Thursday, November 21, 2013

IPhO 2008 Full Experience

I wrote this a couple of years back, as the second chapter of an fictional autobiography of my first semester of University life. Now I decide to share it as I don't think I would complete the book anyway. Sorry for the grammar and spelling problems, it's fresh from first draft. And it's very long. Like 10+ pages long. So maybe only those who had gone/will go to IPhO will read it fully. Thanks anyway if you're reading. I might update this with a picture version or maybe not it's long enough. Oh and for my Uni mates, the last few paragraphs solves the mystery of why I show off my medal in my first few months\years in Uni.

18th July: The Malaysian team
I was at the UKM residence. And nothing was planned on the 18th July. I was eating with the others in the Malaysian team. Saw Siong Keat, from Penang, tall and thin. He wears spectacles too. Muhd. Khairul Azri, the only Bumiputera in our team was eating halal food elsewhere. And the two schoolmates from Klang, Phan Chow Fu and Kee Wee Siong. We were provided with some allowances for food. And I was internally lamenting of the fact that, if I had just gone for QET today and came here tomorrow instead...
We were all studying on the night, doing past year papers at the last few days before the competition. It was not easy, for if we want to do it fairly, we needed to devote 5 hours for each past year papers. Five hours straight of total concentration and thinking about difficult physics problems, guessing which equations to use, stepping forward in the dark, feeling like a blind man, not knowing if the 30 minutes spend in calculating a hunch would pay off or not. That was the difficult part of the preparations.
After a while, I went back to my Rubik's cube. My cube now cost forty ringgit, it is a DIY cube. And my timing then was just under one minute. It was addictive to just time yourself using your watch and aim for under a minute. And since it just took one minute per round, plus a few seconds of scrambling, one can do it 30 times, and one hour passes by.
All five of us were not a talkative bunch. The situation was starkly different compared to Singapore, where I was just about 24 hours ago. I still felt a bit unreal for this sudden change of location and situation in so short a time. I could be considered as the most outgoing of the team. Surprising if you know my secondary or primary school background.
I brought out a bunch of name cards from my bag. It was our name-cards, containing our names and emails. And I distributed it to the rest.
“Waa, you produced these cards?”
“Ya, my dad helped me, it was printed when I was in Singapore. Here’s 400 of them, we can distribute it to everyone we meet there.”
“It even has the word Malaysia and IPhO on it! Nice. How are we going to meet so many people in 10 days?”
“40 or more per day is possible, last year I collected over two or three hundred emails from almost every country. This year I am going to do it the smart way, let them add us. Distributing it would be much easier compared to asking them to write down their emails.”
“Ok, so that’s why there is the words: Add us in friendster, facebook and msn. We wish all a happy trip. So you are going to distribute most of it lah. We’ll each just take about 50, the rest you can give out.”
“Ok, haha, 200 is no problemo!”
19th July: Predeparture
The next day, we boarded a bus that carried only the five of us towards UKM. The trip even by bus takes about half an hour or more. And it only stops at the bus stop outside of the campus. We had to walk all the way inside UKM, towards the physics department. It took about another 30-40 minutes walk.
I appreciated NUS’s internal buses more right then, even through I was used to walking along UKM. I like travelling, especially by walking, but there are times where I realised how this makes the difference of attitude between Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia is much more laid back compared to the hustle and bustle of Singapore.
In UKM, we were given our last briefing on what to do, what not to do, what not to say as representative of Malaysia. We also received our suit, black and tailored according to our body’s measurement from a previous camp. It came in a suit cover and fits comfortably. We were also given our batik clothing, the official Malaysian traditional wear that we were to wear on the opening ceremony. We also practised some moves for the opening ceremony, just lining up and bowing simultaneously.
There was some motivational talk, and the Professors who were supervising us officially came with us together. They also promised some monetary incentive in the form of USD for the winning of either gold, silver, bronze, or honourable mention. It would be straight from their pockets, so it obviously meant something to them. For me, after getting so many free stuffs from the government of Malaysia, (I paid nothing for the whole IPhO preparation and trip) that I was kind of desensitised by more monetary incentives, especially since I was to live in Singapore later on, where the cost of living is much higher compared to my secondary school life in Malacca.
Finally, we were send back to our residence, to pack up and prepare for an early morning trip to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) on the Professors’ cars.
20th July: To Vietnam!
At KLIA about 7am in the morning of 20th July 2008, I was surprised to see William, Michelle, my sister Ching Siang, mother, father and grandmother coming to send me off. William and Michelle are my cousins who lives in Puchong, Selangor.
William is the same age as me, Ching Siang is one year younger than us, and Michelle is one year younger than Ching Siang. We all grew up together, even through we lived about 2 hours away from each other, we meet almost every school holiday. That was a few times a year from the time when we were five or younger. This made us super appreciative of our cousinly bond.
After the usual procedure at the airport, I finally got on the plane departing from  KLIA at 10:45am and arriving at Noibai Hanoi 1:10pm, local time. Hanoi is 1 hour behind Malaysia, so the whole plane journey was about 3 hours, 4 plus if you count all the waiting at the gates, and getting off at the other airport. The journey there was mostly uneventful, there was no entertainment screen behind the seats and I was quite bored on the plane.

After we got off at Vietnam, almost immediately after we step down the ground, we were cheered and welcomed by a group of pretty Vietnamese girls. They also greeted the another two teams who were on the same plane as us.
One of the girls who held a Malaysian sign board asked me in English, “What is your name?”
“Xin Zhao.”
She looked surprised and had to shove me to another girl while greeting the ones behind me. That other girl asked me the same question and I gave the same answer. She had the same expression and then asked again,
“What is your name?”
“Xin Zhao.”
“Name? Nama?”
“Xin Zhao.”
