Great Civilizations 2007
Edited by Soumitri Varadarajan
Introduction ................................................................................................................... 3
(China Text) .................................................................................................................. 4
(India Text) ................................................................................................................... 7
China Significant/ RMIT Voice ...................................................................................... 8
Going to China .............................................................................................................. 9
China is only discovered using all five sensors: ............................................................ 9
Going to India ............................................................................................................. 15
Going to Australia ....................................................................................................... 19
Preface: to Australia story ........................................................................................... 21
China Story ................................................................................................................. 24
India Story .................................................................................................................. 29
India Story .................................................................................................................. 29
Australia Story ............................................................................................................ 34
On Language .............................................................................................................. 36
India Portfolio .............................................................................................................. 42
China Portfolio ............................................................................................................ 43
Australia Portfolio........................................................................................................ 44
Afterword- looking back .............................................................................................. 45
China Significant/ RMIT Voice
Going to China
China is only discovered using all five sensors:
A reflection by Haley Smolenski
China is best described by feelings as with its fast paced lifestyle everything quickly
changes at a rapid pace. The first smell of China was something not only foreign but
foul, the thick smog that encased every inhabitant until it coated the inside of my lungs
where I become immune to everything but the haze which surrounds everything in the
There is nothing more exciting than stepping of a plane into another country and
thinking now what do I do? Not knowing what you are about to see or experience and
not knowing how it will all end. As I started Industrial design 3 years ago I never
imagined that I would be studying overseas…but after my studio with Soumitri in 1st
year it suddenly did seem like a great idea. I didn’t quite know how it was going to
happen whether it would be during the course or immediately after I finished I did know
if there was an opportunity I would take it.
My journey to China was a long one which almost never happened, after Soumitri told
us one night at the end of my 3rd semester at RMIT, I thought it could be something I
might be able to do. So then came the day to apply and I went sure ok why not, I never
told any other person outside of our course that I had applied as I still had many doubts
and didn’t want to miss out on life in Australia as the forth years finalise all their
projects as I had bonded quite closely with them.
Then came the day when Soumitri announced the 5 who would be going to China
based on our results though out our first two years. That was sometime at the end of
the year, I now had to conceder if I still wanted to go being the only girl, the youngest,
and the possibility of failure and the confronting things that I might face. It was only
after I got in that I decided to share that I had applied to go to China with my family and
friends. I still had many lingering doubts still as even with the scholarship would this be
enough to properly cover the time I was away.
After almost a month and a half of deliberating was this a path I wanted to head down,
one that could either be very isolating (not knowing the language and being stuck with
4 males for 3 months) or just choose not to worry how China could turn out and go for
it. I also have never lived in a city environment before, or anywhere with billions of
people. So even though I knew I had gotten in I wanted to be my choice to go so only
told everyone a month after.
Great Civilisations class never really could help anyone as China moves at such a
rapid pace that everything becomes old news fast. The only really useful information
was anything about traditions and culture of the Chinese people. China isn’t really a
place that can be taught as there are conflicting stories, where traditions have been left
behind and the gap between classes creates such differences different politics come
into play. The one child policy has only really affected the middle income as the rich
pay their way out and the poor are too poor to have concerns about future jobs and just
survive from one day until the next. That had surprised me as I thought I would come
into China and most families would be small, though a class mate of ours has four
sisters making her a family of 7.
My trip preparations became very frustrating as I found that many travel agents
wouldn’t take me serious, which could have been that I look younger than I am. I ended
up going with RMIT STA travel and found it much easier. I decided to limit my travelling
around China by myself and use organised tours as I China is hard to get around when
you don’t speak the language, and everyone always say its dangerous for a girl and I
had never lived in a city before, so could easily end up down the wrong alleyway.
I decided to limit down my expectations of China as I had no idea what it’s like, being
such an old country, with many poor people and densely populated I knew it wouldn’t
be like Australia at all. I was promised that other students could speak English and we
would have a translator so school work can be done. I also knew that Foshan isn’t a
giant city and that the University isn’t really rich or as large as many in China.
Leaving Australia on the 20th of August I encountered tiring and exhausting plane flight
at 12.15am flight to arrive in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia for a four day stay before staying
in Hong Kong. The humidity and heat was amazing, draining me of energy. China also
was present along with a strong traditional past adapting in with Indian and Malaysia,
though this was closer to the China I would soon know.
Hong Kong is the westerner’s entrance into China only excitement remained inside me,
here is China here is the large food markets the butchers meat hanging up in 35°C
heat, the unknown smells live fish, dried and preserved ingredients that can be
anything from lizards to fruit. Three levels of strong odour the unbearable heat
magnifying the smell of decaying meat, smells escaping form unknown fruits so much
for one sense to cope with. The unrecognisable words and sounds murmur around my
The train ride was an easy experience as I had Raph and Lawrence with me plus I was
excited to finally be reaching my new home for the next few months. Though as we
passed through customs arrived outside to see no Soumitri, Scott and Fan we started
to panic, not only in every country train stations are known to attract bad people (nicely
demonstrated by the fight outside involving a stick) but also we had turned into the
local zoo attraction with countless stares.
Our dormitory room smells exactly like so much like China, its musty and mildewy it
hasn’t been aired for at least ten years, with a lingering bit of history that you can never
quite name. The room looks unkempt and needs maintenance peeling and aged
wallpaper, a thick layer of dust inbuilt into the fading carpet, a bloodstain on the duvet
cover, the air conditioner is on and the fridge humming away to battle the humidity and
heat, but this room was all I had as my own personal space in China.
Many areas are not maintained in China, and even if they are like in Foshan University
there is a budget and order to what can be done. Our university has beautiful outdoors,
gardens trimmed leaves collected and rubbish, inside everything has aged but the
floors are still polished. The ceiling fans and open windows push the curtains outside of
the buildings so from outside it looks like something from Armageddon disbanded and
derelict. Everything is cramped seats and tables are bolted to the floor. Bike locks are
around door handles as it’s cheaper than a door lock.
Communication to our classmates at first proved to be a challenge as they where all to
shy to talk in English so everyone would rush up to Lawrence for a translation. There is
a total of 6 Chinese girls in the class and about 16 guys so even before us Australian
guys came is was quite uneven. The first question I got asked was, why I was the only
girl here, was there many girls in our course back home. Though when I explained that
there are more guys than girls in our year too it made more sense having only one girl.
It was easy to make friends with the girls as they would invite just me out to go
shopping with them as they could sympathise with being the only girl.
As Design isn’t a subject where English is needed like business and engineer students,
everyday communication with our project groups is always challenging. I have become
a better listener, and learnt to simplify my words and sentences. There is also a lot of
miscommunication and interpretation. Though it has also given me more confidence to
learn and speak Mandarin as there is a need to learn as much as I can.
My first experience of crossing the road is terror and fear people don’t matter as cars
and scooters are faster, they drive on the footpath and you cross several lanes off
traffic without any pedestrian lights. An ordered chaos exists on the road as if you want
to get around some one and there is a gap anywhere you go for it across double lanes
and everything. Whenever the girls would take me out they would always help me
cross as it has to be done in steps of dodging, and would always keep and eye on me.
There was also the deafening sound of horns and engines under the underpass,
coming from Melbourne’s give way to pedestrian and ordered rules was quite
Pollution in Foshan evident everywhere acid rain stains the buildings and corrodes into
everything. Constant grime coats everything and fills every crevice and crack. My lungs
found it difficult to adjust to along with the high humidity made breathing difficult and
you can feel it coating throat. There is a putrid smell in the heat of the day as the
rubbish tossed into the gutters starts to rot, waiting for the street cleaners to do their
job and clean it away. My skin was not only coated with perspiration but with the grime
of hundreds of factories working away in one of the manufacturing hubs of the world.
Cleanliness in China has a different outlook than that of the western environment.
The idea of maintenance has also change to these new weather conditions (acid rain)
only buildings which offer great significance to the people like temples are kept
maintained and repaired, as it would take more than a simple wipe with a cloth to keep
the structure from degrading.
China offers extravagance in a different way to western countries small ceramic tiles
line the edge of the road around the ceramic city area, instead of simple white or yellow
paint tiles are used as road markings from everything to the divided road to turning
arrows and speed indicators. The texture of the tiles also breaks the road into sections
as you can feel the lines, and other road instructions through the vibrations in the
vehicle as you pass as well as the small thud, thud, thud, sound.
Been warned about what is safe was easy, and the girls are happy to inform me. There
is a lot of street sense to avoid dark streets at night, and they all insist I carry my purse
in front of me and never use the front pockets because there are many thieves. Girls
also don’t like heading off to the large supermarkets alone and prefer to do those sorts
of things together. I was told never cross the large underpass roundabout at night
alone as dodgy people hang around there. Walking around the streets of Foshan and
the areas close to uni alone is fine during the daylight.
After my grandpa’s death I experienced extreme homesickness and confusion. I had
managed to convince myself later that night I had made the whole thing up, and am
thankful that everyone back in Australia is only a phone call away. Knowing that I
wasn’t able to help my family or be there physically was also challenging. I found out
what great support that I do have here in China with both my Chinese and Australian
I still have over to thirds of my journey still to complete which I am looking forward to as
I love living in China. I am excited that I am going out to different provinces too so I can
see different parts of China. Though Foshan is an interesting city as not many
foreigners are seen around so we seem different, I have also enjoyed been a bit of a
celebrity with one girl even collecting a signature of my name.
