Year in Review: 2016

Well, it’s officially 2017.

2016 was one hell of a year. On one hand, it was a pretty good year because I made a lot of progress in my work, and I also had a chance to go on a bunch of trips to new places. But on the other hand, it was probably the most physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful year of my life.

So all in all, it’s been one giant roller coaster of a ride.

2016 started off with some sparklers, tangerines, and chocolate in a Hungarian bar in Korea.
2016 started off with some sparklers, tangerines, and chocolate in a Hungarian bar in Korea.

Let’s talk about the good things first. If you disregard all the negative aspects of the year, 2016 was probably one of the best years of my life. Easily in the top three I think, although it’s hard to rank exactly.  The most obvious highlights of my year were the travels I went on.

In February I went on a trip to Hong Kong, Malaysia (Malacca and Kuala Lumpur), and Singapore which was just a fantastic trip because I had a chance to spend Chinese New Year with my family in Hong Kong and visit a new area, Southeast Asia with my friends. The summer also saw a short trip home back to Canada too, and going home is always great. Finally, I went on my first international “business trip” in October when I went to Dubai for the Global Grad Show.

Having an international trip staggered like that was fantastic. I always had something to look forward to, and each trip was wonderful in its own way. It was especially awesome since that’s three new countries that I have never been to before, in two areas that I also haven’t visited prior to those trips. I definitely had a lot of fun during those trips and also learned a lot.

Some cool people I went to Malaysia with.
Some cool people I went to Malaysia with.

It was a pretty big year for my family too. The big one would obviously be my sister having a kid, meaning that I’m officially an uncle now. The main reason why I went back home in the summer was to meet my new nephew and I’m eagerly waiting for when I can go back home next so I can play with him some more. As additional bonuses, two of my cousins got married this year as well, which is just a merry time.

My parents also came to visit me in Korea twice, and I also had a bunch of friends visit as well. It’s always nice to have visitors. The friends I have in Korea are fantastic, but it’s different to talk to someone from my pre-Korea days. Just, different topics and different feelings you know? Really milks the nostalgia.

Pictured: A non-Canadian dude representing Toronto more than the actual Canadian dude.
Pictured: A non-Canadian dude representing Toronto more than the actual Canadian dude.

This was my first full year at KAIST, which I will definitely talk about later in the post (foreshadowing). Surprisingly my grades went up. My first semester had some (relatively) abysmal grades, but the last two semesters saw a rise in my GPA. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I ditched the dorm and got my own place. Probably not though.

I also had my first conference paper published this year. That said, it’s in a domestic Korean conference that has incredibly low standards so it’s not really an achievement in any way, but it’s still kinda neat. Speaking of conferences, I got brought to another Korean HCI conference earlier in the year and that was a fun little trip too since it was held in a ski resort and casino.

The High1 Ski Resort, a place I definitely went to just for an HCI conference.
The High1 Ski Resort, a place I definitely went to just for an HCI conference.

There were just a lot of really good moments in 2016. Hanging out with friends, playing with new technology, trying new things – there’s just too much to list.

But despite all the good things in 2016, this was also an incredibly terrible year.

Like I’m willing to give it the title of the worst year of my life, which is both really not saying too much cause I haven’t lived that bad of a life, but at the same time is saying a decent amount considering how much fun I had during the year.

A light in the darkness. Korean style.
A light in the darkness. Korean style.

The theme of the year was definitely politics and tragedy. I never really used to pay attention to politics that much, and I never really followed the news. But after coming to Korea and meeting so many people from all around the world, international relations and events have quickly risen to something I actually follow. It’s easy to just block out news when it’s happening somewhere on the other side of the world and not directly affecting you, but when you know people from those areas and see how they’re being affected, it’s hard to ignore.

Like, I have friends who are British or living in the UK who were so confused and upset with the results of the Brexit referendum. During the Turkish coup I had another friend who went back home message me that he heard the jets flying overhead. And obviously everyone on my Facebook, both American and not, was going insane over the American election.

