The cry against conformity. The plea for inspiration.

An interesting article was e-mailed in to the New York Times this week reviewing Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach? In the Defense of a Real Education. I cannot pretend to have read the work nor can I say that reading the review has made me want to read it, but the brief introduction to Edmundson’s point of view triggered a few thoughts. Roth says in his article: “Mr. Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and whom they might become. This is what a real education is all about.”

Indeed, true love-their-job teachers are hard to come by, but they are the ones who care about you and your future before you yourself have even started. So to what extent do teachers shape our future and is it their role to inspire us? And do we concentrate so much on getting a degree for a degree’s sake that we skip part of the essential learning process en route?

We’ve all watched movies like Dead Poets’ Society and thought how amazing it would be to have O’Captain my Captain heading our classes and instructing us to “Carpe Diem” and “suck the marrow out of life”, and what a utopian world it would be if we could have more of these Professor Keatings or Bob Sweeneys (American History X)…

Why? Simply because these are the type of people who provide what Roth calls a real education, pushing students to rethink who they are and whom they might become, and I would personally add to that, rethink how they relate to other people and the world. That we need to first understand that understanding is an endless process, that icebergs are not only metaphors for cultures, but also for individuals.

But how realistic is it really, to hope that academics be all bursting with energy and motivation, dying to pass on knowledge, ready to illuminate the minds of the next flock of aimless souls? Though I’m sure most teachers set out with the ambition of making a difference, changing a few perceptions, propagating and birthing ideas, it would be too hefty a burden on their shoulders to expect them to successfully carry this task out on a regular basis. But they try. The problem is that inspiring people involves opening new doors, new ideas, and teachers are sometimes only given so much room to do so.

The truth is, there are already many factors causing professors’ gradual demotivation, reasons for the slow demise of that original enthusiasm and optimism such as repetition and a disinterested public. Teachers already have to deal with the knowledge that what they are teaching is probably only catching the attention of a tenth of their audience if they are lucky. But now it seems a ball and chain is being added to the professorial profession.

The Degree has always been a reward for achievement, but it is increasingly becoming only hard evidence you went to University and proof you are employable rather than a real reflection of your capacities. School is becoming more of a bureaucratic process to obtain that damned official paper, and like all bureaucratic processes, people try to figure out shortcuts and ways around the system, resulting in an increasing number of people getting degrees without earning them but rather, by any means possible.

Learning isn’t our main objective anymore, we don’t head to school excited about what we are going to do or listen to, but thinking instead about how best to get that 1.1 or 2.1 we need in the end. The paper degree being the ultimate objective, it has become an obsession that has replaced the natural thirst for knowledge students should be experiencing during this time, to the point where the role of the teacher is undergoing some change.

Teachers are increasingly seen by students and parents alike as score-givers, plagiarism detectors, phone confiscators, as obstacles to the future rather than facilitators of knowledge, and the consequence is that the space for a true exchange of knowledge, experience and understanding is slowly being squeezed out of the classroom.

Far from expecting or seeking inspiration, we spend our time devising how best to insure our future, by any means. Blame it on the rise of competitiveness, and the increasing pressure to achieve better scores and better degrees and get into better schools, but we see a fiercer academic corruption taking place. Schools are charging more and more money to fake belief that spending more will get you further by making bigger and bigger promises, and teachers and students are the ultimate victims of this system.

A weird situation is arising out of all of this where the DEGREE has become a commodity that hides behind the notion of achievement and education. Teachers now find themselves in that awkward position where they owe it to themselves to reward intellect and stimulate thought yet at the same time have to dish out undeserved high test-scores in return for high performance reviews and speak to degree-gazers whose minds have sometimes even stopped receiving new information.

The real problem is not that our teachers do not inspire us anymore, but that from having to deal with so many more whines and complaints than pertinent questions, they have evolved to a point of near-indifference, forgotten what once inspired them, because that’s what happens when we try to commercialize exchange and experience, when we forget the true point of our endeavours and their meaningfulness.

But the fact is we are being raised into competitiveness, individuality and selfishness. Edmundson explains how “inspiration is in short supply these days on campus” and how there has been a “growth since the mid-1990s of a more commercial, profit-oriented university culture. Like many other contemporary commentators, he sees a confluence of forces in higher education leading to greater conformity and consumerism at the expense of inquiry, inspiration and challenge.”

And I have to say that, having come all the way to China to open doors to new thinking, ambition, ways of seeing and inspiration, I agree. Education somewhat convinced me my options were limited by my degree actually, I was what I was on paper, whereas over here I find I am who I sell myself to be.

To say that there was no point in my education would be a lie, but we must rethink how best to flesh out people’s true interests and help them span out, because the best teachers are those who help you find your own strengths and right direction. If we could find a way to get teachers and students close enough for this kind of bond and guidance to exist, we would I believe, see more people working jobs where they could in turn inspire others.

If you haven’t watched this TED Talk by Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity, you should.

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Summer terrace

More photos from 太阳都市花园 terrace!

