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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:

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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.

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