I am never one to hypotheses about where my future will take me, but now I know that
weather I will be back in China or another country around the word seeing first hand
how diverse design, and design appreciation can be has also given me new faith in my
work to be able to follow up ideas and that somewhere out there its highly likely that I
will find like minded people. Knowing and coming to understand the Chinese people
and environment I have a clearer idea of what designs fit into their culture.
My five favourite things about China would be Experiencing life as a foreigner where no
matter how I act or look I will still stand out a mile away. With this experience I am also
treated a bit like a celebrity. The Chinese guys in our class always insist on carrying
anything heavy for me to the point they take it out of my hands. Getting to know the
people of China especially our new classmates along with Raph, Nick, James and
Lawrence has made everything so much easier as you can tackle anything with
friends. Finding out that I am taller than average here has been exciting as I am the
second tallest in class, and if I wear heels will be the tallest! I have never been tall
growing up and it is strange to look down on people and that guys aren’t that much
taller than you. I am also buying larger sized clothing as there are so many tiny people
I have also enjoyed trying to communicate in the little mandarin I know and using a lot
of sign language, when I lost my hair clip one night while out trying to explain what I
was looking for was interesting. I have never lived in a city before so its really fun
people everywhere at all times and I can walk to anything I could possible need. I have
never lived anywhere that has a bedtime either as the gates locks at 11pm so there is
a bell to warn us all.
Although when I first heard that I was going to China I felt outside my comfort zone as I
didn’t know the language it is challenging and frustrating at times but it is something
which I am improving on with the learning of words and something you deal with when
the situation arises. Being a woman at times is harder as I am often the only foreigner
female in a place, but it also has its benefits. Being a woman in China is just like back
home you need to look out for yourself and not put yourself in dangerous situations,
there are places which are unsafe to be alone in. Though more often than not I find
myself being over cautious here as there are things I just don’t know. The Chinese girls
here also always want to go with me when I go shopping and tend to know the best
deals so I haven’t really found myself out alone far from uni at all.
Woman in China
Within the fourth year Industrial Design class in Foshan there are only 6 girls and about
15 guys, and with us Australians there are 7 girls and 19 guys. Though this is no
different back in RMIT there are more guys in our year level anyway. The girls still
seem to prefer to work together with two working in a group with me three with games
and another in Lawrence group. The girls only talked to me when we first came and
after a few days started talking to the guys as they where all a bit shy.
Chinese woman look out for other woman and won’t let them get into trouble, if I ever
need to go shopping I have a long list of girl’s names that I can ask. They have been
very kind and accommodating towards me as they understand that it isn’t easy
travelling with all guys. Every time I wear my bag wrong they come up to me and warn
me about Foshan’s many thieves and to wear it at the front. I have also been told to be
careful in darkly lit streets and if I can avoid it to never cross the underpass alone.
Women are a lot more modest here and it reflects in their clothing, though that not to
say its all woman just the majority. The fashion in China seems to be a bit more crazy
and unique with people mostly doing their own thing. There is a lot more respect and
help towards other woman too on a crowed bus another woman gave up her seat to a
mother with a baby.
The standard of public hygiene is for woman in China is also dramatically different,
public toilets are not cleaned regularly and when the open bins of used sanitary pads is
full they pile up around the toilet edges, with extreme heat and humidity of summer this
problem is exacerbated making me feel extremely uncomfortable, it’s not just a dirty
toilet with wee and poo on the floor, it is a matter of spreading diseases and infections
through lack of sanitation. I have found many of the female students tend to avoid
public toilets when we are out preferring to use private ones which are clean.
My worst experience in China so far has been swimming in Foshan university pool, I
went down to swim a few laps with Raph and was ready for when I first arrive to be
stared at a bit. The pool was still busy but not overly crowed for China, only a few other
girls swam in the lap pool and stayed down the shallow end and all the others where in
the relaxing pool. Raph and I jumped in the water and we started swimming up and
down the pool. Though people stopped staring at Raph soon enough, men literally
stopped mid lap to check me out as I swam past. This made me feel hugely
uncomfortable as it wasn’t because I was a foreigner as they swam past Raph it was
because I was a female. It didn’t seem to ease up to much as people in other parts of
the pool would always be looking at me in my bathers.
At first when we where organising our tour up to Guilin and Yangshou it seemed
obvious that I wouldn’t share a room with guys and especially not a Chinese man.
Though when there was no Chinese woman free to share with they where going to
charge me 380 RMB more for a single room so we just said it would be best that
Lawrence share a room with one of the Chinese men as he can speak the most, and I
would share with either Nick, James or Raph. One of the English Major Girls was
looking out for me and said defiantly don’t share a room with Nick or James and Raph
would be best. As the other two drink excessively.
Though every one warns you of all the bad people in China it mainly because China
has so many more people than anywhere so of course there are going to be more bad
people. Using common sense so far has kept me safe, knowing that it’s not a good
idea to be out on empty streets late at night. Public transport is always too crowded to
be worried about anything only keep your valuables close to you I think that’s the
number one rule in China keep all valuables close at all times. Mothers often carry their
babies wrapped in cloth and over their back or front as it is too busy and crowed for
prams, and the conditions of the paths would make it a very rough ride.
Going to India
Going to India has been on my agenda for about five years and suddenly the world has
said 'YES'. When starting the Industrial Design course I always imagined myself jet
setting off to Europe for an exchange, where I would immerse myself in European
Design. The world has different ideas. I have been given the opportunity of a life time,
the chance to study Industrial Design in India.
When I found out last November I got the exchange I was immensely excited, the type
of excitement that keeps little kids awake in anticipation the night before Christmas. I
still do loose sleep over it. This opportunity to go to India shaped my summer, instead
of staying in Melbourne over summer I opted to go back to Newcastle and work back at
my old job to save some money for the trip. I think I have been driving people a bit mad
with my talk of India, India, India...
When I look back now, I think that my experience began when I was first taught by
Soumitri last year. The class was about observing others, their living and consumer
habits, and renouncing a consumer 'necessity' in our own lives. This culminated in
developing an educational board game to spread the 'Give It Up' message. The whole
class showed such enthusiasm for the subject and some of us have continued to
develop a Renounce Network. I remember walking away from these classes beaming
with enthusiasm and excitement. As Fiona says, you get the feeling we are all part of
Soumitri's grand plan of making the world a better place, and back then I jumped on
board with no hesitation.
It was this class which really cemented mine and Kath's friendship, both arriving at the
course in our mid twenties, both versed in travel and art, both with an interest in
people, the environment and the world- two peas in a pod. Over the next few months
we grew even closer as we set about preparing ourselves for the trip. I'm Fiona 'laid
back' Buchanan, paired with Kathryn 'organised' Quinn we make the perfect team. I go
with the flow and Kath makes the flow happen, she did wonders in organising paper
work for visas, tickets, vaccinations, basically all the nitty gritty meanial tasks
necessary for getting the show on the road. .
The planning process so far has been an interesting juggling act between the rest of
industrial design subjects. I have to resist the strong desire to ignore these other
projects in favor of watching another Bollywood film, or reading more of the novel
(currently 'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts). A checklist of tasks in my mind
keeps growing as I try in vain to be interested in the CAD lecture taking place. Despite
having my time restricted by other necessary activities, everything is smoothly falling
into place. The piles of application paperwork, subject and credit point match ups,
chasing of signatures and certifying documents has now been done. I was so ecstatic
when I opened my letter of acceptance from NID, that I ran around the house showing
everyone. The Hindi characters above my name, made it seem all the more real. Next
in line is the visa application and booking our flights, to arrive in time for the 18 June
start, with a couple of days to acclimatise.
Chasing the paper trail for signatures and stamps for academic approval of subjects
taken abroad, figuring out visas issues and trying to get the best flight prices proved
more time consuming than we had anticipated. We learnt to accept that red tape is
always a bit nightmarish to navigate, I found that the key is not to let it worry you too
much- things have a way a of coming together at the last minute.
Ok, now things are getting a little hectic. Note to self: make more lists they
always help. List number 1- Travel arrangements, which includes flights and
official stuff like the visa, both still unorganized, but not from a lack of trying.
The first problem encountered was with our visa and involved the conflicting
advice given on the Indian Consulate's website. It appeared that we would have
to send our passports, acceptance letter and travel itinerary to the consulate in
Canberra to be processed. However when I got on the phone to the Melbourne
Indian Consulate I was told I simply had to bring these three items to their office
in Coberg (a Melbourne suburb). Ok, glad I didn't post it without checking. Then
the second problem arose. The student visa would only be granted for the
EXACT dates mentioned on out acceptance letter which were the semester
dates of 18th July to 14th September. So if we wanted to stay in the country
past those dates (which we clearly do) then we would have to leave India, apply
for a tourist visa, wait for it to be sent to us, and then return. Clearly very
impracticable! Hmmmm how to get around this? Solution 1 (as done by Rob last
year) is to apply for a tourist visa and not mention that we will be studying. The
ladies in the RMIT Exchange Office were not very impressed by this option as it
seems it must be an 'official' operation when RMIT is involved. Solution 2 is to
ask NID to be a little flexible and change the dates on our acceptance letter so
that we can arrive in, and spend as much time as we like after school's out
having great Indian adventures. Result - NID vs RMIT in official stuff - NID wins!
