Teachers’ Day 2019: Bet You Didn’t Know (Part 2)

By Emily Ni (20S03C), Rachel Leong (20A01A), Megan Soh (20A01B), and Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B)

These interviews were first featured, in shorter form, in our special Teachers’ Day 2019 Print Edition. Here are the full interviews.

NAME: MR GERALD CHOO
DEPARTMENT: SCIENCE (CHEMISTRY) 

Chemistry, Japanese, and baking? These three endeavours may seem disparate, but Mr Choo enjoys them all.

When did you start learning Japanese and what made you decide to start learning it?

I started when I was 13, when I was given the option to do Japanese for the O Levels. It was the Japanese boom during my era, and I wanted to watch dramas without the subtitles! I’m not a “weeaboo” or an “otaku” though—I’m not a huge anime or subculture fan.

Why did you decide to go to Tokyo for university (when English is not the medium of instruction)?

Well, there were two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to maintain my Japanese skills even after the A Levels. Furthermore, it was exciting to be in the capital of the country, and Tokyo also offered a new perspective compared to the traditional United Kingdom/United States route. My time spent there was brilliant—I don’t regret it.

What kind of challenges did you face in Japan? 

The language was hard and technical but became easier after about one or two years. In fact, after my first math lecture in university, I came out of the theatre and broke down. I had to call one of my friends, who told me to snap out of it since I was already there. Thinking back, I’m still really grateful for that friend.

The cultural differences were also hard to get used to. Singapore is an individualistic society, but in Japan there is a sense of the group above the self. I struggled with this notion because I wanted to assimilate into the culture but also retain my own identity, and I had to deal with some instances where I was expected to conform. 

There was also subtle racism—or xenophobia—because I was a foreigner. This could be because Japan is very racially homogeneous. After this, I was more aware of how minorities in Singapore feel, though I cannot say I understand completely due to the different context and experiences.

A little bird told me you were good at technical things for Raffles Players—where and how did you pick that up?

I learnt much of it from an ex-student in 2016. She was really good at building things, and I picked up some skills from working with her. Other than that, I think it’s just instinct, probably from tinkering with gadgets in my childhood. I was very curious as a child—I was fascinated by lightbulbs, and I would take apart the three-pin plugs and put them back together, hoping no exploding happened [nervous laughter].

What are your hobbies outside of school?

I like to bake, and I cook too. This was largely influenced by my mother, and I make a really good New York cheesecake, banana bread, and carrot cake (not the Chinese kind). Sadly, I don’t really do it nowadays because it makes me fat [laughs] Okay, not because of that, but I haven’t had the time to bake. I’m a firm believer that if you want to do something well, it must be done with the heart.

Some of Mr Choo’s bakes—banana muffins and cinnamon rolls. We’re drooling.

NAME: MR SARALN NG UDOMKICHDECHA
DEPARTMENT: ARTS (HISTORY) 

Mr Saraln’s Mandarin ordeal has not dampened his love of languages—he tries to learn as many as he can!

What prompted your move to Singapore?

My parents think that the education here is good, compared to in Bangkok. My dad wanted my siblings and me—I have two siblings—to be able to speak English and Mandarin in addition to Thai, and he thought that Singapore is a good place for this. I think it was quite a radical decision for him to do that. So he just sent my siblings and me to Singapore. Of course, [my parents] did not accompany us. They had to stay back—stay put—to work, to send us the money, to sponsor us, to support us financially.

Was it difficult to adapt to the Singaporean culture? What were some of the struggles you faced?

As a child, I wasn’t so conscious about the cultural differences. And I think, as a child, it’s easier to mix around with my peers. The differences were not so distinct. But I remember the most challenging thing was to pick up the languages. Because of the language barrier, I was dropped three academic years. So I was older than my peers by three years. So picking up the languages was quite tough. I had to learn English. I had learnt some English in Bangkok, but we don’t use it on a regular basis, so I couldn’t quite speak it. Mandarin, I had to pick up from scratch. It was really tough. I can remember my first Chinese lesson, in primary school, the teacher had to offer to help me write the 作文 (composition) because I didn’t even know how to write basic words. So, looking back, that was quite a crazy idea.

But, thankfully, my sister (who’s one year older than me) is quite focused in her studies, so she had a good influence on me and my brother. We tried to follow her in studying hard, and we mugged really hard to catch up with our peers. And thankfully we did; we caught up. [Learning the languages] was challenging all the way until P6, Sec 1. But it could be done, catching up, [even if] it took a few years.

And food! Some dishes I found rather strange back then. Like mee rebus—I thought it was absolutely gross. But what I really loved was roti prata. It’s so good; I always looked forward to having it. My brother and I stayed with a local family, who provided meals for us—three meals a day. They would get roti prata every Sunday, so I looked forward to Sunday for that super good stuff.

Of course, the homesickness was terrible. In fact, I think I took more than ten years to get over homesickness. It’s really tough. It’s particularly acute when I have to return to Singapore from Bangkok, after each holiday. But also, as much as it was acute, the good experiences were more than the misery. I would say, [on the] whole, we were very privileged to be in Singapore, to come here for a good education. 

I think what makes it not too difficult for me is that I’m an ethnic Chinese, so I do see the importance of learning Chinese. And it’s not so difficult to—I would say—assimilate into the Chinese community. Because [our] features and all [are similar], my friends don’t really treat me like an outsider.

If you weren’t teaching in Singapore, what do you think you’d be doing?

I would love to be a Christian missionary in Thailand and have a closer study of the Bible. I think it’d be cool to study more about the scriptures and share the faith with my fellow Thais. A majority of them are not Christian, so they do not have access to the faith.

Do you have any interests your students probably wouldn’t know about?

