The 1-28 Incident: A Poem

On September 18th, 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria (the provinces in northeastern China) and establish the puppet state of Manchukuo, marking the beginning of the Second World War in the Far East.

Soon afterwards, in 1932, Japan laid its eyes on Shanghai, the largest city of China and an important trade port at the mouth of the Yangtze River. Thus, 84 years ago on this day, January 28th, 1932, the Japanese invaded Shanghai, known internationally as the infamous January 28th Incident.

Soon after the invasion, a Chinese lieutenant colonel, Zhu Yaozhang (朱耀章), submitted a petition with 188 other officers to volunteer to enter Shanghai to protect their homeland. Their petition was granted.

In the ensuing Battle of Shanghai, Zhu and the 5th Army fought courageously, holding Shanghai for 34 days. On March 2nd, the Japanese reinforcements arrived Shanghai. Largely outnumbered and surrounded, the battalion under his command fought till the last bullet before all sacrificing.

Zhu Yaozhang, who sacrificed protecting his homeland

When his body was recovered, 7 bullets were found inside his carcass. In his pocket was a poem that he wrote 2 days before his ultimate sacrifice:






“Thoughts after Patrolling the Camp under the Moonlight” — Zhu Yaozhang

The wind rustling, the night deep, the bright moon shines on the face of the warrior.
Fulfilling my duties as a soldier, patrolling the battlefield, unrecognizable is the city!
Worldly possessions are like clouds, the weak is mere flesh for the strong to devour.

Fire burning, bombs rumbling, red is the shore of the Huangpu River!
Buildings become rubbles, cities become battlefields, gone is yesterday’s prosperity.
Justice has fallen, devoured by people with a human face yet a monster’s heart!

The moon thickens, the stars dim, everywhere are cries of women and screams of babies.
Men die by the hundreds, heroes return after tens of years. Life, even if blessed by longevity, can only be up to a hundred years,
What in this world can I not part with? Let it be!

For freedom, fighting for the breath of survival, in Shanghai battling against the mighty.
Stepping through the grass of the shore, shedding the tears of heroes, there is nothing that can shake my determination:
I would rather have my skull crushed — return us our country!

Soldiers fighting amongst the rubbles of what used to be the prosperous Shanghai


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Hong Kong, Globalization and Conflicts (1 of 3): A Brief History (214BC-1898AD)

Around a year ago, mass protests broke out in my hometown Hong Kong, shocking the world, shattering the global image of this East Asian metropolis long known for its safety and stability. Many of my non-Hongkong friends have asked me about what has been going on in Hong Kong, and while I tried to explain as much as I can, there’s simply no short answer to the question.

Mass protests broke out on Sep 28, 2014, when protesters started occupying a main road on Hong Kong Island.

The Hong Kong that we see now is a society torn apart by internal conflicts deeply entrenched in its very structure. In the following blogs, I will seek to shed light on these recent turmoils that has engulfed Hong Kong, beginning with the city’s history, for these structural conflicts can only be understood within the context of its unique history, intricately embedded within major events of the history of China.

1. Hong Kong under Imperial China (214BC-1750AD)
Little was known about Hong Kong before the 1840s, since for the majority of history, it had seen little development.

In 221BC, King Zheng of the Qin state (from which comes the Arabic name “sin”, Latin “sino”, Spanish and English “china”) conquered all surrounding feudal states, proclaiming himself to be the First Emperor. Soon afterwards, in 214BC, the newly proclaimed empire defeated the “Southern barbarians” (南蠻), ie. the Yue people (粤/越) who were native to present day southern China and northern Vietnam (“Yue” and “Viet” are different accents/pronunciations of the same word that referred to same tribes).

Present day Hong Kong, then a small fishing village, was put under the jurisdiction of the County of Panyu. Little was known about Hong Kong during imperial China, with a few exceptions:

  • A grand tomb from the Han dynasty (206BC – 9AD) was excavated in 1955.
  • The first emperor of the Tang dynasty established a barrack in 736AD in the present day district of Tuen Mun (屯門, literally “garrison gate”).
  • The last emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279AD), Emperor Bing (宋帝昺), was pursued by the invading Mongolians, and upon realizing all had been lost, he committed suicide by jumping into the sea near present day Hong Kong.

Song Wong Toi (宋王台), the boulder commemorating the place where the last emperor of the Song dynasty jumped into the sea.