And then we get to all the tragedies. There’s been a lot of death in the news this year. Be it from attacks, accidents, or natural causes. Maybe technology is just keeping us so connected so it just seems like bad things are happening all the time. Or maybe bad things are just happening more often. Regardless, it’s a pretty bad feeling to shake. Especially when there’s so much hate and discrimination thrown around due these.. events. I think the most important thing though, is to stay strong regardless of what happens. Otherwise, the terrorists win.

Korea also had their largest earthquakes in many years, despite not being too big.
Korea also had their largest earthquakes in many years, despite not being too big.

On a bit more on a local level, 2016 was pretty rough for me too. Studies are KAIST are tough. The most ironic part is that the studying aspect is nothing at all, but the lab work and the expectations are definitely taking a toll on me. Spending so much time in the lab working on projects is incredibly tiring, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up in 2017, but thankfully it should only last half a year this year.

It’s also been almost two and a half years since I’ve come to Korea. And considering how most of my friends aren’t from Korea, it also means that the natural ebb and flow of everyone’s lives are slowly tearing our relationships apart. It sounds bad, but I’ve already had some friends leave Korea and the increase of work in our schoolwork is also making it more difficult to see the friends that are still here.

Probably my favourite group picture of 2016, taken at a farewell party.
Probably my favourite group picture of 2016, taken at a farewell party.

But alas, ’tis life.

2017 should be a very interesting year for me. It’s interesting because it’ll be the first time since 2014 (long time right?) where I have no idea what my future holds. Naturally, I never know the future, but you can generally make educated guesses. But this time around, I really don’t know. I know that I’m graduating this year, but that’s about it.

What am I going to do after graduation? Where will I be after graduation? How will I graduate? These are questions I have no answers to. A bit scary really. People ask me these questions all the time, and I ask myself these questions all the time too. But in reality, it’s really not my decision. I want to find a job somewhere making cool things. I’ll be applying to a lot of places all around the world, but the decision to hire me is not mine.

Maybe I’ll go back home to Canada. Maybe I’ll end up staying in Korea. Maybe I’ll go to a third country. Who knows?

I don't normally get homesick but.. I wouldn't mind being home right now.
I don’t normally get homesick but.. I wouldn’t mind being home right now.

I’ll deal with it when I get there I guess. It’ll be nice to go with the flow again.

I just want a nice break after I graduate. I’m planning on going back to Europe for another grad trip. Should be fun, especially since I have a lot of friends scattered all around Europe now. And speaking of travelling, I have a short trip to Taiwan booked for a couple weeks from now too as a quick break from the lab.

I’m hoping that 2017 will be a fantastic year. Not just for me but for everyone. We could use a 2017, not a 2016S.

Kuala Lumpur: The City with Three Towers

Finally, the last stop in my February trip. Before coming back to Korea, me and my friends went back to Malaysia to check out the capital, Kuala Lumpur. As the capital, I expected more from the city as compared to Malacca, and honestly I think it was more of a fun place to visit.

For one, there’s more stuff to see and do. Kuala Lumpur (from now on KL because I can’t spell) is a fairly big city with a decent amount of things to check out. We weren’t there for very long though, about a day and a half, but we still managed to see a decent amount.

The moment you get into the city, the most striking thing you see are the towers. Many cities have towers and they add to the overall atmosphere of the city, typically towering (heh) over the rest of the city and thus making it a pretty significant landmark.

The KL Tower in the early afternoon.
The KL Tower in the early afternoon.

So KL is pretty unique because it actually has three towers. The first tower is the traditional one, KL Tower. It looks like any other regular ol’ tower with a standard plain base and an observation deck. It also lights up in a bunch of different colours at night.