“Xin Chao to you too, what is your name?”
Now I was perplexed, didn’t she just got my name?
“My name is Xin Zhao.”
Then we had to move to board a bus that will bring us to the hotel that we will live.

On the bus, I took a few pictures and started to walk around to talk to the previous girl who asked my name.
After someone from another country’s team asked me my name and I answered, she took a while for this to sink in to her. And then she asked,
“Your name is really Xin Chao?”
“Xin Zhao, yes.”
Then she suddenly laughed.
I must have had a frown on my face and then she finally explained to me that my name sounds similar to “Hello” in Vietnamese.
I was amazed.
The first girl who asked my name now turn back and joined our talk. After some explaining, I got another source verifying this amazing coincidence. I can safely say that when my father gave me my name, it was not in the intention of making me famous in Vietnam. Well, coincidence do happen anyway, and I became famous amongst the girls who were guides to the countries (every team has one) as Mr. Hello.

At the hotel, Thong Loi hotel, the adults who accompanied us are to live in another hotel, to start preparing to oversee our theoretical and experimental exams, and to mark our papers after we finished them. The separation also ensures a fair play for all teams, so from now on, we were on our own.
We were each given a bag which contains invitations to the opening and closing ceremony, the timeline for these official nine days in Vietnam, some information of Vietnam, our name tags that we were to wear, and bottles of water. The bag is black, with gray alternating pattern, and a red strip on the front. It contains the word 39th International Physics Olympiad Vietnam 2008. Overall, a very nice backpack for school kids. I am still using it now as one of my two main bags in NUS, the other being the bag I gotten from Iran.
Next, we were shown to our rooms. The hotel was super nice, with a swimming pool and a room for Internet. We got free access to them. I shared room with Azri and Jay Keat, the other two having their own double room. And the hotel room is much much better than what I had in Iran. At least that’s what I said in my blog post on that night. I was busy going out to give the name-cards to pretty much everyone I meet. And according to my blog, I had met the China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau team by 9.06pm. Instead of doing last minute studying like the other four in my team, I did not brought much of any study materials with me anyway, I chose to go out and socialize! Even through that just meant introducing myself, asking for their names and country, sometimes age (some of them really look young and some are really big) and giving them my cards, and then moving on to the next group of people.
This was a bit of a mental strain on me too, I was given the opportunity to stay in at UKM for 2 months and a second chance at winning big at the most important event so far in my life, an event that is international, and where almost everyone treated you like a king. And I choose to socialise instead of grabbing every minute to study. I rationalised, well, last minute study is useless, might as well enjoy myself to the fullest and go in with a relaxed calmed mind.
I was calm, and trying to cool off, although I do feel like being a Super Saiyan 1 level all the time, with shoulders tense and a serious expression on me. Before I slept, I popped in some vitamins that my parents insisted me to bring and swallowed them. It felt a bit better. At least I would not fall sick before the competition. I smiled and slept.
21st July:  Opening Ceremony
The next day, we were to wear our batik, grab our opening ceremony invitation, the bag and go board on buses (there were a lot of buses) towards a very grand place housing a very big theater where the opening ceremony was to be held. In grandeur.
One thing that struck me of the Vietnam streets, on the way, was the abundance of motorcycles on the road and the very thick and low-lying wires that hangs between each utility pole.
On the bus, I sat beside our guide. She was the first girl that we met from the airport, and she is jaw-dropping-beautiful. Taking this news in and being happy for a wish came true (last year, the Malaysian team had a male guide, in Iran, male guides are assigned for the male candidates and female guides for the teams which has females, and all females has to cover their hair, I wished then that we could had a girl as our guide the next time), I asked the person who sat in front of us to help us take some photos.
Amazingly, she was not so shy, in fact, she was not shy at all, and posed close to me and smiled all the way, allowing me lots of chances of taking good beautiful photos!
Her name is Phan Thuy Linh.
Realizing that there Chow Fu’s surname is the same as hers, she warmed up towards us even more and said that Chow Fu is her cousin or little brother.
“You are studying in a University?” We asked her.
“Yes, I am a year four student now.” She replied.
“Why did you chose to be the guide of Malaysia?” Chow Fu asked.
“I learned some Malay and I really like the people of Malaysia, terima kasih.” She smile while saying “Thank You” in Malay.
We were all smiling from ear to ear, and really grateful for a nice start.

The opening ceremony started off, with many pictures flashing and me getting to know some more teams, then we were ushered to our seats inside the grand theater. The seats were blue and I estimated that the whole place can fit up to a thousand people. It even has a second storey.
The stage was set with the 3D-words “IPhO 2008” on the left and “Hanoi Vietnam” on the right. There was a yellow IPhO logo at the middle of the stage, and the backdrop shows the beautiful Ha Long Bay of Vietnam. There was the Vietnam flag on top of the stage and two big screens on the top sides beside the stage.
The ceremony started off with dancing by young and pretty girls, the first dance features them wearing cheer leading costumes as if cheering us on. The second dance sees them in more traditional costumes, dancing a traditional dance.
Then the teams started to come on stage, one by one in alphabetical order. Each time a team step up, I hear my name being mentioned. It brought a smile to me and my team. We prepared ourselves and had to line up for about half of the time, to prepare to go on stage. Each team spend about 30 seconds on stage and it was all over in about one hour. I managed to take some photo of the teams that started with “S”, including the Singaporean team.
That was the first time I saw them and I was determined to make friends with them, just like last year, Malaysia and Singapore teams being close together!
At the end of it two singers were singing a special song composed just for us and a beautiful dance was performed behind them. The song was “IPhO Vietnam”, with the lyrics about the coming of different nationality and races, and striving together. Mixing English and Vietnamese, the song is really beautiful and touched a chord with me.