For the majority of the past two millennia, Hong Kong was a small fishing village. Its rise to international attention was, unfortunately, tied to another important event in Chinese history: the infamous Opium War.

2. International Trade in Pre-Modern China (1750-1840)
European merchants traded with China, importing tea and exporting opium.

With the Industrial Revolution staring in the 1750s in Europe, beginning with Britain, the European powers had produced so many goods that they need to sell. Thus, they tried exploring new markets so that the demands would catch up with production. Equipped with the navigation technologies refined throughout the Age of Discovery (1492-1750), trade over sea routes gradually replaced trade over land routes (ie the Silk Road, which since the ancient times connected Rome to Luoyang through the central Asian states).

With an increase of Western traders in China, the emperor of the Qing dynasty, considering China to be a self-sufficient economy, was determined to limit foreign influence. He decided to restrict foreign trade with China to one city: Guangzhou aka Canton, a major port along the Pearl River. In the early years of Canton trade, there was a net inflow of silver into China, as Western merchants bought tea, a highly profitable product, back to Europe (The English word “tea”, Spanish “te”, Arabic “shay”, Hindi “chai”, all come from the Chinese word 茶, pronounced “cha” in Cantonese Chinese and “te” in Teochew Chinese, which refers to the tea plant native to southwestern China), while the Chinese had no interest in the new goods produced industrially by the West.

The Canton Harbor and the warehouses of different European countries, c. 1785

Very soon, these European merchants were finding it harder and harder to obtain enough silver to trade with the Chinese, given that silver was the only legal tender in imperial China. Not being able to sell most of their products and not being able to get enough silver, British merchants began selling opium (鴉片) to China to balance the trade, since the poppy plant is native to its newly acquired colony, India. (Opium is an addictive smokable drug made from the poppy plant, from which heroin is also made.)

Initially, the local Chinese officials tolerated the trade, given that they benefited from the tariffs. Soon, however, the imperial court (ie. the central government) began to realize the social and economic impact of opium: people were spending their entire fortunes on opium, to which they were addicted, and having no money to buy more opium, many resorted to robbery. Opium soon became the cause of social and economic instability. In addition, the silver flow was reversed because of opium trade: the increasing net outflow of silver caused serious inflation within China, further intensifying the socio-economic issues. By 1838, the British East India Company was selling 1400 tons of opium into China per year for 30 million taels of silver in return.

Opium addicts in China

The issue split the government officials into two camps: pro-regulation and pro-ban. The pro-regulation camp stated to the emperor that to solve the problem of net silver outflow, the government should plant and sell opium itself, in additional to heavily taxing opium imports. The pro-ban officials stated that opium was an inherent destabilizer of society and was an evil that needed to be uprooted from China. (This is not unlike the recent recreational drug debate in modern day US.)

The problem was so widespread that from commoners to the emperor himself, many were addicted to opium. Realizing that many soldiers were also addicted, the most prominent pro-ban official, Lin Zexu (林則徐), declared to Emperor Daoguang (道光), “if we don’t uproot this evil, within ten years, we will have no money to pay our soldiers, nor will any soldiers have any ability to fight” (此禍不除,十年之後,不惟無可籌之餉,且無可用之兵). This ultimately convinced Emperor Daoguang to proclaim an imperial decree to ban opium in all of China.

3. Opium War: the first war on drugs (1840-1842)
The last time that a government declared a war on drugs, the drug traffickers responded with blood and steel, invading and colonizing the land, in the name of facilitating trade.

After getting the approval from the emperor, Lin wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of Britain, asking her how she, knowing that opium was harmful and having herself banned opium in Britain, could morally justify engaging in opium trade in China, at the same time notifying her of the new law that opium was banned in China.

The Emperor then sent Lin to Canton to confiscate any opium found and expel any foreign merchants breaking the law (ie. drug traffickers). In 1839, Lin demanded all European merchants hand over all their opium. Not taking this seriously, the merchants handed over only a couple chests of opium while continuing their business. Lin then blockaded all European warehouses, until the European merchants handed over their opium.

Most European merchants complied with the law, with the exception of the British, whose benefit in opium trade was the greatest amongst the European powers. 18 days later, Charles Elliot, the British head of commerce in China, lacking food and water, finally gave in, handing over 3 million pounds of opium, which Lin destroyed by boiling it with quicklime. Elliot, however, continued ignoring the law of the land and continued secretly selling opium.