With the dates now changed to our liking, we are free to apply for our visa's
next week when we can borrow a car and drive out to Coberg. Now to the
flights; a little tricky seeing as we still haven't been allowed access to our grant
money. It seems that we bad students might just go on a rampant spending
spree instead of actually going to India and therefore can't be trusted with the
money too far in advance! Oh well, at least we have a lovely travel agent
working hard on our tricky flight itineraries ready to be booked when we can.
I'm wary of doctors and tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to
putting things in my body, i.e going overboard with vaccinations. I had a
wonderful doctor (who was coincidentally- Indian) he assured me that if I ran
into any problems I would be well looked after in India. After much deliberation I
chose not take malaria tablets, I've done a stint on them while in South East
Asia and they upset my system like crazy, hmmm six months in India on
medication which made me sick didn't appeal. Kath's doctor on the other hand
put the fear of god into her, "Can you put a price on your health?" was his
argument when trying to convince her to spend some $600AUS on vaccinations
for Rabies and Japanese Encephalitis. After much discussion between our side,
the Indian contingent and some additional third party medical advice all health
issues were resolved.
A month before we left I dragged a couple of my friends to a Bollywood Dance
workshop at the NGV so we could learn to shake it like we've never shaken it before,
heaps of fun- the women giving the demonstration were awesome. I need a lot more
practice- which I heard might happen, there is a festival in Ahmedabad called Garba
where there are 9 nights of dancing. I hope to make it to as many festivals as I can
while in India, going to the Holi festival at Carrum Downs was amazing and I want to
soak up as much of the Indian cultural experience as I can. Meanwhile I subjected my
friends to my pre-India mania, forcing them to watch Bollywood films and Indian
cinema, eating Indian food and dragging them to Indian cultural events. I also had the
luxury of a live in Indian at my house, Abir my house-mate's boyfriend was visiting for 2
months, he indulged my appetite for all things Indian, giving me a more personal
account of India and a list of 'Do's and Don'ts' in terms of social protocols while in the
India swallowed us whole and we were still months from the departure date. The
reading India course which ran over the first semester opened our eyes to a country
which we both had vague romanticised impressions of. The vivid India vs the raw India,
we were being immersed in Indian culture, politics and design, in and out of class. The
class exposed us to many aspects of everyday India, what stuck us most was the
poverty- with over 230 million people living below the poverty line and corruption which
penetrated to the very core of Indian politics. On the flip side of this was the exposure
to the amazing initiatives of Non Government Organisations (NGO's) operating
throughout the country, discovering how design can have a place in generating an
economy in impoverished communities and be used as a tool in solving environmental
problems. On a more commercial level India is where it's 'at' in terms of Industrial
Design, a country at the dawn of a design BOOM, finding it's feet in a global market
while still subscribing to the local needs and aesthetic (I've since discovered the term
used is Glo-cal). As a designer in the making the exchange promised to be an
awesome opportunity to experience the buzz of the budding design industry, a peek
into design used as a tool for social change and a chance to make international
So inspired by the NGO initiatives, we decided to hold a fundraiser for Karm Marg a
small NGO running out of Delhi who have created a safe environment for street
children, run by street children. This took the form of a 'prom' fancy dress dance party
scheduled for the weekend before we left. When it rains it pours, just on the off chance
we weren't busy enough we went and added another mammoth task to our 'to do' list.
For both of us it was our first time organising an 'official' event of sorts. It was my time
to shine, I made the most of my friends musical talents enlisting them to play on the
night, designed posters and tickets, we found a venue and did our best to drum up
support amongst fellow Industrial Design students. At the time I was more than a little
disappointed by the lack community within our discipline, but in retrospect we raised in
excess of $700AUS, the night went off without any dramas, despite my running around
like a mad woman all day. I managed to leave the fund-raising money at the video
store where I was picking out clips to project on the wall behind the DJ's. Oops, I
sheepishly returned for the money, it's moments like this that I'm reminded how good
people can be!
The night before we left Australia neither me nor Kath were able to catch any shut eye,
our heads racing with of thoughts of the pending adventure. The exciting prospect of
meeting new people, seeing new places, experiencing an amazing vibrant culture and
living in a country where chaos rules, it was about to happen. We were both
apprehensive about our practical skills, how would we compare to our Indian
counterparts at NID, would we be able to handle the pace, what if they used different
software... Trivial worries really. It's hard to say what we expected from India as a
country, we had been introduced to so much over the semester the culture, tradition,
social and environmental problems, poverty, design and of course the issue of being a
woman in a country where there is the highest rape rate in the world. It was all so
surreal, like a dream that was about to unfold, experiencing is of course completely
different from studying from afar. We don't know where we are going with design, but
we both hope to use this exchange as a stepping stone for the future, forming
international relationships and gaining a new perspective on design and it's place in the
Going to Australia
“Where??” “Melbourne!” “The whole of next semester??”
Well, this was practically everyone’s reaction when the news spread like fire in NID.
Everyone knew it before anything was even close to confirmation.
For many of us this was the first trip overseas, so there were so many phases of
feelings that we went through. From curiosity to cynicism to disbelief and then finally
curiosity again, all the 12 apostles were buzzing with action.
As we sat around Soumitri in the Product Design studio, things finally seemed more
believable. He gave us an insight into the culture of the place we were going to live and
work in. It seemed like a wonderland with a lot to offer. Afterwards we all darted
towards the internet to get a glimpse of it. In spite of different levels of experience of
places, we all started looking forward to this unique experience.
Then the “To-do” list started building up. We had passports, IELTS, VISA,
accommodation, monetary arrangements to be taken care of. So, well we got down to
doing it, tackling each one by one along with a lot of formalities regarding our courses
The Twelve Apostles
A group of twelve prospective designers from India would be a safe description. But
each one of us has a lot of differences and variations of culture which bind us into a
very closely bound group of explorers.
With all of us having differing levels of passions for things around us, we looked
forward to exploring a new country with its different reserves of cultures, hopefully
giving us more food for imagination.
Bharat is from Delhi with a dominant interest in interior spaces and exhibitions. Waylon
is the aquatic life enthusiast coming from Goa, with a great reserve of knowledge he
also has the creative seed in him. Eshaa comes from Benaras, well, the whole world
really since she’s been on her Dad’s ship for most of her life. Malvika is a Pune girl with
an interest in literature and history. Me, Mehek is a bit obsessed about cars, global
warming and medical design. Himaka is a guitarist in the making with a slight
background in boxing. Rupika is a classical dancer from Delhi with a flair for writing.
Prachi is a multifaceted designer in the making. Jacob is the tech wiz from Delhi.
Sundarjeeth is a bike and car lover with a surprising flair for detail. Gayatri is the athlete
of the batch doing all the exercising on everyone’s behalf!
So we all mentally started wrapping up ourselves for another semester. With everyone
coming up new bits of information everyday, we started building up a database of what
we would need in Melbourne. We started looking for all the long lost relatives that we
could find in Australia to help us out with things here. Accommodation being the
biggest problem we started looking for options on the internet.
I went about looking for a Lonely Planet for Australia from which I photocopied the
Melbourne section for reference. With the cost comparisons becoming apparent, we
started to budget our trip which was still unsure due to the formalities which had to be
With a vague image of Australia and its people in our minds, we all started having
different expectations from the land down under. The ones going abroad for the first
time were excited about stepping into a foreign land for the first time along with the
tingling excitement of working in a foreign system with foreigners.
With many inputs from the net and lots more by the word of mouth, we started
structuring and restructuring our stay in Melbourne. Back at home we all were still
doing our 2 month internships with various companies hence everyone was spread out
and not reachable at all times. This made communication difficult hence things moved
Meanwhile, the feelings of other batch mates at NID are worth taking a look at.
Everyone’s disbelief was escalating as they saw things taking shape. It still seemed too
good to be true for the entire batch to go to Melbourne and with group dynamics like
ours, things were bound to be a lot more fun.
I was ecstatic at the prospect of combining our Indian culture and the advanced context
of Australia and was looking forward to taking inspiration from the systems existing
here. I had an idea about the cleanliness and the orderly fashion in which the city was
run hence was excited about getting to see new ideas in action.
Also since the difference was of an entire hemisphere, I was curious about the weather
and the certain geographical features. The prospect of being closest to the South Pole
ever, we were excited to touch the Antarctic Ocean.
The population distribution interested me too since there are people from all over the
world residing in Australia and mainly Melbourne hence the various facets of cultures
that I may see through people was extremely inviting.
This trip and mainly the preparation for it made all of us a lot more organized, taking
stock of our own paperwork to begin with. The entire procedure of going from Passport
through IELTS to the Visa made us a lot more responsible for our own selves since all
of us were working at the time all this had to be done so many of us didn’t have our
parents to help us out. Also, we learnt a lot as to how to stay within a group and leaving
all our differences behind, think of the group first.
True enough Melbourne proved to be better than I had thought. It has the most
organized transport system which makes things so much more reachable and pleasant,
at least as compared to the cities in India. The people are mostly in the young category
since there are a lot of students coming in so the place reflects the youth. Everywhere
there is something to be done, explored and taken design cues from. The work
environment is conducive for us Industrial designers to think more on the lines of
experience rather than needs. Which is certainly not the case in India, design is ruled
by needs. Even the boundaries of Industrial design here are so fluid that we can blend
into areas like Video and imagery easily thus giving lots of freedom to discover and
explore our own creativity. And yes, I have come to appreciate the weather of India
much more after the unpredictable nature of Melbourne’s weather!
