Friday, September 26, 2008

On weekly activiites...

Every Wednesday I wake up and spend the whole day thinking that the next day would be Friday. And then at some point, I would realize that this assumption is false and that I have one more day to go before the weekend comes around.

So this semester I'm very busy. I am totally booked 9-5 everyday except Fridays where it's 10-5. Taking 5 classes and working part-time is apparently very time consuming. And at some point, I need to apply to grad schools and maybe look for a job. 2 of my classes are humanities classes which means lots of reading and writing. And D-Lab, which I just wrote about in a previous entry takes a lot of time because we literally don't know anything. I haven't slept a lot the past few days.

But it's okay because I really like what I'm doing this semester. I really enjoy my classes so I'm willing to put time and effort into them. And more importantly, wake up for them.

This morning I met with my partner for the Language Exchange program sponsored by MIT. They're a program mainly to help recent immigrants in the MIT community like students and spouses of graduate students and professors learn English. A side benefit for the native speakers of English who are volunteering their time is that they try to pair up these English speakers with people who speak a language that the English speaking person wants to learn. And in some cases, the exchange can be between other languages entirely. I read about this on the MIT Medical website and thought that it would be nice to help someone out.

So I signed up and they paired me with a wife of a graduate student. She is Japanese, studied Chinese in university, lived in Shanghai for 6 years, married an Asian American from Hawaii. Her husband's father is from Hong Kong and she said that when they visited his side of the family in Hong Kong, many of the relatives didn't speak Mandarin. So she wants to learn Cantonese as well as practice English. She and her husband just moved to Boston and she has no one to speak English with. Also, her husband is a graduate student at the MIT Center for Real Estate, the office where I work! What a coincidence. So I thought this was all very interesting. I don't know how much I can help her with Cantonese or English. Her English is very well and her Mandarin is way better than mine. They had lived in San Jose for 2 years before coming to Boston. But I think it would be a fun experiene. Maybe I can learn some Japanese...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

And this winter, I'm going to....

Sierra Leone in Africa! I still can't believe I'm doing this. I'm going to spend my entire IAP in Africa, trying essentially to do some good. I'm taking a class called D-Lab and the D stands for development, design, and dissemination. Basically, they send teams of MIT students to impoverished communities in developing countries in order to bring "appropriate" technology to help these people. These are mostly rural places where what we would consider basic infrastructure doesn't exist. In a reversal of the traditional top-down aid where people pour money to big agencies to fund big projects and hope that this money somehow trickle down to the rural population where it is most needed, we are targeting the people who need the aid the most. Our goal is not to bring technology but the knowledge. We want to show them ways to make small machines that would make their lives easier by decreasing the amount of time they spent on things like shelling peanuts or fetching water.

We met with our community partner yesterday. He is from Idaho and runs an organization called Village Hope in Sierra Leone. They have partnerships with some villages and has been helping them build schools. Schools in the most villages are in really bad shape. They leak during the wet season and are burning hot during the dry season. They have no books, no supplies, so the students learn by repeating after the teacher. The students don't simple supplies like pencils. And for some kids, the schools are very far and their only way of getting there is walking. Kids drop out of school because of this distance. Some families can't even afford to pack a lunch for their kids so the kids go hungry during the day. Village Hope is looking to built schools with cheaper but more durable materials, better ventilation for the summer, and have a community garden so that they can provide food to the children. So far, the six schools that they built are elementary schools. Most villagers have no access to secondary education. Oh, and toilets are non-existent.

So we're hoping we can do a few little projects and a couple of bigger ones. We're not really sure what these projects will be yet but I think it will mostly be with the schools, finding safe water during the dry season (well-drilling), finding a way of making bricks without cement, and irrigation during the dry season. Okay, that's a lot of projects already... My team consists of 6 undergrads and 1 team leader. We're a pretty diverse group in terms in interests and skills. We've been spending a lot of time together working on various things lately. I don't think any of us realized that we would be working on so many projects. Honestly I thought we would have only 1 major project and maybe a side project.

Anyhow, I think this would be one amazing experience. I have never been to such rural communities or Africa. Before this class (September), I never thought I could actually make a difference. Even when I started taking this class, I thought it would be all fluff. But actually, the work that they have been doing are really amazing. I'll write more about examples of these things in later posts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Linguistics fieldwork: learning to say no

Part of my linguistics class requires fieldwork. We have to find a friend who speaks a language that we don't speak and have never learned and do linguistics experiments on this friend. One of my friends in the class is from Thailand and he suggested that we become partners. I thought this was a great idea since if we're both in the class, neither of us would feel like we're taking up the other person's time. Anyhow, I was surprised (I probably shouldn't be) at the relative ease of a class of 70+ people at finding a person who speaks a different language (at a native level).

We met up on Saturday and proceeded to do the assignment which was to find out negation (how to say not) in the other person's language. And not just what the word itself is but also how it works (does it come before the verb? after the subject? etc.). It was a lot of fun. We haven't learned the IPA yet so we just made up our own "system". My "system" chopped up Thai like never before... Anyhow, we ran into a lot of difficulties because in order to figure out the negation, we have to have the other person say a sentence and then the opposition. So for example, "She is sitting." and then "She is not sitting.". We quickly found out that neither Thai nor Cantonese really permits sentences like "She is not sitting.". It just sounds really stupid because people would usually just say what the person is doing instead of what she is not. And trying to say eating and cooking was really awkward in both languages too since there is the word "rice" involved, which means "a meal" in addition to the actual rice itself.

