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I snapped this photo from Books Actually, a lovely independent bookstore in Singapore.

2013 was the year I turned 30. I feel wise, or perhaps to be more specific, wizened, and thus a recap of “lessons learned.” Ha. Working in the intersection of art, science, and design, I have learned many things both enriching and hilarious from the three primary groups of people I work with. And thus a blogpost to remember. (I identify with all of these groups, so this isn’t a judgy list; I am part of this, too).

1.Everyone desires meaningful work.

2. Everyone desires to be with family and loved ones and to do what really matters to them.

3. Things would work so much better if one person can speak the “language” of at least two disciplines.

4. Artists in black (or clothes stained in their chosen media) and scientists in lab coats (the cool ones would have interesting hair) and designers in plaid shirts and special mention of architects in crisp white shirts. Because fashion.

5. At the end of the day, people are just afraid of messing up and looking like a fool. (Hello, Impostor Syndrome.)

6. Vanity. #Facebook #TrueStory

7. People ranked in increasing order of empathy: scientists<artists<designers

8. People ranked in increasing order of engaging Powerpoint presentations: scientists<<artists <<<<designers. Also: favorite fonts. Scientists: Verdana. (Oh dear.) Artists: Arial. Designers: Gotham, Helvetica, Proxima.

9. People ranked in increasing order of prompt and well-thought-of email I receive: artists<scientists<designers.

10. Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.

(Note that I only use scientists, artists, and designers to define what people project on the outside. I think many of the scientists I’ve met are also artists—they just don’t have a chance to show that side very much—and many artists are designers, and designers are artists and scientists, and so on. And yes, I suppose this only applies to the artists, scientists, and designers I have met.)

My graduate school alma mater, the MFA Interaction Design program of the School of Visual Arts, recently published 20 Lessons in Interaction Design, inviting alumni to share insights about design and their careers, with some lovely quotes from the faculty. I was Lesson #19. Here is what I wrote, which I will be the first to admit was an episode of me talking to myself:

When I was a student, my self-doubt came from not wanting the same things as my peers. I wanted a life primarily of adventure, of immersing myself in the unknown, and getting through it a stronger person.

You are the architect of your dreams—do not waste any time focusing on what other people want. Make sure that your accomplishments as a student pale in comparison to your accomplishments as an independent adult. I still learn this every day, a year out of school. I experienced a lot of growth in SVA IxD, which prepared me for my present challenges that are making me break even more personal barriers. Two years of graduate school were a valuable stepping-stone; they were a way of filling up my creative arsenal as I venture even further into the unknown.

As I write this, I am on my fourth passport, learning my sixth language, and will soon be living and working in my fifth country. As you enter the real world, if you feel that you are not growing any further—and if this makes you unhappy—it probably means you need to dream bigger.

Visit the IxD blog for more.

Since coming back home a few days ago, I’ve had a good number of what I now realize are anxiety attacks. I haven’t had these, well, ever. You know when you can’t breathe and you feel your chest caving in and you burst out in tears every few minutes? That’s the one.

Just what is it with a homecoming, which is supposed to be a celebratory affair, something that has become a time fraught with worry and trepidation? I have hiked dozens of mountains, have had several near-death experiences, and had to pull through on so many near-impossible projects, but I’ve noticed that I have difficulty walking through my own neighborhood. Familiarity was far from comforting—I wanted to take the next plane out.

I suppose that growing up, I’ve always been made to feel—perhaps involuntarily (or at least I would hope so)—that I didn’t belong. Never a day went by when I wasn’t called out for my skin color, my weight, my accent, my height, my choices. Being at home, it was always a time for either endless interrogation or mournful indifference. The questions of why I travel a lot and why I do what I do and why I don’t conform to a specific type, as well as the blank stares of incomprehension are depressing. You are expected to revert back to your original state. People don’t wish you well anymore; they just wish you were gone. The accomplishments and growth when I was away make me feel guilty. I always come back with a lot of sadness and even more terror.

