Thursday, March 01, 2012


I've wanted to write about Downton ever since I ever watched the the whole series, twice, in a week, earlier this year. Obviously, I'm a huge fan; the characters, the writing, the cinematography, the costumes, the acting; - they all wrap up neatly in a hugely satisfying and fascinating world in which we're happily immersed. (Not to mention, very pleasant narratives of  romance that are not overly sentimental and actually shows significant restraint, though I don't make excuse for the unnecessary and heavy dose of soap opera during the second season that pandered to American audiences...) Also, when there seems to be a cultural vacuum in entertainment, this series caters to virtues long forgotten in our culture: loyalty, integrity, fairness, and just plain old good nature. There's something to be said that of a leading cast of ~20 characters, only about one and a half of them might be considered the "bad guys" (Thomas, half of O'Brien, who actually is a softie inside). Anyway, aside from these factors that define good entertainment, there could be deeper reasons for this obsession and some people have picked up on this with articles such as:

Of Noblemen and Investment Bankers; Why we can’t take our eyes off Downton Abbey, or,The Upside-Down Appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’

The backdrop of at the time of writing was the widespread "Occupy" movements against the "1%" of our societies. In the first article, Roiphe points out an anachronism - do we hate the 1% (e.g. Occupy) or do we love them (e.g. Downton and other glimpses into the rich)? In the second, Chocano points out an oft-unspoken observation: the Earl of Grantham is such a nice guy to the point of being ludicrous, and that the show's focus is not on romance but on the master-servant relationship, "a fantasy in which an enlightened overclass and a grateful underclass look deeply into each other’s eyes and realize that they need each other, that there’s a way for them to live together in perfect, symbiotic harmony." (Yes, she's cynical.)

But I don't find our fascination all that weird. Perhaps the master-servant relationship is a long-outdated illustration, but don't we all hope to find jobs where our employers are understanding, treat us with dignity and respect, and look out for us when we need help? Find any study having to do with "best employers to work for" and you'll find these factors. True, the master-servant relationship of this time didn't allow room for our age's obsession with "self-actualization", but there's something comforting and peaceful about the certainty and orderliness of this arrangement. The take home pay might not be much, but there's no need for major anxieties regarding basic needs of food and shelter. Plus, you might even get promoted if the opportunity arises.Our industries used to work something like this, and thus was born the middle class, which apparently worked quite well (I wonder how the Japanese look at Downton?).

Yet, in this day of short-term loyalty and "careerists" offering career advice as this blog, make your life more stable by changing jobs more frequently, these securities belong to the past. Of course, the nature of industry has to do with it, but the credo of "self-actualization" has exasperated the discussion into the delusion that these basic securities are insufficient; "be all that we can be," they say. So it hit me one day:

I am Thomas. As are we all; we live in a world of Thomases. The ambitious footman, the bad egg of the cast. Our competitive world and human nature propels us to claw our way up the ranks, and any shortcut to riches is too tempting. Despite the sufficiency of basic needs, we choose instead the route of anxiety as we enter the chaos of the world. But I don't mean to focus on our labour markets, instead, Thomas embodies our hearts.

This ambition of going out on our own is core to our human nature. We like our independence, to design our own destiny, and answer to no one but ourselves. Unfortunately, this self-centred worldview is very much anxiety-ridden, burdensome, and more often than not, meaningless. Playing God in our lives is actually really tough as we navigate through the chaos ourselves. In contrast, consider Jesus Christ's offer to us:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30.

Christ calls us to submit to his yoke, that is, to humble ourselves, confess our need, and live faithfully under his lordship. But he's not an oppressive master, like the symbolic Egyptians, but a kind and gentle one. As the redemptive Saviour, he's the only one who has the ability to give us rest, or peace in its truest sense; shalom. Back to Downtown, considering Lord Grantham in his role of "lordship" is obviously infinitely lacking, but his promise of basic needs and loyal care and the orderliness of the arrangement serve as a glimpse of a heavenly home for our heart. Where is yours now?

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's "H-bomb" like?

