Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why not to facebook your teacher during class

So this week, I had the privilege to not only be facebooked by my students (the girls) during class, but to also catch them red-handed in the act. And I exploited every opportunity to embarrass them in the following lecture for not paying attention. Read on...

Starting on Monday, I began receiving facebook friend requests from some of my students. I didn't realize until today that it was only the girls, but up to this point I have six friend requests from girls and zero from the guys in my class. Interesting, especially since they can't tell me and Trevor apart (the other PiA-er in my department), so I don't know if they're trying to friend me or him. Regardless, I've had to scramble to adjust the privacy settings on my account for obvious reasons, as I don't want my students to see really anything of my personal life. They, on the other hand, have taken no such measures. And this has backfired on them.

After one student friended me, I clicked on the link to accept (and add her to my limited profile), which took me to her profile. And immediately there on her wall was something that I'm sure she (and half of the class) did not want me to see... See below. You need to be able to read the comments on the photo, so also check out the photo at

I took this screen shot with the sole purpose of displaying it to the entire class during lecture. So today, I began my lecture more or less as follows...

"Good afternoon class."

"Hi Mr. Zoller! Hi! Good afternoon lah!"

"So last time, during our tutorial, I realized that we didn't cover something which is crucial to our ability to learn biology in this classroom. Does anybody know what that is?"

"No lah... why he no can lah"

"So what we didn't cover last time was a little something that has to do with the internet. It's called... The dangers of facebook"

Dramatic pause...

Then I brought up the screenshot on the powerpoint projector.

Dramatic pause...

And then when the class read the comments, they erupted into one loud, synchronous "OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" The entire class of students all started gasping and laughing and clapping, while the two students who were featured prominently on the slide turned beat red and tried to slink under their chairs. One of the other other girls in the class who was featured on the slide LOVED the attention, and just started giving the stereotypical 2-finger V to everyone in the class while smiling the whole time. In fact, Ana was teaching in the classroom next door, and she later told me that she had to stop her class and explain to them what was happening in mine because it got so loud.

At this point, I warned the students "Don't think I don't know what I'm doing up here. I can see when you guys are not paying attention. And I'm very sneaky when it comes to finding things out about you that you might not want me to see. So you guys should probably pay attention in my class..."

And then I proceeded to give one of the better lectures I've given so far this semester, with the most active student participation thus far. Mission accomplished.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When in Pulau Ubin, don't do as the locals do

Or rather, don't do as John the Belgian who's been in Singapore for 4 years (so I guess he counts as a local) does...

This past weekend, I traveled to Pulau Ubin, which is an island that is technically still part of Singapore but completely unlike the rest of the country. Whereas "mainland" Singapore is generally all urban hustle-bustle with its fair share of NY style driving and seemingly limitless street vendors, the island of Pulau Ubin is a beautiful respite from this atmosphere.

I made the trip with Trevor, Ana, and Mark (three other PiAers), and we also met Kin Hoe (my coworker) and John (his Belgian friend) and Don (John's Filipino friend). The seven of us met at the Changi Village ferry station on the east coast of Singapore, and from there we took a 10 minute bumboat ride (yes, it is called a bumboat. Grow up.) to the island. The bumboat was this tiny little ferry that could barely hold 10 people on it, but it was an amazing experience to be able to sit on the top of this ferry as we were cruising away from the city and towards the jungle of Pulau Ubin.

What we knew about Pulau Ubin before getting there: it was a jungle, you can go biking there. That's about it.

What we found out about Pulau Ubin when we were there: it is a combination of a local village (about 100 people live there), a tourist mecca for cyclists and hikers and explorers of all kinds, and it's a place where people die (or at least, get very very hurt. More on that in a bit).

