Thursday, May 28, 2009

Appreciating 4:30 a.m.

I have a better appreciation for daylights savings time now. The sun rises at about 4:30 a.m. here and we still have three weeks until the longest day of the year so it’s rising earlier everyday.

I think about this sometimes and the energy that’s wasted by having people use an extra hour of electricity at night while they’re sleeping through daylight in the morning. I am not real sure why China hasn’t adopted time zones yet. The country is roughly the size of America, yet Tibet and Beijing are on the same time. That’s like having the same time in Arizona and New York – pretty wild. I’ve heard that the government doesn’t want to adopt time zones because Beijing time is Beijing time and that is final. If that's true, it seems stubborn. I like to think that it’s on the government's list of things to do, but we’re in a developing country and there are more pressing matters at hand. Between the two, the latter thought is far more comforting and allows me to fall back to sleep as I pull the covers back over my eyes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

1,200 Words

That was the length of my University of Penn application. I will study Chinese part-time there in the Fall.

Describe your educational history and background, making sure to address whether your records and transcripts accurately reflect your academic ability. Explain fully if you have ever withdrawn, taken a leave of absence, or been dropped by any school, college, or university.

I attended St. John Neumann High School in South Philadelphia from 1992 to 1996. At the time, I did not take my studies very seriously. My average throughout high school consistently stayed around 3.0 and I scored a 1090 on the SAT. As a result, finding college grants and scholarships proved difficult, as did getting accepted to some universities. I applied to several colleges and chose Temple University, mainly for the value and convenience it offered. In other words, my family couldn’t afford much more and I lived several blocks from the subway so getting to North Philly would be easy.

My first two years at Temple saw a continuation of my lackadaisical attitude from high school. Mediocre grades were quite normal for me as I pursued a degree in Accounting and spent a lot of time hanging out with friends. In the first semester of my junior year, however, I began to come to the realization that graduation would soon be upon me and I only had two years left to prove myself. For this reason, I began taking my courses more seriously.

This realization and attitude shift coincided with my interest in another business subject, Risk Management & Insurance (RMI). After taking a requisite course in RMI, I found myself interested in the field and the way insurance impacted the economy. In addition, I noticed that Temple boasted (and still does) one of the finest collegiate risk management programs in the country through the Sigma Chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma (GIS). For these reasons, I decided to add RMI as a major while continuing my pursuit of an Accounting degree, despite the fact that it would add a fifth year to my college studies.

Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “despite” here. The latter part didn’t really bother me. In fact, I saw another year in school as a good thing. It was like Max Fischer said in the movie Rushmore, “If I have to stay on for a post-graduate year then so be it.”

Over the next two and a half years, I became heavily involved with GIS, becoming an officer in the program after one semester. My involvement exposed me to responsibilities and opportunities I otherwise would not have had, including organizing a career fair, obtaining an internship at a well-regarded consulting firm (Mercer) and being elected National Student Representative at the GIS National Conference in April 2000. The faculty leader for GIS had more influence on me than any teacher I knew. As a result of his influence, I found myself dedicated to my studies in a way I had never been before. In addition to the experiences and hard work that came with GIS, I maintained a 4.0 grade point average in my RMI major. I look back on those last two years fondly now, as they taught me the importance of having an excellent work ethic.

Write a brief essay describing your academic and personal goals and explain how these will be furthered by study at Penn in general and at LPS in particular. Feel free to discuss a specific academic topic you have enjoyed studying and explain why it is of interest to you.

One of my life goals has always been to speak another language fluently. When I was a child, I was always jealous of people who could speak another language, regardless of what it was. I studied Spanish for a total of five and a half years - four in high school, followed by three semesters in college. Throughout this time, I struggled mightily with all phases of the language. In fact, Spanish was always one of my weakest classes. I was interested, but had little to show in terms of results.

Year after year I continued studying Spanish - not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I didn’t understand language acquisition. I thought that eventually my brain would catch on and I’d wake up speaking Spanish one day. People mentioned that it is difficult to pick up another language unless you live in the country where it is spoken. Looking back on it now, this is correct. Immersing yourself in the language and its culture is critical, but I did not have the emotional means for it at the time. Like a lot of people, I feared leaving the familiarity of my country to explore the unknown.

I moved to Chicago after graduating college and during my time there, I began to open up to the idea of visiting foreign countries. I obtained my first passport in 2004 and made three trips to Europe over the next three years. I visited Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic and each time I found myself obsessed with picking up whatever small pieces of the language I could. I would peruse language dictionaries leading up to the trip and ask locals for tips on pronunciation. It was during these trips that I realized I still had a potent interest in foreign languages. As a result, I began researching what it took to successfully move overseas and learn a language. I moved to China in November 2007 and have spent the better part of the last 16 months here, studying or practicing Mandarin Chinese everyday.

Had it not been for a family issue last year, I would probably stay here for another year. But, I miss Philadelphia and want to return home. At the same time, I have no desire to regress in Chinese. My English language students here have inspired me to believe that it is possible to progress in a language even when it is not the native tongue. You must work hard, but it can be done. And, so, that is my plan for later this year. To that end, I can’t imagine a better way to sustain and improve my Chinese language capabilities than at the University of Pennsylvania’s LPS Language Center.

Describe any non-academic experiences that you feel strengthen your application such as employment, travel, community affairs, volunteer work, publications, etc.

