Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Thanksgiving" Week

This week's theme was being aware of being international.

In order to keep my U.S. phone number, I switched it to a prepaid account and have to top it up every three months to keep it active even though I'm not actually using it (haven't turned it on since the first week I arrived). I tried to top it through the T-mobile website and that failed. I tried it again and it failed. I discovered it is free to call toll-free U.S. numbers through my Viber app, so I called the refill number which the online chat rep had advised and tried that way which failed. I called my credit card company to make sure it wasn't on their end. I then called T-mobile's customer service number and after three people and having to go through a credit card verification (which was the reason it was failing), it finally worked. So, the point of sharing this is to advertise the good news that while abroad, if you have internet access, you can call your credit card and other customer service companies for free through their toll-free numbers with the Viber app.

While we missed out on the Black Friday shopping experience, one of the Walmart-like stores here, Warehouse, which has a red logo, had a "Red Friday" 1-day sale on Friday. There were more people there than usual, but Warehouse hadn't quite learned the tactic of placing the deals throughout the store to force you to go through the store and decide to pick up other things. All of the deals were on pallets up at the front. So we grabbed the two folding tables we wanted, checked out, and were out of there in 15 minutes. Not too bad.

That evening, we went to our first Operation Friendship dinner for international students hosted by a local church at one of its member's houses. We also had to bring a wrapped gift for a gift exchange since it was the last one of the year. There was a sizable group - 45 - with international students from all over (Iran, India, Korea, Malaysia, Serbia) and older folks from the church. They encouraged mingling through a meet-as-many-people-as-you-can game. Dinner was a potluck of leftovers from someone's Thanksgiving party and other dishes like casseroles and vegetables. Dessert included chocolate cake and ice cream which I haven't had in a long time. I enjoyed meeting a variety of new people and had a somewhat intense conversation about U.S. immigration policies with a guy from India. He said it was good to get a different perspective than the media's.

This theme has been increasingly apparent as I realize how much we are all at the mercy of what gets reported in the news. I may be quite ignorant of a lot of what's happening in the rest of the world - especially since we aren't subscribing to a newspaper anymore - but most people know or at least think they know what's going on in the U.S. because certain stories make headlines. Yet I find that people's opinions are so often just based on a tiny snippet of information and nowhere near the whole story, or are missing a crucial opposing viewpoint, at least in terms of my perspective as it's my home country. This is good in a way because it forces me to reflect that this happens in reverse when I see media coverage of something happening in another country and think I have it figured out or form an opinion based on one article. It doesn't mean we can really help it, but it can help us keep an open mind when someone challenges our beliefs or opinions.

Saturday was the American Club's annual Thanksgiving party where they supplied the turkeys (super expensive here - $50-$70) and we all were supposed to bring a plate of food to share. I made pumpkin cheesecakes (gluten-free with some yummy hokey-pokey flavor cookies for the crust) in cupcake liners and they turned out great. We met up with the cool British couple and their kids whom we had met at the Halloween party last month. The guy even lent me a couple of his British science fiction books to check out. I let myself indulge a bit and got a big plateful of food and tried several desserts (pumpkin pie with whipped cream, warm berry pie with whipped cream, some kind of meringue-type cake, and a brownie).

notice how plain the picky eater's plate is
As I've been weeding the flower bed along the fence, I found that the massive dandelions were obscuring a bunch of strawberry plants with some ripe strawberries on them. Sweet! I picked a decent handful today before the critters can get to them. Free fruit is always a treat.

Tomorrow begins the last month of the year. December already!

uncovered strawberry plants

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Presentations and Networking

We only went to school three of the five days this week, but it was for legitimate reasons.

One day was the Postgraduate Showcase at the university where postgrads could voluntarily give 12-minute presentations on their research topic. It was an all-day event, starting with a good speech by the keynote speaker, a retired professor of law, and then including four sessions of 3-4 speakers per session. The professor discussed some of the changes in postgraduate work since he received his PhD, namely the limitless availability of knowledge and expectation that more will be included in research papers. He said it used to take about 2 years but now takes 3-4. One can get information overload, and I definitely know about this when it comes to looking up food, recipes, and health topics online. There is a lot out there, and that's only including the first 1 or 2 pages of Google searches and the tangents you can get on from those sites. He showed us copies of a government policy recommendation from years ago (a 12-pages booklet) and one that he helped work on recently (a 300-page bound book). And yet, he acknowledged that most people don't bother reading through any of the longer stuff because they don't have time.