Preface: to Australia story
Sitting in an abundantly sun lit corner on a pleasant November afternoon in our very
spacious and carefully located product design studio, I got the news that there is a
rumour that our batch of twelve are going to RMIT Australia for a semester, from an
overly excited generally enthusiastic friend of mine. National Institute of Design is a
place where creativity in any and many forms prevails, it is so much a part of us that we
use it by default in all we do, which is the reason why rumours become so interesting
and believable to listen to, the fact that we are a small community also helps the above
mentioned process. It’s a lot of fun but one has to act intelligent at the same time. To
check the authenticity of a rumour one must scrutinize the source it originates from and
the validity of contents. Seeing all this I decided to ignore the rumour my dear friend
delivered to me and never upgraded the rumour to a ‘news’. Never in the history of NID
has happened that twelve students are sent abroad for an exchange programme.
Hence it was a little hard to believe this mass exchange rumour, but this did not imply
that we dint stat mentioning, referring and sometimes discussing the rumour.
Many times sitting in the mess (a huge dining space to accommodate more than 150
people at a time where we ate our meals) or chatting in BMW (an open cafeteria
located behind the metal workshop where all gather for chai, smoke and between the
meals food) we would wonder how would it be seeing a new country, new people and a
new kind of working experience but still we did not acknowledged the capability of the
rumour to be a news. But gradually things started to look more serious and the rumour
started to shape up into a confirmed news. The a first step to this process was the visit
by Soumitri to NID in the month of January where he discussed about the possibility as
if it was a probability if we responded positively, which we did. He revealed to us a little
more about what was the programme going to be like and what are we required and
desired to do to be able to make this happen. Things started to appear more believable
but this clarity gave birth to many confusions and ambiguities which lasted long.
There is a lot of reference to we and us here, so I would like to resolve that and
introduce ourselves. We are an interesting bunch of people with a variety of skills and
talents. From a hockey player to a musician we have it all, each having something
unique to offer. Belonging to different parts of India the variation and richness we carry
in our perceptions, experiences and outlooks adds an extra dimension to whatever we
So once the rumour was developing into a confirmed happening we started to find
more about the land we are going to and things we would do. This process was carried
out individually and in groups also at different levels. The active enthusiasts quickly
‘googled’ the key word RMIT or Melbourne. Others like me who strongly abide by the
traditional Indian oral culture of listening and telling stories started to ask the privileged
ones who had already visited Australia. Through different ways, means, sources and
amounts we got enough information about we were into. But still crucial information
about accommodation and travel needed to be sorted out. The step was taken by one
of our reasonably bold batch mate who found out an exotic sounding stay place which
was offering rooms and shuttle service to the university.
One of the other important findings were the places to easily visit near
Melbourne and then later to plan how to reach those, as it made a lot of sense to go to
some more new exciting places as it is we were all the way coming to Melbourne. This
was not all, more planning was required and this time for paper work. All of us being
away on our Industrial Training ( a 3rd semester’s requirement) we were not able to
fully involve ourselves in the official proceedings which ultimately resulted in delay of
the proceedings leaving us all strained and exhausted. But all was well sorted out at
the end and we finally flew to land in Australia. The period of never ending wait for our
VISA was quite frustrating some of us actually considered rescheduling our tickets, but
luckily all of us got our Visas and that is how we are here.
There was one question on our minds that was about the courses we would be
offered and the kind of design learning and process we would indulge in, as we were
sure that it would be different from the kind we follow in India and we were also excited
about it also. Our expectations were quite high as it has always been with exchange
programmes. We were looking for a fresh system of learning, a new context to put our
learning into use. Australia being a different country than ours in so many aspects, we
were very much expecting to do something we have so far never done or hardly done.
Our anticipation was a little pacified by the list of studios offered we could opt from and
I must say they all sounded very promising and interesting.
We all learn and this process of learning never ends, in this whirl pool of
happenings which took place in the preparation of the big event also did a lot good to
us as the main event did. It made us realise our potentials and our capacity to do
things never done. Looking back I now think and realise the changes the whole trip
including the preparation for the trip has brought into us and for good. It has surely
opened new avenues for us for the future and helped us acknowledge our calibre not
only in the academia but in a more personal and intimate way. It has help add new
fibre to our personality which reflects independence and confidence.
Arriving in China
Haley, Lawrence and I arrived in China and Foshan on Friday 31st of August after
spending about 2 weeks in Hong Kong and 3 hours on a train, While James and Nick
had arrived in China via Beijing about a month earlier. However they didn’t arrive in
Foshan until the 1st of September.
Arriving in Foshan was as a big unknown for all of us. For Haley, Lawrence and I it was
our very first impression of what China is all about. For Nick and James it was beyond
the comfort zone they had established in Beijing, where they had found the backpacker
scene and settled in within a minute or two of being there.
My very first experience in China occurred just after clearing customs & passport
control at the Foshan train station. I was slightly ahead of Lawrence & Haley. In true
Aussie style I strode straight out of the train station doors, past the small barrier
surrounding the doors and walked smack bang into two men shouting insults at each
other. The situation then escalated into the two of them being intent on beating the
other black & blue, one using his crutch and the other a rather large metal pipe that
appeared seemingly out of thin air. At this point I retreated behind the small metal
barrier just outside the train station doors where, once the commotion finally ended
(broken up by another guy with a rather large piece of wood), I stayed with Haley and
Lawrence for the next hour or so (due to a time mix up) to wait for Fan, Soumitri and
Scott to collect us. During the next hour we had a rather bizarre experience that left me
with a very deep sympathy for how the animals in the cages at the zoo feel. We sat
behind the barrier at the train station and we were stared at! And then we were stared
at some more. One young girl even stood on the barrier with and an ice cream, just
staring at us for about 20 minutes. Outside the station we also learnt about the sound
of China, the sound of a person gathering flem in the back of the mouth & the following
sound of it being launched from the offender’s mouth onto the pavement or even
sometimes the restaurant floor. That evening was to be much more relaxing than the
first hour or so in China. We arrived at our accommodation and Fan and Professor Pei
took us, with Soumitri and Scott to dinner at one of Pei’s past students’ restaurant.
Nick and James arrival experience was slightly different as they arrived in Foshan on a
Bus after a flight from Beijing to Guangzhou. I know that for the first day or two they
were quite uneasy about being in Foshan.
Figuring out the semester
The figuring out of what we would do in our semester at Foshan University was mostly
worked through in Australia before we left. The plan was to take a ceramics course, a
furniture course and to do a variation of the design methods course via
correspondence with Liam Fennessy at RMIT.
The classes that we ended up taking were Public Product Design, which was supposed
to be focused on ceramics however it turned out that the use of ceramics in the design
wasn’t an essential. The methods class was changed around as Fan had come up with
a plan for running a methods class for us. The methods class focused predominantly
on us looking at the Chinese culture and the Chinese way as well as coming up with a
project proposal for our final year at RMIT.
Our third planned class is furniture class that at the time of writing we haven’t started.
The semester structure is significantly different to the RMIT way of doing. At RMIT we
take all our semester classes simultaneously. At Foshan Uni the semesters’ classes
are run one after the other.
In the true fashion of our little group, and this is something that occurred at various
times during our exchange, we sometime like to do things our way and the classes
were no different. But unlike most of the other times we wanted to do thing our way this
was slightly different as Fan is one of the most genuine and accommodating people we
have met during our time in China. We had heard that the first years did a lot of fine art
and so after so discussion with Soumitri and then talking to Fan it turned out that we
would be taking a sketching class and Haley & Lawrence would also be taking a
Chinese Calligraphy class.
Life on campus at Foshan University compared to campus life at RMIT is as different
as koalas are to pandas. Here students and lecturers live on campus, with a few
students living outside however still very very close to it (just over the campus walls).
There are also many past students running businesses very close to the university. Our
accommodation is set in the southwest section of the uni which is where a significant
chunk of the student dormitories are located. The southwest part of the uni is
separated from the main part of the uni campus by a single street (the commercial
street) where we often eat our meals.
We are on the 3rd floor of the International Exchange Centre (ironically we are the only
internationals staying here) in a row of five separate rooms. Each room has a small
bathroom, fridge, sleeping & desk area and a balcony, which faces other student
dormitories. On arrival we were all pleasantly surprised at the accommodation we are
staying in. The first morning I received a rather large shock when I returned from
breakfast to discover my bed had been made and my towel in the bathroom changed!
It was at this point we discovered the accommodation is like a hotel and it is actually
called a hotel by the other students.
Travelling around China
So far the travelling in China has been very exciting. As of yet I haven’t done a lot of
travelling by myself. Up until our trip to Yangshou and Guilin it was only Nick and
James that had already travelled in Mainland China, between Beijing and Chingdao.
Out trip to Yangshou & Guilin was an eye opening experience in many ways, from
learning about the Chinese train system to learning things about each other.