Upon graduating from Temple University, I left Philadelphia for Chicago where I worked in the health insurance industry for six years. Professionally speaking, this time was divided into three two-year segments. I worked for two years at Mercer Consulting, a health insurance advisory firm, before leaving for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. While there, I worked two years in the underwriting department before transferring to the marketing department. During my two years in the marketing department, I was promoted from a senior account executive to a principal account executive. My responsibilities included maintaining a book of business in the municipal accounts department while expanding our clients’ product offerings. Chicago was a good challenge for me. I moved there by myself and it proved to be one of the most difficult and rewarding things I have done. I learned how to be at peace and comfortable with myself. In fact, my life was so comfortable; I became a bit bored with it. After several months of careful thought and research, I moved to China and have been studying Chinese here since then.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Until we encounter aliens...

...we won't have world peace.

Let me explain.

Growing up in South Philly, it was common to hear about different neighborhoods not liking each other – 30th and Tasker didn’t get along with the Two Streeters, 9th and Wharton wanted to fight 13th and Porter. There was always some sort of fierce drama being played out between these places. During my junior year at Neumann, I went on a school trip to Archbishop Carroll to watch the Pirates play basketball. I remember two things about the game: 1- we got whipped, and 2- all the kids from all the different corners united to taunt the Carroll kids. I was reminded of this as I was walking around Seoul…..

In Seoul, one of the adjustments I had to make was communicating with an Asian population that knows no Chinese. This was a challenge because I can’t tell the difference between Korean and Chinese people until they speak. In communicating with the Seoul locals, first I would try Chinese, then English. Neither worked well, but I definitely had more success with English.

Trying to bridge language gaps is what lead me to notice that the Koreans attitude towards westerners is different than that of the Chinese. I'm not an expert. I was only in Seoul for four days, but this is my gut feeling.

I was at a western restaurant and the waitress continually tried to help us lower the price of our meal by pointing out the specials. She was kind and didn’t get flustered with the communication barrier. She simply smiled and persisted until we understood each other. Generally speaking, I've had different experiences in China. If you can't speak Chinese, the waitress might give up or run off to find a co-worker. It was their unlucky day that they had to wait on a foreigner. But in Seoul, it was almost as though they felt apologetic that their English wasn’t better.

My guess is that the attitude stems from the culture and the culture was partially influenced by the Korean War. The Allied Forces defeated the Japanese in World War II and the Japanese were the enemy of China at the time. But as soon as that war was over, China and the U.S. were oppposing forces. During the war, the North Koreans pushed the South Koreans south, well past Seoul and almost into the Pacific Ocean, before U.N. forces arrived. Then, it seems like our side went too far and pushed the North Koreans all the way north, practically into China. It was around this time that the Chinese aided the North Korean Army and restored balance to the War, balance which resulted in the 38th Parallel Armistice which is still in effect today.

Many years later, China opened its doors to an open market but cultures don't change overnight. Every now and again you can feel some skepticism hanging in the air here. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s there sometimes. And my guess is it comes from the war and the government policies that followed. Obviously, anytime you’re immersed in a completely foreign culture, the locals are going to wonder what you’re doing there. I accept that just as I accepted the street corner rivalries in high school. Neighborhoods don't get along and states resent each other. It's human nature. In Asia, the Chinese don’t like the Koreans. The Koreans dislike the Chinese, but both are united in their distaste for the Japanese.

Before I came here, I thought all the Asian countries were friends. After all, everyone gets along with their next door neighbor, right? I'm sure if these ethnicities meet abroad, they shake hands and trade stories. And it's this last thought that leads me back to where I started. Until an outside force reaches us, we won't have a common need for world peace.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ann & The Guesthouse

From the Seoul Trip...

Before arriving, I didn't know where I would stay in Seoul. I mean, I didn’t book anything in advance. I figured it would be easy to find a place and it was. It seems that one of the main attractions in Seoul is to tour the street markets. There are plenty of them and they each carry their own personality. After checking out the Hyeoung-Dae Moom market, which is more upscale than the others, my friends and I went on a short hostel hunt.

Someone recommended to our translator that I stay at a place called Ann’s Guesthouse. We made our way into a high-rise with a Dunkin' Donuts on the first floor and found Ann and her husband, up on the fifth floor. She looked a bit startled when she answered the door and I could see why. There found five different faces, all of different colors, shapes and sizes staring back at her. Once she found out it wasn't all of us seeking shelter - just the balding, innocent looking American who needed a bed - she chilled out, and said she thought she could make room for me.

I enter and find a small, but well-kept apartment. There isn’t a lot of space, maybe 25 square meters, but it’s used well and smells cozy. There are two sets of bunk beds along the white-wallpapered walls and I crash on the bottom of one.

When I went to sleep, one of my other “roommates” was still awake with the light on. I asked her when she’d be going to sleep. “Sorry, I no English,” she replied. “Well, how about Chinese?” As it turns out, she was from China, living in Shanghai at the moment. Her grandfather was from North Korea so she also spoke fluent Korean. We toured the Han Jiang that night and took the subway around town.

Overall, it was a steal for 20,000 won ($15) a night, especially when you consider that breakfast was included. Another thing that was included and unbargained for was unlimited snoring throughout the night. I think the first person to wake me up was her husband, but the Taiwanese woman across from me soon chimed in, completing the chorus. I tried a few things to break up the cacophony, including sneezing and going to the bathroom, but coughing seemed to work best. Somehow I got them to stop long enough to slip back into a cradle of slumber.

Saturday, May 09, 2009