Destruction of 3 million pounds of opium at Humen (虎門) by Lin Zexu

The immediate cause of the war was the murder of Lin Weixi, a native of the village of Kowloon, by British sailors under Elliot’s command. When Lin Zexu demanded the sailor be arrested and tried, Elliot claimed that the British sailor should be tried by British laws instead. Elliot’s “court” found the sailor guilty, but soon released him without any punishment. Infuriated by Elliot’s blatant insult of Chinese sovereignty, Lin Zexu blockaded the port of Canton, together with all British ships. The Daoguang Emperor also issued a decree to cut all trades with Britain.

Soon, the British parliament, together with Queen Victoria, decided to invade China to “uphold its national interests in China” . In June 1840, the British mobilized the Indian fleet, under the command of George Elliot (Charles Elliot’s cousin) and later Henry Pottinger, to attack various cities along the coast.

By the 1840s, the end of Industrial Revolution, Britain had mastered the techniques of producing high quality steel. This enabled the British to build up a powerful navy of steel ships with steam engines, ships that could move without sails. This ability to maneuver independent of weather gave great advantage to the British fleet, making it the most powerful navy of the world back then. In addition, the revolution in the production of metals also brought forth guns, which proved to be very powerful in land battles and short-distance contact battles.

The Qing dynasty’s fleet, made of wood, was no comparison to the steel fleet of Britain, despite the fortified cannons along the shore were able to sink some British ships. The British easily overtook Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai, coveting, burning, killing, raping, destroying everything they could find along the way. In addition to controlling the coast and the Yangtze River Delta,  the British also seized the Great Canal (京杭大运河) that connected the Yangtze River with Beijing (Peking), severing this main trade artery within China. Next, the British fleet and land troops continued heading up the Yangtze River, surrounding the city of Nanjing (Nanking).

The First Opium War, 1840-1842

The Daoguang Emperor was willing to do anything to have the British withdraw their troops. Thus the first “unequal treaty”, the Treaty of Nanking (南京條約), was signed in 1842, marking the beginning of China’s Century of Humiliation (1842-1945). The terms of the Treaty of Nanking (with the subsequent supplement Treaty of the Bogue 虎門條約) included:

  • Reparation: 21 million silver dollars.
  • Opening ports for British trade: Guangzhou (Canton), Fuzhou (Foochow), Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai. British warships can anchor at any designated ports of trade.
  • Consular Jurisdiction: all Brits are not subject to Chinese law, and all suspected crimes committed by Brits are to be investigated by the British consulate, not Chinese officials.
  • Most Favored Nation treatment: all rights subsequently given up by the Qing dynasty to any other countries will automatically apply to Britain as well.
  • Cession: The island of Hong Kong is to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity.

Signing of the Treaty of Nanking, 1842

4. Why Hong Kong? Geopolitics
Hong Kong (a butchered transliteration of 香港 [“heung gong” in Cantonese Chinese], literally meaning “port of fragrance” or “port of incense”) is located at the mouth of the Pearl River, the third largest river in China (after the Yangtze and the Yellow River).

The island of Hong Kong is a very small and hilly island with barely any flat land suitable for agriculture or any large constructions. Of the terms above, the one concerning Hong Kong seems to be the least useful to the British. One may wonder why the British would be interested in such an undeveloped (and undevelopable) island with essentially no resources. To understand the strategic importance of Hong Kong, we must first know of its geography.

  • Strategic location: The island of Hong Kong is at the mouth of the Pearl River, where it enters South China Sea. The port of Guangzhou (Canton) is about 120km (70 miles) up from the mouth of the Pearl River. Stationing troops in Hong Kong will thus give Britain control over trade to Guangzhou, a major city and port in the south, thereby the ability to extend its sphere of influence over huge areas in southern China.

Location of Hong Kong in relation to Guangzhou (Canton) and the rest of modern China.

  • An excellent harbor: The channel between Hong Kong Island and the main land is an excellent natural harbor (named Victoria Harbour after the invading British monarch). It is very deep and can allow warships and trade ships to enter without the need of intermediary ships to transport goods ashore (To this day, gigantic ocean liners and cruises can simply enter the harbor. Most other ports in the world can’t). In addition, it is a perfect haven for ships during typhoons (ie hurricanes), common in the South China Sea during the summer.
  • A stepping stone for future invasions: Hong Kong, in addition to serving as the main port of opium trade after the war, would also serve as a port of supply for British fleets in the Far East, without which the nearest would be India. Establishing an outpost in Hong Kong thus set the stage for further British invasions of China, as we shall see shortly. It is no coincidence that the commander of the British fleet  that defeated China in the Opium War, Henry Pottinger, became the first governor of the colony of Hong Kong.