At the end of the opening ceremony, we took photos with the acting President of IPhO, the previous president having died in the middle of the last IPhO. She was happy to have photos with us. Whereas Jerome Isaac Friedman, jointly awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physics with two others for their pioneering investigations concerning deep inelastic scattering of electrons on protons and bound neutrons, which have been of essential importance for the development of the quark model in particle physics, was having some hard time to accommodate a lot of people who wants autographs and photos with him.
Then we were offered a choice of either going back to the hotel to study for the exam tomorrow, or to discover and explore Hanoi. I was again faced with a choice. And I smiled, of course I was going for being a tourist! I forgot if my teammates chose to go back or to explore with me. A heavy weight once again was thrown on my shoulders. I was so worked up that I may had entered Super Saiyan 2 stage without realizing it.
The rest of the day was spend in visiting various parts of Vietnam and our guides gave us some information of the history of Vietnam and the monuments that we visited.
22nd July:  Theoretical Examination
The theoretical examination started at 8 am. We were at a very very huge examination hall that accommodated about 400 contestants. Each of us was provided a table, chair, pencil, writing materials, the examination paper, envelopes to put it in, calculator, and snacks as food for the 5 hour long examination. The tables were like school desks, all separated and arranged in the large examination hall.
I was in Super Saiyan 4 mode now. Extremely calm. It seemed that my brain cannot operate in its most optimal form and yet I cannot seem to cool down anymore. The questions did not seem incredibly difficult, but nonetheless, one has to be in tip top condition in order to tackle them straight on.
This time there was no way of anyone in the examination hall can influence anyone else, unlike last year where the table opposite me was knocked a lot by a Mongolian boy who was 14 years old. He was small and therefore has difficulty getting used to the large tables back then. The design for the tables was like a study table design, with walls on both sides. Two tables facing each other with a divider wall blocking the view too, so one is completely alone and has no way of knowing who was opposite one’s desk. So you could imagine that I was startled when there was a kick opposite my desk back in Iran. I thought it was some personal attack, due to my precarious mental state back then. I only found out that it was the Mongolian boy after the 5 hours of doubt and uncertainty.
It was a part of the reason I lost my mental balance back then. It was no excuse, I was supposed to be good at mental training. But I failed. That was one of the things that I regretted in my life. One of the few, of getting only Honourable Mention back then. I consoled myself my promising a gold the next time I come.
This was it. There was nothing that could go wrong this time. As I fondly tell others, examination results is dependent on 50% mental state at the time, 25% familiarity with examination format, and 25% knowledge. My knowledge is good, I did more than 10 past years papers of IPhO (should had done more), and now all I got to do was to calm the heaven down. Ok I can do this. I still did not got any inspiration into completely solving any of the 3 questions involved fully. However, one can still make headway by just brute force thinking about a problem.
Ah ha, that was it! And I wrote down the solutions for one tenth of a question. Then I was imagining the glory and fame of getting gold and what would I say to the press who interviews me. No, got to concentrate! Concentrate on the task at hand. I was almost despairing at 3 hours in and still stuck at maximum five marks that I was assured of getting. Five out of thirty.
I went for a toilet break and came back, and told myself, that’s it I am done with gold medal, I can see it flying away out of a window, and silver too, and even bronze, and I had got no one to blame but me, I am lucky if I even get to have a Honourable Mention this time. And it was all my fault for playing the fool and not studying hard every single moment I had after STPM finished on December 2007. I accept this fate. I deserve everything I got in for.
Still I remain at my best thinking cap to try out and to answer whatever of the examination question left that I can do. Dead-ends and wasted time no longer held fear for my thoughts from roaming far and wide and exploring the solution.
I emerged thinking that I did at most 15 marks. So this was what it felt like being bad at something. Something that I kept hearing some of my classmates and friends keep on saying and complaining about their abilities. Not that I had not experienced this before, almost the same experience as last year. Just that this time, there was no redo. There was no way I could say “life was unfair to me”. This was what I deserved. And I was mentally prepared to face the music too, not that there would be any, after all, what could anyone do to me now? I had no more chance to redeem myself. Except for the Experimental exam. That I will definitely still do my best in it! Because there was nothing else to lose here. Nothing.
23rd July: Mongolian boy
We were brought to visit a silk village, to witness how the traditional silk making process works. Including seeing a silk worm. I enjoyed myself there, forgetting all about this morning’s trial and tribulations. I even brought a cool looking Chinese shirt that was sold to me in USD (United States Dollar).  
Then we went for a temple visit, and I met the Mongolian boy there. He looks a bit bigger now, along with another Mongolian girl. They were young, about 15-16 years old. Therefore, they can repeatedly come back for IPhO, so that they would eventually improve to a gold medal level. As according to the IPhO statues, students who have finished their school examinations in the year of the competition can be members of the team as long as they have not commenced their university studies. The age of the contestants should not exceed twenty years on June 30th of the year of the competition.
I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I had already settled my difficulty with him one year ago. On the Experimental day of IPhO 2007, I shook his hand before the exam. And I went in feeling a job well done in forgiving and letting go of my own fears and not allowing a chance for any possible hatred to arise.
We were at the Museum of Ethnology now, with a river, and authentic village lifestyle surrounding us.
“What!?” one of the contestants exclaimed, “we just had an exam on this!” Many started to take out their cameras in tribute to one of the simplest yet killer theoretical question.
Introducing the simple deadly:
I found out from String, the daily IPhO newsletter, that a lot of the contestants think that the theoretical examination was difficult. Hmm... maybe I was not alone in feeling like an incompetent idiot here.
24th July:  Experimental Examination
This time, our desk has divider walls, so no one can see what the others were doing. It seems easier than last year’s one. That was a glimpse of hope for me. I casted away all worries and hopes about the future, about the consequences of winning or losing whatever medal I will get, and just put my mind to the present, doing my best in finishing up the experiment.