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What makes us “tick”

An article appeared yesterday in the New York Times entitled ‘The Ticktock of the Death Clock”. The title might insinuate a glaucous, pessimistic subject but it is actually that of an awakening and search for a sense of meaningfulness in life. Steven Petrow, its author, writes how,

With every new silver hair sprouting from my scalp, I can’t help but think of the shortening arc ahead of me. Now in my mid-50s, for the first time I’m no longer looking up, over and beyond. Rather, my trajectory points downward at the approaching horizon. 

Now though this is a dull prospect and one that has transformed into many proverbs over the years contrasting the age of hope and the age of regret/memory, many writings show how for many, it is a wake-up call and shakes people into reconsidering the meaning of their lives. Petrow further writes how this realization pushes him to wonder:

…how to live a truly meaningful life. I knew it wasn’t sleeping my way through the workdays to get to the weekend.

It is like the French saying ‘metro, boulot, dodo’.

Life does seem to be somewhat shaped like an imbalanced pyramid. People spend the first part finding their way up, working on their careers and building families, their minds so focused on the future they tend to overlook the present so that by the time the future knocks and settles itself into the now in the form of financial security, family and home-owning, the dawning question poses itself: what is there left? What have I achieved? What does my life mean?

I am only 26 years old and I ask myself these questions every day. I think back to when I was a child and remember adults telling me how wonderful being a child was, and in my youthful ignorance I would look back at them thinking “geeze get over it, I can’t wait to be independent and live my own life!” Of course now I see the bigger picture, at the same time knowing there was no way, when I was ten, that I could grasp the significance of that nostalgic comment.

I can now though, and, very aware that the time will come where I will look back on my twenties the same way I now look back on my teens and childhood, it is a kick for me simply to think of my present youthfulness, covet it and enjoy it. It is sometimes worth slowing down and considering the now, and how wonderful every moment of it is.

The time I’ve been going through, soul-searching and job-hunting, although strenuous, are not only rewarding in their achievement, but also because of the youthful experience they represent. After all, the doubt, uncertainty, unlocking of answers and discoveries, those are all parts of life that make it so exciting.

Wherever I am along the pyramidal metaphor I know I will be there only once. The moment I move forward, nostalgia will take its place. Therefore the now, the butterflies in my stomach, the flurry of encounters, the highs and the lows of my present life are all worth embracing, for they are what make me alive, and there is nothing more beautiful than, as Thoreau puts it, to “suck the marrow out of life”, although in my book one needn’t take refuge in a forest to do so. Living is one physical thing, but being aware of feeling alive is an out-of-body experience not to be forsaken.

I feel like being able to step out of our bodies and become aware of the emotions we are experiencing, whether it be fear, love, hurt or excitement, is an immensely conscious act: not to consider the feeling itself, but how it is making us vibrate, how our senses are ignited and pump blood through our veins. We strive on emotions, and when they overwhelm us, we forget to stop and think that at this moment, we have never felt so alive. These are what make us move forward, and it is only when they disappear that we stop to wonder why we feel so void and unconsciously begin to seek them anew. If truth be told, I would rather feel sad than naught.

I have recently met someone, and chills run through me every time I set out to meet him. I am excited at my growing infatuation and worried at the same time. I project myself into the future and withhold at the same time. But regardless of the outcome of this encounter and the validity of these intertwining emotions, amidst them I stop to think “wow”, it is amazing to simply feel.

Underlining all our experiences is the beauty of feeling. Those who are able to realize this are those who “enjoy the little things in life”. Finding meaningfulness in life is also understanding, recognizing and appreciating what makes us tick.

Again, paraphrasing Thoreau, I for one most definitely do not want, when I come to die, to discover that I have not lived, and I believe that if we force ourselves into a deeper consciousness of being, “the Ticktock of the Death Clock” will feel less threatening.

For reference, Steven Petrow’s article: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/the-tick-tock-of-the-death-clock/?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=HL_TTO_20130802&_r=0

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The high-life, literally

Just thought I’d share some pictures from a fantastic terrace wet party a friend organized last Tuesday; look at that view over YuYuan gardens and the Bund! Amazing times.

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Peaceful view, tumultuous life

I woke up in the middle of the night three days ago. I couldn’t sleep though I was terribly tired.

These past weeks have really been a test for me. I have learnt a little more about myself, realised how anxious I let myself become (and how to control it), but also how much determination and optimism have guided me.

It is curious how we let positivity and negativity play out and actively impact our mindset and actions and how in parallel, confidence either spreads through our bodies like wildfire or suddenly retracts like air sucked from a pouch. The oscillation between the one and the other is triggered by multiple events that either build or diminish your confidence and belief in yourself. It is a true learning process to take failures in your stride and push that oscillation back to the positive as fast as possible.

To recap the situation, I was desperate to guide my career towards something not only more enjoyable but that would allow me to flourish and where I could set my own ambitions along a path which would develop me more as a person and build skills I wanted to acquire and excel in, namely writing. I wanted an environment where I could develop interests, learn and feed off the surroundings. But without knowing exactly what it is you are good at and still in the process of discovery, it is difficult to sell yourself as a box of tools when the tools are still being built. You have to take guesses and work in a process of elimination.