Initially we ad been unable to actually obtain tickets as we had put off going to the
ticket office because we were caught up in settling into out new home and getting to
know our class, the university and Foshan city. Thanks to professor Pei we were
eventually able to get on a Chinese tour group. The tour provided us with a chance to
get out of Foshan for the holiday. Being with a tour group made many things a lot
easier. The first example of this was navigating the train station in Guangzhou, a rather
confusing and confronting place that was teeming with people. It was here that I
experienced a rather confronting phenomenon that occurs regularly in China and that
is the concept of lining up. Lining up does not exist at all in China. We have come to
the conclusion that this is a result of mass population. Getting into the station was like
being in a crazy moshpit where everyone wants to get to the very front. People will do
and use anything to get to the front and through that small gate into the station and if
you’re in their way, well you get shoved out of the way. Another rather scary
experience occurred at the train station about an hour after the first. This time we had
made our way to the departure gate and were some of the last people to get there. The
gate was filled to capacity and so we stood at the back and waited. After about 10
minutes and announcement was made, it was a change of the gate, and the entire
waiting room turned and started charging towards us to get to the new gate. Having
close to a thousand Chinese people running towards you, pushing and shoving
everyone and everything out of their way as they come is definitely something I would
prefer to not experience again soon.
The next experience on the list was the actual train trip. Although I have spent more
time on a train than the measly 12 hours we were on the train to Guilin it was a rather
uncomfortable 12 hours as the beds on the sleeper train are definitely not made for
someone who is 6 foot tall.
Once we had arrived in Guilin, all of us lacking sleep & looking pretty ragged, we
discovered that the tour had been changed around and we also found out a lot about
how Chinese people behave on tours. We caused a reasonable upset when Nick,
Haley, James and I said we were going to go and do something else. This continued
through out the tour and ultimately I would put it down to cultural differences. By the
end of the tour I was feeling pretty sorry for Lawrence, as he had to deal with trying to
bridge the two cultures and the two languages to get various points of view across.
Design in China
Our experience of design in China has mostly been through contact with the students
in the 4th year Industrial design program at Foshan University.
When we first arrived in China I don’t think any of us were sure of what to make of the
design at Foshan Uni. On the first day we were taken to see the Industrial Design
student gallery. It was full of complete production prototypes all the way from a shower
through to a fully working motorcycle that was designed about a year ago by two final
year students! At this point we started to freak out about how we would stack up
against the Foshan students. Apart from a smattering of pieces coming out of the
furniture class run by Kjell, you just don’t see designs that are finished to this sort of
level at home. The first two years of the Industrial Design degree at Foshan Uni are
basically Fine Art based. With all the classes focusing on sketching, calligraphy,
painting etc…. When it came to having to present sketches in class we were again
wondering if we would be able to compete with the skill level of the Foshan students.
It turned out that in terms of basic skills like sketching we sit on a reasonably equal
footing with the Foshan students. After basic very tangible skills like CAD and
sketching it has become hard, especially with the language barrier, to judge exactly
how we stack up in areas like research, conceptual ability and the ability to discuss and
communicate design. I think that the way that studios and the course overall is run at
Foshan dictate to a certain extend what is valued in design work. The studios here are
run over a 7-week period and thus a lot of things are compressed and broken down
into clear stages. The first week is given over to the lecturer presenting the students
with information he thinks they need to know. In these lectures it seems like the
students take everything said as gospel as I there doesn’t appear to be any questions.
The research occurs in the second week, the initial ideation and sketching in the third
through to the fourth. The fifth week is CAD development and the final two weeks are
refinement, model making and if possible liasing with a manufacturer who will hopefully
produce the design.
I personally found this structure a bit draining on the creativity. However it made it
easier to pump out more designs early on. The drain on creativity wasn’t helped by the
way that the classes are run. In the classroom itself students are expected to sit and do
the work on the project while in the classroom and there doesn’t seem to be many
students that do any design work outside the classroom.
What was also very surprising and is most likely to be the reason that in some areas
we found the students in Foshan lacking, areas like in knowledge of materials &
processes, was that this year (their final year of their course) was the first year they
had an actual industrial design project. Overall the design at Foshan Uni is definitely
good, but it has a rigid feeling to it, the feeling that its being too tightly controlled.
Outside the university the world of manufacturing & design is completely different. It’s
completely out of control. For the five of us as designers, coming to China has been
like putting five kids in the worlds largest candy store. The scope of what is possible
has suddenly multiplied infinitely when compared to that small candy store back home.
Here there are a million manufacturers making so many different types of products and
utilising hundreds of different processes, all at a fraction of what it would cost at home.
Suddenly all those designs we dreamt up at home seemed very feasible for us to get
produced. But coming to China has also brought us into perspective. We can suddenly
see how the whole process of design is working in relation to China. We can see why
so many people are raving about China and why so many people are so scared by it.
Most of all we can see why China is the manufacturing centre of the world.
5 good things about our whole experience
It’s almost impossible to write anything about how good our experience was without
mentioning the people. This includes five of us on exchange, Friends at Uni, Lecturers
and people we met outside uni. Almost everyone we met has made an impact in
someway on our China experience, with the exception of a couple of people; everyone
has been awesome. The Chinese people in General are very hospitable and they are
what really make China. Although being foreign really does help us, as we stand and
thus have a slight celebrity status, it is definitely the amazing hospitality and genuiness
of the Chinese people that has made our time here amazing.
The food is my second good thing about being in China. Previously I would on
occasion eat Chinese food, but I never went out of my way to get it. Food in China is
an important aspect of the culture and I have grown to really enjoy & take pleasure in
eating Chinese food. There is an extensive variety and variation in food in China, which
always makes each meal different. The combination of being social and food appears
to be important here and some of the best meals I have eaten here have been when
there has been a large social element.
One of the most exciting elements of the exchange has been the contact with
manufacturers and getting a glimpse into the manufacturing world in China, which I feel
is the most important thing in relationship to our course.
The exposure to an Asian language has been a high point as Mandarin and Cantonese
are vastly different to the European languages I have had experience & contact with.
Sport. In the Chinese university regular exercise and sport are an important aspect of
campus life. Being able to get out and exercise and try out many different sports and
even revisit ones that I have experienced before has been a great experience. It has
also allowed us all to connect with the students in a whole new way.
Looking to the future
To come to place like China and be confronted by a culture that is in constant flux and
yet has such deep roots in the past is something that has been amazing to experience
that will definitely change the five of us as people and designers. Already it is evident
that we are growing & changing from the experience. I feel that the personal changes
in each person will become more evident once we are back in Australia undertaking
our final year. As designers, the opportunity to come to the manufacturing centre of the
world will also be beneficial in ways that will probably not be evident until we begin our
journey beyond RMIT.
With the friendships we have forged and experiences we have shared in China we
have experienced something that cannot be undone or taken from us. The impression
that China has made on us all will last a lifetime and will definitely continue to draw us
back to China in someway in the future. Finally I would like to mention two regrets that I
do have about coming to China. The first is not being able to come sooner and the
second is not being able to stay longer, in the end though I know that at some point in
my lifetime I will be back in China.
Working out the plan for the semester
Working out the plan for the semester was great, with the help of an assertive Soumitri.
Fiona and I were both still a little jet lagged, and following our whirlwind introduction
tour of all the people in the know, quite overwhelmed. Praveen from the product design
department was to ‘be in charge of us’ and the four of us sat in him little cramped
office, overflowing with paper work but luxuriously air conditioned and had a discussion
as to the fate of our studies at NID. Praveen had quite rightly assumed that we would
slot ourselves into the product design curriculum, but after a tour of the workshop and
the very masculine auto mobile designing that was taking place, the three of us had
Soumitri gently broached the subject and after a little confusion Praveen kindly printed
out NID’s entire first semester curriculum that we proceeded to hungrily devour in
search of all the weird and wonderful, and slightly relevant, courses that were on offer.
Traditional Indian two ply braiding was to take place in the first week, when we would
then jump in a post graduate class of colour and form for the following fortnight. I had
many plans to use my new video camera and so we decided to do an editing subject,
and then fit in a couple of interesting looking design theory classes and finally wrap it
up with a six week ceramics project. The Indian course structure is different from the
Australian in that a class will run everyday for the designated period. NID classes also
ran all day 6 days a week and compared to our comparatively light eighteen contact
hour weeks, I was sure our concentration spans would be tested.
Neither of us had ever experienced living on campus before and we were quite excited
by the prospect. Our accommodation was in the girls only Hostel C a walled in, 4 story
complex that also featured a 24 hour guard at the entrance. Our room sat on the
ground floor and consisted of a little lounge and kitchen area with a sink, two desks
and a couch, as well as a bedroom with two tiny little single beds pushed awfully close
to one another and a very comfortable ensuite. It was much more spacious and
comfortable than I had anticipated and the two of us with a slightly relieved Soumitri,
went out shopping for linen and other creature comforts. We were to later discover just
how lucky we were to have been given the space as the majority of the girls were
crammed three into a single room with a shared bathroom to each floor.
The NID campus was like a little walled in oasis amongst the dusty hustle and bustle of
Ahmedabad city. It sits on the bank of a river and is full of lush tropical vegetation that
is home to peacocks, lizards, monkeys, dogs, cats, lots of giant snails, and any other
creature that manages to sneak past the watchful gaze of the guards. All but a few
older students live on campus in separate male and female dormitories. The
accommodation and canteen area is connected by a path to the rest of the campus
where students can be found working away 24 hours of the day. Like all specialized
universities the students all come from different parts of the country. European
exchange students usually arrive for the second semester so we had the privilege of
being the only international students on campus. Due to this we initially attracted a lot
of attention and spent vast amounts of time sitting in the two little cafes frequented by
our classmates developing heavy chai drinking habits and listening to the gossip.
Fortunately all of the classes and lots of conversations take place in English, but often
did slip into Hindi which was fun to listen to. The benefit of chopping and changing
classes and departments meant that we met a lot of people.