In a refreshing turn, he told us not to use esoteric and hyper-intellectual language that isn't accessible and is just trying to make the author look smart. This is part of the reason that non-academics don't think the work coming out of academia has any relevance since they can't understand it. I know the humanities are guilty of this, myself having come across many articles and books that could have said the same thing and gotten the message across in simpler language (I'm looking at you, writers who include French theorists!). He cautioned us against overlong sentences as well. It was a nice pep talk about how we will be contributing to the sum total of all knowledge and will develop valuable skills in the research and writing process.

Regarding the presentations...let's just say I learned a lot about how not to present. The advice we received in the postgraduate seminars a few weeks ago really came home to roost when I saw how other people a) went over time b) hadn't practiced so didn't know how to pace c) didn't use slides effectively d) spent way too much time on boring parts like methods and didn't have time to get to results and the interesting material e) weren't able to understand or answer questions. In spite of this, it was interesting to hear about all kinds of different research topics, including a linguist researching how often certain words were used in four English-language and Arabic-language newspapers regarding the uprising in Libya; a chemist designing a program to make it faster to determine molecular shape which can affect how molecules ingested by living things might change once inside them; and a multi-disciplinary student looking at robots and ethics. One disappointing thing was the noticeable lack of arts/humanities students. There were only a couple (we heard some had dropped out, too, which was too bad), and I resolved to work hard to change that for next year by drumming up support. It doesn't do any good to slink away just because the science/engineering departments are getting all of the funding. The work we do is important too, and remaining visible and active is one way to not be completely forgotten.

The other day we didn't go to school was because I went to a networking breakfast for local women researchers put on by the Canterbury Women's Club. It turned out to be a really good experience. There was a non-political presentation by a local politician (I'd heard her speak before on-campus) on the importance and history of women researchers in this area, and she reiterated the importance of the humanities even though they don't seem to have the same "utilitarian" purposes that the sciences do. I met a couple older women as well as a few other students. I proposed more of a regular meeting of women researchers on-campus, either through this group or a separate one, since there isn't currently a network and it would be a good way to meet people and support each other, especially those of us not in the fields getting all of the attention. I know one thing: networking is important and worth investing in.

The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit location guidebooks finally came in the mail. Hello, road trips!

We discovered the Canterbury Museum has a massive collection of birds. I was excited to find out there is a type of magpie here! The ones in the UK were beautiful, intelligent, and awesome. This owl was looking very cute too.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

First Week of Work and Beware of Tomato Sauce

 First Week "Working" at School

Although working at home can be great, it can also be a curse and let time blob into expanses where seemingly nothing gets done. The postgrad seminars recommended trying to make a distinction between study and leisure time to let yourself not feel guilty all the time and to help keep the internet surfing at bay. So we went to school every day this week as if it were a regular work week and it seemed to work out pretty well. Once you're at your desk at your computer with all of your books surrounding you, it's harder to ignore the fact that you need to be working. Therefore, I felt very productive this week getting all of my quotes and notes entered in and catching up on a lot of admin things online. My to-do list is now enormous, but at least it's written out and able to be tackled. I also finished my first "old-school" SF book, one of the classics, Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

On Wednesday, a distinguished Cambridge professor, Dr. Anthony Hopkins, gave a lecture on the American Empire and argued that the U.S. did indeed have an empire much like the other European nations and that it is not right that historians, and especially U.S. historians, neglect discussing and analyzing the period 1898 to World War II as a period of American empire. It was a quite interesting argument and certainly shows how what Americans learn about their country is skewed in favor of the "independence and freedom" master narrative. He said that, contrary to the U.S. being extraordinary, it was a colony like other colonies and took about 100 years to shake off its colonial past, and only after that could it really be called independent and able to start amassing territory for itself (like the Philippines and Puerto Rico). Among other things, he also said that it was a mistake to keep referring to an American Empire today, because despite U.S. military might and cultural influence, the U.S. does not know how to effectively use that power globally (via wars, diplomacy, etc.) and it cannot claim to have the same power that, say, the British Empire once had in the world. It was well-argued (though perhaps hard to take it all in) and I wouldn't mind reading his final published book when it comes out.