5. The Second Opium War and the Treaty of Peking (1856-1860)
Not really about opium any more, but a war to expand Western privileges and exploitation in China.

After the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the Western powers realized the weakness of the Qing dynasty, and with the threat of war, each negotiated its own treaty with China, each granting similar trading privileges. These include:

  • Treaty of Wanghia (望廈條約), 1844, with the United States:
    • Granting similar rights as the Treaty of Nanking (5 ports of trade, Consular jurisdiction, Most favored nation).
  • Treaty of Whampoa (黃埔條約), 1844, with France:
    • Granting similar rights as the Treaty of Nanking,
    • All future changes to tariffs between China and any countries needed to be first approved by France.

In 1856, Britain and France, desiring to expand their gains in China, attempted to “re-negotiate” their treaties with the Qing dynasty, but were refused. Using a minor incident on a Chinese trade ship as an excuse, Britain and France first invaded Guangzhou (Canton), then Tianjin, and finally capturing Beijing (Pekin), the capital of the Qing dynasty. The Emperor and the royal family fled inland when the Anglo-French troops approached Beijing.

After capturing Beijing, the French troops looted and burnt down the Yuanming Gardens (圓明園), the summer garden of the Qing dynasty. The Yuanming Gardens were perhaps most well known for the water clock fountain, with the statues of the 12 zodiacs telling the time of the day. Some of these statues were recently being auctioned, with various Chinese businessmen “re-purchasing” these stolen treasures from foreign “collectors” for more than US$150 million. (Let this sink in).

Ruins of the zodiac water clock fountain Yuanming Gardens

With this defeat, the Qing dynasty signed the Treaties of Tientsin and Peking (天津條約,北京條約) with Britain and France (and Russia, who forcibly included itself in the treaty with the threat of war). The terms of the treaties included:

  • Reparations: 8 million taels of silver to each of France and Britain.
  • All Christians (including converted Chinese Christians) are not subject to Chinese law.
  • Cession to Russia: 1.5 million square kilometers of land (in present day Kazakhstan and Russian Far East), including Haishenwei (海參威, ie Vladivostok, which became the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway) is to be ceded to Russia.
  • Cession to Britain: The Kowloon Peninsula (九龍半島) is to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity.

Kowloon is the peninsula across the Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island. To this day, there is a street in the peninsular called Boundary Street (界限街) in Kowloon, which marked the boundary separating the British crown colony of Hong Kong and Kowloon with the rest of China.

(This piece of history is the reason that Chinese people nowadays generally refuse to use the British-imposed butchered transliterations of Peking, Nanking, Tientsin, and Canton, and instead prefer the more accurate transliterations of Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. It is considered offensive and you will be seen as a pro-colonialism Euro-centric supremacist if you insist on using these derogatory “British names” onto Chinese cities.)

Later, in 1898, the Qing government signed yet another treaty with the British, in which Britain would “lease” the lands north of Boundary Street and south of the “Sham Chun River” (ie Shenzhen River 深圳河) (the newly incorporated lands were appropriately called “New Territories”) for 99 years. (1898 + 99 = 1997, the year in which Britain handed back to China the crown colony of Hong Kong, which actually consisted of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsular, and the New Territories. More on the reunification later.)

Hong Kong Island (1842 Treaty of Nanking),
Kowloon Peninsular (1860 Treaty of Peking), and
the New Territories (1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory).

6. Hong Kong, a city borne out of globalization and war

Thus, in the name of trade, the British, together with the rest of the Western powers, forcibly opened the door to China with blood and steel. Hong Kong, once a quiet fishing village, became the witness to, or more appropriately, the child of the modern concept of globalization. The establishment of Hong Kong is inextricably bound to trade, but its story with globalization doesn’t end here. In the next blog, we shall see the rise of Hong Kong as an global city in the 20th century under British rule, 1842-1997.

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存在 Exist

While reflecting upon the insanity that happened at MIT for the past few weeks, I came across this song, 《存在》 (“Exist”), written and sung by Wang Feng, a popular Chinese rock singer.

