January 24 2017
For the next five years, I would make what had been my parent's university campus completely my own, graduating a literal poster-child: with top marks, horizon-expanding internships in Japan and America, and academic research that opened the door to graduate studies at MIT. Freshman After years of enjoying campus life with my parents, I would finally walk the malls of UBC as a fifteen year old university student. I was admitted on an academic scholarship that was automatically distributed to students with above average grades and joined another specialized program. Science One was a one-year interdisciplinary science camp for about seventy students. Unlike most first-years who faced large anonymous lecture halls of shifting classmates and professors, we had our own space, dedicated professors, and customized field trips. The group of future doctors and astrophysicists were eighteen-year-old valedictorians who accept me gracefully, but I was acutely aware of my age and did not make any lasting friends. I also found that my well-tested rote learning abilities could not help me keep up with difficult university-level English and real academic academic rigor. I barely managed an A- for the entire program, which handed out a single mixed assessment to encourage the development of curious scientific minds without the need for excessive worry about grades. My true ability was reflected in the Arts electives taken with the freshman populace at large, where I was punished with low Bs for first-year English and Philosophy. The summer after the end of Science One presented the first opportunity of my academic life to set my own schedule. I made two choices that would mould my experience for years to come. I enrolled in a Computer Science course and I joined a youth theater group outside of the university. I earned a perfect 100% in the introductory Computer Science course. The subject matter, computer programming, was decidedly deterministic, free of abstract theory, natural language, and nuance. It was a perfect fit for the undergraduate me. I quickly declared Computer Science as my major and plunged into its academic tree, going deep down the branches to collect the easy credits towards graduation. During the summer after first-year, I also joined the Vancouver Youth Theatre, where a caring artistic director guided a disparate collection of youths from different high-schools across the city to stage an uplifting musical about teenage life. We socialized, rehearsed, and ultimately performed the piece in high-schools around the city. Here, unlike at UBC, I was among the oldest kids and I was eager to fit in. I pretended that I was two-years younger than I actually was and that I still attended U-Hill Secondary. After a year, I stepped out of the shadow of my lie and found a place among the group of outgoing and supportive Drama kids, a social circle of "normal" teenagers who accepted me for who I was. My inaugural theater experience beefed up the teenage social life I had skimmed on during Transition and performing with these close friends in front of high-school crowds gave me an outlet for my dramatic streak as well as a strong footing for finding myself. I brought the burgeoning sense of self-assurance with me back to my university life as I pushed to round out my emerging academic success. In the Computer Science Department, I joined the Co-op program, which lengthened our undergraduate studies from four to five years by inserting three internships into our studies. This gave students a chance to experience working life and boosted our employment prospects after graduation. For me, it was an ideal way to grow up, fast. Applying for and finding the more prestigious internships was competitive, with real interviews by real companies. My first internship, at the end of second-year, was at a research lab in the Computer Science Department itself. For these four-months, I would earn a salary from the university, just like my parents. The E-GEMS Research lab, or Electronic Games for Education in Math and Sciences, developed educational games for children, and conducted research around these games. The lab was run by a fearsome Computer Science professor who also served as the powerful Dean of Science. Unbeknown to me at the time, she was the mother of a Transition classmate and she had chosen me for the position because she understood my background. So, for the entire working summer, life was not very different than it had been as a Computer Science student, I still rode my bike to the department everyday. But now I had a research lab to call home, where we would program during the day and listen to music and play computer games late into the night. We ended up programming parts of a suite of math games in the high-level computer language of Java, but we did not yet do much research. Over the next few years, E-GEMS would become my lair within the university as I would return during my studies to essentially run the lab with my undergraduate compatriots. Around the same time, my Transition Program friends had gathered around and taken over the Math Club, where they socialized and played games. I was the only one among us who was the proud owner of a real academic research lab itself, and my friends would often end up here for naps, video games, or just to hangout between classes. Family By this time, my parents had saved enough money for down-payment on a starter home and began looking around Vancouver. They recognized that I would be spending at least the next five years at UBC, and settled on a townhouse on campus itself. At the time, UBC was beginning