It's like the name of Voldemort. An "H-bomb" is when one drops the name "Harvard" as if it were to cause a sensation and effect as a bomb. So we don't - instead, we study "at a higher ed institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts". At least, that's my colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, I believe, is *completely* unlike the rest of the university. I am sure those across the street from us (Harvard Law School) and those across the river (Harvard Business School) and of course, those in the Yard (Harvard College), deliberately drop it ALL THE TIME. Thankfully, my experience at the Ed School was extremely pleasant, with a cohort of colleagues who were humble and passionate about reforming education in the United States and the world. Thinking more about it, it is little surprise - only people who truly care would care to study at this school. The unfortunate reality is that educators make a pittance in the U.S., and they'll likewise make a pittance when they graduate, unlike graduates of the other schools who will be recruited into the elite and powerful institutions of the day.

I remember our first day of orientation back in August 2010. We all gathered early in the morning in the beautiful field that is Radcliffe Yard beside the three buildings that comprise HGSE. Unfortunately, the weather that morning provided torrential rains which made for a very loud pitter-patter on the tent under which we convened. Speeches were made by the Ed school's leadership team. Some facts about our class were given: 620? Masters students (50? Doctoral students), average student age 27 (Masters), coming from X number of countries and 47 U.S. states. Typical stuff. A current doctoral student also gave an encouragement: "Yes, no mistake has been made. You are here at Harvard. Pinch yourselves - it's true." I wonder if the non-Ed school people felt this way!

What did I do? I enrolled in the "Learning and Teaching" Masters of Education program. The L&T cohort was primarily formed of 'veteran' teachers - those who had been teaching for at least 3 years, though the range of experience spanned a wide range. I chose this program because of its extreme flexibility (there are no specific required sources, you only need to choose a number of courses from a very long list) and because my educational portfolio, if you will, was more on the side of teaching, even if it was mainly professional development in a corporate setting. The rest of my courses were in Higher Education, making me a "Higher Ed wannabe" among my Higher Ed friends.

I was quite pleased with my selection of courses, which gave me a sense of the overall issues surrounding education in general (including the many issues currently plaguing the United States and their desire to be more like... Hong Kong (why???)), a little bit about curriculum development (by applying themes from cognitive science), a brief history of higher education in the US, an overview of the various departments at MIT (in a course called "Understanding MIT"), and about the economics of colleges and universities - i.e., why is higher ed so expensive in the US? (not a simple question to answer).

Overall, the workload was quite demanding mainly because there was a lot of reading, including academic articles. Of course, given my non-liberal arts background, I was not accustomed to this and felt that I could have approached my readings much more effectively. I would call the nature of the academic work to be not very academic. Actually, a couple of courses were so fluffy I couldn't believe it - good thing David didn't apply to the Ed school (he had considered) or he would have died. There were many times when I couldn't believe the class discussions, though at other times they were of sufficiently high quality.

There is much talk about the questionable quality of education especially in higher ed -- images of disheveled professors and incomprehensible lectures come to mind -- and it would be quite the hypocrisy if a SCHOOL OF EDUCATION didn't reflect upon this in its own educational delivery. Overall, I thought HGSE to be reasonably reflective and pretty pleasantly surprised with the personal aspect of education. I liked that course evaluations were taken seriously. These were no simple one pager of 10 multiple choice questions; the evaluations were quite comprehensive (of course there were some questions that were too general) and allowed the right amount of space to capture appropriate comments. They were also mandatory. And maybe it's that the people completing these out actually care, the comments gained from previous years' evaluations provided a good picture about the professor and the course. The entire set of course evaluations are available for all to see.

The personable aspect was also palpable. In fact, in two of my classes, by the end, the professors were teary-eyed in their admonishment for us to go out into the world and make a difference. For the most part, professors truly care about their students and their work and for most, it was deeply felt. Actually, for my Learning and Teaching cohort, we actually had two parties at our program director's own house, which completely and positively changes the dynamic and was effective at building community. Probably for this reason, L&T was quite the cohesive cohort, arguably moreso than the rest programs, and this despite not having any common and mandatory courses together. In another course, we also enjoyed a course-end party at our professor's house -- I suppose the Harvard community seeps into the surrounding intellectual neighbourhood.