The question raised by the song, “How should I exist?“, is inevitably a question that we have to ask ourselves. “Is it to find an excuse to continue begging for survival, or to spread your wings and fly up high?” , asks the singer, “Is it to find a reason to continue going with the tide, or to bravely walk forward, breaking our cage?

《存在》 —— 汪峰





“Cún Zài” – Wāng Fēng

duō shǎo rén zǒu zhe què kùn zài yuán dì
duō shǎo rén huó zhe què rú tóng sǐ qù
duō shǎo rén ài zhe què hǎo sì fēn lí
duō shǎo rén xiào zhe què mǎn hán lèi dī

shéi zhī dào wǒ men gāi qù xiàng hé chù
shéi míng bái shēng mìng yǐ biàn wéi hé wù
shì fǒu zhǎo gè jiè kǒu jì xù gǒu huó
huò shì zhǎn chì gāo fēi bǎo chí fèn nù
wǒ gāi rú hé cún zài

duō shǎo cì róng yào què gǎn jué qū rǔ
duō shǎo cì kuáng xǐ què bèi shòu tòng chǔ
duō shǎo cì xìng fú què xīn rú dāo jiǎo
duō shǎo cì càn làn què shī hún luò pò

shéi zhī dào wǒ men gāi mèng guī hé chù
shéi míng bái zūn yán yǐ lún wéi hé wù
shì fǒu zhǎo gè lǐ yóu suí bō zhú liú
huò shì yǒng gǎn qián xíng zhēng tuō láo lóng
wǒ gāi rú hé cún zài

“Exist” – Wang Feng

How many people are walking, yet are still stuck at the same place,
How many people are living, yet are no different from being dead,
How many people are loving, yet are just like separated,
How many people are smiling, yet are filled with tears.

Who knows to where we should go?
Who understands what life has become?
Is it to find an excuse to continue begging for survival,
Or to spread your wings and fly up high, channeling fury?
How should I exist?

How many times of glory, yet still feeling humiliation,
How many times of great joy, yet still suffering from pain,
How many times of happiness, yet my heart still feels as if it is being cut open,
How many times of splendor, yet I still feel as if I have lost my soul.

Who knows to where our dreams should belong?
Who understands to where dignity has fallen?
Is it to find a reason to continue going with the tide,
Or to bravely walk forward, breaking our cage?
How should I exist?

In Memoriam, Christina Tournant ’18

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On Happiness and Fulfillment

Some time last semester, I was having a particularly bad day. The weather was shitty as always. I just got rejected by 3 companies. I just got back a quiz which I knew I did terribly on. People were not replying to texts. I was in a bad mood, and things kept on adding up. Everything just sucked. A sense of emptiness overtook me. Thoughts ran across my mind. “Why am I here? What am I doing here?” I asked myself.

Then, I came across this video called the “Skype laughter chain challenge.” The challenge was simple: don’t laugh. [Please watch it, I can wait.]

By the third guy I just burst into laughter and almost choked. After pausing the video and taking a few deep breaths I was like “whew, that was a good laugh.” I was feeling better, I was happy, at least for a moment.

That night, as I laid in bed, that sense of happiness left and I realized that I was still empty. “What is it that I seek?” I asked myself, “Happiness? What is happiness?”


All of us want to be happy.

But happiness is a fleeting emotion. It comes and goes. Happiness has the same root as the word “happen,” which implies it occurs by accident. That’s why a silly video of people laughing can make us feel happy for a couple minutes, when in fact nothing in our lives has changed. And when that emotion is gone, emptiness engulfs us again.

So many times I walked by 77 Mass Ave, and realized that I’m just like the Alchemist statue: with all the math and science on the outside, but is hollow at the core. It’s as if there’s an infinite void inside of me that consumes everything that I try to throw in there to fill the void. I just wanted that void filled, for that void was consuming me.

20141021_161426_AndroidThe Alchemist statue by the Student Center


Then I realized, it is not happiness, but fulfillment that we truly seek. The fulfillment which gives our life its very meaning. How great of a notion it is, to say that I am not only happy, but fulfilled.

But we cannot be fulfilled by material things, for we are more than any of that. Whenever we seek to define ourselves with things that are less than us, we lose sight of our true value. We are not defined by our work, or our successes or failures, or our test scores or grades. We are more than anything that we have done or will ever do, because our life has an inherent value. A value that nothing that has ever existed in this world can ever replace. An intrinsic value that nothing, not even ourselves, can take away.