I discovered my love for languages back in university, particularly Southeast Asian languages. So I picked up Bahasa Indonesia and some Vietnamese. Why Southeast Asian languages? Partly because I was a Southeast Asian Studies major, so I had to specialise in one other Southeast Asian language. So I took Bahasa for two and a half years. No regrets, I absolutely enjoyed it. And through learning those languages, [I] increased my interest in the region. And I enjoy seeing the similarities between the languages that I learn, such as the similar vocabulary of Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. For instance, “bahasa” (as in, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia) which means “language” is similar to the Thai word for “language,” “phasa” (ภาษา), which has a similar root word from Sanskrit. And the more I learn, the more I find that I’m appreciating Thai through learning Bahasa. So that’s really awesome.

And I kind of overestimated myself—I thought I was very good at languages—so I picked up Vietnamese as well. It was kind of insane to study two languages at the same time. But it was immensely fun and enjoyable. I remember looking forward to waking up every day, just trying to learn these two languages. And it kept me going. Vietnamese is really cool. I studied Mandarin, [and] there are plenty of similar words between Vietnamese and Mandarin. For example, “history” in Mandarin is “lì shǐ” (历史), and in Vietnamese it’s “lịch sử”. So there are a lot of similarities that I see. That’s really fun.

Are there any languages you would be interested in learning?

In Southeast Asia, I think, Khmer. Because the root of Thai language came from Khmer, so there’d be a lot of similarities. If I were more adventurous, I’d try Burmese because the linguistic family is totally different from Thai, so that would be more challenging for me to learn. I guess if I wanted to learn more about the Bible, the language to learn would be Hebrew, or Greek. But I don’t think that’ll be anytime soon. [laughs] Let me finish the whole Bible first.

Why did you decide to teach? 

This came to me when I was in university. I had a different ambition before that. I wanted to join the MFA because I had some interest in current affairs. But later on, in university, when I became more mature, I found that my temperament was not so suitable for the making of a foreign service officer. I think I’m more laidback, not so competitive. Not so combative. So I think I wouldn’t survive there, if I were to ever make it into MFA in the first place. So I started looking into other possible paths and teaching was the one and only path I could see myself pursuing in the long run. And also, at that time I was getting my citizenship, so teaching as a career in Singapore was very viable.

Teaching is my first career and Raffles is my first posting. As I mentioned I was dropped 3 years and I served NS for 2 years, so I was slightly older when I entered the workforce. Technically, I entered the workforce when I was 28. So I’m considered quite a latecomer as compared to my peers, especially the [women]. But I think it’s a luxury that my parents could sponsor me and allow me the time to pursue what I liked. And I think with that time and some maturity, it helped me to make decisions more carefully.

Just curious—were you from Raffles?

Yes, for six years. From 2004 to 2009. [I’m teaching here now] because of the central posting by MOE. It’s coincidental that I’m back here. It was a big surprise for me as well. I’m happy to be teaching here now, in my second year of teaching.

Is there any advice you’d like to give to foreign scholars in Raffles?

I guess one practical way of combating homesickness is to keep yourself occupied. And I guess life in RI will ensure that you are sufficiently occupied, or even more—overwhelmingly occupied. [laughs] So yes, keep yourself occupied, but of course, turn to someone when you feel that it’s taking a toll on your emotional well-being.

NAME: DR SALLY NG
DEPARTMENT: SCIENCE (CHEMISTRY) 

Dr Ng appreciates the little things that we often take for granted.

How was life different in your homeland? Do you think living there has shaped your perspectives in Singapore and vice versa?

Life back in Jakarta was a lot more restrictive and inconvenient. As far as I could remember, it’s unsafe to do a lot of things on your own, for example: taking public transport, going out alone, etc. Coming from Jakarta made me appreciate a lot of “usual” practices in Singapore, such as commuting anywhere on your own, leaving your belongings unattended to chope seats, etc. One can only do such things if it’s safe enough to do so, I suppose.

Was it hard to adapt to Singaporean culture? What were some of the struggles you faced and memorable experiences you had here?

Personally, I found that I [had] no issue assimilating into Singapore and Singaporean culture. I speak Mandarin fluently, so I had it easier than many of my friends who [couldn’t] speak Mandarin. I do, though, find it hard to speak English—I took a good three months to be able to converse in English. In Indonesia, I [learned] everything in Indonesian. One funny experience [I had] was when I was attending [an] organic chemistry lesson and the lecturer said “potassium”. I couldn’t locate it in the [periodic] table because there’s no such element in [the] Indonesian language. In Indonesia, we [call] “potassium” differently. It’s “kalium”, which starts with the letter “k”. But [everything] went okay eventually. Now if you ask me to talk about chemistry in [the] Indonesian language, I don’t think I can anymore!

Do you visit your homeland often? Do you miss it?

Not really. I go back to Jakarta occasionally, but only for events. I do miss my friends and the food, but perhaps not the place. My experience in Jakarta hasn’t been a pleasant one. [I] was in Jakarta during the racial riot[s] in 1998. Since then, I told myself that I’d leave the country for good one day.

Do you have any interesting hobbies?

I used to be a competitive figure skater till the age of 15. I still love skating, but I don’t really do it anymore. Getting old!

Is there any hobby you would like to pick up?

Knitting or cooking maybe?

Please tell us more about your doctorate.

To be very honest, I didn’t set out to do a PhD degree. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after [my] undergraduate studies, and my final year project supervisor convinced me to do graduate studies in organic chemistry, particularly gold chemistry (organogold chemistry), as he thinks that I have the potential. So I did. Looking back, I am glad that I did my postgraduate degree because it was then that I found my passion in teaching. I mentored numerous undergraduate and master’s degree students, [and] taught as a teaching assistant in university, both in tutorials and in the lab. Through that, I finally [knew] what I wanted to do in life.

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