I’ve realized that the city that raised me is the only one that hasn’t claimed me as one of them. New York gobbled me up and spat me out a New Yorker who had to earn her stripes the hard way. I would claim a lot of roots in Barcelona, which taught me how to live well. And Seoul has pretty much adopted me as her own—though perhaps it was because of my quick assimilation to their culture and the bizarre (and by now, admissible) fact that I do look a lot like her people. Even Singapore, with whom I didn’t expect to belong, has given me people with whom I have genuine connections with and I actually miss. These cities have all marked me in their own ways, so much so that after ten years of travel, people can’t really guess where I am from anymore.

To be fair, all the times I’ve traveled for long periods of time were for programs by perfectly legit institutions. Each leaving was a gamble and I always flew out with so much uncertainty, but I always ended up with a plan, a routine, a welcoming and goodbye committee, and most importantly, solid work that shaped my views as an adult. I can tell you exactly what I did there, each with a website, spreadsheets, slideshows, and a hard drive full of data.  People from other places were always open and eager to hear what I had to say. Just what is it with their easy acceptance of foreigners like me? Why is it that I feel much more at home in unfamiliar places and am always on guard and frightened where I am from?

I suppose that travel-based growth has expiated me of a lot. Excessive social media use, concern for material things, and worrying about one’s place in society are habits that are left, I think, to people who have never had to survive in far from home. And inasmuch as I love the internet for being able to stay connected with people, I also feel that many have substituted it for real relationships.

I noticed that over the years, my sense of time has been recalibrated. The minute things are suddenly shining with importance. Each meeting became more valuable, because it might be the last. I never wore jewelry or kept anything that didn’t have a specific practical use, except when it was given by a friend. I learned the importance of showing up in spite of being “crazy busy.” Many times, goodbye really did mean goodbye, because one is never the same in the next step of his life.

I tell myself that I was perfectly happy a few days ago, and that the past year was the best I’ve had.

I need to fix this. Because designers, while fixing other people’s problems, should in fact, fix themselves first.

The Holiday Hackathon is an excellent excuse to do all the touristy things in Singapore I’ve always wanted to do but never had the time. Today was a trip to Jurong Bird Park, Asia’s largest aviary.

I had a great afternoon surrounded by beautiful birds and three iguanas sunning themselves. I learned new things—a group of pelicans is a squadron, ostrich only have two toes, scarlet ibises get their color from the carotene in their diet, etc.

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I love penguins, but I do wonder about animals kept in climates obviously not meant for them. This isn’t the first time; in Seoul’s Children’s Zoo, I saw a polar bear and a camel. But if their original habitats are disappearing, is it justifiable that they’re here, fed and watered at least? People who may never get a chance to go to polar regions only have places like these to go to. And maybe it would inspire some kids to be conservationists. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I just hope these animals are happy.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

Penguins. In the tropics. Hmm.

I loved seeing birds I didn’t know existed, such as a cassowary, which is a descendant from the dinosaurs. (Or as I like to call it, a rainbow turkey.) This one was a bit shy. Or perhaps because it was a really hot afternoon and needed the shade.

My first cassowary!

My first cassowary!

Another bird I had no idea existed. Here is a rare shoebill from Sudan. There was only a fence between it and me. It did not look happy to see me. Or did it?

A rare shoebill.

A rare shoebill.

And for the heck of it, I tracked my trail around the park when I was: A. In the tram, and B. Walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Happy Trails. (L) Track made by riding the tram. (R) Track made by walking.

Obviously, the latter made me look at more things, but by how much? The tram ride was about 15 minutes and walking and mindful looking took me about two hours, walking more than twice the distance the tram covered. The experience designer in me is taking notes.

The Holiday Hackathon is an exploration/discovery project of me spending my last couple of weeks in Singapore. I just finished an art/science residency, and I’m hoping that asking questions and going to new places will help me figure out that next step/project. 

 

Today, I headed out to Bukit Brown, a Chinese cemetery here in Singapore that is going to be torn down to make way for a road. It is the first Chinese cemetery in colonial Singapore—lots of pioneers are buried here. It has been listed as at risk site on the 2014 World Monuments Watch.