Even with five hours to do it, I missed out 3 points out of 20. However at least I have something to tell the people who pour their hopes and dreams of the first Malaysian gold on me. That I’ll at least get bronze, or Honourable Mention, so that I would not be worst off compared to last year. My heavy heart felt much relieved at the end of one of the best five hours of my life.
In fact, I got so relieved that I felt some back-reaction of all the stress accumulated on my body, especially on my shoulders to make me miss one of the most scenic features of Vietnam.
Fortunately I was still able to hang on, feeling hot and a bit under the weather until the water puppet show, with dragons, water, fire and smoke, it was well worth it!
25th July:  Hoa Lu ancient capital & the Nobel Laurette Lecture
I was forcing myself to go for the ancient capital. Taking photos and flirting with my beautiful guide. By the time we were at the Trang An eco-tourism Centre, we were to go on a boat ride and my face was getting visibly paler. I gave up all the burden, and tried to forget the pressure. With no more IPhO examination in these few days, I finally can let go of the study pressure burden I carried with me since I started studying for STPM back in 2006.  
Most of my friends can just scream out all they want to after STPM and thus were eager to resume studies in Universities by now, after a few months.
For me, I had a great “guilty” time joining in for UKM Buddhist Fellowship and procrastinating, having a preview into what University life is like and the constant pressure to study. Until now.
Phan Thuy Linh asked me if I was ok to continue on for the boat ride. It would last about one to two hours. I was insistent that I was good enough to continue on. The boat ride was on a scenic river, going under multiple bridges and caves. Chow Fu, Thuy Linh and me were in a boat, steered by the captain. I was feeling more more unwell, especially when the wind blows, but still, I managed to keep a straight face. The only indication that I was under the weather was that I flirted less, and was quiet most of the time, being amazed by the darkness of the caves, at the light at the end of the tunnel, by the water level of the river being just nice so that the ceiling of the caves are not too low for us to go through.
By the end of the ride, I was concentrating on directing energy on healing myself, and could hardly enjoy anything that the beautiful scenery can offer me.
“Are you ok? You should just sleep in the bus.” Thuy Linh was very concerned for me.
I could not muster enough energy to protest, with a weak gait, I hopped on to the bus at the end of the boat ride and almost immediately fell asleep.

Two hours later, the bus reached the hotel, and I was back in my hotel room, in the comfortable bed, catching up on a much needed sleep for my body and mind.
“Don’t let him go for the lecture and Ha Long Bay later on.” Thuy Linh instructed Azri and Jay Keat. “He needs all the rest he can get.”
At hearing that I was not to go for the lecture by Jerome Isaac Friedman, a rare opportunity to hear a Nobel Laurette giving a lecture, I sat up and bargained, “No, let me go for the lecture, I’ll sleep until the lecture and if I cannot behave myself and got too sick, then I’ll stay in bed.” I was always wandering off on the visits, giving out cards, making our guide ask, “Where is Xin Zhao?” more than once.
Looking not persuaded, she cautioned that if I cannot take it during the lecture, I was to indeed forgo Ha Long Bay as my health comes first.
During the lecture, the seats were so comfortable, and the introduction so long that I could not help but to doze off for the whole hour and a half of it. And so on the
26th July: Missing Ha Long Bay
I was in bed all day, physically ill after the exam, down with a fever and cold, no less.
It was a Saturday, with nothing else planned but for a whole day trip to Ha Long Bay, taking the morning to reach there and then back again. From the pictures on our programme sheets, I may had just missed the most amazing part of Vietnam sight-seeing. Almost every single picture, every single picture taken at Ha Long Bay is so scenic, it looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale.
I slept in bed all day, getting up just for lunch and practising some Tai Chi to make me sweat off the accumulated toxic in my body and make me heal faster.
By the afternoon, I was almost healed. And I wandered and walked around the hotel grounds. It was unusually quiet now that most of the people are gone for sight-seeing.
Even the Singaporean teams, (this was when I first met Kia Boon), were not there. They were at Ha Long Bay, along with the rest of the Malaysian team. Too bad, or else I could had played bridge with them again. Just like last year.
Letting out a slight sigh, I noticed that there were some of the guides who were still there.
“Xin Chao, why are you guys here?”
“Xin Chao, Xin Zhao, the teams we were guiding did not want to go for the sight seeing. How is your body now?” One of the Vietnamese guide asked.
“I am much better, thank you. A good long sleep was the key. Say could you guys teach me how to say ‘You are pretty’ in Vietnamese?”
Bạn rất đẹp, why?”
Looking towards one of the pretty girls, I said, “Bạn rất đẹp.”
Giggling, they all were eager to teach me more.
“How about ‘I love you’?” I asked.
“Anh yêu em, are you saying this to your guide? Phan Thuy Linh?”
“He he,” I chukled, “Maybe...”
“Say ‘tôi thích bạn’, this is better, say Anh yêu em only if you really love her, but you had just meet her for a few days, don’t say ‘I love you’ to her!”
“Why not?”
“Are you serious in liking her then?”
I was a bit taken aback, does translating “I love you” to Vietnamese brings about another deeper meaning? Or do they hold the love word sacred?
I nodded my head, thinking about it, was I too casual? I did feel a bit of a liking towards her, and I didn’t think of anything further ahead, including how would I date her after IPhO? Shrugging, I just decided to be flirtatious. Just for the fun of it. Just because I am at the top of the world, and everything was going perfectly fine.
27th July: A night to remember
The day was spent in a pottery village, I was feeling so fine now that I could make a plate painting, documenting the date, event, my name, made in Hanoi, and various physics equations.