The HGSE community was largely American (85%?). There were pockets of Chinese students and only one other student from Hong Kong whom I never ended up meeting (I was the second one -- but I"m not *really* from Hong Kong!) There were a handful of Singaporeans who were fun to be with, especially since they were also married with their spouses here. I felt that I should have spent some more time with my colleagues than at home and erred a bit on the side of caution. But this is not a major matter and I'll definitely connect with people here and there. Oh, and I did play Ultimate once in a Harvard grad school tournament so at least I can say I did!

The one year program is truly only about 8 months, which definitely flew by. Before we knew it, it was time for graduation. The day before the ceremony, Harvard Yard was transformed into the "Tercentenary Theatre" (pictured below). It was quite the experience to be amongst all Harvard graduates that morning in our very heavy gown with cap. Our diplomas were handed out back at each respective school and we came full circle to the Radcliffe Yard where we sat in our first day of orientation.

I expect to be mulling over what I learned in the year to go. And I've got more readings to do.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Finally, setting up

We arrived in Boston on the evening of June 29, 2010 and I attended my first summer school class (with undergrads!) at Boston University on June 30. We bought our car and a bed on June 30 and moved into our apartment on July 1, when our bed arrived. We had ordered large furniture through the internet back in Hong Kong and these arrived within the first two weeks. Thankfully, Janey visited the first weekend we arrived and we had the luxury of her car to make a couple of runs to Bed, Bath, & Beyond to buy our dishes, iron, vacuum cleaner, lamps, clothes hangers... everything. So, thankfully, within about two weeks, we were efficiently set up! Of course, so we could focus on our summer school studies, ha.

Anyway, I was quite relieved. It was emotionally and psychologically comforting to feel like we had settled down somewhere for longer than a temporary sojourn. After we got married at the end of February, we moved into a 400 sq. service apartment, and then moved into a 550 sq. ft. service apartment, and then went to Toronto, Boston, back to Hong Kong, then Dalian (upon which we vacated our serviced apartment), four days in a hotel in Hong Kong, before leaving for Boston. I felt like I was living out of a suitcase for a good 3 months. So thankfully, finally, it was exciting to build our own home in this exciting new and extremely pleasant environment in Cambridge. The culture of Harvard Yard and Harvard Square is about a 10 minute walk away.

Of course, I'm writing this post as we are preparing to move again -- our lease will be up in 3 months and it is too expensive to stay here in this apartment with *wonderful* service. Alas.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Friday, June 11, 2010

[I backdate posts for easy reference; I'll say I'm about 9 months behind to me feel a little bit better -- I've been terrible.]

June 2010 - Dalian, Liaoning Province, China

Is this Canada? Or is this China?

David and I spent two weeks in Dalian, a rarely visited city in Northeast China. Considering the enormous tourism industry in China, especially marketed to Hong Kong people (really cheap sightseeing), Dalian is considered completely untouched. No other Hong Kong tourists? It was great. Notice the clear blue sky in the pictures -- I'm pretty sure nothing was shot into the sky to make this effect. The weather and environment was fantastic here, one of the relatively unscathed cities in China.

David and I came here to take some mandarin lessons and to take a look at this city. Unlike the typical historic cities like Beijing or Xian, Dalian is relatively young but unlike other young cities like Shenzhen that purely grew in the past 20 years, Dalian has significant Japanese and Russian influence, which came out in the architecture. Read the Wiki page for a short summary; the history is quite fascinating. In addition, unlike Shenzhen, Dalian has pretty good city planning - evidenced by the wonderful tree-lined roads -- quite magnificent for China, I think.

It is called the "city of squares" -- as in those squares you'd find in Boston or London -- they're actually circles. The city is clustered around a number of major roundabouts, and instead of an ugly concrete structure in the middle, there is often a lot of green grass. Dalian has the most amount of green that I've seen in any Chinese city. There are a lot of *well-kept* parks, including the massive People's Square (this site is a 360 degree view of the park; unfortunately we don't have any good pictures of it.). The bottom pictures is with our lao shi in the also massive and new Xinghai square. The structure behind us is only one half of a "gigantic book" structure (imagine that we were facing the other half of the gigantic book laid out on the ground), to commemorate the city's 100 birthday as well as the return of Hong Kong in 1997. For a Chinese city, I still can't get over how clean it was.