Working at the Chinese school made me realise two important things. The first is that I wasn’t full-blown marketing material, I didn’t enjoy prospecting other companies and I didn’t enjoy spending all my time on social media. I knew it was a job I could do, but one that I would not enjoy in the long term and I had no interest in evolving to the next rank along the hierarchical ladder: the idea of becoming a Marketing Manager was simply unappealing. It took me exactly 6 weeks for this thought to arise: “Do I want my boss’s job?” and when the answer came like a lightning of revolt “NO!”, a cloud cleared in my mind. It came to me as a nice yet depressing feeling, as I understood this was not for me. Although this brought me back to square one, certitude is still a blessing.

My second important realisation is that the only part I enjoyed about the job was writing the blog and editing content for the rest of the team (who were mainly Chinese). So this opened up editing as an option, but having no experience, it was a case of jumping around shaking my arms in the air on square one hoping someone on square two would give me a hand up.

Well I jumped around with that lingering thought, “How long am I going to have to jump for?” while square two kindly had its back to me. All the while there was constant hummer of anxiety, waiting to blow up in the face of failure.

From there I have had the best of luck as everything started falling into place. If you read what I wrote in “The elation of the ‘click'” in the Anecdotes and Writing part of the blog, you will know that I received the most welcome email by an editor at Ctrip. They offered me to intern with them, and although it was without compensation, I thought it was a great training opportunity. Still I was desperate to find something more permanent as I couldn’t afford to continue on this internship-hopping spree I had begun.

The best of luck befell me when I scraped through two interviews with a high-end magazine and was offered a position as a Junior Editor, which I would have immediately snatched up if the Senior Editor at Ctrip didn’t stop me by informing me that she was leaving soon and had put forward my resume to HR who would be offering me a position with Ctrip I might want to consider before signing with Vantage Magazine.

The relief I felt was indescribable.

I went home that evening so relieved, yet my mind was still buzzing, half relaxing and coveting the good news, half in stupor. Like a string being plucked into life, taking a little moment to recover its initial stability, my mind has been triggered into oscillating madness these past weeks and is only starting to recover. I couldn’t sleep that night after getting the second offer from Ctrip. At 4am I walked out onto my balcony and a peaceful view met my eye and for a second my mind calmed and paced itself, taking it in.

It was a perfect moment, standing there looking at this view, and a rush of pleasure seized me tingling through my shoulders and up to the corner of my eyes. I thought of how proud I was that I had managed to do all this by myself. I really didn’t think I had it in me to cope with the stress I had or make the decisions I made. There was a drive that I fed how I could; when I was put down by one person I called four others to get something positive to feed upon, and it has made all the difference.

A rush of delight and ecstasy went through me as I looked at this view of Shanghai and realised how happy I am to be here.

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La playa in China

Two weeks ago my friend Cecile asked me whether I wanted to go to the beach the following day.

In my mind I thought yes! Great! Are we renting a car, taking a bus or what?

I was also a little dubious because I have been to Chinese beaches before, and they are my idea of typical beach nightmare: being locked in a square foot of sand with jabbering tickling the ears right left and center…

Well dear friends, it turns out there is an amazing pool/beach right along the Pudong river, a 30rmb taxi ride from my apartment, inside a residential complex called Shimao riviera gardens. 120rmb gets you in which is a hefty price to pay, but in this heat and far away from any decent beaches, this makes for a great Sunday chill out hub.

Another Chinese perk is that whereas in Europe, we prefer a ‘don’t litter’ policy, in China, it is the opposite with a ‘clear up after’ mindset. You can drinks beers in the pool, play ball, smoke cigarettes, whatever takes your fancy. Of course this transforms us slightly into littering monsters but unfortunately as an expat in China, you kinda get used to the idea that there will always be someone cleaning up after you…

We are now over 173,000 expats living in Shanghai (out of a population of 23 million!). This is a number sufficiently big and on the constant rise for there to be many businesses sprouting solely targeting expats. With a defining expat trait being chilling, having fun and enjoying life, they will probably aim to quench these lusts, creating more and more “expat-destined” hubs and services that don’t really exist back home.

We already have Mealbay and Sherpa’s, the food delivery services which pick up food from any restaurant of your choice and deliver it straight to your door (you can order anything from Ice and liquor to a full roasted chicken). Shanghai has fantastic pools, brunches and foreign restaurants and I’ve been the the cool docks beach which is basically the same thing as Paris Plage. Now this discovery of the playa and wave pool at Shimao is the new highlight of my stay here!

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Baby bottoms and… Piss

It’s summer, and baby bottoms are sprouting everywhere! On top of that many parents are letting their offspring urinate wherever they see fit. With this heat and humidity, the smell of piss is pretty nauseating, but nobody else bats an eyelid! Perhaps in a couple of years I will find it commonplace too, but for now it is just downright gross!

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