We all have times when we feel down. Shit happens. Things come and go. But that does not in any way decrease who we are. Let not mishaps discourage us, for it is precisely in these mishaps that we see who we truly are. Just as a candle’s light is more significant when it is surrounded by darkness, our lives are even more meaningful and beautiful because of the challenges we face.

Life is beautiful. You are beautiful. Let no one, especially yourself, tell you otherwise.

In Memoriam, Matthew Nehring MIT ’18, 1996-2015.


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In Search of the Tower of Babel: a (biking) Tale of Two Cities

I have always loved languages. The ability to speak to different people from all across the world in their native tongue excites me. So much of what you say, what you think, what expressions you use, your tone, your word choice, your worldview, so much of human interactions are based on the language you speak. So much of miscommunication comes from the underlying assumptions that people have, so much of confusion comes from the language barriers between people. The ability to speak another language seem to be a key in opening up doors, into the minds of other people. It gives you a peek into another culture, another way of thinking, another way of being.

Palace of Generalife, Granada, the last Muslim Emirate to surrender to Castille (Spain)

Palace of Generalife, Granada, the last Muslim Emirate to surrender to Castille (Spain) in 1492

My semester abroad in Spain fuels this excitement even more. Especially after visiting Andalucia, the southern part of Spain under Moorish rule for 800 years. Cordoba, the capital of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, the largest city that the West has yet to see, the ornament of the world, with its vast libraries and universities preserving invaluable translated manuscripts that would otherwise be lost in the West during the Dark Ages. I was in awe by the great architectural forms of the Castle of Alhambra and the Palace of Generalife, finely decorated with different Muslim motifs. I can only imagine the grandeur of the Caliphate at its most glorious years. I wanted to know more about this culture.

Therefore, as I returned to MIT this fall, I have decided to cross-register for Arabic at Harvard (all MIT students can cross register into any classes offered by Harvard except Harvard Business School). So now I speak 4 languages / 5 tongues: 我識講廣東話,懂得说普通话, I speak English, hablo español, واتكلم اللغة العربية (barely). 😛

Me with my Harvard ID at Harvard's Widener Library :)

Me with my Harvard ID at Harvard’s Widener Library 🙂

I found Arabic pretty hard to learn (and it’s only 6 weeks into the semester). Perhaps because it’s the first time I am learning something that I have nothing to attach it to — when I learned Spanish, I knew the Latin alphabet, and some Spanish words have cognates in English, which allowed me to build my vocab fairly quickly. But in Arabic, which is from an entire different language family, essentially no vocabs transfer over, in addition to the fact that the grammar is very different from the Western languages (and Chinese).


A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a Harvard professor about languages. He noted that throughout history the evolution of languages seems to be a continual process of simplification: eg. the Romantic languages simplified from Latin; English, a Germanic language greatly simplified from high-German grammar; the modern Sinitic languages from Ancient Chinese, with monosyllabic words replaced by multi-syllabic words, becoming much more verbose.

language-mapThere was a linguistic research claiming that the language family patterns and the linguistic shifts seem to coincide with the migratory patterns of us humans throughout history. The research uses changes in key features as a tool to estimate the time of branching of languages, and the it suggests that original “mother tongue” — the primeval language to which all modern language families traces — arouse around 200,000 years ago, matching the genetic research that the most recent common mitochondrial ancestor of all humans (the “mitochondrial Eve”) is around 200,000 years ago.

Then the question comes: if languages tend to simplify over time, then how did this original “mother tongue” with extremely complicated grammatical structures arise in the first place?

I hope that by learning different languages, I can have a slight glimpse into what that “mother tongue” might be like, in my search for the Tower of Babel.



Hahvahd Yahd

I have been back from Spain for more than 4 months now, and I could feel I was losing Spanish already — over the summer I went to a Spanish mass and I couldn’t quite understand what was being said. To keep the language alive in me, I have been going to this study center up in Harvard where there are a lot of Spaniards, to practice my Spanish with them. This week I went to a Salvadoran movie/documentary with a friend from El Salvador. I just went to the Cena a las Seis, the Latino event for MIT’s family weekend.

Something that is perhaps more important to me as a Chinese is the ability to speak Mandarin. I have been in the US for way too long and I have pretty much lost the ability to speak Mandarin fluently by the time I came back from Spain, especially because Mandarin is not my mother tongue (Cantonese is, so I can still speak Cantonese perfectly despite not speaking it on a regular basis, but not with Mandarin). Fortunately, my roommate this year speaks Mandarin, and I have made an effort to speak exclusively in Mandarin to anyone whom I know speaks Mandarin.