So John was our guide for this trip, as he's been coming to Pulau Ubin to bike for a couple years now, almost every weekend. Upon stepping off the boat, he took us to one of the multitudes of bike shops that rented bikes to people looking to explore the island, and it was a good thing we had him as our guide because he knew the best shop to haggle with for a good deal - we paid 6 dollars per person for a bike for 3 hours, whereas walking around I noticed that other people were paying upwards of 20-30 dollars per bike. The bikes we rented were decent - they had a rear suspension, and the brakes worked; but in many cases the shifters weren't too, well, shifty, and in other cases the chains were stretched out so much you couldn't put very much power into any given stroke. But, well, you can't really complain, this was just going to be a leisurely ride, right? And you don't need a highly functioning bike for that, right?


We followed John onto the first trail, which we all noticed was conspicuously labelled as "Black Diamond." Now I'm fairly confident of my skills on bikes, but the rest of the people in our group, excluding John, were not; to top it off, none of us were wearing helmets, because John assured us that the trail "was not too difficult, you just need to be careful." So we all embarked on the trail, John first, myself second, the others behind. Within the first, oh, 15 meters of the trail, everyone else in the group except for myself, John, and Don had decided that the narrow, twisting, rocky, tree-laden, steep dirt path was too difficult for them (wisely) and turned back to take the "Blue Square" trail. I continued to follow John along the trail, although I was taking it much slower than him, and Don was following my pace behind me. We approached one particularly steep/tricky section in the trail, at which point I slowed to a near crawl, and actually just hopped off my bike in the middle of the section because I did not want to hurt myself. Suddenly, I heard from behind me a shattering "thud" and I immediately heard Don cry out in agony.

I threw my bike to the ground and ran back to him, as he was trapped under his bike off the side of the trail. Don had lost control going down the section and was now lying on his side, grimacing. I immediately feared for the worst, because as I already mentioned, we were not wearing helmets. Don's left shoulder, left hand, and left knee were severely cut up, and he was also complaining of vision issues and feeling faint. I was afraid that he had hit his head, although he claimed that he did not. John returned to the scene at this point, and we assessed Don's situation. He was able to stand up on his own after several minutes, and seemed to have suffered no further injuries; he also said his vision cleared up and he no longer felt faint. He claimed to want to keep riding; I refused. I told John that this path was too dangerous for us, as was clearly evidenced by what should have been a larger injury. We then decided to leave the path, and instead walked our bikes back out to the main road. We returned immediately to the starting point to meet up with the other members of our group, a little bit shaken but not too much worse for the wear.

Despite this nearly-serious accident, we all still had a fantastic time. The scenery around the island was beautiful, and it was great to get back on a bike for the first time in several months. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures from when we were on the island, because my camera finally broke as I was walking off the ferry (it's been slowly breaking for a while), but I will definitely be returning in the future. However, I don't think I'll be checking out the "Black Diamond" trail any time soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My first week on the other side of the classroom

So I'm almost done with my first real week of teaching classes, and it has already been quite a ride. I've had experience in the past doing some private tutoring and teaching things like swim lessons and surf lessons, but I've never actually led a classroom full of very animated 17-18 year olds (who, by the way, don't look much younger than me...). I showed up to my school, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, 3 weeks ago for my first day of work, and my only preparation and training for teaching has basically taken place during that period. So let me start from the beginning.

First, my school. I work at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is a 3-year diploma program for the 2nd-tier Singaporean students. In a nutshell, the Singaporean education system works as follows: all students go through primary school and then take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) at the age of 12. This exam virtually determines their entire life future, as their results from their test place them into one of three tracks, and it is nearly impossible to break out of a track once placed into it. The best students go on to secondary school, take their "O levels" (kind of like an SAT for mid-high school), then JC (junior college) for 2 years, then take their "A levels" (like an SAT only much more significant), and then the lucky few may go on to study at university. The middle-of-the-road students go on to lesser secondary schools and then enter the polytechnic system. They study at the polytechnics for 3 years, and historically this was the end of their education, although in recent years more polytechnic students have gone on to enter university and a few have even pursued graduate education. However, these students have already been selected by a national exam to be in the "average" education system, and have been told for much of their life that they are just that. These are my students.

