure what this was all about and thought it was some major operation. I thought the fans looked pretty calm. Maybe the police just didn't have anything better to do?

There were steep roofs everywhere. These roofs were very steep but the buildings themselves were usually fat enough to have a comfortable size room in the attic.

All in all, I really enjoyed this trip. I managed to try out Danish sandwich, pastry, this sausage/hot dog thing, go to 4 museums, a cafe, listen to a concert, sunbathe on the beach, walk around a university and botanical garden, all for less than 700 DKK = 70 GBP = $140, not including the flight. I really enjoyed learning a little about Danish history, culture, and hearing the language. It definitely feels like a mainland Europe city. I think I like mainland Europe a lot more than the UK. That channel makes a lot of difference!
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Aarhus, Denmark: Museums

On Sunday, I went to two museums: The Occupation Museum and The Women's Museum. I thought they were both very interesting. Mahalia and I also went to a free piano concert in between. So even though Sunday was our last day there, I thought it was very productive.

The Occupation Museum is about the years that Denmark spent under German rule during World War II. There were many displays and I was given an English guide to them, which I appreciated very much. It starts out with general things about the war such as rationing, how the war in general affected life in Denmark, and how Denmark's very small army was no match for the Germans so they had to surrender. The displays were in chronological order so it went on to talk about the invasion of Finland by the Russians and how that was one of the causes of the resistance movement. Then there were displays of Denmark pride and how the people rallied behind Christian X, Denmark's King during the war. One of the most interesting displays was a huge map of Aarhus and all the spots where resistance workers did things to hinder the Nazis like burning of buildings and bombing of rail tracks. There was also a big map of Denmark showing where British forces dropped weapons and agents. So everything that happened in Denmark during the war was relatively small but it's a small country with not that many people so the fact that all these things happened was really impressive. I thnk the museum has seen better days. The 4 other visitors in the museum were all British. And two museum workers said they're all volunteers and that in the past, there would be lots of people in the summer. Anyway, I thought the exhibits were really interesting. I really think that history in America is taught from a very American point of view. Even world history. And there's so much more out there that it's a shame not to know.

I also went to the Women's Museum, one of the very few museums talking about women's lives in the world. This one focuses on Denmark and mostly on Aarhus. One of the rooms had dresses and were labeled with the year that they were worn/in fashion.

This is the gown worn by the first woman to get a master's degree in seismology. She wrote a paper later about the center of the earth being liquid, which shocked many scientists at the time.
One of the rooms had a history of women's rights reforms and movements in Denmark. I bought a booklet with all the information. Wish I had read the booklet before I went to see the exhibit. Anyway, there was another room that talks about the lives of boys and girls in the 1800s and 1900s in Denmark, mostly in Aarhus. It is designed for kids to run around and explore, which I found very cool. They have cards with a profile of a boy or girl. In the front they would tell you his/her name, date of birth, siblings, occcupation of parents, and hometown. Then on the back, there would be facts about the child such as "Helped with family farm", "went to boarding school", "made his/her own toys", etc. And next to these facts would be numbers. The number are color coded by: Family, Play, Education, Clothes etc. And then each room would be one of these categories. You go in and find the thing that belongs to the child on your card. For example, in the Clothes room, there would be lots of clothes hanging around, each with a number. I think kids would really enjoy this and can spend hours running around finding out about "their" person.
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Aarhus, Denmark: Old Town

The Old Town is a museum where they imported old Danish style houses from all over Denmark to make a town. During the day, you need to pay admissions and will get to go into the houses where they set up things like old stoves, a typical dinner, barrel making place, a typical bar setup, etc. But once it closes at 5pm, you can walk in and see the houses and peek in the windows, which is what we did. I think that was more than enough. Otherwise, it would've taken us the whole day to walk through the whole town. It was pretty big. They had all different kinds of stores and it really was like a miniture town. Very cool.

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Aarhus, Denmark: The University

On the last day, I spent an hour or so walking around the Aarhus University. I thought it would be interesting to see what it looks like and such. A lot of the buildings have a similar architecture style as the first picture: yellow walls, steep roofs, and in my opinion, not enough windows. The library has a book tower. It is basically a very tall tower with books in it. And there are no windows. There are books all around the walls. I saw it on the bus arriving and didn't get a chance to go see it again. But it looked scary...