Of course there were also negative aspects to the campus life. The safe and relaxing
atmosphere would also nurture boredom that was only exacerbated by the student’s
lack of interest in ever venturing outside, save for a cup of coffee or meal. Fiona and I
did more exploring of the city in our first month than many of the students had done in
their past three or four years. The experience of a single environment was alien and a
little claustrophobic to the two of us who were used to our busy lifestyles shared
between university, employment and home and private life. The other difference that
was extremely trying at times was the pace at which all activities were conducted.
Being on time was certainly not considered important and we were often left sitting in
class in the morning for an hour before anyone, including the teacher, would arrive.
This trend also continued throughout the day when numerous breaks would occur, and
the teacher would simply disappear for a while. This phenomena was epitomized in our
first week of ceramics class when an exercise I personally would have dedicated a
couple of hours to completing, was given an entire week. However, we soon embraced
the Indian pace of life that was partly due to the heat, and hence the endless hours
spent socializing at the BMW cafe.
In the middle of the semester the two of us decided to make the most of the endless
welcoming and hospitable invitations to stay with people in their homes. I decided to go
and stay with a couple from a mountain town called Nainital near the border of Nepal
while Fiona went to visit an Indian friend she knew from Australia in Pune, a city near
Mumbai. This was to be our first experience traveling by ourselves and my journey
consisted of a flight followed by a train ride and Fiona took an overnight bus. I
experienced lots of hiccups along the way including a cancelled flight followed by a
delayed train that caused me to arrive almost 6 hours late to be greeted by the driver of
the family who had been patiently waiting for me in the rain. Indian people love to talk
about their country and are especially proud of the immense diversity that occurs from
region to region. Even still, I was surprised at the difference, not only in the hilly green
landscape of Nainital, but also in the appearance of the local people who have much
lighter skin and Nepalese features. I had a wonderfully relaxing stay with my friend’s
parents who loved the experience of teaching me about their very traditional heritage
I then joined Fiona in Pune where she had been having a fantastic time hanging out
with her artist friend and his very educated and international Indian friends. The two of
us then flew down to Bangalore where we had been invited to stay at the family home
of another NID student. It was yet another new experience to stay in the family home
that had been decorated from head to toe with idols and areas for puja (prayer) by the
very religious mother. As with the house in Nainital, two live in maids cleaned, cooked
and washed for the family and I found it so interesting to watch how the two parties
The two of us have also made the most of our weekends and the many religious
festivals to explore as much of the state of Gujarat as we can. The distances are long
but from trial and error we have discovered that the most comfortable way to travel is
by overnight bus where we can share a little sleeping compartment and arrive at our
destination moderately refreshed. We have visited the sun temples and step wells of
Patan, the incredible 900 Jain temples at Palitana, the local holiday destination of Mt
Abu, the Kutch district where we and some NID textile students witnessed village
women practising traditional embroidery for a local NGO, as well as a fun party
weekend with friends in the beach town of Diu. At the time of writing, it is two days until
we leave Ahmedabad for our adventure into Rajasthan where will visit the Barefoot
College NGO and a village to witness a project run by The Hunger Project NGO both of
which we studied in our previous semester at RMIT.
India Snap Shots
Little occurrences happen everyday that can be considered as uniquely Indian and add
to patchwork that is our cultural experience. They continually reinforce how wonderful it
has been studying in a country of such rich traditions.
The lovely hospitable stranger who invited us for a tour of her family’s textile factory
before giving us gifts of fabric and offering to make us a Kuta each.
There are endless bonding rituals that take place at NID, including the funny dating
game where all the new students are taken out on blind dates in an effort to make them
feel more comfortable in the new city. Or the ‘Poster War’ when the departments
compete to make the funniest, prettiest and hugest hand drawn posters possible which
then decorate the entire hostel complex for weeks afterwards.
There are scary experiences which are later viewed with humour such as watching my
friend plunge through a manhole in the footpath into the dark water below only to be
rescued unharmed by 20 watchful men.
My first serious bout of food poisoning where the funny doctor insisted that I would be
cured if I ate boiled eggs, drunk black coffee and took some very dubious looking pills
that he had fished from the bottom of his bag.
Where else would you go out for a leisurely paddle on a lake only to realize that every
other single boat is madly chasing you full of video camera wielding families pointed in
Experiencing desert heat while on a 22hour school excursion would only happen in
India and Fiona and I thought we were going to die while we watched in amazement as
the NID students giggled with excitement and took the conditions in their stride.
Loosing the cotton wool protection provided by the serene campus and venturing out
into the ‘real’ India where we negotiated bus tickets, gestured wildly to get our point
across, laughed at excited village children who said goodbye instead of hello, and
discovered amazing treasures and unique destinations.
All of this while being surrounded by incredible people and their culture that I was once
completely ignorant of but am now proud to say feel very at home amongst.
Design in India
NID is the hub of young creativity in India and this reflects in the attitude of the students
who feel honored and privileged to be a part of it. They work so hard on their projects
and take their chosen paths very seriously. NID was founded during the Bauhaus
movement and many aspects of this era remain in the curriculum. While this could be
regarded as a negative aspect I found that the ideas of the students were anything but
stale. I was very happy and inspired to discover that every single student I spoke to
wanted to become a designer to benefit their own country in one way or another. “Why
go and work overseas when so much needs to be done within India”, they said. Many
were concerned about managing the influx of western products and styles while
maintaining the diverse traditions they are so proud of. We spoke about redesigning
common western objects such as the blender to incorporate the uniqueness of Indian
The enormity of the manufacturing industry in India helps to provide 100% of the NID
graduates with employment. It is also extremely accessible in terms of cost and
quantity and many projects are easily developed and presented with a full working
prototype that the student has had made. I also learnt that many graduates develop
successful businesses while the exclusivity and contacts provided by the Institute help
them do this.
India is renowned for its rich textiles and the two of us were fascinated by the by
Institute’s textile department. The students design patterns, learn how to make
traditional style and create their own weaves, dye, screen print, sew and design
garments. This industry provides the budding designers with endless scope for future
employment and the emphasis is always on exceptional quality. Textile creation is still
practiced in small scale by craftspeople in remote areas all over the country, and the
students are very concerned about fair pay and maintaining this traditional industry.
As a developing nation still finding its own feet post independence, I am very excited by
the enormous future prospects for designers. It is only recently that the wider
community has recognized ‘Designer’ as a profession and the rapidly expanding middle
class has an appetite for well designed Indian made products. The enormous
population provides a workforce for industry that is unique to India. Through good
design the prospects for Indians to sustainably develop their own country and address
the social and environmental issues, are endless.
5 Good Things
1. Experiencing life in a country that is governed by tradition and culture.
2. Meeting like minded young designers and discovering we all have similar goals
that are simply directed towards different target audiences.
3. Being placed in alien and often difficult circumstances which after careful
negotiation develop into invaluable self learning experiences.
4. The opportunity to partake in traditional Indian craft and design curriculum,
while also witnessing the amazing small scale industry that is a group of village
woman making embroidered garments to supports themselves. To the large
scale factories that make the Indian ceramic squat toilet.
5. Falling in love with a place so different from our own while making amazing
friendships that will ensure our return in the future.
Looking into the Future
I adore the fact that we have experienced studying with other enthusiastic designers in
the developing nation that is India. The career opportunities available to these students
are overwhelming and are all the more exciting because they are driven by the desire
to help make better lives for those around them. As anticipated the poverty is
exceptionally confronting and distressing and the haves and have nots mingle in such
a way that can seem quite heartless to the newcomer. However, scratch the surface
just slightly and even though there may be an uncomfortable acceptance of the
hopelessness of the situation and the horrific corruption that exists at all levels,
everyone is trying to do their best make each others existence just a little bit easier. It
is proof in the amount of NGOs that exist to tackle all sorts of issues, to the middle
class family who hire a handful of people for household chores to give income to
otherwise unemployed people, to the incredibly poor who will share their merge
possessions with others even less fortunate.
There is community in the true sense of the word like I have never before witnessed.
Perhaps it is the multicultural nature of Australia that creates a distance between
groups of people. As an Australian designing for an Australian is no clear cut task as
often environment can provide the only real link. However, an Indian designing for an
Indian has endless shared cultural and traditional similarities to draw inspiration from.
This backdrop has provided us with a fascinating 3 month study experience and
allowed us a unique insight into design. The future of our relationship with India has
been cemented in the friendships and contacts that we have made. There do exist a
group of young Indians who like us, are ready to tackle the rest of our overzealous
consuming generation and use our skills as designers to better social standards and
reverse environmental damage. The future will hold many Indian career opportunities
for the both of us.
Our much awaited exchange programme now draws to an end; this is probably the
best time to reflect over how the past three and a half months flew by so quickly. It has
no doubt been one of the most memorable experiences I have had.
Arriving in Australia
Our arrival in Melbourne just a few days before the commencement of the course
brought with it several challenges. Finding a place to stay was probably the prime
concern for all of us. We had booked with a few places over the internet which was
quite futile because on arriving and staying at one or two of those places we realized
that either the rent was too high or the distance too far from the university. A few of us
managed to find a place at a Don Bosco Hostel close to the city where the reasonable
rent also included three meals a day.
Food and lodging taken care of we made our way to RMIT where we were required to
do a lot of paper work and fill in several forms and get student ids and access cards
made. For this we had to run from building to building, it helped us understand how
things work here, much different from NID.