The flirting with Thuy Linh was not successful at all, she just asked me to not say that again, and ignored my earlier proclamation, still, treating me as always: like a spoiled VIP child. I did had to drop it all off and just treat her as another friend and nothing more, meanwhile enjoying the fact that I had finished all my 200 cards and was now helping to distribute the leftover cards that my teammates hold.
I was pleasantly surprised when the Macau, Hong Kong and China group asked the Malaysians Chinese to join in for their singing of “Beijing Welcomes You”. We had a short practise session just before the cultural night that lasted from 8pm from 11pm. The song was aptly chosen in conjunction with the Olympic Games in Beijing in August! I enjoyed myself although my voice was still a bit too weak, and I needed to wear a bit more to protect myself against the chill of the air conditioner.
There were a lot of solo performances, from beat rapping, to strange musical instruments. There were even a fashion show, showcasing the traditional clothing of various nations. For singing, there were the beautiful “Hallelujah”; unheard of songs that was just unique; the famous, crazy Spanish-initiated “Macarena” in which they invited everyone to dance along! The stage was full of craziness that night. There was even a human train singing along the tune of a Chinese song, “I don’t have money”! In the end, the dance floor was opened to all, playing various songs like “Macarena” (again), “It’s my life”, etc.
What made it an unforgettable night was the news that I had received all the way back from Malaysia, from Professor Roslan, one of the main Professors who were training us to prepare for this event of a lifetime. Back in my room, room 521, I was surprised by my teammates on the results of our competition.
28th July: Closing Ceremony, the Finale Night
Just before leaving for the closing ceremony, I managed to finally get some time to post on my blog.
Hello again, sorry for taking so long to post another topic about the Ipho, but I've been having lots of fun here. After the last post, I went to The Opening.... oh well I'll tell yo this later, I got some important things to tell you before I go to the closing ceremony. I was sick 3 days ago but now I'm feeling a lot better now, just a bit of running nose left.
And I got Silver medal! See it here. Oh and to impress you on how big a surprise it is to me and how important this medal is to Malaysia, I'll give you some background.
First, to me, I thought I'm doomed to no medal or honourable mention after the Theoretical exam, it was so hard(everyone says so) , I think I hardly got 15 marks for it (turns out I got 11.6). And so doing my best in the Experimental one, I only left 3 marks undone there (I got 16.3). Everyone says that it's easy. So, I was hoping for a HM or Bronze, but decided to just keep my hopes to HM, to avoid disappointment. I thought I got less that what I had last year( 27 marks) turns out I'm almost correct. Rumors has it that 35 marks for gold (it's 33 actually), 20 for bronze(19) and 13 for HM(14or 15), and nothing about silver(don't remember) .But I'm really am glad to got to know that I got silver from Prof. Roslan.
Second, this is the first time malaysia has an medal more than bronze and it means a lot to the IFM, and to me it means Malaysia does produces genius. Go future Olympians, go and make your country proud! Update: By 2011, Malaysia has a gold medal!
The total was over 50 points. By the time I was in the closing ceremony, I was in full formal wear, and we were seated according to the medals we won. Phan Chow Fu got a Honourable Mention, and that’s all Malaysia has. I was busy taking note of the various medals that the various countries obtain.
The whole ceremony was grand and really produces a feeling of awe. I almost can’t believe I was here, complete with Star Wars theme music, the atmosphere is just legend- wait for it- ary. Legendary. This was who I was. An Olympian, A Silver Medallist, no less. Nothing from the past can make me less happy now. Nothing can rock this feeling of security, self-assurance, and confidence.
I shiver as I bathed in the sheer immensity of this acknowledgement. As I stepped up to the stage, and received my Silver Medal from them, I say to myself: “what a wonderful world”. And smiled. This international acknowledgement of the highest order of magnitude for young students was unsurpassable. Nothing else of equivalent significance can beat this. Nothing but the Nobel Prize, which is harder to get and so far away. So for all practical purposes, I was whole. All of us Olympians were!
We all took a photo together later on, and my solo picture with my medal would be one of my favourite photos for some time.

The farewell banquet at Melia Hotel was one of the best experiences of my life so far. Lots of people from the previous Olympiads were there and I met and had fun with them. Maksim, the Mongolian boy, and Rui Hu, an American who got into MIT.
“Hey, how did you do man?” the American team greeted me when I met them.
I hold up my silver medal and smiled. Rui Hu had also gotten a Silver Medal.
“Congrats man!” They said. “We have something for you.” Then they took out a red T-shirt, and gave it to me. I was beyond surprised and very honoured to see that the T-shirt contains the logo and wording of “American Institute of Physics”.
It might have been the fact that I entered their room and watched some TV with them, or that I was super active and friendly towards everyone. Whatever reason it was, I was glad to receive the gift.
“Wow, thanks man!”
“Nah, don’t mention it.”
I then went to the toilet and changed. I was sweating in my formal wear and was glad to be able to have a change of cloths. Especially considering that I was still recovering from being sick. The American team was really happy to see me afterwards, wearing the red T-shirt and still having the silver medal hanging around my neck. We took lots of photos then.
On the way out, finally, all official programming are finished, I met Kwek Leong Chuan, a Principal Investigator in the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at NUS. We might had met before and he asked which University I was going to. I replied NUS, Physics and smiled, maybe I’ll see him there again.
We stayed for the whole of next day packing was a hassle with so many souvenirs to take back, and flew back on the afternoon of the 30th July. Just before we left, I took a photo of Sam Hang Tran, one of the Vietnam girls, posing with the hotel name, Thang Loi. We would meet again someday.
Somehow I wasn’t very looking forward to coming back. Last year, even when I just won a Honourable Mention, I got admiring gazes from my classmates (although they did not appreciate my over-expression of being an Olympiad by wearing my name tag all around the place).