For the three weeks leading up to my first class this past Monday, I have basically been trying to learn how to be a teacher (most people go to school for years to do this). I learned on the first day that I was leading a module on Cell and Molecular Biology, which basically means that I have FULL control over every aspect of my class - from giving lectures, leading tutorials (=precepts for the Princeton people), leading practicals (=labs), setting quizzes and exams, designing projects, organizing the syllabus, marking (=grading) everything, and basically any other random administrative task that goes into leading a class. In addition, I found out I would be leading one practical each week for a microbiology class, something that I have virtually no background in. Needless to say, I was a little bit nervous going into this week, especially since the extent of our professional teacher training given to us by Ngee Ann was a single 8 hour session from which I don't really remember anything.

Then started this week. My first class was a practical for my CMB (Singapore loves TLAs or three-letter-acronyms if you haven't noticed), which was almost a disaster. I had planned a 20 minute introductory presentation on powerpoint for my students, and of course when I went to plug my computer into the projector I didn't have the correct driver installed on my computer. So I then fumbled through what I could memorize from the presentation. After, I moved on to explaining the lab equipment, most of which I had forgotten how to use, but didn't know I had forgotten until I tried explaining it to the students and then realized my ill preparation. Luckily, though, I have a FANTASTIC class of students, and they all were extremely excited to meet someone from America and were super friendly/giggly the whole time I was talking with them. So even though I kind of bumbled through my first class, to have them shyly ask me how old I was or if I liked to play counterstrike or if I was on facebook or what I was doing in Singapore made it all worth it. And, when I let them know that I was from Princeton and going to medical school next year, they all let out a collective "oooohhhh." Needless to say, certain aspects of this job are going to be a real ego-trip.

The rest of my classes this week went a lot smoother. I repeated the same lab with other students later in the week, and it is so much easier to lead a class when you actually know what you're doing! I've also given 2 lectures at this point, which have been an amazing experience. You really can't recreate the experience of talking to a group of students about a subject that you're passionate about, and noticing at one point when you're discussing something really interesting that the entire class gets absolutely silent and entranced on every word you say. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Today, for example, after class one of my students came up to me to ask a pretty good question about the mechanics of viral infections in cells. I started drawing an example for him on the white board, and when I turned around, there were no less than 12 students surrounding me focused on every word I was saying. It was an amazing moment.

I'm really excited for the rest of this year, as I should really get to know my students well since my main class is only 21 students and I see them 3 times a week. I don't think that they've ever had an American teach them before, and it's going to be a blast to be able to share with them my culture while I learn about theirs.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best Food Day of my Life

This past Saturday, Kin Hoe Chong, a coworker of mine and the 2 other PiAers in LSCT, invited Ana, Trevor, and I (the three LSCT fellows) to his place for lunch, movies/swimming, and dinner at what he promised was a fantastic seafood place that only locals go to. We started off the day by meeting him at the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit = subway) stop by his place, and then proceeded to tour around the Yishun wet market. I haven't been to a wet market up until now, and even though Kin Hoe assured us that this was a "clean" wet market (especially compared to Cambodia/Vietnam), I still managed to get sprayed by dirty fish water as I meandered through the aisles. I was overpowered by the smell of freshly cut fish and severed chickens, as well as the less-than-appealing odors of throngs of humans pressed together in the balmy atmosphere. There were multitudes of different shop keepers hawking their wares to the customers, and if I wasn't promised a fantastic Thai lunch by Kin Hoe, I probably would've been enticed to purchase some fresh Tilapia.

