Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Z-monster

It's not quite what you think it is. Clearly I've been lacking sleep the past few nights - working late, rising early. That biological clock of mine just refuse to allow me more sleep. Having gotten used to waking at 7.30am meant that I don't normally (repeat, normally) sleep past 8.30am.

But yup, I'm lacking sleep, which is why I'm losing focus with this entry: the Z-monster isn't about sleep (or lack thereof). I'm talking about the Z-curve.

Recall your statistics course in Uni. Or JC. Or whenever. There definitely was a time back in your schooling days of yore that you did some statistics. And if you know what I'm talking about, then you will surely remember the Normal distribution.

Quite an extraordinary feat of human ingenuity, this distribution. Effectively, its saying that half of any distribution is on this side, and its symmetrically on the other side as well. Like most things a human mind is capable of imagining, it has come to assume a phallic shape (especially more so when you reduce its 'spread'):

A normal distribution is also known as the z-curve. The z-curve is the bane of every INSEAD student.

Why do I say that? Coz we're graded based on the z-curve. This means that absolute marks don't count - one doesn't pass by getting 50% of the marks. One passes if he doesn't fall too far down the distribution to land beyond negative 2 sigma from the mean (i.e. 95 percentile bottom up).

The problem is that the z-curve forces you to be competitive: if you want to make it, you have to be just that much better than everyone else because everything is relative. How well you do is in relation to how badly someone else does. It is kind of like Harvard: the students there are so competitive that they'll sabotage your ability to perform wherever they can (disclaimer: Not a personal experience, hearsay only!!). Supposing you left your notes inadvertently in the library? They'll be gone the next moment - don't expect them back.

I digress - the whole problem is, this z-monster is making everyone work hard. Which means I have to work hard. And when I work hard, I can't blog much and my blog entries suffer from bad grammar and horrible sentence structures. Such as starting sentences with the word 'AND'. And not doing much about it. And the worst part: not actually caring.

Stressed I am. Exams force you to a corner and it makes you work your ass off for artificial rewards. I can only hope that I do well enough not to fall too far off the mean - everyone here is smart (the average GMAT is 700 something I recall) and everyone here is to some degree competitive.


I meant to write something about Brokeback Mountain, which I saw last Saturday... it touched me, but the thing is, what I wanted to write was a memory which the premise of Brokeback Mountain triggered (and it is kind of crude compared to the sensitivity on display in Brokeback). Later perhaps - keep coming back and I might just put it up. :)

Right. Back to studying....

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Heritage Dash Feb 2006

Like any institution with enough crazy minds, INSEAD has its own traditions to uphold. One of these is the Heritage Dash - a 3 minute run from the Heritage condominium at Dover Rise to INSEAD's Singapore Campus. The catch: you have to do it in costume.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Tweety birds.

Revenge of the Cooked Chilli Crabs

Clowns aren't all that strange in this crowd




The Dash begins!

Saddam was spotted outside Fairfield Methodist

Chicken Run

We definitely stopped traffic




Elvis is in the building

Animal Farm

See more pictures of the madness at my flickr set

Friday, February 03, 2006

Of geishas and the names we call ourselves

Last week, I saw Memoirs of a Geisha.

Ordinarily, I'm wary whenever Hollywood does something Oriental - you know someone's going to screw up the English (typically the Japanese or Mandarin speech as well), there will be some stereotypical oriental (think Fu Manchu), the Westerner man-from-out-of-town is going to come in and save the day, age-old conventions get defied (damn Westerner's fault!), and pretty much all cultural subtleties are thrown out the window.

That's my rant at least, but I think things at Hollywood have improved. However, until Memoirs, the bigwigs there seem to always insist on a major white guy in the story, his chief role being that of the Devil's Advocate / Enlightener / Troubledour (and whatever else). I remember watching 'The Last Emperor' and Peter O'Toole teaching the monarch about the fine art of bicycle riding. More recently, I disliked seeing Tom Cruise in 'The Last Samurai' becoming swordsman extraordinaire in (oh I don't know...) 2 months?

In any case, I actually liked Memoirs. Nope, I didn't read the book - purists will probably be disappointed (and I like to be a purist, so its good I didn't read it). For once though, there was no chief white man, and the story was more about the trials and tribulations of one woman, and her quest for that one man. It's kind of like Oshin, but condensed and set in the world of the geishas. It is somewhat more glamorous as well - it seems geishas command a high price for their virginity (I've been told this was nonsense by a Japanese - having acted as the local, I've learnt not to trust one).