to tap into its abundant land for commercial development. My parents purchased a unit in the first such development at Hampton Place, which was technically a 99-year leasehold since UBC could not outright sell its provincially-endowed land. Hampton Place was literally on edge of Acadia Park and was still a short bike ride or roller-blade trip to the Computer Science Department. Our immigrant family has never felt more at home in Canada among the now exceedingly familiar environs as first-time home-owners. Around the same time, my parents began assisting interested members of our extended family in China come to Canada. They found research positions in the university system for two of my older cousins who were students of medicine and housed them in our living room. It was clear our family was growing ever deeper roots in Vancouver, but for the most part, I was oblivious. I did not go to open houses with my parents, and did not even set eyes on the Hampton Place townhouse until my parents had bought the place and moved all the furniture, so all I had to do was to show up one day and sleep there. My father saw driving as an important life-skill, however, and, at his insistence, he taught me how to drive at the earliest legally-allowed age of sixteen. But we only had one car and he still needed to pick up my mother from her hospital shifts, so my father continued to chauffeur me to East Vancouver for theater rehearsals, a thankless job among many others he performed for his family without complaint. My days were packed with university, theater, and research at E-GEMS. Weekends melted into the week as I found myself in the Computer Science department everyday, heading home for food, showers, and sleep only late at night. It was a schedule I could pull off only with the sustained support of my parents, who chose to live on campus, washed my clothes, and bagged my lunches. Invariably my cold sandwiches would become soggy from the tomato slices and often remained uneaten as I joined friends for fast-food at the university village. My parents would not know whether I would be home for dinner on any given day and would leave my portion in the kitchen in case I showed up hungry after they had already gone to bed. At the beginning of every term, my father would help me find, photocopy, hole-punch, and bind the textbooks for each class so we could return the originals to the overpriced bookstore. Through the five years, I maintained the A average required to keep my academic scholarship, saving $12,000 in tuition every year. Living with my parents, eating their meals, and photocopying textbooks meant I did incur living expenses either. Additionally, I earned a salary from E-GEMS. I did not help my parents with their mortgage payments, but my undergraduate days were not a drain on family resources. We would live through these fruitful times heads-down and fulfilled with little time for contemplation, a blissful period built upon the solid foundation of our family ties. Japan When it was time to apply for my second internship during my third-year, I was bursting with confidence. I joined the Co-op Japan program, which matched companies in Japan with students seeking foreign work experience. I was accepted to the program and paired with a research job at Panasonic. I did not land the most prestigious positions with Sony in Tokyo which took a cohort of a dozen students each year. Instead, I was the only one to join Panasonic in Osaka, a traditional company in the secondary city. We were supposed to spend the month prior to departure living in a dorm with the fifty or so other Co-op Japan participants from all over Canada, learning Japanese and developing the social network we would rely on for the eight months of life overseas. But my theater group was performing at the time, so I ended up not spending a single night at the language camp. The organizers, in typical Japanese fashion, were too polite to reprimand me, and I was allowed to set sail with the rest of the group across the Pacific, to live on my own for the first time my life as an eighteen year-old with decidedly sub-par Japanese. My parents, eager for me to expand the life experience of a cloistered Transition graduate, gingerly let me go. Our entire cohort landed at Tokyo airport together, where the big-city students disembarked. A half dozen of us continued to Osaka by bullet train where we said our goodbyes. Alone, I headed for the Panasonic dormitories a few transfer stations away. Each room in the four-story building had space enough only for a bed and a desk, while each floor had a common bathroom, and the entire dormitory shared a communal bath and cafeteria-style kitchen on the main floor. Women were not allowed in the building under any circumstances, and friends were rarely allowed inside. I quickly discovered that my place of work was very, very far away. My daily commute of two-hours each way was an adventure in its own right, filled with excitement, loneliness, noise, and quiet. Because I made the trip alone and my command of the Japanese language was juvenile, there was no one I could talk to. My visual and aural senses were heightened as a result, and, in order to cope, I either took everything in or shut everything out. It was a draining journey and I would end each day famished and exhausted. But the sights, smells, sounds, and occasional points of social contact that highlighted these trips seared the impression of Japanese landscape and society forever into my memory. For this Chinese-Canadian foreigner, anime scenes of the dinging of urban train crossings and the buzzing of cicadas along