But of course, this is still China, so there were sites of the following around the city -- a old and demolished stadium, but not yet cleaned up. I wonder how long it was lying there. It's scary -- it looks like an earthquake hit the city, but think it was just knocked down because a new stadium was built across the street in the massive Olympic Park. Overall, I'd highly recommend going to Dalian. There are also many side trips to scenic areas to take a look, which we unfortunately were unable to do. And if you ever want a mandarin tutor, we can recommend one that is decent and not that expensive!

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

New beginnings - 3 of 3

And finally, to the 'real' beginning. I will be pursuing a Masters of Education this September with the aim to equipping myself towards a new career. No, I don't intend to teach elementary school or secondary school, nor do I really want to teach Accounting to college students (though I'm open to it.) A little on my background first, though.

It's kind of funny that when I reflect on my life through this 'education lens,' I've always considered it important (after all, I've always loved school / going to school), but never thought it was for me (after all, I've always been a shy, poor public speaker.) And not that I'm going into teaching, but I must only attribute the path to God. Somehow, through entire career in Accounting -- public accounting, for that matter, and having worked in only one firm -- God paved a way for me to build up *some* case to get accepted into a great education program at HGSE. There was no way I could have imagined it during the various training events, revising curricula, or participating in university workshops. But they were there as a series of projects, days, and steps. Somehow, it all came together. So, as a first step, I hope to pursue this masters for foundational knowledge about the education industry.

Since I don't intend to teach, that will put me into the administrative areas. You may even ask -- wow, that's even more boring than accounting -- and that may be true from a day to day aspect. The pace will be slower, and in some ways, the people may be less 'competent'. But I see the next few years as minor first steps towards gaining new experience, and we'll see where God leads in the future. In a way, it goes back to the boring day to day again, just that instead of building a career based on amassing a body of accounting knowledge, I hope to somehow help, indirectly or directly, the students going through their paths in higher education.

It is all very uncertain, and so all I can do is offer up this vocation daily, with the discipline to live out each day with the faith that God has his greater plan. We'll see how I can share later on.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Monday, March 01, 2010

New beginnings - 2 of 3

Actually, this is more of an ending, but the post was meant to fits within the general theme of change; I wanted to share about my reflections on the end of my first career -- of being an accountant. To be sure, I'm one of the later retirees from the accounting/auditing world, and as much as people think I'm a "lifer"-type, to me, this departure was inevitable. Many of my colleagues think it is a waste for me to leave now, since I am *so good* at explaining accounting concepts and working out accounting solutions. :p Well, I have certainly spent enough years of my youth in this mundane field, but I've no regrets and can happily look back and be thankful for it.

Now that I've gone through a couple of rounds of 'farewells' in Hong Kong, I think I can summarize my reflections on my life @ E&Y as thus:

1. Unexpected community culture - For all of us involved, we would likely attest that the E&Y TCE group in Toronto is a "special" one. To be sure, certain aspects of specialness will be different to different people, but very generally, there is an undoubted camaraderie that has grown from this otherwise typical BIg 4 audit group. To me, the specialness commences from Waterloo CCF, as a number of CCF graduates first started in the group, and in a way, pioneered a certain culture.
This culture starts with the work ethic of any responsible Canadian-Chinese, setting a pervasive feeling and observation that the partners could count on the Chinese staff will take care of the job, setting a sort of ideal as a 'good testimony through work'. Of course, uncurtailed, this culture quickly grows into workaholism, a very constant and persistent struggle. Then, beyond the on-the-job testimony, the community participated in gatherings for deeper spiritual reflections, Bible studies, and times of prayer, as we all shared in our lives for many hours in the day. We have our homes and our own church lives, and in a way, I thought this was almost the best next step outside of a university campus. I count it a blessing to consider so many friends from E&Y as part of my spiritual community.

