In this blog entry I try to explain why I decided to go back to school at this stage in life. From an off-the-cuff bucket list to a short stint as an adjunct professor with the Royal University of Bhutan to a research trip to Kheng Silambi with a team of social scientists from University of Berkeley, some things are simply meant to be in life.
“Where is the original for this?” Jennifer, a very beautiful young lady, whose age was impossible for me to guess, asked me as she flipped through my academic transcripts. “Well, I graduated many years back, changed couple of jobs and so I really don’t know till which office the originals followed me,” I replied with a timid smile. “Yes, it’s been a long ago,” she added smiling back, “You have mentioned that you had asked your university to send a copy?” she went again. “Yes. But my university doesn’t open until the end of the month. They are on summer break,” I told her. She went back and forth her office desk and the counter for a couple of times and then closed my file with utmost care and handed it over to me with, “So you can enrol in your course while we wait for the certification from your university,” she went. And she gave all the things that I needed to start off.”
Unlike in Bhutan where we are told to come tomorrow if anything were missing, people here work based on trust. Nothing is denied or stopped as long as you speak the truth. You keep going and you keep attending to the issues. Verbal commitments are honoured. People’s words are trusted.
I walked out of the building towards the library building, looked for an espresso coffee to wake myself up fully and got some lunch. My next appointment was the police department where twelve of us were shepherded in a university van to go over and renew our Stay Permit. After filling up two forms and after turning in our fingerprints I faced an official at her desk who went through my papers. “Oh. You made a mistake here,” she said. I got little worried. “Just overwrite it and put your initials,” she added.
Everyone here has been so helpful from the moment I landed in Macau. There is no doubt that things ARE as bureaucratic but here the civil servants believe, and take pride, in what they do – public service.
I could finally meet my professor towards the end of the day. He passed me a list of required courses that I had to take, an undergraduate course that I had to help teach and a course that I could apply for an exemption. I looked at the paper and my first class was just few hours away. On the very first and the same day! “Welcome to the student life,” I said to myself.
It was getting close to 7pm and I was having some trouble locating my classroom. After I gave up I sought the help of a janitor who was mopping the floor of the long corridor. “You go straight. Take the elevator to first floor,” he said with perfect Chinese-accented English that instantly reminded me of Russell Peters. I walked away forcing myself to keep a straight face.
Finally I found my class. The professor was about to start the lesson. I bowed down to him in Bhutanese style and found an empty chair in the forth row. The class began. “Welcome to this course. I am professor Tony Schirato. You can call me Tony. And this is Terry, my teaching assistant.” Tony is Australian of Italian origin and is a full-professor and head of the communications studies. I met him on my previous visit and I was looking forward to his class. As he spoke I looked around to find myself with some twenty people. The oldest one was probably half my age. I started wondering if I was in a dream. I even poked my palm with my pen to check if I had died and gone to heaven. Pain. No. It was real. I was back to a classroom. After twenty-one years. Who would have imagined that?
As I was juggling between dream and reality the class ended. Fortunately it was called off “early”. It was still almost 9pm. We just had the course outline. I walked out with few new friends that I made for the group works and presentations – Charlotte, Ocean, Angel and Hala – all from Hunan in China.
The evening air was cool. There were still many students walking up and down the campus. I look around with my face beaming – partly because of the pride of having made it here (my first degree was in engineering and had nothing to do with communications studies) and partly giggling at myself for undertaking such a stunt at this age. “Why am I here?” I asked myself. Moment of reflection. “Because you made that a bucket list when you were 40,” I replied.
Yes. Some time back when I was homing in to 40, I was scared of entering into a mid-life crisis. I wrote a chapter, Life Begins at 40, for a book A Fly in a Forgotten Tea to cheer up. And to keep myself excited I also made a bucket list – of things that I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 50 (not very far away). First in the list was to meet Nelson Mandela; second – to fly a plane and third, to go back to a university for a PhD. It was not a well thought-out list but something that came out instinctively. Now I am here and as my Chinese friend asked, why do I need a PhD? Well, in the conventional sense of its usage such as furthering a career or making more money, I really don’t need one. I have already come long long way in my life and I am content with that. And I can still go further with my degree from Italy. Besides, I don’t need a PhD to add the fancy title of “Dr. “ in front of my name. I am already entitled to that having been conferred by my previous university and I never used it even once.
The idea of doing a PhD, however, gathered steam in recent years. First, my short stint in Sherubtse as an adjunct professor opened a new world to me. While inspiring our younger generation there I also discovered a fascinating life of research where I thought that it would be wonderful if I could bring together my life’s rich experiences into some scholarly works in the field of communications. I have seen, lived, built and experienced the development of modern mass media in Bhutan. From the first radio transmitter to setting up the Royal Office for Media, I have seen a lot. So, to put in purely academic format, I have all the anecdotal experiences, which many can just dream of. Therefore, I decided to pursue a third career in the academia. And if you intend to hang around in a place, you got to be the best. I have also understood something about our higher education system – and education in general – along the lines of where we are going wrong and what kind of catastrophe we are heading towards – as a society.
Secondly, we really need to understand the media in Bhutan – the social media, in particular, and mass media in general. Mass media is now a reality especially that Bhutan is a democracy. Nothing will be more defining or damaging to our country than our failure to create a healthy relationship with the mass media. Ultimately we need to develop our own media model that is tailored to suit our history, culture, social circumstances and political evolution. I have called it the middle-path journalism.
The most important reason, of course, is what I always believed in, practiced and perfected over the years – the lifelong learning.
You don’t stop learning – because once you stop learning, you stop living – you stop growing.
One should learn new things, acquire new skills and absorb new knowledge every day. In a world that is changing so fast one could get stagnant or redundant very easily. When my generation finished our high school we (the so-called top students) were almost bullied by our government to go for engineering or medicines. Now I meet lots of engineers who cannot even get a decent job. My Chinese roommate says that in China no one studies after 30. I told him that in Bhutan people stop learning even much earlier.
So here I am. And coming back to my bucket list and the other two things, well, Nelson, sadly, passed away before I could meet him. I met his son through whom I sent my greetings. I was saddened but, at least, I feel, I can still fly a plane.
Life begins at 49? Possible.
Macau University is inside Mainland China connected by an undersea tunnel.