country rice fields would invariably elicit fond nostalgia for Japan. I departed the dormitory in the urban city of Moriguchi each morning to embark on the twenty-minute walk to the local train station. Later on, I acquired a commuter bicycle with curved handles, a flat backseat, and a kickstand that I rode and parked at the permanently crowded bike storage area under the station platform. Once, I left the bike in a pedestrian walkway where it disappeared upon my return. In the age before smart phones and search engines, I was somehow able to use rudimentary Japanese to determine that it was confiscated by the police for improper parking and to retrieve it. At Moriguchi station, I would take an urban train that joined the Osaka loop line at a large transfer station. Kyobashi, like most substantial train stations in Japan, was a metropolis wrapped around invisible train tracks, with tall office buildings striding an expanse of low-rise department stores, specialty shops, and an infinite array of restaurants. The complex was filled to the brim with commuters, students, and street performers. In the dense urban core where space was at a premium and trains were packed like sardine cans, everyone managed to carry on with a deeply ingrained culture of social grace. The platforms had uniformed workers who wore white gloves while performing the unenviable task of shoving passengers tightly into the trains so that the doors could close. Simply walking through the labyrinthine network of escalators and incandescent walkways through unending crowds took undivided attention for an outsider like myself. Yet in this anonymous rush of faces, it was readily apparent that everyone maintained discreet expressions of individuality. Office workers in stuffy suits would have the latest thousand-page manga serial tucked under their arm while students in pristine school uniforms would be huddled together with headphones connected to minidisc players in their pockets. Street performers everywhere left no space unused and honed their craft in public. Japan was a wonderful mix of rigid cultural norms and the bubbling energy of self expression. Everyone carried the same type of outsized brick-like flip phones made by the same Japanese companies, but each would be adorned with an individualized keychain, and the music on the universal minidisc players were almost certainly chosen with care. City life in Japan was very expensive, but all the money spent on personal goods improved the quality of life within the limited personal space available and were shown off in public with pride. The loneliness amidst the noise led to my assertion of my identity as well, though I did not successfully manage the Japaneese boundary between social decorum and acceptable flair. I filled my time on the trains by drawing in a sketchbook and listening to a few albums on repeat on my own Toshiba minidisc player. To the dismay of fellow passengers, I would sometimes draw them, a pose here, a gesture there, while sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the end, I would carry home some of my own prized possessions: a bum-washing toilet seat cover, a wooden katana sword, and a sketchbook filled with doodles and favourite pages ripped from mangas. My well-worn minidisc collection had grown to a dozen albums of music introduced to me while in Japan: Mr. Children, The Lion King, Michael Jackson, Dream Theater, Santana, Wang Faye, and the Cranberries. These were the soundtracks of my life for hours each day, instilling lasting effect. I would regret not being able to bring home a Japanese cell phone, either the familiar brick or a newer curved chocolate-bar one, because their interfaces were in Japanese and they did not work in Canada. My place of work was the Panasonic Research Laboratory on the border of the vast Osaka Prefecture. At Kyobashi station, I transferred to a commuter train that took me eastward into the countryside. The JR Rail trains all looked endearingly similar and were operated by gloved train conductors at the very front cabin who performed an elaborate system of hand signals to no one in particular, pointing upwards and then forward whenever they took the train through a crossing. The crowds would thin out as my hour-long ride rumbled through the cityscape and burst into rural Japan, where multi-layered fortress-like stations turned into simple concrete platforms with steps that melded into country roads. Everywhere was a sense of safety, serenity, and home. My destination in the middle of nowhere had a bus station which took me on another twenty-minute ride to a suburban science park where the major corporations all had similarly anonymous research buildings. Our sprawling Panasonic complex had half a dozen floors with neighboring sports fields and tennis courts. The work areas had open floor plans with cubicles except for management. My colleagues were mid-career research scientists who were friendly, polite, and dressed in company shirts. Each mid-morning at the exact same time, the overhead speakers would ring out a tune, cueing everyone to line up along the wall to sing the company song. I would stand mute with them and try to hide my amusement. Lunch was a delicious social affair in the company cafeteria. Everyone was amiable but I had no way to carry on a deep conversation even though most of the research was written up in English. As a foreigner intern, I was given wide latitude for my increasing sloppiness, with a penchant for lateness, unruly hair, casual dress, and a habit of catching up on sleep in the bathroom or exercise studio. At the end of the day I embarked