The state of Malacca presented medals to me, even Malaysia presented a prize called Anugerah Belia Remaja Pendidikan (Young adolescent educational award) along with a (more deserving) person who got 21As in SPM (Sijil Pendidikan Malaysia, Malaysian Certificate of Education). The Institute of Physics even presented me another medal for representing Malaysia, the others in the IPhO team then could not make it for they (Cavan and Kent Loong) were studying in NUS.
This time, it would be me studying in NUS and not get all these recognition when I go back. Even the interview I had in KLIA airport was by a Chinese newspaper published in Malaysia. What’s the point when I’m no longer staying there most of the time?
I’ll be starting out as a nobody in University, just like everyone else, what University award recognises any universal achievements anyway? Everyone will be in different majors, doing different things, and there will not be anything else that can make the whole University look up to you and say congratulations (turns out I would be very wrong in this respect).

If I do not promote myself over at NUS, no one will. At least I wanted the fame and recognition.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Mindfulness: What's the buzz?

Guess what? The world’s happiest man came to NUS to give a talk!
Over 1000 people attended this event on 6th November 2013 in the University Cultural Centre. For more official information, take a look here.
That night, there were eight speakers, with Professor Jay L Garfield as the moderator. All their profiles can be viewed here. The edited excerpts below may be time-consuming to read but their discussions of mindfulness is well worth learning!
So here are the eight take-home messages by the eight speakers:
  1. Mindfulness can help in recovering from mental disorders.
  2. Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied.
  3. There are well-designed, long-term studies on the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news.
  4. Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening up your heart and others’ hearts.
  5. The Mind and Life Institute should open up its Asia hub in Singapore!
  6. Mindfulness isn’t enough, we need compassion.
  7. Our brains changes; take control of this change with the practice of mindfulness.
  8. “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
We started our discussion with Prof. Kua Ee Heok, a Prof. of Psychiatry in NUS,
“This two hours would change your life. As you can see from the slides, mindfulness in Chinese (念) is not only of the mind, but also of the heart. In Singapore, about 3% of the people with mental disorders are seen by mental health professionals and 5 to 10% by doctors. 20% have some mental disturbances – they can’t sleep properly, which affects their work efficiency, but it isn’t serious enough to warrant labels of mental illnesses. Mindfulness may not treat all mental problems, but it can help a lot of patients.”
Chinese patients with depression associated with diabetes and hypertension are treated with three different methods: Chinese Taoist cognitive psychotherapy (Tai Chi, music, art); Mindfulness therapy; and brief integrative psychological therapy. There is improvement, but no significant difference for the baseline over four weeks for these methods. It is established that these methods are effective, non-medicinal ways to treat mild depression. This is important to prevent the worsening into clinical depression.
He concluded with this statement,
Practicing mindfulness would lead to more compassion, helping the people around you, perhaps even lifting the happiness index of your people (and country).
So far, we have learnt that mindfulness can help in recovery from mental disorders.
Next, we have Dr Arthur Zajonc, the President of Mind and Life Institute.
“Why are you here?
This (Singapore) is no ancient state committed to ancient practices, but a modern society that lives with its heritage. How does one bring these two worlds, of mindfulness and modernity together?
The Mind and Life Institute has been living in the crossing point of Science and Mindfulness. The Mind and Life Dialogues was started at the MIT and gave birth to the Mind and Life Institute. These two great traditions of Buddhism and Modern Neuroscience seeking to investigate the mind are finding their way to a common point because there are suffering humanity.
Questions including “how is it that higher aspirations are obstructed by the addictions in life?” are explored.
When you talk about mindfulness, it is like talking about food. You can talk about it after that, but the function is to cook the food and eat it.”
Dr Zajonc then guided us into a live session of mindfulness training.
“Just sit back, relax, calm down in your seat, calm your mind and pay attention to your breathing.” Here is a sample meditation instruction.
We spent three minutes in our meditation. Some of the audience still refused to open their eyes after the three silent minutes.
Our second point: Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied. 
Our third speaker is Dr Clifford Saron, research scientist at the Centre for Mind and Brain.
He investigates what people do when they meditate. However, because it is hard to see into the mind directly, it is more concrete to investigate what people do (differently) after they had meditated.
He introduced us to the central characters in a unique research dialogue: Francisco Varela and Alan Wallace. In fact, most of the speakers there are friends. Some for decades long!
He explained how sadness relates to compassion.
“Sadness can be a catalyst. At some point, you may see suffering until it is unbearable to allow its continuation while being clear-headed enough to see how you can help.”
Alan Wallace taught two 3-months-long shamatha meditation retreats where participants meditate full-time. 60 people from around the world were randomly assigned to training and into two wait-list control groups of 30 persons each.
The first group was exposed to the three months retreat, with the second group as control (not in retreat). They fly the second group in for many of their tests. After a few months, the second group then took part in a separate retreat.
The taught meditations included:
  1. Focus attention meditation; Mindfulness of breathing; Awareness of awareness and
  2. Opening the heart, in particular of the four immeasurables (loving-kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity).
The expected outcomes are: improved ability to withhold hurtful speech, and to be able to empathize with people more.
They employ multidisciplinary measures, including but not limited to: brainwave measuring, magnetic resonance imaging…..and came up with a measure they describe as Adaptive Functioning. Generally, the higher the score, the more positive a person is.
The results? The retreat group’s scores go up while the control group shows no change. However, after the control group goes into their retreat, their scores go up as well.
Studies has also shown that telomerase (the end of DNA that shortens every time a cell multiplies) increases for mindfulness meditators. This means we can live longer with mindfulness practice!
For the participants, there is a general change in purpose towards life after the retreat.