The other two towers are definitely much more spectacular. Technically, the Petronas Towers are not towers, but rather skyscrapers, but they’re called towers so here we are. Those are probably the most iconic buildings in Malaysia as they are twin buildings that are also connected. Being twin towers is important because by themselves, they wouldn’t be that impressive.

But the fact that there’s two and they’re joined by a giant mall makes all the difference. They’re actually pretty spectacular to look at, especially at night when the towers are just awash in light and look magnificent

The Petronas Towers at night.
The Petronas Towers at night.

The three towers are within walking distance of each other too. My hotel was close to the KL Tower but after maybe a 10? 15? minute walk you could reach the Petronas Towers too which was cool.

The least cool part though, was that I actually didn’t go up any of the towers. This is surprising because I actually really like going up towers to check out the city from observation decks. Pretty much every time I go to a city I check out the tower there. I did that in both Malacca and Singapore and also had the plan to do so in KL as well, but the theme of the trip was just, bad coordination and planning.

The stairs leading up to the Batu Caves.
The stairs leading up to the Batu Caves.

The first day went ok. We went out to check out the Batu Caves which was really cool, probably my highlight of the KL leg of my trip. The next day was a lot less coordinated. I thought that KL had a lot to see, but when you get actually get there you realize you don’t really need to spend that much time there.

For example we took the city bus for a bit. Out first stop was the Istana Negara which was really nice, but you weren’t allowed in. So you essentially got on the bus, got driven to a palace, walked around for five minutes, then got driven back to the city.

A lot of the city was similar too. Lots of nice scenic and interesting spots, but you walk around for a few minutes and realize there’s actually not too much to do.

Istana Negara, the residence of the Malaysian monarch.
Istana Negara, the residence of the Malaysian monarch.

Although I will admit, a lot of the city is nice. It’s just that I thought that there wasn’t much to do. Maybe I was just doing it wrong, and I probably was doing it wrong. But whenever we went to a park or to a random tourist attraction, we just ended up walking around for like 30 minutes and moving on because there was nothing there to keep us there.

I feel like KL is one of those places that has a lot to offer if you spend more time there. There’s enough stuff in there that I’m sure you can really find some unique stuff there. But being there for only a day and a half really limits how much you can do, especially considering you want to see as much as you can, which naturally results in spending minimal amount of time actually indulging in what the city has to offer.

But anyways back to the towers. I went to the base of the Petronas Towers and went into the mall, but we never went up. And my hotel was literally next to the KL Tower, but due to a massive fail in timing, we got to the tower at like 9:30 and just missed the last entry for the observation deck. Which really sucked because I really wanted to go up the tower to look at the Petronas Towers.

The National Mosque of Malaysia.
The National Mosque of Malaysia.

Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country I went to, and also the first Muslim country I’ve been to. It was different and pretty neat to go visit, but I don’t really feel an urge to make a trip out of it and go again anytime soon. That said, I wouldn’t mind doing another short trip, like a day or two, to KL where I can check out a bit more of the city and reconsider my first impression. Even like a eight hour layover or something would be acceptable. I totally wouldn’t mind going up one of those towers, considering how I missed out last time.

And this is it! I’ve finally finished the recap of my February trip. Just in time for the end of 2016 too which is good because I was worried I wouldn’t get it done in time. Luckily this means that I have entries on this blog about every trip I’ve done (going home doesn’t count), which is pretty neat. I’ll write about travels again when I go somewhere new, but for now, other types of entries!

Singapore: The Theme Park City

Continuing the retrospective of my trip in February, the third part of my trip was to Singapore. I’ve actually heard a lot about Singapore before I went and was always curious to go. In fact, despite Malaysia being the main destination for that part of the trip, I was actually looking forward to the visit to Singapore the most.

I always think that city states are really interesting. They’re obviously really small so that impacts the development of the city a lot. When you’re dealing with a country the size of Canada for example, you can only micromanage so much. But with a city, you can do a lot more. Governments, businesses, the people, everyone. It’s like a breeding ground for their own unique culture and style. Which honestly is really cool.

