Pearl Tower in Shanghai
During the period of January to July 2015, I traveled from Ohio to San Francisco where I worked at Mozilla on experimental virtual reality websites, after which I studied at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China for a semester.
In San Francisco, I also visited Oculus’s Story Studio, where they were creating animated shorts in virtual reality. Though my visit was brief, it made an impact on me, as I love animation. It was motivating to see how technical ability lends itself as a tool for artistic creation, and certainly virtual reality will not only revolutionize video games and the internet, but also film.
I bussed to Los Angeles to visit my sister. Once there, I registered to visit CalArts, where many Disney and Pixar alumni hail from. Undoubtedly, some of the animators at Oculus must have been CalArts graduates too. Walking through the halls, I found myself contrasting my experience within the engineering department against that of the art school. The corridors in CalArts are decorated with drawings, studies, and filled with performance pieces. In the main entryway a multi-pieced student jazz ensemble was performing an energetic, rhythmic rehearsal in the middle of the day. This is quite different from Caldwell and Dreese labs, where walls are scarcely ornamented save for graduate research posters. The campus felt less like a university, and more of a well broken-in summer camp. This by no means diminishes the quality of performance that comes from the school. It is highly competitive and internationally recognized. However, there was a wide breadth of expression and creativity felt around every corner, as if the students had burrowed and made every room their homes. One can see this amount of creativity in engineering students during occasional Hackathons, when students spread out laptops, gadgets, hardware, and build weekend projects in 24 hours, making entire lecture halls their bedrooms or garages. Yet, these are often brief and short lived. I hope the creativity and application of engineering will find a way to be more visually seen within the ECE department.
While in the Golden state, I read The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, and Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs. The two men are idolized within American culture. Walking through the areas they so immensely affected, Walt Disney having founded CalArts and Steve Jobs the popular face of Silicon Valley, while studying their history, was something to savor. Likewise, California is beautiful. Some of my favorite moments during this time were the peace of biking back to my brother’s house from the B.A.R.T. (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station at night, or walking up on the green hills of Pleasanton Ridge. On clear days in the Bay Area, if one is positioned correctly, San Francisco is never too far out of sight, and can be located with an acute eye at the appropriate altitude. When it was time to part, I felt that strange feeling whenever one leaves a place for an indefinite period of time to begin something anew.
Outside Mozilla in San Francisco
Thus, the main focus of STEP Experience was studying abroad at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This was probably the most dynamic and layered six months of my life.
I had originally been turned on to the concept of going to China by a friend who had gone in 2014 for two weeks with the Cleveland State University business school. He had called me a few weeks before an informational session on SJTU was to take place at OSU, and told me how amazed he was with the country. I went to the session and was surprised to hear only three students from Ohio State had ever participated in the exchange program, but dozens of SJTU students come to Ohio State each year.
Having always wanted to study abroad for a longer duration, like a semester, I found that SJTU would allow me to take engineering courses for OSU credit, and decided to apply. I was accepted along with one other student, Brian, a CSE graduating senior, and soon found myself boarding a flight to Shanghai from San Francisco two months after receiving approval.
Myself and Classmates @ Minhang Canteen
The culture shock coming to China was significant, although not negative. Shanghai is China’s most modern city, so it easy to assimilate to as a Westerner, but I was not prepared for how daunting the city would be. It hosts around 30 million people, and is truly a concrete jungle. I remember being at a friend’s apartment on the roof of a 30 floor building, across the river from Pudong (Shanghia’s iconic sky scraper skyline), and looking around myself, completely surrounded in 360 degrees by lights and buildings as far as my eyes could see.
Shanghai Street Vendor
After a few weeks of living in a hostel after arrival and familiarizing myself with the city, I moved to a dormitory in SJTU’s Xuhui campus, where I lived above a little cafe with European, South American, and Asian exchange students. I would meet some of the most fantastic people there, all creative, enthusiastic, and wonderful to see every morning and afternoon. Funnily enough, when I think of it, I had never lived in a dorm on a campus before. After high school, I lived at home for a year at the University of Akron, and as a transfer student at Ohio State, I was put into Buckeye Village, a small off-campus residence for mostly graduate students and their families.
Chinese Kid Tries VR
At SJTU I was surrounded by inspiring, curious students who I quickly became friends with. Every day we would introduce one another to those who hadn’t met before and discuss what we had learned at class, along with the interesting differences between Chinese classes and each student’s native schooling systems. I was also among English speakers from all across the world, so as much as I learned about China, I also learned about France, Germany, Australia, North Korea, Japan, and other countries. This eclectic mix of international students, all of whom studied different subjects: business, architecture, engineering, design, etc. made for an accepting, intellectual atmosphere. Everyone was friends, whether they had known each other for a day, a week, or a month. I remember fondly one night during the final weeks at the end of my stay, when Kiyo, a German-Japanese master’s student who had recently received a job in Tokyo, offered everyone who would soon be parting ways the invitation to come visit her. Likewise, everyone agreed that if we were ever in each others’ respective countries, they would have a couch to sleep on, or at the very least, a floor. When Jeremy, a close friend from Australia, discovered he’d be working in New York for a few months during August, I took a Greyhound bus with a friend to visit him and Lea, his German girlfriend he met at SJTU, for a weekend.