There are also other factors that they test on, in particular a test on attention. It’s a boring test where the participants have to press a button every time they see a long line and abstain when they are shown a short line. The short lines are rarely shown. This test is hard because they made it difficult to tell the long lines from the short ones.
As you can predict, the score gets better for mindfulness practitioners and it correlates with their scores in Adaptive functioning as well.
The researchers also expect decreased rejection emotions – contempt, disgust and anger – in response to suffering.
To test that, they evoked emotions with intense films and studied the facial expressions of the participants. They even produced a code, measuring sadness based on facial expressions! They found that sadness is a more frequent emotion for retreats-goers and rejection of their emotions are less likely. There is an increased ability to hold complex and painful realities in mind without pushing them away.
The first part of compassion training is to be able to empathize, so this opens the way to compassion training!
Our third point: There are well designed, long term studies of the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news. 
Our fourth speaker is Dr Carolyn Jacobs, a social worker.
“What is the buzz between mindfulness and social work? It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. They are constantly changing, but inside it, one could say they are all of our self-identities. Who we are can be shaped, sometimes with a sense of joy. It’s a good skill to be able to enter into people’s life, enrich them, and leave without leaving sadness.”
She related one of her stories.
“Adam, a patient, once visited her. He sang to the woods in the morning, but he was having difficulty in finding time to practice his religion. He thinks he needs to pray in a certain way to fulfill his religious duty.” Dr Jacobs got angry after a year of being his counselor and got counseled instead.
She was reminded of her affirmation towards her ideals: my God loves Adam, however he is, and my job is to breathe with Adam and having the stillness that is born of love and acceptance.
And so, she had the opportunity to practise acceptance the very next time she met Adam.
“Adam came in and said, “Do you mind if I sit on the floor? I need to tell you why I choose you a year ago. I’m going to tell you something that I don’t know if you’re going to accept or not.” He then spoke.”
She knew immediately that this was the time to be non-judgemental. When in doubt, breathe deeply.
“Adam told me that  he had a dream, of stealing, and there was an Afro-American police in his dream. That was the reason he chose me, but the real reason for his unease was that he had been engaged in an affair at around that time too. The ability to be open during our conversations was blocked by the secret of him having an affair.
“Now you’re going to have to deal with your wife and your sense of religion. Next time I want to hear you talked to your wife.” And he did precisely that.”
She ended with this: “your practice becomes clear when you can look into your heart. Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakens.”
Our takeaway: Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening your heart and another’s heart. 
Fifth up, we have Dr Diego Hangartner, Chief Operating Officer of Mind and Life Europe.
He was an Olympic level athlete and said that it was his training that brought him there. It is the mental strength to go through the boring training that gets people to such sporting pinnacles; it is the drive to be successful.
He studied pharmacology and specialized in addiction studies. Any addiction begins with the mental desire to experience happiness. One day, he went to Nepal, a place where people were more happy despite the sicknesses there. In comparison, his homeland, Switzerland is clean, but mentally, it is degrading. He thought, “we are experiencing an epidemic of mental illnesses.” And he wondered if there was a Science of the Mind. Then, he discovered Buddhism, learned it for 11 years in Tibet, including being a monastic, and eventually got involved in the Mind and Life Institute.
One of the goals of the Mind and Life Institute is to catalyze contemplative traditions with science, making it a contemplative Science.  There are representatives from the Christian traditions too.
What do Mind and Life Europe do? They promote Mind and Life’s Vision and Missionand translate successful initiatives from Mind and Life.
Among many of their projects are Altruism and Compassion in Economic Systems. Economics, typically concerned with money and resources, is flawed so they are rethinking it with altruism and compassion included.
They will have the next public dialogue and conference with European Symposium on Contemplative Studies in Berlin.
Also, there is the Mind and Life summer research institute where they train scientists to pursue this field. They have established a grant system to seed research in Education, Human Development, Flourishing Initiatives as well as Research Initiatives from first and third person perspectives.
The take-home message? Mind and Life should open up its Asia hub in Singapore! 
Our sixth speaker is Dr Thupten Jinpa, an English translator of Dalai Lama. He shared about “Compassion meditation, the next big thing?”.
“Mindfulness is a buzz, mainly due to works by the Mind and Life Institute.
It is, at its essence, a Buddhist practice which has been completely secularized, to be practiced everywhere. Most of the contemplative practices are from Buddhism, but Dalai Lama advised not to make this a Buddhism-and-Science dialogue but a contemplative science dialogue. There are efforts to invite people of other religious faiths to join in this conversation.”
The next big thing, he believes, is compassion, which is defined as
  • An awareness of suffering (cognitive);
  • Empathic concern (affective); and
  • Wishing to see the relief of that perceived suffering (intention).
The focus is completely on the Other, no longer about the Self. It is often followed by a readiness to help relieve suffering or wanting to do something about it (motivation/action).
For caregivers looking after the terminally ill and mentally challenged, and all of us, eventually caring for our old parents, where does the motivation to care stem from?
The benefit and paradox of compassion are that, by shifting our focus from Self to Others and caring for their well-being, our personal happiness increases as well. It broadens perspectives, improves relationships and gives purpose to our lives. Some studies show how the practice improves health and lengthens life. And we all know the effects of compassion on all of us personally. The one break we get, the one help when we need it most.
The more compassionate you are, the more you benefit from others. So there are Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) for caregivers and everyone too. The Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) in Stanford provides this training.
“Compassion is a part of our motivation system; to train compassion is to be able to better relate to the people around us.”
The take-home message: Mindfulness is not enough, we need compassion.
Our seventh speaker is Dr Richard J. Davidson,  professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
His topic: “Change your brain by transforming your mind”. Like other speakers, he shared his appreciation on how he has made lifelong friends around this topic.