Balloting- - Working out the plan for the semester
We traveled till Melbourne in batches and on the day of Balloting we all reunited and
sat in a hall for a few hours where different faculties came up and made presentations
and spoke on the courses they were to take. The range of courses on offer was
extremely diverse and immediate decisions were tricky. Most of us were uncertain of
our verdict and some like me went through attending at least four courses to realize
what I wanted to take up. Strangely the courses I am currently struggling to complete
are none of what I had opted for at the time I first gave in my choices. In NID we have a
block system of teaching and a plan chalked out for the entire semester is done for the
entire batch, we do a number of Product design related courses through the semester.
The duration of each course is different and no two courses run simultaneously. I
wouldn’t comment on which is better than the other, both systems are different. At
RMIT I am doing no course immediately linked with Product Design. We are required to
choose one major course which is a studio and two electives. My studio is called
INTERACT which is about interaction design in public spaces. The two electives I have
taken up are Video and Projection. All of which I would probably not had the
opportunity of studying whilst at NID.
The RMIT campus comprises of 300 odd buildings scattered all across Melbourne.
Luckily the Industrial Design and main buildings are situated in the central part of the
city. It was extremely confusing at first but the Industrial Design Department was
restricted to a few floors in a few buildings which made things easier. Every few meters
there exists if not a tall building then a small cottage with an RMIT sign on it. Since, it’s
a university there are a lot of people enrolled in for different courses and no one gets
their own personal space to work. Its not a closed campus and therefore very
impersonal in some aspects. There isn’t much interdisciplinary interaction since
students of each course restrict their movement to the classrooms and computer labs
which provide them their facilities, for example Industrial Design students can use only
a few computer labs since the software they use are installed in those labs only.
Our life in Melbourne
Melbourne didn’t take much getting used to. The public transport system is fantastic
and the city being new is extremely clean, well organized and structured. There is
always something to do and new places to see. The city is full of exhibitions and
museums and student ids get us a student concession almost everywhere. The people
are friendly and quite helpful. The city’s historic laneways and buildings are full of
fascinating bars and cafes tucked away in some insignificant alleys waiting to be
A lot of my time in Melbourne was spent visiting museums, exhibitions and a few
Industrial design firms owing to my studio course. As part of the course we were to be
exposed to different interactive experiences and also firms which created them and the
understanding the process undergone in doing so.
Besides the first tourist attractions such as the zoo and the aquarium I managed to visit
the Telstra dome and an intriguing human body exhibit.
The State of Victoria has some extraordinary landscapes and I occasionally managed
to travel within the state on weekends. The much talked about penguin march at Philip
Island is startling. Also, around Philip Island ferry rides till Mornington peninsula took us
to some marvelous beaches.
The mid semester break gave us an opportunity to make our way to places outside the
state. Since there were quite a few of us traveling together decisions on where to go
and how to reach took long. We finally decided to go to Sydney and Goldcoast. Both
places much different from Melbourne have their own charm. Sydney reminded me
more of India, cramped, dirty and too many people. Goldcoast on the other hand is
extremely spread out and thrives only on its theme parks and Surfers Paradise. The
night life at Goldcoast is great, at the time we went the Uni games were on and the
entire place was booked out, we managed to find an apartment a few kilometers from
Surfers Paradise. At night, the streets were flooded with people dressed in the
5 good things
- Getting an opportunity to do courses I would probably not have done before.
- Meeting new and interesting people.
- Finding opportunities for work in the future.
Thoughts about the future
On having spent a semester at Melbourne I am keen on trying to find an internship
here. I have been visiting Industrial and Exhibition Design firms. I definitely want to
come back to this city.
Lawrence Yuen as a Barbequed Wonton.
True, I’ve always taken communication for granted, and coming to China, I had it
easier than the other four. With me, I possessed the bonus ability to practice the
Cantonese learnt in an ABC family. On plopping my name down on Soumitri’s ‘Going to
China’ list, I didn’t really stop to think of the incredible vantage point that being a
translator could bring, living with two diverse cultures. Nor did I mentally prepare myself
to be a communication and sometimes emotional channel between five Australians and
the whole of China .
Being the middle man in anything can leave one feeling stranded. I had always known
I'd had to do some translating, but not to the level of the first three weeks. During the
first couple of days, my brain was frying because I had to swap from English to
Cantonese to Mandarin, all while trying to digest all the new surroundings and people
and culture around me. Most people (who were not classmates) simply assumed that I
was a paid, but stressed out, interpreter. Either this or a local with the revered magical
ability to speak good English. Difficult, yes, but they say acceptance is the key to
moving on, and I’ve now found incredible treasures in translating and realize I’m very
Sometimes, I’m in the best position to note the lack of understanding between the
Australians and Chinese, though it’s hard explaining the virtues and attitudes of one to
the other without explaining a bit of cultural philosophy. Initially, the greatest clash was
the Chinese habit of being courteous, and respectful to guests, while us Aussies want
them to “settle down” and simply treat us as one of them. This led to a feeling of
insecurity and some felt a little threatened. I feel time, and a few bitching sessions
helps both cultures iron the creases out. But the best remedy was the repeated
exposure of cultural habits to the other without the culprit realizing. We now realize that
the Chinese take inviting us out to pay for our dinners very seriously. Of course, hitting
ping pong balls, shuttlecocks and bashing footballs helps break the barriers too, and as
almost everyone here seems to play a sport, this is good.
Lost in translation
Having been developed over thousands of years, the Chinese language is amazingly
rich in its expression. Each character in the Chinese language is often meaningless
when presented by itself, but when paired up with another character its meaning is
born. Hence, I noticed that my Australian friends became rather excited at the many
words they could guess the meaning of once they recognised a common character,
such as ‘Big.’ Big + Learn (University). Big + Small (Size). Some words however, do
not seem to have an English equivalent, and vice versa. There are many everyday
phrases in Chinese that comprise of four words; with four words, a wealth of meaning
is given to a particular situation. Like with many English phrases, they have a context in
which they originated from. Having to translate one of these is a nightmare, and if my
classmates were cartoon characters, they’d have question marks popping out of their
Each Chinese character is based on a pictorial symbol. Having to memorise over three
thousand characters to read a newspaper seems daunting initially. But slowly, much to
the fascination of tall of us, new words started to make sense when seen as pictures
rather than symbols. Like learning to any new thing, getting the initial basics is the
hardest step – then the ball gets rolling. I’m told time and time again Chinese is indeed
a fascinating language to learn. I particularly had fun helping my friends remember a
word by making up a picture they could associate with it. Now they make their own.
James saw the word for ‘black’ and thought it looked like an evil alien so now he points
out ‘black’ every time he sees it.
Being thrown in the deep end
A little confidence goes a long way. When one has no choice but to use a new skill
alone, (I remember being dragged along on the back of a speedboat jet-skiing), one
has to find within the initial kick start. And so often, we fear failure or humiliation so
don’t dare break outside our comfort zones. I noticed this in myself, in my peers and
especially in the Foshan students . Many a time they privately sigh to me slightly red
faced saying their English is hopeless. But when the situation came when Lawrence or
Miss Guo was not around, we were all delighted to find that their English vocabulary far
surpassed our initial expectations.
I feel one of the reasons why Nick has made the most progress by far in his Mandarin
is that his character is naturally outgoing and confident – and though there will be
failures, he understands it as part of the learning and can see the funny side in being
misunderstood. His method is different, from say Haley’s, who privately learns her
phrases and writes little labels to stick over her room. Perhaps if she is exposed to
more situations where she’s forced to practice the many words she’s learnt, she may
find she’ll excel very quickly. When thrown into the deep end, one has no choice but to
learn to swim.
Though I’m a little on the shy side, my two languages has improved because I often
have no choice but to be ears for five people or the entire class. All of our English has
also improved, we’re often forced to be a walking thesaurus and think of how to explain
the strange rule breaking laws of the English language. For me, this can be tiring and
frustrating, because everyone seems to look at the translator while they're trying to get
their message across to the other party, which means their emotions and feelings
somehow pass through me as well. There was a little tension on the tour to Guilin, and
it was particularly obvious that the tour guide and the Australians never looked at each
other when they talked through me over a disagreement.
Chinese to English
The Foshan students are grand-masters of English swear words. Constant exposure
and American blockbusters play a part, but more importantly it’s the recognition of
context and intonation of the swear-words said. Having all learnt perfectly polite
English grammar since junior school, they comment they merely rely on their memory
of phrases and words, but without context of everyday use. But when we came, there
was a context to talk within. It is for this reason I feel that their English suddenly
seemed to improve after three weeks – the memory of words stored away in the dusty
parts of the brain had been re-activated with new vigour.
Professor Pei deciding to break us five Australians into separate groups to undertake
the Ceramic public facilities studio was a wise move. All of a sudden, the Chinese
students had an immediate reason to improve and practice their English.
Translating in the context of design is very interesting indeed. Design, especially in a
group, deals with many complexities, and vocabulary certainly would help this. During
the first two weeks of the semester, we sat through many introductory lectures on
public facilities with Professor Pei. To aid with class, we had Miss Guo, a local who
majored in English to translate Professor Pei’s mandarin lectures into English. But
because Miss Guo didn’t have a design background, many words and terms would
literally have been lost in translation. Though Miss Guo did a brilliant job of getting the
meaning across, the spark that was designed to make the lectures pump us with
motivation was dampened, though it was no one’s fault.
