“It’s really hot. And also bright – afternoon when it should be morning. Wait. The time on my watch says 11:29. Well, clearly it isn’t midnight, so 11:29am it is. But the light is wrong. Maybe it’s just my eyes, half closed in vivid part sleep, drone of powerful engines not yet gone from my tired eardrums. Actually, I’m not even sure what time it should be, so it doesn’t surprise me when the clock says 2:31. Well, at least that makes sense with the lighting.
Traffic passes, cacophony dulled by glass panes and hum of electric rail, but it seems a mirror image of reality. Everything backwards: exit ramps off the left lane, clockwise flow in traffic circles. It occurs to me that if I were looking straight through the earth at Toronto, it would look the same, from below. But things here are different. I haven’t figured out just how, yet, but it is very apparent. A helpful soul explains the passing scenery: just there, an elementary school, there, a supermarket. A bank. A restaurant. I know the words, but the scene around them is alien. I am too tired to be excited. Then nothing.
Waking up in the heat is grotesque. A hurricane fan is utterly ineffective, blowing paper and sheets to mad flashes while doing nothing to rid the air of sticky perspiration, stubbornly clinging to every surface. But waking up rested is rewarded at breakfast. We wind through hanging fabrics, vinyl-scented plastics boutiques offering cutlery, shampoo, laundry baskets. A woman, hairnet blown back from her face by another torrent fan, sweats in the heat of her steamer; the sweet starchy mist settles into the slick of sweat across my brow. The open air market teems, loud and close.
The transition from shops to food is instantaneous: no buffer. At once, the chemical tang of plastics is replaced by the burn of garlic, the stink of raw fish, and the delicious undertone of respect for food, and ingredients. It is a welcome aroma. Stalls wind chaotically out of sight, wet stalls selling fish and fruit, dry stalls selling fried noodles, eggs, and congee. Gaudy bright tables are clustered, with haggard, smiling men winding fearlessly through, clearing and wiping. Queues wind through the scene, marking the best noodles, and famous chicken rice.
But for breakfast, congee is the star. It gets served to your table, by the stall owner who always manages to locate you amidst the throng. It comes with pillows of you tiao, clumps of pork laced with garlic and ginger, strips of rich liver, and a whole raw egg like a present hidden amidst the soft rice soup. Perfection. Especially when followed by braised pork belly, dripping with sweet juices.
Opposing the chaos of the market is the lab. Things are organized, mostly. But there is a pervasive logic that shapes the atmosphere. Here, logic is powerful. I enjoy being among others with a common goal of discovery: in this environment, we are free to create – to play with ideas without fear of error or failure. Failure is expected, accepted and valued. Interacting on a professional level is different from a student’s role: there is no test at the conclusion. It is your responsibility to understand.
As the months have passed, slowly at first, but with increasing velocity, I have learned truly an alarming amount. I have learned about semiconductors, band gaps, and work functions. I have applied this knowledge as well: it now has a context, which makes it all the more interesting. I have also learned about professionalism, and about working together and independently to accomplish a task, with no solutions manual in the back. I have learned about cultures different from my own. It has been unforgettable.”