It takes a lot of effort to keep the ability to speak languages alive, but it is such an important skill that I am not willing to give up. A typical day would start with me waking up and biking to Harvard for Arabic, coming back to MIT’s student center and order food in Cantonese, then go in class (English), come back home and talk about random stuff in Spanish and Mandarin with my housemates, and listen to Mandarin and Cantonese songs while doing psets.



The Arabic class meets every day. So, I bike to Harvard everyday — biking is the most time-efficient and cost-efficient means of transport in Boston/Cambridge. From home to Harvard is about 13 min (green path), Harvard to MIT is about 8 min (deep blue path), and MIT back home (red path) is around 7 min.

As you can probably see from the map, the roads are pretty messed up around Harvard — there are just way too many one-way roads there. You have to know the roads really well cuz you have to take a different street when coming back. Harvard Square is such a pain to bike through. Also, Central Square (the neighborhood between Harvard and MIT) is known for having aggressive drivers and pedestrians. I was biking up to Harvard from MIT last week (along the deep blue path in the map) through Central Square along the bike lane, when a jay-walker just sneaked past parked cars and started to cross Mass. Ave. It was too late for me to break, so I yelled “watch out!” Instead of stopping or backing up, that guy pushed me sideways, yelling “you bastard motherf*er!” at me (luckily the momentum of my bike kept me going forward so I didn’t fall). But seriously what the hell.

So here are 10 urban biking tips that I found useful:

  1. Always lock both the frame and the wheel of your bike with a U lock. Don’t just lock the frame or the wheel. Don’t use a wire lock.
  2. When biking along bike paths right next to parked cars, watch out for people opening their car doors. Stay at least 3 feet from parked cars.
  3. If a street does not have a bike lane and it is too narrow to bike at the side of the road, take the whole lane. Stay in the middle of the lane.
  4. At lights, instead of stopping in front of the cross walk, pull your bike up all the way past the crosswalk. This way, when the light turns green, you will be in front of the cars making right turns.
  5. Don’t be afraid to bike between cars (eg between the 1st lane and the 2nd land instead of between the 1st lane and the sidewalk).
  6. Make hand signals before every turn. If you don’t, you will likely surprise some drivers. On the other hand, watch out for turning signals.
  7. Buses are the worst cuz they just stop right on the bike lane and you can’t really bike to their right cuz they are always right by the sidewalk. Don’t hesitate to pass them on their left (of course, don’t forget to make a left hand signal before doing so. You don’t want to get hit by the car behind you).
  8. Always look back before you switch lanes / pass other bikes / cars to see if there’s a car right behind you.
  9. Know which reds you can run and which reds you can’t. This comes from experience / familiarity of the roads.
  10. Watchout for jay-walkers. If you have to swerve left to avoid running into them, look back before doing so to avoid getting hit.
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海闊天空 Vast skies, wide oceans

The past two weeks have been really hard. Really hard. I’ve had worse weeks than this work-load wise –there were weeks with 5 psets and 2 midterms last fall. This week, a week with a mere 4 psets and 2 tests –a “normally bad” week– should not be able to take me down.

But something is different this time. I’m tired in every way. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I seemed to have lost all motivation. I don’t know why. I slept a lot, at least 8 hours every day, but still woke up exhausted. I got sick after getting soaked while biking to Harvard. Everything just sucks.

I have been listening to my playlist of retro Chinese music to ease the pain of the week. And this song stuck. Not just its rhythm and tunes, but more so, its lyrics:

Original Chinese lyrics:

海闊天空 (1993)

今天我 寒夜裡看雪飄過
風雨裏追趕 霧裡分不清影蹤
天空海闊你與我 可會變 (誰沒在變)

多少次 迎著冷眼與嘲笑
一剎那恍惚 若有所失的感覺
不知不覺已變淡 心裡愛 (誰明白我)

背棄了理想 誰人都可以


Cantonese transliteration:

hoi fuut teen hung (1993)

gum teen ngor, hon ye loei hon suet piu gwor
waai jerk laang kerk liu dik sum wor piu yuen fong
fung yu loei joei gon, mou loei fun but ching ying jung
teen hung hoi fuut nei yu ngor, hor wui been (soei muut joi been)

dor siu chee, ying jerk laang ngaan yu jaao siu
chung muut yau fong hei gwo sum jung dik lei serng
yut saat naa fong fut, yerk yau sor sut dik gum gok
but jee but gok yee been taam, sum loei oi (soei ming baak ngor)