2. Exposure - It was not easy to leave the culture in Toronto, but I came to Hong Kong with a view for exposure to more of the world, and I felt I did much of this. While I failed to go on any further MSI trips to China, I travelled quite a bit to the China (and other Asian) offices and engaged with many of those colleagues. I saw how small of a market Canada was, and realized how chaotic China is! I was exposed to a level of 'technical accounting' that I never thought I would get such opportunity. There are many mixed feelings in the above. From the people perspective, I think it is wonderful how China is quickly developing and the discrimination of Chinese colleagues is rapidly diminishing. With respect to accounting, it is all so geeky, but I am happy to have been exposed to the detailed intricacies ... for me to make the assessment that it is meaningless. Practically, I could practically envision myself in a lucrative accounting policy role at some bank, but now, being part of the 0.01% of the population that can explain the roadmap of accounting for derivatives under FAS 133, I have no more desire to pursue this path. I don't really care to be part of the esoteric group that can understand such jargon. And lastly, as a very technical point, I think the principles-based development of IFRS is a good idea but now way too abstract -- I think the application of IFRS 9 in its future full form will render financial statements meaningless! (Though, there will be significant revisions to the extant Exposure Drafts concerning financial instruments for them to be passed. :p)

3. Preparation for the next career - This is my last point -- looking back, God had his plan in preparing me for my next career in Education (the new beginning 3/3!) While my entire career-to-date has been in the accounting firm, I was able to profile myself from an educational standpoint for my application to Education school. I always felt strongly about the emphasis placed upon training in E&Y, and involved myself in such teaching activities in Toronto and in Hong Kong. In Toronto, I got to audit U of T for three years. And further, in Hong Kong, as a recruiting measure, E&Y sponsored two seminar courses at the University of Hong Kong and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, where I got the opportunity to design those courses. All in all, looking back, I must see the preparation that God has given me towards my application, and I look forward to new studies and seeing what opportunities the new career holds.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

New Beginnings - 1 of 3

After all the designs, symbols, and preparations, February 27, 2010 marked a new day and a new status for me. After months of laid-back preparation, the ceremony and banquet came and went. Both were eventful, and I was very happy to have my Tyndale professor, Barbara Leung Lai, perform half of the exhortation, while David's professor, Carver Yu, did the second half. Too bad we forgot to record it... regardless, the enthusiastic and joyful recount of BLL's version of our story will remain my memory, as will CY's encouragement as we pursue our coupled journey in the search for visio dei, wrapped around many reminders to learn mutual submission. BLL brought a smile to my face while I was standing on the stage as she emphasized the importance to 'stand on mountains' -- as He raises us up to more that we can be. The banquet was an extraordinarily grand affair, quite a contrast from David and my mode of living. Yet, it was a smooth night, even if the food was served very slowly. All in all, the two days came and went, and afterwards, we were married. There is a surreal feeling, since I didn't feel like there was a difference in our relationship. But that is where David and I are on the same page, for our relationship started and was maintained on a daily basis, and we hope to continue this after our wedding.

I want to share an excerpt of David's banquet speech, which embodies our happy, yet humble sentiments:

As I am standing here on the stage at this very moment, I am trying to get a better feeling of the atmosphere tonight, with so many guests coming here to celebrate, to celebrate for us. We feel very, very lucky, and I realize that it is truly a grand celebration that you've so generously given us, yet a grand celebration to a very humble beginning, of this new chapter of our relationship. That is to say, within a few days if not tomorrow, Gladys and I will be fully immersed into the mundane realities of living together. You know what I mean: we need to share a washroom, and we need to clean the kitchen sink together. I will unlikely be wearing this tuxedo while doing the daily chores, and after a hard day's work communications may just tend to become kind of routine, won't it? Regardless of how 'special' the bride and groom are supposed to be this evening, very soon and in many ways, we won't be different from anyone else, practising the repetitions of an ordinary life.

But this we shall promise all of you, and only by making this promise, shall we be worthy of what you've all given us here. We promise that we shall make our togetherness, a lively, and life-long devotion; that we shall participate in the same mundane activities, but discover joy therein; and that we shall lay our lives' foundation upon the Truth; and truthfully, and routinely, commit to each other day after day, year after year. We would even promise you that soon we'll begin taking things a bit for granted, but then we shall again learn to appreciate each other; that we are going to fight (not literally of course!), but then, we shall learn to reconcile. There are much more than what I can cover her, as seasoned couples among our guests know very well. But our commitment to the days ahead, we believe, is the only way that we may express our gratitude to you all. Thank you very much.

Until next time, this is Gladys Yam.