After the wet market, we proceeded to "A Taste of Thailand," an outdoor hawker-center style restaurant which Kin Hoe claimed to be the best Thai food in all of Singapore. 5 of us (including two of Kin Hoe's friends) waited while Kin Hoe ordered all of the food for us, which turned out to be a feast of a lunch. We were soon presented with 2 fried whole Tilapia (see the picture), Tom Yum soup, fried cuttlefish, sweet and sour pork, pineapple rice, sauteed leeks, and another mushroom/prawn soup which I can't remember the name to. This food was so unlike the "Thai" food I'd eaten in America (which consisted mostly of pad thai and crispy duck), and it was incredibly delicious. My favorite part of this meal was the fried cuttlefish, which came out looking like french fries, but were actually large slivers of squid, which you dipped in this mayonnaise-like sauce. Amazing.

Then after lunch, we went back to his place to rest and digest, while we watched "Role Models" (which was a hilarious movie). After a slight hiatus from eating, we moved on to sampling a variety of local fruits that Kin Hoe had prepared for us. He had purchased rambutan (a fruit who's name means "hair" because of the hairy projections all over it - it looks like a red sea urchin with green hair), jackfruit (an orange-ish fruit that tastes kind of savory), pomegranate, mangos, and the Queen of Fruits, mangosteen (it looks like a plum, but is harder, and you pop it open to reveal what looks like garlic cloves but tastes like heaven). We spent half an hour sampling and rotating between each of the different fruits, after which we finished thoroughly sticky, wet, and satisfied. See below for the mangosteen, which may just be my new favorite fruit:

After this mid-day fruit bonanza, we rested again by watching a French movie called "Priceless", which was also a very good movie, and perfect to digest hordes of fruit to. Around 8 o'clock at night we picked up our things and moved on to Mellben Seafood, which served us the best seafood meal of my entire life, hands down. Singapore is famous for its Chili Crab, a dish that we had not tried until this night. Kin Hoe had promised to bring us to the best chili crab place in Singapore, and he delivered. We arrived at the restaurant, which had a 20 person line out the "front door", in quotations because it was an open-air setting with just a roof over about 40 tables and chairs. The atmosphere was very local and gave me the impression that we were sneaking into one of Singapore's better kept secrets. We ordered our food while waiting in line (SO EFFICIENT!) and the waiter gave us a card with an estimation of when our food would arrive (I wish more US restaurants were like this). After sitting at our table, we had the chance to look around at the one wall in the place, which was covered with crab shells of all different shapes, sizes, and shades of orange.

When our food arrived, I think I started salivating onto my shirt. Kin Hoe had taken the liberty to order for us again because he knew the best entrees to taste, and again he astounded us with the selection of food. The waiters set down in front of us: garlic bamboo clams (I thought these were just served on bamboo rod, but no these are actual 8-inch long clams in what looks to be a bamboo shoot, and each one was covered with the equivalent of about 10 cloves of chopped garlic), fried yam with vegetables and prawns, scallops and shrimp in a sweet curry sauce, and two types of crab. The first was the house specialty, which was a large crab boiled in a salty broth and noodles, allowing the crab flavoring to infuse into the noodles. You eat the crab while drinking the broth and noodles, and I was overcome with the freshness of the meat. But the second crab - oh my god the second crab - was chili crab. This was another large crab served in a bowl, and it was smothered in this chili/egg/tomato broth, which was the perfect combination of spiciness and flavor. Hands down the single best crab I've ever eaten. We all left the restaurant agreeing that we had discovered one of Singapore's local secrets, and we were asleep a short few hours later due to the effects of disastrous food coma. But I know I will return there as soon as I can so I can relive the experience of that chili crab. See below for the garlic bamboo clams and chili crab:

That's all for now. See all the food pictures at I have my first day of real teaching tomorrow, so I'm sure I'll have a ton of new stories after this week, depending on just how unruly my students are! I've been told they can be a handful, so I'm a little nervous but very excited, so look for the next update.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back-halfing an almost disastrous weekend

Last weekend I underwent my first experience as a backpacker, travelling to Melaka, Malaysia for the weekend. But barely.