*yuen lerng ngor je yut sung but gei fong jung oi jee yau
yaa wui paa yau yut teen wui deet dou
bui hei liu lei serng, soei yun dou hor yee
naa wui paa yau yut teen jee nei gung ngor

ying yeen jee yau jee ngor
wing yuen gou cherng ngor gor
jau peen cheen lei

English translation:

Vast skies, wide oceans (1993)

Today I, watching the snow drifting through the cold night,
with a coldened heart I drift afar.
Chasing after the wind and rain,
in the fog the shadows and the paths can’t be distinguished.
Look at this vast skies and wide oceans, you and I,
will we change? (Who wouldn’t change?)

How many times have I faced cold shoulders and ridicule,
yet never have I given up my heart’s ideals and hopes,
A moment of absentmindedness, the sudden feeling of loss,
The love in my heart, fading away slowly, without realization (Who understands me?)

*Forgive me for loving a life of indulgence of freedom
Although I’m still afraid that one day I might fall, oh no~
Anyone can abandon their hopes and ideals,
But I’m not afraid of the day when there’s only you and me.

Yet I am still free,
Always proudly singing my song,
Walking for thousands of miles.



“Take one step back, and you will see the vastness of the sea and the sky.”

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Living on a Promise

After taking the quiz, the last of this terrible week with 4 psets, 3 tests, and 4 interviews, I walked out of the infinite corridor through Lobby 7, tired, exhausted. I crossed Mass Ave, and as usual, swarms of tourists were taking pictures of 77 Mass Ave. They were pointing at the little dome, which made me turn around to see what was on there.


A black-and-white banner that read “10.28.95 φ 9.21.14” was hanging from the top of building 7, gently waving as a breeze passed by. I stared at the banner for a moment, pondering what that might mean. Tears watered my eyes as soon as I realized.

It was the birth and death dates of Phoebe Wang, a sophomore in Mechanical Engineering who committed suicide this week. *


Suicide. Overshadowing the Institvte like the banner overshadows Building 7.

My heart bleeds. This is the 6th suicide of the year, after 4 grad students and a professor. What could possibly cause a bright young woman with a bright future ahead of her to take her own life? What could possibly cause such bright people to take their own lives?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking the question, because we know that feeling of being extremely stressed way too well already.

Halfway through this week, Tuesday night, after loading up on coffee pulling an all-nighter for a lab, I crashed onto my bed. The sun was going to rise soon, yet I knew I couldn’t fall asleep, or else I would miss my 9am interview in a couple hours. I stared into the top bunk, glancing over to my whiteboard on the wall, seeing my seemingly endless to-do list for this week.

That vocab quiz on Friday is so going to destroy me.

Sh*t I have 2 psets and a test tomorrow and I haven’t even started any of them.

Why am I doing all these. What’s the point. Burning myself out and living like a zombie.

Living like a zombie. What would the cashier at Verde’s think when I bought a coffee at 2am, clearly sleep-deprived? Would it be of disdain or of admiration? Or of indifference? All those tourists visiting MIT, taking pictures of every single thing they can find here, what do they think of us?

Why then am I here? Why would anyone willingly take this pressure onto themselves? Why am I not quitting already? What are we living on?



We are living on a promise. We are living on the promise that tomorrow will be better. We are living on the promise that we will succeed in life. The promise that all the knowledge we learn here will make us excel and succeed. That all the hard work that we put in, all the all-nighters we pulled, all the toil and grudge that we go through here, they are all going to contribute to making us the best in whatever we do in life.

Yet often times we fail to realize that our 4 years here are also part of our life. An invaluable and perhaps the most glorious time of life, a time of formation, a time of freedom, a time of youth. Often times we are not actively reminded that MIT is a bubble. Often times we get caught up in the mechanics of the Institvte itself, losing track of the big picture: “Why are we here?”

We are here to develop skills necessary for a professional life. We are here to form friendships that will last a lifetime. We are here to live.

In Memoriam, Phoebe Wang ’17, 10/28/1995 — 9/21/2014.

* Although it is most likely a suicide, the exact cause of death is still under investigation:

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