Anyways, it was really fun. I actually found out a lot about Cantonese since I've never studied it formally as a language. Cantonese actually has infixes for the present progressive (-ing) tense. My friend was really confused until I explained it. And even though I had claimed that negation is really easy, it's actually not so apparent since there are like 3 forms. The professor had written on the homework sheet that we should explore sentences with "is" and "have" since they have interesting forms. And to the great distress of both of us it was true! Anyways, I enjoyed it a lot. Look forward to learning more about languages. I think this class is really useful since it gives some structure to something that I've always thought as a very touchy-feely thing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

First full week...

Wow, I can't believe it has only been two weeks since the start of classes. Today ends the first full week of classes. And I feel like I've been here forever and not only a few weeks. I've finally figured out all my classes, started working, and began really settling in into all my classes. I'm not taking Chinese anymore. I've settled on taking 1 civil engineering class, a probability and statistics class, Linguistics, East Asia in the world 1500-2000, D-Lab, and Making Public Policy (as listener). So I'm registered for 66 units again, except it is technically more this time since I'm taking one class as a listener. And I'm also working 6-10 hours a week.

So my days are literally packed from 9:30-5pm everyday, usually with only a 30 minute break in there somewhere. I've been pretty on top of things though. I think it's mainly because I'm really interested in all my classes and therefore don't put off work or readings. I have enormous amounts of readings to do but I really look forward to reading them. They are really interesting stuff and I wish I had the time to read more. I think in another life, I would've been an historian.

Also I'm going to do a substantial amount of volunteering too. There's an AmeriCorps scholarship that awards money for time spent volunteering. I haven't gotten this scholarship yet but I think there's a good chance that I would get this scholarship. So tomorrow, I'm going to the Red Cross to make food bags. And next Saturday, Yalu and I will be volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Habitat builds houses for low income families and sells these houses for only material and construction related costs (construction is done mostly by volunteers), so well below the market price. I think it will be a good experience. I also signed up to be a language exchange partner in order to help someone with their English skills. This is mostly to benefit spouses of graduate students who are often lacking some aspects of English. We haven't met yet but I think this will be a fun experience, especially since I'm taking linguistics.

I'm really glad it's the weekend. I felt especially hosed Thursday morning. But I'm really glad to be back.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Too many things and too little time

Today was the first day of classes and I feel so overwhelmed. I went to 5 classes today because I'm still "shopping" around for classes to take. MIT has various requirements for humanities classes to make sure we're well rounded or something like that and we need to take 3 classes classified as "HASS-D". I haven't taken any so I need to take at least 2 this semester. I really want to take all three. Anyhow, my two morning classes today were pretty interesting.

My first class of the semester is a class that I didn't pre-register for called East Asia and the World 1500-2000. It was taught previously by Professor Peter Perdue who is a really amazing east Asian historian who I had the chance to meet last year. Unfortunately he is at Yale now. The professor who is teaching the class this semester seems pretty interesting person though. As soon as he started talking about Chinese history, I knew that he must know more Chinese than I do even though he is Caucasian (but probably not American since he has an accent...). I found out later from the history department's website that he studied Chinese literature at Fudan University. Anyhow, part of this first class, we watched the Olympics opening ceremony. He just showed all the historical stuff and asked us about the image that China wants to present to the world. Man, everything is so different when you discuss this stuff with an actual historian rather than just hearing the comments from NBC. He also showed a few seconds of a documentary called River Elegy which was produced in 1988 by some Chinese people talking about how Chinese culture came from the Yellow River and how the Chinese society needs to move away from this "river culture" in order to advance. It sounds like a really interesting film which I will watch sometime soon (probably this weekend) and comment more about it here.

Right after this I went to Chinese III Streamlined which was way oversubscribed. I thought it's a good class to follow up on what I did in Cambridge since this class, unlike Chinese I and II, is more focused on media and "real" stuff instead of just learning from a textbook. We get to watch movies, listen to songs, read articles, etc. Anyhow, after we did all the admin stuff, we watched a few minutes of..... the Olympic Opening Ceremony. This time the CCTV version. I think I will spend some time watching the CCTV version since it seems like they did not cut out a bunch of stuff like NBC did. They also used a lot of flowery language that I did not understand but they sounded much more enthusiastic than the NBC commentators.

So these 2 classes seem to complement each other. The only problem is that they're both on a Mon, Wed schedule which would mean that I would have way too many classese those days and not enough on Tues and Thurs. It would be nice if my classes were a little more spread out. Also, I'm not sure if I can get into the Chinese class since it is oversubscribed but the teacher is the one I had for Chinese I and she's very nice. Anyhow, this all depends on how my classes tomorrow go. Because even though the 2 classes I took today were interesting, neither of them were like "I MUST take this class". So, we'll see.

Okay, I need to do some reading and get things together so I will write about my other classes later. Just thought I'd tell everyone that I'm already feeling very stressed!! Life at MIT... yup.