Jeremy and Lea in VR
I became a sponge to life and agreed to everything while abroad. Together with friends, we toured Shanghai and Suzhou, “China’s Venice,” (a stretch to say the least.) Every meal was of a different variety. I had originally never cared for Chinese food in America, but as expected, American Chinese food isn’t really Chinese food. Food is incredibly cheap in Shanghai, and among my favorite dishes were Baozi, which are steamed rolls packed with seasoned meat, and a little Muslim family diner which served noodles and broth not far down the street from where I stayed. Of course, the Chinese eat plenty of strange things, like chicken feet, which you can get at any convenience store, but for the most part, I was rarely put off with Chinese customs, and more so humored by them. As a Westerner, it’s easy to say, “the Chinese do this and that in such a peculiar way,” but you are easily humbled by the fact you are in the very small minority there. When in Rome.
Construction Worker with Tortoise
Classes at SJTU were rather comparable to Ohio State, but were reminiscent to high school in terms of the scheduled approach. Bells ring every hour for the start and finish of classes, and 5-10 minute breaks are taken in between lectures to relax. Every student has a bike, and the campus swarms like a bee hive with the high density traffic between classes. I never had a 200 student lecture, most classes being around 25-50 students. Many of the classes were taught alongside inspirational videos played at the beginning and middle of lecture. Many professors who have studied in America were proud of this fact, and would regularly play speeches from Steve Jobs, President Obama, and Bill Gates. The teachers tried to impart a hopeful, determined demeanor in the students to encourage them rise to become leaders in academia and eventually the tech business world. I found it strange how SJTU, considered to be among China’s premier universities, essentially an Ivy-League equivalent, would play cheesy advertisements for Yale, where actors would run through campus performing a musical number about how great the American school was. Nonetheless, the courses were well taught and in English. I took CSE courses in operating systems, wireless networks, C++ programming, and cryptology. Unfortunately, I had taken a Mandarin course at Ohio State during the Fall semester but hadn’t learned enough to make use of, as learning Mandarin advances about half the pace as romance languages for native English speakers. I was too advanced for the introductory course at SJTU, but had learned mostly memorized office-phrases like words for fax machine at Ohio State. I opted to self-study and practice Mandarin in stores and in taxis, where drivers love to try out English if they’re friendly. It’s astonishing the amount one can express playing charades and looking up translations with mobile dictionary apps. I picked up quite a bit to get from one place to another with minimal confusion.
Suzhou Gardens, Repping Ohio (Albeit the Wrong Uni)
Though I lived in Xuhui, the Minhang campus is where my classes took place. The campus is like a massive park out in the industrial outskirts of the city. Getting there took about an hour and half via metro, and 40 minutes via the bus. One of the more frustrating aspects of China’s respect system is that professors and graduate student have priority over undergraduates when getting on the bus. While you may stand in line from 6:00am to 8:00am, there’s no guarantee you’ll end up with a seat, as busses will fill up with professors and close their doors if there’s no room left. This issue caused many students to miss classes or take the metro.
Near the Bund with Friends
Perhaps the most favorite past time among my closest friends was exploring the city, contrasting China’s culture with the West, and speculating about our futures, whether we could live in China, or what we would do upon our return. As living among each other in such a strange environment was new to nearly all of us, we bonded together and took comfort knowing that we all understood how one another felt. Living in Shanghai let me put my life in Ohio into perspective. As everything seemed so distant, it felt like I could see my life as an observer, or in 3rd person. Having completed the work at Mozilla and put coding and mathematics into application, I felt much stronger knowing I could return to Ohio State and finishes the curriculum with a better understanding of how it would be applicable to my personal interests.
Sharing Pencils At Hostel with Children
My STEP project was more enriching than I ever expected it to be. Though not everything I did was initially expected and under consideration while I was formulating what to do, because I chose to do Study Abroad for a long duration, the first seven months of 2015 were completely open ended. This allowed me to accomplish more, and though my category was Study Abroad, I effectively also completed the Leadership, Creativity, and Internship portions in my own respect.
One of the most frustrating questions I find in regards to completing a studying abroad program is “Oh! How was it?” It’s not a bad question, but just something I find merits more than a few sentences or paragraphs. I knew that it would be difficult to answer before I returned home because I have such a plethora of stories, opinions, and questions myself, all regarding my time away. When I began writing this, I found trouble not nearly writing a day-by-day account.
Before I left, I read a pamphlet from the Office of International Affairs, documenting the phases of studying abroad, which goes from culture shock, feelings of excitement, homesickness, comfort in the new environment, etc. all the way up to reverse culture shock in coming home, and feeling the need to tell people items about your time they don’t necessarily want to hear or care about. This can cause feelings of isolation and estrangement. Though I doubted I would actually go through these phases, I was certainly wrong in thinking I wouldn’t exhibit the psychological characteristics of being human.