After the lecture, we went out to dinner with the professor, host lecturer, and several students. It was our first time in a Vietnamese restaurant but ended up being very similar to Chinese food. Everyone else was going to get a set menu for $30 a person, but we said we would prefer to order our own meals so the table got the set menu of $26 a person and D ordered crispy chicken ($8) and I ordered beef fried rice ($12). Our dishes were plenty of food and affordable, although the set menu price would have been the minimum at a typical non-Asian restaurant here. The only reason we can see that restaurant prices are so high is that minimum wage is so much more than we are used to (and probably food costs). Yet Asian restaurants are the most affordable. It is uncomfortable to have to discuss in front of everyone that you don't want to pay $30 for a meal because a) you can't afford it (or even if you could, you would rather spend it on something else) and b) you wouldn't eat most of the things anyway. But you do what you have to do and so we had an enjoyable evening and the professor and I complained about everything wrong with the U.S. and it was so refreshing to discuss politics with an intelligent British person.

I had my first ripe strawberry from my plant (after the actual first one was eaten by something else) and it was good! Can't wait for more. I also bought a bag of golden kiwis from a farmer's market and can't believe I never knew how delicious they are. I also bought green kiwis and they are good but not as good as the golden ones (plus, you can eat the skin of the golden ones). Highly recommend!

Word of warning about tomato sauce here: I bought a can of tomato sauce to use in a recipe, and it turns out that their tomato sauce is almost identical to ketchup. My food tasted way too sweet and we looked it up and found that you have to buy tomato paste instead. Bummer.


I know, I know - we haven't been enjoying New Zealand's outdoors like we should. So I insisted we do a hike this weekend and start getting into the routine. We went on the Rapaki Track in the Port Hills for about an hour and a half round-trip. It was all uphill until we turned around, but it's lambing season so we saw lots of sheep and lambs and heard them bleating to one another. Some cows watched us lazily from the other side of the fence.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gardening, Seminars, and Holidays


It is possible I was a bit overzealous in our gardening trip. I may or may not be pinning all my hopes and dreams on these fruits and vegetables growing and thriving... But I have always wanted to have a garden so I figured I might as well go all out. We bought fertilized soil and extra fertilizer as well as a medley of seeds. We also bought a jalapeno plant and parsley, basil, mint, raspberry, and strawberry seedlings. Please, something, grow.

I spent several hours over the past couple weeks weeding the garden bed and found a large rhubarb plant still thriving which I let be but removed everything else (mostly weeds). There was a lot of rain this past week so I figured it would be a good time to plant. Today we marked out what would go where, put down fertilizer, put down some soil, spread the seeds, covered them with a thin layer of soil, then watered. I also transplanted my berry plants to the corner of the bed. Now we wait. If things happen, I will post updates. If it fails, there was never a garden attempt.

Postgraduate Seminars

We spent the past two weeks on-campus in sessions designed to help postgraduate students stay on track, progress through the writing process, network, present their research, finish their paper, and get a job. I wish I had had something like these sessions either at the start of or mid-way through college, because they really encourage you to think beyond the present moment about what your plans are for after you finish. You have to start networking and getting your resume/CV full of the things you'll need before you reach the point you need to seek employment. Even if you think you'll be prepared for the job you want, it doesn't hurt to have backup plans and support for career changes (especially as younger generations can expect to move jobs more frequently).

The first week's sessions were the first time the postgraduate office attempted to do them all together instead of spread out over a year, and everyone agreed it was better this way. We were able to see familiar faces each day and make acquaintances which made the time spent more comfortable and enjoyable. There was a large number of international students as well, and I met students from Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Sweden, and Canada, which is probably the most exposure to other cultures and accents I've had in one compressed space. It really makes you think twice about things you just assume everyone knows or does.


We had fun carving small butternut pumpkins, although the actual night was a bit of a let-down because we only had one group of kids trick-or-treat, and even then I had to flag them down through the window since they completely missed our pumpkin on the driveway. We ended up driving over to give a bunch of the candy to our previous homestay host's children since they weren't able to go trick-or-treating. I won't say we didn't keep some of the Cadbury chocolates for ourselves...

Guy Fawkes Night

Since we found out that fireworks are legal here (only during this week), we couldn't wait to buy a pack and celebrate the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes Night. The grocery store had them for 50% off the day before, so we bought a $60 Thunderstorm pack for $30. It rained all day so it almost didn't happen, but it finally let up after we started watching the awesome V for Vendetta movie, so at 9:00pm when it was dark we went out into the cold. Super cool! I haven't lit off fireworks since I was little at my grandma's house, and it is still fun. We didn't have the parachuting army soldiers or the black snakes, but we had spinners that whizzed, fountains, sparklers, smoke bombs, screamers, and a few big, loud, traditional fireworks. Can't wait till next year!


Our cat has definitely adjusted to life here, as well as becoming an "old" cat who sleeps under the covers during the day and night. He also enjoys having furniture he can scratch and/or sleep on. He does not provide a good role model for someone trying to get work done.