I really hope I never have to do this to any of my dead relatives.

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It is such a lovely cemetery. I like coming across the ones under huge trees. It was a very peaceful oasis, surrounded by a country club and homes for rich people.

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There were many graves where I saw recent offerings of food, as though an apology to those who were to be exhumed. The unclaimed ones, I read on the signs, were to be cremated and the ashes cast into the sea.

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I loved these pinwheels in this graveyard.

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There is something about walking that untangles my thoughts and gives me clarity. Such a beautiful place! Go see it before it’s gone.

Due to strange circumstances in the past 24 hours, my flight tonight from Singapore has been moved to December 31. After the last few weeks of being on full throttle—giving talks, doing photo and video shoots, running around Singapore getting materials, storyboarding, prototyping, packing, and vainly figuring out what my next step is—I just hit the brakes.

I am quite relieved. No, excited! My exhaustion from this residency was from a managerial standpoint, as this was project where I had a lot of collaborators. This was unlike the last one, where the stress was more from physical sources: I still can’t believe I hiked more than 43 mountains in less than 2 months. Still, in both cases, exhaustion bordered on nausea. But hey, I regret nothing.

I can’t believe it—two weeks of hermetic silence, completing The Apocalypse Project and prototyping new ones while avoiding the holiday rush. Now this is my version of a holiday miracle. To make this retreat a bit more fun, I will try to see this as the Great Holiday Hackathon. Unlike most hackathons, I’m still not sure what I’ll have in the end. My goal is to do certain tasks all over Singapore, asking specific questions or turning some urban expeditions into a photographic data gathering session of a sort. I want to know some things I’ve been mildly curious about in the past months I’ve lived here. Perhaps in this short time of experimentation, I will be able to see what I’m supposed to do afterwards.

So for Holiday Hackathon Day One, I wanted to ask the question, What happens when you go through all of the subway stops in Singapore’s Circle Line?

The Circle Line of Singapore MRT comprises 28 stations. I started at Harbourfront (on the lower left) and went clockwise. Sadly, GPS doesn’t work at this underground level, so the only data I have is the time of the journey. It’s not a complete circle, so to get back to Harbourfront, I got off (well, “alighted” as they say here) at Dhoby Ghaut station and transferred to the North East line (the purple line), riding 4 stations to go back to my original point. I killed time by reading a book. You can see my route via the black dots:

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So, 32 stations, 0 displacement, and a few dozen pages later,  I learned that this journey takes 1 hour and 22 minutes, and that it costs 0.78 cents. I’m sure my transit card doesn’t know I rode all those—I imagine I’d be charged the same if I accidentally entered the station and left it again, thinking it was a mistake.

I have no clue when this information will be useful, but I was just itching to know.

This art/science residency is winding down, and my penchant for sentimentality is going up. At the risk of sounding like a Buzzfeed listicle, here are some of the smaller, yet unforgettable moments. Most of these images were taken using a crappy smartphone, but hey, I’ll take it. I’d like to remember Singapore, the fifth country I’ve lived in, with this hodgepodge of memories:

1. The constant mixture of cultures as well as the combination of the traditional and modern.

This guy in Balinese dress was on his smartphone during an intermission. This was a student performance at NUS.

20131120_203343This cosplayer on a photo shoot and the class happening a few feet away. (I’m unsure what the latter is, and I didn’t want to interrupt them. If you think you know what this is, let me know in the comments. I’d like to be enlightened.) This was at Singapore’s Japanese Garden.

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One of my favorite works in the Asian Civilisations Museum: “Mustafa” is written in sini script using a Chinese brush, by a Muslim Chinese calligrapher.

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2. Random people working out.

This guy doing a handstand near the Singapore Art Museum. 

20130925_143032Or these skateboarders at Esplanade Station. They remind me of those outside the MACBA in Barcelona.

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3. Seeing Venus.

Ok, I’ve definitely seen this before. Let me clarify: seeing Venus and knowing it’s Venus. Thanks to the Meetup group that organized this at the Singapore Science Centre.