As the week came to an end, I made plans to take the 4 hour bus from Singapore to Melaka with several other PiAers on Saturday morning at 8am. Knowing that Friday night was a hallmate's birthday party, I decided to pack everything before the party, and made sure to zip up my passport into a secure pocket in my backpack, before heading out for a night of drunken debauchery. Good idea, right? So I thought too.

I woke up Saturday morning, or rather was woken up by a friend at 730, a mere 40 minutes later than I was supposed to wake up, in a drunken daze. I rushed around my apartment, trying to gather all my things and run out the door, all with the heavy weight of a hard night of drinking on my mind. I grabbed my backpack, after rushing through its contents, and sprinted out the door to catch a cab to the busstop.

Sitting on the bus, sobering up slightly, I decided to check through to make sure I had all of my important items. IPod for the 4 hour trip... check. Camera... check. Employment pass.... check. Passport.... passport... passport.... PASSPORT.... PASSPORT!!!!!!!!! Where the hell is my PASSPORT!!!!!!

It suddenly became brilliantly apparent that I did not have my passport on me. I started freaking out on the bus. I ran off the bus, hailed a cab back home to my apartment, and started tearing through all of my belongings. 90 minutes and a thousand expletives later, I was still passport-less. It suddenly dawned on me that my passport could have been stolen. I attemped to call the US Embassy, only to find that they were closed until Monday. On my way out the door to go the police station, after abandoning all hope of making it to Melaka for the weekend, I stopped at my friend's apartment to let them know what happened. He recommended checking one more time in my apartment to make absolutely sure it was gone before moving forward. We went back into my place, and I made one last cursory sweep of my belongings. Finally, I decided just to check my toiletry bag just for completeness' sake, knowing it wouldn't be there... EXCEPT THERE IT WAS. Holy shit, I was an enormous moron. At some point between the beginning of Friday night (and drinks) and sitting on the bus Saturday morning, I had unknowingly switched my passport to a place I would never check... I'm an idiot.

But now it was time to try to catch a bus! It was 10:30 am, the bus stop was a 25 min cab ride away, and the last bus I was willing to take to Malaysia left at 11:00am. I sprinted out to the nearest cab station, sweat ensuing, and fidgeted for the 25 minute ride to the station. Pulling up to the busstop at 11:01am, I had exact change ready, and literally jumped out of the moving cab towards a moving bus. Waving my arms, I got the bus to stop, as the driver leaned out and asked, "Melaka?" "YES!" I exclaimed. 20 Sing dollars later and I was finally on a bus seat, passport in hand, and able to pass out.

4 hours later, I arrived in Melaka. Rather than describing my whole weekend during this already lengthy post, you can check out my pictures at Some highlights: an amazing hostel for $11RM (~$4.00 US), karaoke in the center of downtown in front of hundreds of spectators, and little boys staring at us because we were the only white people in town. I was able to visit some amazing cultural sites in Melaka, including some original fortresses and churches from the Dutch and Portuguese inhabitations of Melaka in the 1600s, as well as various open-market stalls where hundreds of locals wandered through looking for assorted goods to purchase. I sampled baba laksa, a local specialty comprised of shrimp, chicken, fishballs, noodles, and a coconut/curry broth; this is my new favorite Malaysian dish. Later, I haggled with a shop owner for a piece of artwork from 139 RM down to 40 RM, which now sits proudly on my wall in my apartment. On Sunday, my friend and I took some time out to relax on the roof of our hostel overlooking Melaka to drink some local coffee and munch on pineapple tarts, which are omnipresent in Malaysia. Finally, we took a bus back home for 19 RM, and I enjoyed the luxurious afterglow of a successful trip that almost didn't happen.

Singapore is creepy. Like really.