So here’s his story: he wanted to learn more about meditation practices from the inside. So after his 2nd year at graduate school, he went to India to learn meditation. These were practices that can literally transform human minds. After he returned, he was told very quickly that if he wants a successful career in science, this is not a good way to start. And so he pursued a traditional science career.
“There is this concept of neuroplasticity. The brain is able to change, shaped by the forces around us, by our interactions with the outside world. Sometimes willingly, sometimes unknowingly. Most of the time it changes unwittingly. The whole buzz about mindfulness is that we are able to shape our brain willingly by this practice.”
There is this study where the participants were sampled by texting them:
What are you doing right now,
Where is your mind right now,
How happy or unhappy are you?
They found that 40% of our waking life is not spent right here and now. The buzz of mindfulness is to reduce that and to enable us to pay attention. Indeed, we consistently report that we feel better when we are mindful. We can actually learn to pay attention, we can learn to be happy, we can learn well being.
Well being is a skill but we often don’t think of it as a skill, this is what modern science has concluded. That we can actually learn well being.
To test the subject of voluntary cultivation of compassion, they bring long-term meditators into the lab and study the differences. These are individuals who have practiced at least 10,000 hours, which is the entry level expertise for any skill. This group of monks has an average of 34,000 hours of meditation. The good thing about long term meditators is that they can control and alternate between the neutral and meditative states. Mathieu Ricard is one of them. By these testings, Mathieu Ricard got the term: happiest man in the world.
They also developed a kindness programme for kindergartens.
Take home message: Our brains changes, take control of it by mindfulness practice. 
Finally, we have Ven. Dr Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk.
“The mind can be our best friend or enemy, we deal with our minds from morning to evening. If we can change somehow the way we work with our mind, we can change how we perceive things. Control of outer conditions is hard, illusionary. At least with the control of our mind, we can perceive which are the mental states that make us happy and which cause us to act and speak in a way that are detrimental to others’ happiness. So that we know how to develop, and what to let go.
When we look at our minds, they are like restless monkeys. They jump so much all the time that we can’t undo their knots. It’s not about banging the monkeys on their heads, but taming them. So that’s what we try to do in mindfulness training. People try and say that they’ve tried but there are more thoughts than before. It’s not that there are more thoughts than before. This shows the extend of this catastrophe.
We started experimenting with different kinds of meditation. There is a specific kind of signature for each mental state. There are these world specialists of empathy. Caregivers, nurses, etc… Imagine that you are a caregiver, day to day, you suffer by resonating with your patients’ suffering. Eventually, you may burnout.
The common advice is to have distance, but this is not ideal. A caregiver is supposed to give care. So during the MRI, a specialist in empathy asked me to generate empathy, I produced loving-kindness and compassion. They found that it’s not the normal signature of empathy. When I came out, I explained that I’ve gone further, I used it as a step for compassion.
They asked me to just try empathy, not compassion. Then, I imagined the suffering of the people I’ve met with just empathy, and within one hour, it was painful. Imagine this for the caregivers. The researchers then said, now you can generate compassion. Ahhh, it’s like a dam bursting open. Imagining every atom of the people suffering to be filled with loving-kindness.
“In the brain there are two different networks. When you train doctors and nurses, it is essential to train compassion to them.” He showed some pictures of compassion in action, something like this:
“This ability to console others. High social support+happiness+length of life.”
It is possible to have various levels of compassion, and the MRI readings matches the meditators’ effort with how much compassion they are generating.
He ended off with: “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it.”
The take-home message: “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
Finally, Professor Jay L Garfield asked the panelists two questions:
Just what is mindfulness anyway?
Answer 1: There is a fair bit of confusion as to what mindfulness means. Some scholars try to appeal to the scientific sources, or derive it from the Pali or Sati word. Can you say “mindfulness is when you meditate”? Can you define it as defined in the MBSR? Present moment awareness without judgement. The meaning of the word is in its use. So there’s no need to go back to the Pali term and define it.
Answer 2: There is a lot of usage of terms without defining. Definition will change over time. There is a need for some kind of measures, instead of self-reporting measures which have serious limitations.
Answer 3: The challenge of defining the whole Buddhist terminology within one word. Pali, Tibetan, German, etc… Just look at the experience of the person doing that. The first person perspective is the most useful. The observation that you try to observe the mind and it moves… This is something that is evolving and also needs to be contextualized with practice.
There is a connection between mindfulness and compassion, what is the extent of that connection?
Answer 1: If you try to do compassion without mindfulness, you try to do nothing. Mindfulness is the basic tool. Training is necessary. But training doesn’t mean the work of digging a hole in the ground. It can be just lying on the floor, practising mindfulness of compassion. If at the start you train compassion, mindfulness will be there; you get two at the price of one. Fundamental part of the human condition is this sense of love, and if you do it with mindfulness, it is mental training.
Answer 2: It’s like asking a colour-blind to define red. Experience is the one that we need to work on. So we need to practice and spread this to the world.
So here’s a recap of the eight take-home messages:
  1. Mindfulness can help in recovering from mental disorders.
  2. Mindfulness is to be experienced by oneself, not just read or studied.
  3. There are well-designed, long-term studies on the effects of mindfulness practice, and it’s all good news.
  4. Mindfulness – being non-judgemental towards others, accepting things as they are – is useful in counseling others, and in opening up your heart and others’ hearts.
  5. The Mind and Life Institute should open up its Asia hub in Singapore!
  6. Mindfulness isn’t enough, we need compassion.
  7. Our brains changes; take control of this change with the practice of mindfulness.
  8. “We need the compassion revolution, let’s go for it!”
Personally, I recommend taking up meditation courses for our mental well-being. Just like physical exercise is for bodily health, meditation is great for mental health.
Thank you all for reading.