20131025_2002574. Random things that grew in my apartment.

This seedling peeked out of my kitchen sink.

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A second mushroom  sprouted in my shower.

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5. Professor Greg Clancey’s cat, Misty, who lives next door to me at Tembusu College.

She went from being scared of me to not caring when I walked past.

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6. Being at my desk at the Future Cities Lab and seeing the people walking up and down the stairs.

The lab occupies the sixth and seventh floors. I think that how they use the stairs reflects their personalities.

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(On that note, seeing this guy repeatedly use the hand rail as a ballet bar is the reason why I stopped touching it.)

7. Attending lectures for the sheer enjoyment of them. 

Such as this one by Pico Iyer sponsored by Yale-NUS at UTown.

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Or this one by Jonathan Ledgard at the Future Cities Laboratory, whose book, Giraffe, I read and loved last year.

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8. Working with scientists. 

I loved seeing their less academic side. Like so:

The Apocalypse Project smell mask

9. Getting into emoji chats with my taekwondo master in Korea (since we still can’t understand each other). 

I love my current project the most, but I definitely adjusted faster in Seoul.

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Hurray for Kakao Story! Thanks to interaction design, communication between two people who do not speak the other’s language is completely possible. Guess who did pass her second degree black belt test after all. Now to figure out how to ship it to me. Hmm.

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10. Holding Apocalypse Workshops and getting into uncontrollable fits of laughter.

Because, well…

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This gig went by too fast, too soon. I’m in the goodbye-presents-and-thank-you-notes stage. Wasn’t I just doing this a few months ago? Vagabond problems, oh dear.

Perhaps as a welcome to living this near to the equator, I contracted a tropical bacterial infection during my first month in Singapore. This resulted to three weeks of congestion and mucus. There were a lot of very embarrassing social situations and a consistent need for tissues. But the most awful thing about it was the fact that I lost my sense of smell. This is absolutely catastrophic for someone who studies perception. For one who once tested the link between smell and memories. For one who made an olfactory memoir. For one who can tell cities apart by smells.

The medical term for this is anosmia. (Check this video and article on NYTimes.com for people who permanently lost their sense of smell or were born without it.)

If anything, I am grateful it only lasted a few weeks. There is nothing like valuing something more when you’ve temporarily lost it. To make it a learning experience, I pretended my anosmia was an experiment.

So, how was life without my sense of smell?

The smallest activities were voided of their pleasures. I could not smell the mint on my toothpaste, the citrus crispness of a sliced lemon, the aroma of coffee, the freshness of new bedsheets. Perfume, which was a daily habit and a mood booster, became unnecessary. Each object blurred into the next, unclearly defined.

Without smell, I was unable to detect the orange juice spilling on the opaque countertop. I could not gauge the weather, because I could no longer the smell rain or heat through the window. My days lost a dimension—like the difference between experiencing a movie on a bad screen and in HD. Life became very dull; a mere shadow of its former self. It was then that I realized that in many ways, we can smell movement, and therefore stories. Smell made things more real.

Our senses of smell and taste are related. And so without smell, I couldn’t taste anything either, apart from being able to determine if a dish was sweet, sour, salty or bitter, more or less. This robbed me of the joys of eating. I ate a lot of spicy food, mainly to clear my congested sinuses and because most of the time, spiciness that was the only thing that registered.

On a less depressing note, I learned to better appreciate the texture of food. And because I could not taste anything, I stopped eating food that was unhealthy. I don’t recall a time in my life when I ate less chocolate. Or drank less coffee. Because really, what was the point? I may have lost a couple of pounds, but I was unhappy.

There were other minor benefits, I suppose. The delight and wonder of things faded, but so did their disagreeableness. I thought it was great not to be able to smell smoke or public toilets.  In the gym, in taekwondo class, in crowded subways, I could not be offended by body odor. Hurray!

However, not being able to smell noxious substances is dangerous. It is what tells us if there is a gas leak or if our food has spoiled. And another problem with not smelling is that while nothing and no one stinks,  you don’t know if you do.