There is a park in the university. A very nice one with ponds and streams. There were lots of people sitting around and enjoying the sun. There were lots of students lying around, reading books and chatting. The local residents seem to use it too. I saw lots of families. People here are very blond. Probably more than half the people are blond. I didn't see many minorities, especially in the university. There are ethnic restaurants and food stores but those were the only places where I saw non-white people. I think I would feel very out of place if I studied in this place...
The main campus was deserted though. I went on a Sunday and there was no one around. I didn't managed to find the student dorms. Maybe more life there? The campus is very big though and I only walked through a little bit of it.
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Aarhus, Denmark: Vikings!

I saw a lot of references to Vikings. I thought this was cool. There is a Viking Museum but it opens later this month. Too bad. I probably would've went. Anyway, I saw these in front of a toy store.

This is a play structure in the Aarhus University park. It's a Viking ship.
Replica of a Viking ship in the Aarhus Church.
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Aarhus, Denmark: Beach and Strange Sights

On the first day, we spent the afternoon chilling on the beach. We really wanted to just relax and not do anything after exams. It took a while to get the beach since we weren't sure how far away it was. It was a nice day out so we didn't mind too much. On the way back, we took a city bike. They have these bikes where you insert a 20 Danish coin to unlock it and you can have it for however you want. You have to bring it back to a rack where there is a "key" attached to get your coin back. There were lots of people suntanning on the beach. Mahalia went for a swim. I just sat there, listening to my audiobook, and slept a little. On the way there, we saw this:

Not sure what this statue is supposed to represent but I thought it was very funny. It's a woman holding a chicken and water is coming out of the chicken's mouth.
This was in front of the concert hall. I thought it looked like a Pokemon.
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Aarhus, Denmark!

We arrived in Aarhus, Denmark on Friday, May 9th. The weather was super nice. Blue skies, warm, couldn't ask for better. I'm going to publish some pictures with short explanation instead of writing on and on about our adventures. Here's a view of the city from the top of ARoS, a big art gallery. ARoS was very cool. I'm not really into art but it had some interesting things on display. They also have different film exhibitions every once in a while. The films they currently have are based on the novel "Women without Men" written by an Iranian woman. The films were pretty interesting and I really want to read the book. I would've gotten it at the museum store except it was super expensive, like everything else in Denmark. It was the twice the price listed on the book (the English version is published in Canada and had US Dollars printed on it). So I think I will just borrow it from the library or get it off of Amazon. Anyhow, enjoy these pictures.
More to come.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Cinco de Mayo and Denmark!

This morning, during my exam, I had a sudden craving for Mexican food. I told Mahalia about this after the exam and she was like, "Oh! Today's Cinco de Mayo. Xin and I were planning on making Mexican food, you can join us if you want." It was amazing. We made sooo much food. We made enchiladas, rice, ground beef, scrambled eggs, kidney beans with onions (which was surprisingly tasty), and had tomatoes, corn, spinach, and cheese. It was a really amazing meal. We also had corn tortillas and salsa from Trader Joes.

This weekend (wow, didn't realize it was actually this weekend...), Mahalia and I are going to Denmark! Not to Copenhagen though since that's expensive to get to but to Aarhus. Aarhus is the capital of Jutland. So it's in the middle of country instead of being out there like Copenhagen. Both of us have always wanted to go to Denmark so this is really cool. We're going early Friday morning and then coming back late Sunday night. The round trip flight was 60 GBP, which is one of the reasons we settled on this city. 2 nights, 3 days, it should be good. We seriously need a break from Cambridge. haha

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Last Lecture

I've heard about this a while back and not sure why I didn't watch it back then. This is a lecture given by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University a few months ago. He has cancer and wrote a book intended for his three children, telling them about his outlook on life. I've found this lecture to be very inspiring. I don't think his accomplishments are exceptional but it is his personality and outlook on life that impressed me very much. Worth watching:
Scroll down to the video of "The Last Lecture".