Every where I walk in Singapore, I'm constantly reminded of the government's influence on its citizens. Everything you hear about Singapore is that they are extremely concerned with their national and international image, particularly with regards to their citizen's ability to speak English "good", "smile levels", and international math test scores. There are campaign posters put up periodically around the country encouraging Singaporeans to speak less Singlish and English "more good" (which in itself is hilarious), as well as to smile more (so that the country is happier-seeming), and the country also allows its grade level students to take international math tests as many times as necessary to ensure that their national average is among the best in the world. However, none of these examples are as creepy as the following picture:

If you can't quite make out the poster, it is an advertisement for "Essence of Chicken" pills, which is being endorsed by two 12 year-old students who aced their PSLE (an EXTREMELY important standardized test taken by 12 year olds in Singapore. This test virtually determines the student's entire academic- as well as career- future). At almost every bus stop in Singapore you will see some variant of this poster, always claiming that this Essence of Chicken crap helped the students score higher on their tests. Personally, this poster makes me want to laugh and scream at the same time - laugh at the pure absurdity of its message, scream at the kids whose parents put them through this inane ordeal. These posters seem to me to be the equivalent of the stereotypical American female beauty posters which drive many girls to develop eating disorders and other self-esteem issues. No wonder Asians always seem so driven to excel in school, being bred in a culture such as this.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I guess this makes it officially a blog

Because according to Coach, up until now this was only an "article" and not a "blog," so thank you Coach for inspiring me to upgrade to blogger status.

Now that I've been here a week, I've begun to get a grip on how things work here. There's a couple things here so far that stand out in my mind right now, and they are: the transportation system, the food, and my job.

The most brilliant thing about Singapore is the public transportation system. It is psychotically easy to get around the city with the bus system, because it is the most well organized public transportation unit I have ever experienced. Basically, there are about 15-20 different bus lines, and at each bus stop, there is a list of the buses that service that station with the list of future and past stations serviced by each bus. In addition, using the website, you can find the exact bus route from any spot in Singapore to any other, and the best part is that you can take a 45 minute bus ride for about S$1.00 (US $.65). It's so cheap, you'd wonder why anyone in Singapore would buy a car (especially since it costs S$15,000 to buy a license of entitlement BEFORE you even can purchase a car).

Second, the food has been unreal. Singapore is a crossroads for an eclectic mix of ethnic groups, including Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, and others, including Muslim. That being said, the mainstay of the Singapore dining experience is the "hawker center," or outdoor markets comprised of a multitude of independent shops each selling a specialized cuisine. You can go to one location and get Thai chicken satay, Indian dosai (my personal favorite), roti prata (also amazing), chicken rice, breaded pork curry, and soooo many other options. What's more, you will stuff your face for less than S$5.00, and often for less than S$3.00. As the renowned "fat kid," I am more than in culinary heaven here. Just see below (I don't even know what I'm eating in this picture...):

Finally, my job. I'm working as an international lecturer in the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is basically a second-tier pre-university education facility. The Singapore education system is extremely track oriented, and the polytechnics are for those students who don't score well enough on their O-level exams (the equivalent of the SAT, except with much stronger consequences) to place into the University track. These students graduate from the Polytechnic and enter directly into the workforce and basically have almost no chance of admission into a university or other higher degree program.

So I'm teaching Cell and Molecular Biology to first year Pharmacy Science students (17-18 years old) as well as Microbiology to first year Biomedical Science students. I'm responsible for 3 hours of lecture, 3 hours of lab, and 1 hour of "tutorial" (precept for the Pton people), plus 9 hours of lab for the Microbiology class per week. For some reason, the staff at Ngee Ann thinks I'm the most qualified person for my job ever (I'm not), and they think I'm the most exciting thing to happen to this deparment in a decade. But realistically, I have little to no experience in a microbiology lab, and no formal teaching training, so I will be learning a lot as I go in the next couple of weeks. I look forward to the challenge though, and hopefully I can stay one step ahead of my students at all times.

That's it for now, I have a couple exciting events coming up which I'll update once they happen.