So much of design is about communication. Though many of us felt the limitations of
the language barrier, we looked forward to week three when we would finally get some
ideas and concepts down on paper, and use drawing as the universal medium for
communicating. Certainly this was an exciting period, and the point where group
collaboration was strongest. But soon we hit another brick wall; how we were to judge,
disagree and narrow down our ideas without using complex sugar-coated words. There
was also the lingering politeness and courtesy traditions of the Chinese, to pay special
attention to us foreigner’s designs because we were guests. Within a week, it was
pretty obvious that it be easier if everyone continued to on their own path. I wonder
what it be like if we had no choice but to come up with one design solution per group.
Going into first semester with the knowledge that I was traveling to china I decided to
take an elective class in mandarin. So with very little knowledge or interest in Chinese
language I started to study what would become one of the greatest academic
challenges of my life. Firstly as it was part of my degree I had to pass or face the
depressing thought of summer electives. Having this hang over your head pressurizes
the environment and isn't particularly conducive to study. Studying Chinese is initially
similar to studying European languages, but very quickly it becomes increasingly about
unfamiliar sounds and tones. Although the pinyin system is very helpful, without a lot of
direction, explanation, and listening, you struggle to understand the finer pronunciation
points. Without them unfortunately you struggle to be understood, less important in
Australia, but it would become much more relevant upon arriving in china. Assuming
that you can understand the pinyin you then need learn to read Chinese characters.
This is an incredibly daunting task. Trying to make sense out of a jumbled mess of lines
seems an insurmountable task and there is only one solution. Endless repetitive writing
of the same character over and over and over again. To be honest it almost sent me
insane, writing characters two hours every day and studying spoken Chinese for at
least an hour just to make sure I was confident of passing. After struggling through the
semester I arrived at the exam with reserved confidence. During the exam I realized
that I actually knew some Chinese, and I felt confident about my upcoming trip to
china. Two weeks later I could not remember much, two months later when I arrived in
Beijing I remembered nothing, and so the adventure began.
Upon arriving in Beijing I first experienced Chinas relaxed customs followed very
quickly by the longest taxi line I have ever seen, I was then set upon by Beijing’s
famous car service operators. Usually they have a nice business card and are well
dressed, but charge ridiculously high prices and have very unreliable and
uncomfortable transport. They are for most arriving in Beijing the first interaction
outside of the airport terminal. Soon after this as I drove past Tiananmen I would have
my first challenge with language. My very basic map and phone number proved much
more helpful than my Chinese as I soon realized my taxi driver understood nothing I
was saying. After finally getting to my hostel I jumped out of the car to be my drivers
only English and parting words.” not good" he said pointing at my hostel. I'm sure
everyone can understand the apprehension that overcame me in that moment.
Standing in a gritty hutong, (little street), in central Beijing I prayed that upon entering
jams and Tami would be there to greet me.
Of course they were, and I proceeded to enjoy the hospitality of the hostel and of
course the 5-yuan beer. The next day I met a woman who worked at the hostel, her
name was LingLing and she was a computer studies major. She was learning English
with the intention of getting a job as a tour guide as well and increasing her
employment opportunities after her studies. Lingling would become a teacher for jams
and I as well as a friend. As each day went past we would help her with our English
and more and more of the Chinese I had studied started to return. Over the next few
days I found myself able to go about daily things using my Chinese, visiting tourist
attractions, buying dinner, snacks, all was so much easier. Although the temples and
landmarks are impressive the thing that really attracted to me to Beijing was the hutong
and it's people. You walk down the narrow streets getting lost in everyday Chinese life.
These mazes of alleyways twist and turn getting smaller and smaller before opening up
into markets or washing areas. The diversity, ingenuity and pride of these common
Chinese people astounded me every day, and as they spoke no English, the challenge
to communicate in Chinese was always present.
After four days in Beijing we traveled to Qingdao for the Qingdao beer festival where
again the greatest moments revolved around interactions with the Chinese people. At
the hotel we were staying at we met a Moroccan traveler who had been in china for six
months. His Chinese was much better than ours so he helped us communicate with the
hotel owners. After our struggles he explained to us the Chinese quantifiers which I
was surprised to find are at the centre of Chinese communication. It surprised me that
although I had studied Chinese extensively such a simple and important part of
Chinese language had been omitted from my course. The quantifiers go after, here,
there, which, where, this, and that. The general term is "ge", which leads to one of the
most important words in Chinese "zhe ge", this one. If you just say zhe, which I had
been for days, it doesn't mean anything. Suddenly the mass confusion I was being
greeted with made much more sense. In one day a Moroccan man had doubled me
ability to communicate. Much I what I did know had not been working, suddenly the
pieces fell together. That night jams and I, with the assistance of our phrase book, sat
outside the hotel with the owner, his friend and one of the workers there and explained
whom we were where we were from, and found out similar things about them. It was for
me a turning point, my first Chinese conversation. China was no longer about things,
sights, and tourism. China had changed, now I could get to know people. From this
point I was addicted the Chinese language, anything I could learn moved me closer to
being able to really understand Chinese people.
Upon arriving in Foshan I found myself confronted very quickly by people speaking a
recognizably different tongue. Not that it was unexpected but the hope that I would be
able to continue my Chinese studies faded very quickly. Getting into Foshan I found
the people cold, as they stared not with interest as the people in Qingdao did, but with
an element of fear and apprehension. I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. After our
time in the north of china we had come to expect people to be inviting. Often when
crossing Tiananmen people would come up to you and welcome you to China, leaving
you with a feeling of acceptance. Having dinner with pei laoshi, fan laoshi, Scot
Summitry ect went some way to subsiding our uncomfortable feelings but we were still
left feeling uneasy. Around eleven o clock jams and I armed with a phase book decided
to go down the commercial street that divides the university to have a beer of two.
Upon arriving at a resteraunt where we saw others drinking we tried to find some
tsingdao, a local beer which we had come to love during our time in Beijing. I walked
over to a group of people and tried to read the label on the beer they were drinking. I
think the oldest man understood what I was trying to do so he poured me a glass. I
tried it and it was good, so jams and I went to sit down and a spare table. Immediately
their whole table stood and waved us over. At this point we were happy just to have
met people who are willing to talk, and didn't give us strange looks. As I started to
communicate with them through hand signals I realized they were speaking mandarin.
It seems that in Foshan, especially in the working classes, many people are from
outside of Guangdong province. Many people do not speak Cantonese at all. After
three hours of drinking and using a mixture of mandarin English hand signals and
pictionary to communicate we left for bed feeling great about our new home.
The commercial street has become the heart of our experience in china. In contrast to
the educated students and teachers around the university most of the people who eat
and drink there are workers who live in the area. After realizing that the Siquan?
Restaurant was not going to be able to sustain us due to the large amount of chili in
every meal, we moved down the street to ying ji. A more traditional restaurant yang ji
was a second home for us. The owner there became one of our best friends in Foshan.
He often would give us free beer and come and sit with us and ask us questions.
Sometimes we understood and sometimes we did not but always trying and practicing
our Chinese we formed an odd alliance with him. In china many people can read
English but cannot speak it. If the OK man ever tried to explain things to us he would
always write the characters on the table with his finger. It seemed he assumed
because our spoken Chinese was ok that our written Chinese must be excellent. On
the night of the moon cake festival we went to get an early dinner at yang ji to find ok
man dressed in his best clothes with his family around him celebrating what is a family
orientated festival. He introduced us to his son and daughter who study in Guangzhou
and brought us out some free beer. As Laurence and Hayley do not drink he then
brought out some soft drink and finally moon cake. A gesture that set us apart from his
other patrons and one that made us truly feels that he was in fact a friend and not just
an opportunistic businessman......?
Interacting with the students was at first difficult. Working in groups was one on the
hardest things for us as the level of language needed to speak about conceptual ideas
and design was well out of their reach and even further out of ours. I think that over
time their English did improve and they seemed to lighten up, and adopt some our
more layed back attitudes, at least when we were around. There are huge gaps
culturally between where they are in their lives and where I am. Things like living away
from home, drinking, and girlfriends all seem to be fairly recent additions to their lives.
They have not had the same experiences that I went through when I was growing up. I
feel much older than my 3 years seniority would imply. They always do their best to use
English and to help us as much as they can. The truly generous nature of Chinese
people is always apparent.
For me the greatest things about the Chinese language is the ability if gives me to
integrate into Chinese society. Although being western will always influence the way
you are treated when you speak Chinese to people you are treated completely different
than if you fumble around with English attempting to communicate. When you are
speaking Chinese and watching Chinese television or entertainment you have an
ability to experience Chinese culture in an altered form. The everyday customs and
practices of Chinese people can only truly be understood when you understand what
people are saying. Having it translated helps you understand what is happening but
you never get to experience it. Even the reading of Chinese characters is so important
to understanding of Chinese culture. Reading the characters on the front of temples
says a lot about the Chinese people and their traditions. These traditions infer the
directness and pride that I have found in Chinese people.
The cultural differences between Australian and Chinese seemed somehow watered
down when you can only communicate with English speaking people. Being able to
interact with the grass roots Chinese people offers a more textural experience. It gives
you exposure to life in china through genuine everyday experiences. In Beijing I believe
you can get very close to natural unaltered china in this way. However I am under no
delusions that my presence does not alter the experience in Foshan or Qingdao where
their exposure to western people has in some cases been nonexistent or very minimal.
Afterword- looking back
Joint piece, SV, FJS, Pei, PN