on the long trip home through the clutch of increasing crowds and the tantalizing smell of barbecued meat on my weary trod back to the dormitory. On such lonely trips, even the familiar sight of a malnourished dog at a house near Moriguchi station was a welcome relief. Back at the dormitory, I would eat unagi donburi at the cafeteria and make small talk with the motherly lunch ladies who I would stay in touch with by letter for a year after returning to Canada. When the urge struck me, I would stop by the local supermarket on the way home to make spaghetti with tomato paste and mushrooms on a hot plate in the cafeteria. I did not know how to cook meat, and the lunch ladies often took pity at my elaborate efforts by giving me free boiling-hot miso soup. I spent evenings doing things I never had time for at home, such as reading the new Harry Potter books, washing my clothes, or trying to figure out a way to clean my sneakers, which were filthy from the long summer treks. Or, I would pick up discarded manga from the piles that accumulated next to the dorm trash cans and try to copy what I liked in the sketchbook that never left my side. I did not have any friends until two other foreign students began their internships at the research lab. Unbelievably, they were also housed in the same dormitory as myself two hours away from work. It would turn out that Panasonic had a major manufacturing plant in Moriguchi which we would eventually get to tour, and the dormitory was situated close to the plant as most inhabitants worked there. The new interns would join me on the wayward commute and we would become fast friends. One was wizened graduate student from the top engineering school in India who was a strict vegetarian. We would enjoy the challenge of trying to find food fit for a vegan in the Japanese culinary landscape together, and he often had to settle for picking out unsoiled noodles out of delicious yakisoba. He introduced me to the sublime instrumental music of Santana and Dream Theater. The other intern was a Brazilian student from MIT who was born to a Japanese mother. As we traveled together, strangers would invariably address the group by speaking to me, only to have the foreign-looking Brazilian answer in flawless Japanese. My social life expanded with new friends. A group of longer-tenured dormitory residents were English-speaking manufacturing interns from Singapore with decent Japanese and local friends. I would join them on the hour-long bike-ride into Osaka proper to enjoy desserts at cafes or to hang out with their friends, a group of Japanese students who DJ'ed on the side. It was an eclectic circle that I could never have found on my own and I was grateful. Once, I hosted a theater friend from Vancouver who illicitly stayed in the dorm with me. It was fun to show off a Canadian white kid to the Japanese DJ group and vice-versa. We even made the trip out to Tokyo and spent hours at dusk looking for a cheap place to stay, only to experience capsule hotels where beds were literally stacked coffins. Once in a while, the Co-op Japan students from Canada got together for more far-flung trips across the country. As the trains went everywhere, travel was easy through an endless set of connections. On one such trip, we tried to spend the night at a remote hostel in the countryside and walked past countless rice paddies far from our last tiny train station. As darkness fell and fear began to set in that we were in the middle of nowhere chasing a dot on the map, a distinctly Japanese hostel magically materialized in front of our eyes as we crested a wooded hillside. My stay in Japan brought me to some well-known destinations like the Kyoto shrines, the Hiroshima atomic memorial, and The Lion King musical from the literal worst seat in the house. Surprisingly, it was the regular travel through typical Japanese landscape that would remain the most enchantingly ingrained in my memory. My entire internship felt like a paid-for summer camp whose sole purpose was to give me independent life experience overseas. For actual research, I worked alone on a project of my own choosing, with the only deliverable at the end of the eight months being a demonstration of what I had done. Inline with the general research taking place at the lab, I pursued the study of a language-independent speaker verification system. I searched for and consumed relevant reading materials on digital signal processing and Hidden Markov Models which would be needed in order to analyze and store the distinct characteristics of a person's voice. I had difficulty with the advanced mathematics involved but managed to follow the gist of the theory and mashed together components that others had published elsewhere in order to create a workable demo. In the end, I presented the system to the managers and we tested it out live. A couple of my colleagues first trained their voice on the system by reading some prepared text and having the computer build a database of their vocal characteristics. They then tested the system by speaking freely in either Japanese or English and having it try to identify the speaker among the participants. To my surprise, the system worked for the small group and the couple of trials we performed. It was nice to see the higher-ups somewhat pleased that the dishevelled foreign intern with no respect for the dress code had conducted a little bit of real research with his time, or maybe they were just secretly glad that my tenure was at an end. By then, my nerves were frayed by the daily bombardment of noise among the crowds and I was thoroughly ready to head home. My