Other than being a touching story, Memoirs also had another interesting characteristic - it used Chinese actresses to play Japanese geishas. That, of course, is somewhat obvious though there were 2 subtleties that I thought were noteworthy about the key actresses:

1. In the film, Zhang Ziyi played Sayuri, the protagonist who eventually usurped the resident baddie star geisha, Matsumoto, played by Gong Li. In the movie, Matsumoto was the (initially hot) star geisha whose star was dimming. Sayuri's sudden rise from humble servant girl to men-stunning geisha spelt her doom.

Reel life imitates real life doesn't it? Gong Li was the Chinese star of the 90s, due in large part to the many Zhang Yimou films she starred in; but her star has been fading. The Chinese star of the moment is Zhang Ziyi - she looks younger, she acts just as well, she's a bigger sex symbol and she strips more (well, no frontal nudity cos that will so ruin the image, but you do see lots of her skin). A cruel joke? Or perhaps just an uncanny casting choice?

2. Oh yes, the 3rd big Chinese star in the movie is Michelle Yeoh, and these 3 women combined just about sum up the issue that I really wanted to talk about: Chinese names.

"Michelle Yeoh" is the kind of name I would have given myself if I wanted an ang moh to actually pronounce my name properly, and be able to call me correctly phonetically. It is like that period when folks go into secondary school and it suddenly became cool to have an English name. Tan Tian Huat wanted to be known as Robert, and Goh Siew Hwee insisted on responding to Genevieve. Oh of course that didn't quite apply if your parents gave you a Christian name, but I think you get my drift.

So it is with the "Michelle Yeoh"s of the world - here, I have named myself something cool with my folks, and with which you can call me by. So call me by THAT.

"Zhang Ziyi" is your more typical hanyu pinyin name. Strangely though, she wants to be known as Ziyi Zhang these days. I can understand why - when you have had more than one foreigner mangled your surname (or last name) and given name (or first name) too often, you'll want to set the record straight once and for all. The "Zhang Ziyi"s of the world are the set like mine - it isn't cool to have any ang mohish name once everyone who knows you already know you. If auntie next door has always called you Ah Teck, it'll be really hard to correct her (No auntie, it is LORBIRD. R-O-B-E-R-T).

I sympathise with what she's (Miss Zhang) done with her name - culturally, the typical foreigner refuses to get off his cultural high horse to understand how the Chinese name themselves. We have to end up giving it to them in a palatable form, even if it was something as weird as "Ziyi Zhang". Is it that hard to see that the Chinese have always had their surnames come first?

Then we have the "Gong Li" names. That's where I am - I am a "Gong Li" name-type. I'm the kind of guy who did not manage to get a real cool English name (some idiot wanted to call me Valence in Sec 4 and thank God that didn't happen). Even more unfortunately, my parents thought it was cool to have a child with a "dan ming" (a 1-character given name, some examples from politics are: "Li Peng", "Lien Chan"). Thus, like Gong Li, I'm forever doomed to being called by my full name.

See, the typical ang moh can't understand that - in their universe, nobody gets called by their full name. It is just plain rude (it is plain rude too if you called Zhang Ziyi "Zhang Ziyi" all of the time too, incidentally). However, the problem with dan mings is just that: you have to call the person by their full name. I'm sure Gong Li doesn't want to be called 'Li' on the set - she's not likely to respond to that. It doesn't help even if she was to be known as "Li Gong" (just so that the typical ang moh knows which is the given name, and which is the surname).

Mangled names aside, I've had a tough time explaining my name. Some give up - they just call me by my surname (since its the first syllable, and many people are called by their surname too - I remember a certain 'bear' friend who is). Some others actually do try - the INSEAD professors have been the best - they just call me by the bold characters on my name tag (this green card that everyone puts in front of themselves for identification purposes - I'll try to put up a pic to illustrate when I can).


Names - it seems they are a part of ourselves no one can take away. Yet, they are also a part of ourselves that are so easily mis-represented. I think we should be proud of what it is - after all, what else do you carry with you when all else leaves you? What's there to mark your grave when you finally depart this world? Your name is you - so live with it the best way you can.