The Esplanade theaters, which are shaped like durians.
The Esplanade theaters, which are shaped like durians.

Prior to my trip to Singapore, the only city states that I’ve been to were Hong Kong and Macau, which are both very unique cities too. Hong Kong feels very mature. It’s like a big financial city with many different traditional elements. Macau on the other hand doesn’t even really feel like a city, rather more like a traditional town that just so happens to contain a massive gambling strip. It feels quite artificial in a sense because you know it was developed for a specific reason.

Singapore feels kind of like a mix of that for various reasons. For one, it has that big city feel like Hong Kong does, but things feel a bit, newer, I guess. A lot of the buildings feel very modern and unique, especially with their interesting architecture and designs. Their streets are also really clean and well decorated with both modern and natural elements. The overall atmosphere feels quite nice. I really liked it there.

In a way, it kinda reminded me of Disneyworld or something. You’re in a place that kinda feels familiar but just, more magical or something. The buildings are nice and fancy, and everything is just very prim and proper. When you’re walking through the city you also end up finding many interesting buildings or displays just scattered around, which makes it like a mini adventure even when you’re just walking down the street.

Mirror orbs in a park-like area.
Mirror orbs in a park-like area.

My favourite part of Singapore by far was the Gardens by the Bay. It’s absolutely amazing because it’s probably the most unique fusion of natural and man-made elements I have ever seen. You’re in this giant park right behind the Marina Bay Sands, which is a sight to behold to begin with, but you’re not looking at the Sands, you’re looking at the two unique observatories that jut out of this.. forest of both real trees and supertrees.

I don’t even really have the words for it. It’s just such a unique park. First off, those two observatories are really cool. The Cloud Forest is definitely the coolest conservatory I’ve ever seen. Not only is the building aesthetically pleasing to look at, but the exhibit itself is mindblowing. It’s such a cool showcase of plant life and the route you take going through it is really awesome too. Parts of it are on suspended bridges which just adds to the whole experience. The other observatory, the Flower Dome, was cool too, but it was not as unique as the Cloud Forest.

Suspended bridges branching in the Cloud Forest.
Suspended bridges branching in the Cloud Forest.

The main theme of this post really is wonder and amazement. There’s just so many things I thought was so cool in Singapore that despite only really being there for like, a day and a half, I had an amazing time.

Maybe it’s because I’m a design student now, but I’ve found myself appreciating unique design a lot more now than I used to. Going back to the idea of the design of city states, obviously the basic needs of the citizens and residents are paramount. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t go above and beyond in other aspects, especially when you’re dealing with a smaller area where atmospherics can actually be applied. In a way, it kinda brands the city too and makes it more attractive for tourists.

I really think that Singapore does this really well. Whether you’re wandering the downtown core checking out the fancy buildings, or at Sentosa, which like actually is a theme park, or even while you’re checking out the nature at the night safari, everything in Singapore feels so uniquely Singaporean. It’s hard to explain, but the feeling is really neat. The city is so cohesive and well integrated.

The sense of natural co-existence is fairly strong in Singapore.
The sense of natural co-existence is fairly strong in Singapore.

Overall, I had a really great time in Singapore. My biggest regret of my entire February trip was that I couldn’t spend more time in Singapore. A variety of reasons ended up making my visit a bit shorter than I liked, but I did a lot when I was there. And honestly, everything was fun. Expensive, but fun.

I would definitely go back to Singapore. In fact, I’d go back like, soon too if the opportunity arose. I think that when I go back to Southeast Asia, I’m going to use Singapore as a hub for sure. I felt very comfortable there and liked what I saw, and there’s definitely more cool things to be seen. I’d recommend people to go check it out too.

Like I said, it’s a bit expensive though. I think it’s probably the most expensive place in Asia, even more than Japan. Which honestly is just more shocking due to where it is, since all the countries around Singapore are fairly cheap. Regardless, totally worth it.