mother's first reaction upon seeing me was remarking on how thin I had gotten, and my own response was overwhelming relief that I would never have to do my own laundry or clean my own sneakers again. At eighteen years of age, I had gotten my first taste of life as an independent adult-child in a fantastic foreign country, albeit in a protected environment, sheltered by a modern society that afforded much social status to English-speaking foreigners. Now at home with practiced self-exhibitionism, I was ready to take on the rustic world of UBC. Academia Back at the university, I donned what would become an iconic pair of orange sweatpants, clipped orange shades onto my glasses, and ran in the election to become the Computer Science representative in the Science Undergraduate Society, winning with a total of three dozen votes. With this, I earned the privilege of attending council meetings and peeking into the inner workings of the Computer Science faculty. I continued to excel in coursework and rejoined E-GEMS at the same time to make use of the more advanced computer programming concepts we were learning. We decided to redesign and rebuild from scratch one of the games using C++, a much more complex computer language than the entry-level Java we had previously used. PrimeClimb was a collaborative math game for two elementary-school-aged players. Each player controlled a digital avatar sitting at the bottom of a mountain of tiles containing numbers. The two players had to climb to the top by traversing a sequence of numbers while avoiding ones with shared common factors to the number their partner was sitting on. The point of the game was to encourage the children to talk about math and to cooperate on their climb, as their fates were literally tied together. If one player moved to a number that shared a common factor with that of their partner, the avatar would slip, fall, and dangle by a rope that tied them together, leading to squeals of delight as the child tried to claw back onto a safe number. I worked on the game state and the networking components of the game, and managed to use the project to fulfill lab credits for the advanced computer networking class. We finished the months-long project with dedication and finesse and used it to conduct real academic research. We took the game to Vancouver elementary schools and video-taped the sessions, we then analyzed the interactions of the children and wrote papers on how the different elements of the game were used to encourage their collaboration in the mathematical context. Surprisingly, our papers were accepted to conferences focusing on the burgeoning field of human-computer interactions. I talked the head of the Computer Science department into funding our attendance. And so, we went on these extravagant trips to exotic places such as Los Angeles and San Antonio. It turned out the Computer Science department was only too eager to support a passionate group of undergraduate students doing research, especially a group headed and guided by the powerful Dean of Science. By this time, we were running the E-GEMS lab as much as the graduate students who leveraged our experiments to conduct their own research. With complete academic freedom, we read up on the relevant social science literature on collaborative learning and aimed higher and deeper, culminating in an Abstract published in the proceedings of SIGGRAPH, the cutting-edge computer graphics conference where rich corporate sponsors threw big parties for attendees. The best trip, and one I would only take in graduate school, would be to Bergen, Norway, where we continued to plug away at the research under a midnight sun while staying at a youth hostel on the Nordic coast. Industry For my final internship in my penultimate year, I was well-equipped to compete for the best on offer. I told a visiting Microsoft manager that it would be their company's loss if they did not hire me as an intern, and my reckless bravado and steadfast resume won them over. I landed a coveted role as a Program Manager Intern with their brand new Xbox video game division in Redmond, Washington: a top placement with the top employer of the day. Microsoft provided suburban corporate townhouses for the entire four months and the hundreds of summer interns were feted by Bill Gates at his lake-side estate. It took dozens of buses to bring us all to the compound, where we descended on a long indoor escalator down the gallery adorned with digital paintings towards the water's edge. Instead of joining the undulating human doughnut which enveloped Mr. Gates the entire afternoon, I took a leisure stroll along his private marina, watching people on passing boats peek at us. The interns had come from colleges from all over North America and my first American experience gave me an intimate view on what the best and brightest coveted and how they competed. My office mate was an older Harvard MBA on a business internship, he had dropped out of medical school to work for the management consulting firm McKinsey and was using Harvard to transition to a career in finance. My regular hangout crew included a young college student working at Microsoft Research who was apparently paid by Microsoft simply to read the endless supply of thick mathematics textbooks cradled under his arms. The lanky geek from Princeton liked to try to learn how to skateboard along the river trail after work, and he would go on to be a tenured professor at Harvard before the age of thirty. Another streetwise student had a chip on his shoulder for having come from a state college and not being well off. He set about surpassing