Eventually, as my colleagues told me that my cold was probably an infection, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a dose of antibiotics. As the medicine kicked in and I became better, my sense of smell started to come in short spurts, probably analogous to a blind person seeing flashes of light. Whoa, that basket of fruit actually registered. Oh my, cornflakes tasted like cornflakes. I can smell my shampoo again.

Having my sense of smell come back to me was like getting out of a bubble. I realized that like smell made me a part of my environment because I could breathe it into myself and establish a continuity with the world. Slowly, I felt more alive. I had never been so overjoyed to smell garbage again.

 

P.S. Huge thanks to the awesome staff of the University Health Center of the National University of Singapore, who took me in past closing time last Friday when they realized I was close to passing out. Kudos!

Seoul43 has given me a lot of moments to reflect on the impact of humanity on nature. This, of course, was not my initial intention. I wanted to climb all these mountains as a personal challenge. A city with mountains—how wonderful! I still believe it is one of the reasons that I found Seoul to be a clean city, compared to the other capitals I have been to. Before Korea, I had hiked only one mountain in the Philippines. It was a disastrous and traumatic experience—I nearly fell off of the peak, slipped many times on our descent, and slowed everyone down. I was, in chemistry terms, our group’s limiting reagent.

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My second intention was to get people to share my experience. This is why I brought the soil from these mountains so that people can plant with them and then bring them back. “Borrowing” instead of “taking” the soil was an important part. It has always been my view that no one is exempt from environmental responsibility, artists/scientists/explorers/designers included. The tasks I asked people to do were also deliberately chosen. I wanted to ensure that this project had some positive environmental and cultural impact.

What I didn’t expect, aside from the extreme fatigue, were my unique experiences for each mountain. Many pushed me to my limits, some nearly killed me, others were places I found so fascinating that I want to revisit them. A number disappointed me for their smallness (This is it? Really?) while others made me ask a lot of questions.

As these are mountains in a bustling capital, one thing I found consistent about them was human activity. If Seoul’s mountains were a system that ensured the coexistence of nature and humanity, then it was determined by these parts:

First, there were the modern city officials, or whoever governing bodies that mandated which trails should be open to the public and what was allowed to be done. They were the ones who permitted the landscaping and gardening of these mountains, who added trails, tennis courts, exercise machines, trail signs, and other things that make them “usable” to the public.

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Second, there were the citizens and tourists, both young and old, who use these mountains everyday. Hiking is an everyday activity for many Seoulites. Although I always hiked alone (which was a stupid idea, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come with me), I was never really alone—there were always groups of ajusshi, ajumma, or young people who were also on the trails and giving me a hand. For the smaller mountains that served as neighborhood parks, it was the residents’ way of getting away from urban noise. Indeed, I could not help but think of these mountains as refuge in a city whose aging population is affected greatly by Korea’s rapid change.

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Finally, and no less importantly, are the people from Seoul’s past—the historical figures who added fortresses, cemeteries, and many a Buddhist temple to these mountains, turning them into rich canvasses that illustrate a city’s past and provide interesting questions as to how they fit into contemporary culture.

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The historical and cultural value that these manmade structures add undoubtedly “elevates” the status of a  mountain to something more than just a park. The exercise machines and other sports amenities added in recent years add utilitarian value for the citizens who make physical fitness a priority. These make me pause to think, because as a naturalist, one would balk at mankind altering nature, and yet, adding something of historical and utilitarian value perhaps encourages the city to preserve it better.

Because Korea is a very mountainous country and one that rapidly urbanized, I observed that: 1) Many mountains that used to be bigger have been “broken” into smaller ones because of apartment buildings, schools, etc. that found their homes in the lower areas, and 2) Some mountains seem to have all but disappeared because the buildings were right on top of them. Is it alright to do this to make room for city dwellers and businesses, as the country has so many? Indeed, as the official list I obtained from Korea’s Forest Service dates back to 2006-2007, I think that 43 will not be the number once they review the list once more. It will be interesting to see how the face of a city changes and how modernization affects these natural structures that are as old as time.

Originally posted on the Seoul43 site.

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