I think the biggest reason that studying abroad is so affecting is because of the change of environment. When you’re surrounded by a language you don’t speak, a writing system you can’t read, and a city with a crushing population of nearly 30 million people, the influences of your original society quickly diminish. There are less right and wrongs and the sense of self changes because your interactions with others changes. I had to break down my English so it was simpler. Say less and mean more. Everyone I was friends with were foreign students too, which implied they were equally adventurous in their wanting to come to China. Only a fraction of students at Ohio State ever study abroad, but once you’re on an exchange, naturally, 100% of the students you’re around are as well. I felt like the walls kind of opened up a bit more once I was in China. Little subconscious rules I unknowingly held myself to started to rise to the surface, now exposed by the absence of a culture I had lived in for my entire life. I started reading more, specifically about meditation, which helped me process my thought stream and slow down to appreciate where I was at the moment.
After having gone to Mozilla, I realized there were particular subjects I really wanted to learn more about, and I felt a lot of confidence combining my want to create along with learning the tools to make my ideas actualize. I took time to study my interests at SJTU, and work on personal projects, like learning OpenGL(Graphics Library) with the “OpenGL Superbible.” I worked through Scott Myers “Effective C++,” and Richard Williams “Animator’s Survival Kit.” I created an experimental VR blog, using spherical photos I had captured around Shanghai. One can visit my site with an Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard, and visit the locations I went to in Shanghai.
The daily activities of studying abroad are challenging and stimulating, and ultimately raise your feeling of self independence and awareness. As I felt more immersed, engaged, and focused, I wondered how much of this sensation, or growth, was due to my own action, or the influence of the environment I was in. This question has lingered with me during my return to Ohio State, as I’ve asked myself if I could recreate the excitement of studying abroad while at home. I think ultimately, though, that pursuing the new, and letting go of fear of the unknown, will lead a person more towards where they’re meant to be, if they take action to follow in their intuition. When you strongly exhibit your personal attitude and values, you’ll find paths open which are unique to you, and attract people who relate to you strongly.
Boat on HuangPu River, Pudong Skyline
After returning from Shanghai, I have continued to pursue animation and VR. I had not known of OSU’s ACCAD (Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design) before I returned from China. ACCAD is one of my favorite OSU discoveries, as it’s a hub for student animators where technology is mixed with art. After meeting Matt Lewis there, I checked out a light box to practice 2D animation, and enrolled in ART 4401, Computer Animation. During this course I created a VR animation which was shown in the Hopkins Hall BioPresence gallery. This was a fruitful experience, as I learned the fundamentals of Maya which is a 3D modeling/animation program, and researched a technique for porting the animation to Unity, which is a game development environment and engine. Though the work isn’t remotely close to Pixar level, it is embracing to take small steps towards contributing to the future of animated film.
I have continued to volunteer with Mozilla as well, in the Firefox Student Association. During the semester I was part of a nationwide promotional campaign for Firefox’s iOS launch and Tracking Protection feature. In collaboration with universities throughout the United States and Germany, I organized events to spread awareness of open source software, internet privacy practices, and how Mozilla has the best intentions to support the independence of its users. I may return to San Francisco later next year to continue contributing to the MozVR team.
Mozilla Boothing in Union
As my French wasn’t particularly strong in Shanghai, I realized how much I wish it was better and have begun self-studying the language through Assimil, which is a series of daily reading and listening exercises. It’s truly important to listen to a language spoken natively, and one of the strong points of Assail is its ability to familiarize a student with the sounds of how French is spoken. I have also becoming a member of Columbus’s French Meetup group, and Hagerty Hall’s Cercle Francais, two great organizations for French speakers and learners. Though my speaking ability is far from functional, my listening comprehension abilities have greatly increased.
I hadn’t considered graduate school before SJTU, but I believe now that if I pursue a master’s degree, I would like to apply to an animation program. I know CalArts is extremely competitive, but if I could get in, I believe I would like to pursue their Experimental Animation degree. It’s heartening when studying demanding courses, like Microelectronic Circuits and Electromagnetics, to consider the application of the electronics in the form of audio circuitry, or visual light displays. The international aspect of studying abroad in Shanghai only added to engaging a more critically aware and stimulating mindset. Gobelins is another great school for animation and it is centered in Paris. Since Paris has a such a rich history with film, it would be thrilling to spend two years there after graduating from ECE to study art. I use these potential futures as goals to strive towards, and hope that I can find a way to combine my knowledge of ECE with creative applications for entertainment and art.
In conclusion, STEP allowed me to experience the world in ways that traditional academics cannot recreate. It revealed to me how little I know, and how there are always factors and perspectives that can change how I perceive the world. Yet, being away from Ohio actually made me more focused upon my return, and instilled a hunger to explore more. I’m an adamant proponent for STEP, and suggest it to every first and second-year student I meet. Likewise, I am the same for SJTU and encourage all students in the ECE department to take the brilliant opportunity to engage China and discover what you didn’t know the country had to offer. There’s nothing to lose in either program, and both have significantly impacted me for the better as I finish the last two semesters of my education at Ohio State.