the privileged Ivy League interns and taught me how our performance reviews would dictate our career potential at Microsoft. He would go on to earn a ridiculous LSAT score and gain entry into Harvard Law. Rather than mindlessly borrowing the tuition and attending Harvard, he would use his acceptance letter to barter for an investment banking job with Goldman Sachs, launching a lucrative Wall Street career. In the summer of Microsoft, most of us set out to compete for the elusive out-perform performance reviews. We worked days and nights, our productivity disintegrating after dinner into coffee runs and unencumbered sightseeing tours through the now-vacant office buildings of the vast corporate campus, each with kitchens stocked full of free caffeinated drinks and carelessly accessible with our blue employee badges. Our escapades through the senior executive building brought us face-to-face with the only security guard we ever saw, leading us to speculate that the hallways around Mr. Gates must have had carpet sensors. To my fellow interns who worked on the unglamorous but powerful teams like Microsoft Windows or Office, I showed off prototypes of the unreleased console, games in development, and the Xbox buildings, highlighting the empty office of the Russian full-timer who invented but did not profit from the classic video game Tetris. To my friends who visited from Vancouver, I showed off the entire campus, its caches of free drinks, and the city of Seattle. I worked on the first basketball Xbox game as a Program Manager, an amorphous project management role coordinating the design and development of software by artists and programmers. I helped the full-time Program Manager organize usability tests with play-testers and planned non-gameplay camera sequences to simulate real basketball games. My internship ended before the console or my game officially launched, but I would earn a decent performance review and was able to credit the first big-name experience to my resume. I had seen first hand the enticing corporate wonders of free-flowing soda and the chance to work on products that millions of people would use. More importantly, I had seen that these were the types of lucrative careers smart American college students craved, and I believed I could compete with them for the best. Graduation Returning to UBC for my final year, I was convinced I could do anything, and I did. I took introductory courses in everything from Economics, Music Theory, Acting, Art History, and Studio Fine Arts, and I aced them all. The only blemish on my academic record was my lowest mark of 72% earned in Organic and Inorganic Chemistry during my second year. These courses were prerequisites for medical school and I had taken them to keep my options open. The courses were amongst the largest at UBC, filling a lecture hall with almost 500 students. Competition among the med-school wannabes was so strong that some would take multiple copies of class handouts so others would not get them. Growing up in China with medical professors, I had spent many afternoons waiting for my parents while they dissected shrieking animals in terrifying laboratories filled with formaldehyde-laden jars of giant exotic human parasites. My parents were naturals, happily skewing small rabbits for research and then taking them home for meals, but I passed on even the simple high-school biology class dissections, leaving the dead frogs untouched as I guessed the answers of what I would have found inside. I would never seriously consider a medical career again. In my final year, I discovered my liberal arts self. It was during a yoga session in acting class that we learned of the news of the Twin Towers falling in New York on September 11, 2011. This class led to a role in an off-campus student production where I finally got my first experience performing for a mature audience. I had finally become comfortable among my university-aged peers. I especially enjoyed Art History, where the hippy professor used the study of impressionist paintings to teach us about the social context of their creation in a time of turmoil and revolution. At the behest of the head of the E-GEMS lab, who by now was my reliable mentor and powerful backer, I would apply to graduate schools that focused on the boundary between computing the social world at large. With her reference letter, I was accepted to the MIT Media Lab for a Masters degree, where I would continue to study human-computer interactions at one of the most well-known research labs in the world. It was the culmination of a stellar undergraduate career. A chance meeting during the end-of-term exhibit of my Studio Fine Arts class with the Dean of Student Life led to an article in the UBC newspaper's graduation issue highlighting my academic achievements and admission to MIT. My father's professor saw my picture on the cover and proudly dropped off a stack of two dozen copies of the newspaper on my father's desk. I had made my parent's university campus my own. Other accolades piled on, including a business group scholarship and a student leadership award from the Computer Science Department. It would be the pinnacle of my academic life and the glittering success hid the fact that my would-be scientific journey was at an end, not the beginning, as I was ill-equipped for sustained deep academic study in what was to be a political and "soft" research area. But for now it was a time of celebration, for the immigrant child had managed within ten years of landing in Canada of achieving entry to MIT. And these three glowing letters would hide much with their radiant halo.