I recently finished reading a book called Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It was given to me by a dear friend, and if I could pass on the recommendation to you, I would suggest adding it to your reading list. The story is about two twin boys who were born to a British surgeon and an Indian nun in Ethiopia in the mid-1950s. I won’t give away too many plot details, but the themes involve historical events (like the reign of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie from 1930 to 1974), scientific and medical topics (almost all major characters are doctors in the story), and the ups and downs of relationships (whether romantic, between friends, or parental). At some point in the story, one of the twins, Marion, travels to New York, and as he takes a taxi ride from Kennedy Airport to his new residence, he makes the following observation:

Superorganism. A biologist coined that word for our great African ant colonies, claiming that consciousness and intelligence resided not in the individual ant but in the collective ant mind. The trail of red taillights stretching to the horizon as day broke around us made me think of that term. Order and purpose must reside somewhere other than within each vehicle. That morning I heard the hum, the respiration of the superorganism. It’s a sound the new immigrant hears but not for long. By the time I learned to say “6-inch Number 7 on rye with Swiss hold the lettuce,” the sound, too, was gone. It became part of what the mind would label silence. You were subsumed into the superorganism.

~Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

This year, when my friends and family from around the world have called/written to say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’, the following questions were also included somewhere in the discussion: how is London, what’s it like there, how do you like it.

As I reflect on the year, I’m wondering how to explain London to my friends and family. How do I capture the complexity of a city that is comprised of 8.2 million people, that has a history that stretches back two millennia to the Romans who founded Londinium, where a third of the population is foreign-born, and where 270 nationalities and 300 languages are spoken?

So that quote comes to mind again: London is a superorganism. And I’ve become a part of the superorganism.

When I arrived in London in August 2013, my intangible belongings included my life experiences that formed the lens with which I viewed London; and the expectations that I had of this city, the people, the culture, etc. I had been to London twice in my life before I arrived for the third time. So my perception of London was both the images of London from brochures (that all good foreigners believe) and those realities that I had seen on my previous visits. I thought of Big Ben, of the Parliament Buildings, of London Eye, of Thames, of the Tube. I imagined walking around historical streets with historical buildings, and walking around beautiful parks that reminded me of the parks in which Jane Austen’s heroines walked. I imagined the fish and chip shops busy at lunch, the overflowing pubs at happy hour, and the cafes of a city where a quiet moment might be found. I knew it rained a lot and it was almost always overcast. And despite this, I thought of people who thrived in the rush, who were working in big banks, big law firms, and big hospitals; and came home to their comfortable flats for a restful evening.

As you read the paragraph above, I’m sure a picture of what London is like formed in your mind too … but, let me say, this is not the whole picture. Like me, you are imagining parts of the superorganism; and in doing so, you hope to grasp the entire concept of London, but it’s not possible to understand the whole by simply collecting the parts. Don’t get me wrong, the parts that you and I imagined are all true parts … there really are fish and chip shops here, and there are overflowing pubs at happy hour, and there are parks where they film episodes of Downton Abbey because the parks look like 19th/20th century London/England parks. But what I’ve understood about myself and London in the past eleven months is that at some point, I disappeared into the superorganism of London; that in journeying to discover, experience, and adopt all parts of London, perhaps I became a part of London too.

In September and October, I had a chance to explore my ‘home’ which included the Russell Square and Holborn area, and the area around LSE Campus.

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(Russell Hotel, as seen from Russell Square.)

I understood more parts of the superorganism … it was easier to understand the smaller things first, like learning that fish and chips were served with tartare sauce and mushy peas, and that the vast majority of working people bought sandwiches for lunch from shops like Pret a Manger and Eat or £3 meal deals at Tesco – none of which are part of the North American culture, and that the British concept to have high tea was most popular among tourists who went to hotels or restaurants for high tea (rather than the locals). Learning about the bigger things occurred later down the road…

While September was warm and sunny, October brought cooler temperatures, and much more rain. The rain didn’t pour in the city; at times, it was incessant, ever present, like the sky was constantly weeping over London. I was told that if I relied on the weather to dictate my happiness or my daily activities, then I might spend whole weeks unhappy or indoors. So I learned to carry an umbrella at all times and tried my best to not let the weather affect my mood. There was one sunny autumn Friday spent in South Kensington by Kensington Gardens and Royal Albert Hall with a new friend. We watched a performance in the Royal Albert Hall Café Restaurant and spend the evening out with other friends (friends who were initially colleagues at the University of London Intercollegiate Halls where we were Senior Members).

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(Autumn colours outside the apartments near the Royal Albert Hall.)

There was the Halloween party at Commonwealth Hall where I learned the subtle differences between North American versus British concepts of costumes from the Freshers. While North American costumes often reflect pop culture, like people dressing up as Snooki, or Robin Thicke, or Lady Gaga, British costumes involve some form of blood. You must be a dead Snooki, or a dead Robin Thicke, or a dead Lady Gaga lol

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(The Jack-o-Lantern at Commonwealth Hall reception.)

And there was always, always something to do in the city … whether it was study at the British Library, or have lunch and walk around Borough Market during an afternoon, or see Billy Elliot: The Musical on discounted student/group tickets… there was always something to fill time.

As autumn gave way to winter, there were numerous Christmas markets all over London. These Christmas markets were … absolutely magical. Not to sound clichéd, let me attempt to capture the magic in words: there were the lights (not just in the market but on every building in the city), bringing both metaphorical and literal light in the long nights that lasted from sunset at 4:30 pm to sunrise at 8 am the next day. There was the aroma of food in the markets, like the smell of vanilla and caramel-coated peanuts mixing with the smell of mulled wine. There were vendors with numerous crafts and gift ideas, like knitted wear, jewellery, and a sea of chocolate and other sweets. Some of the girls from IHP went to the Christmas markets together … a time to share evenings with friends and acquaintances. We rode the carousel at the Southbank Christmas market, or enjoyed a walk through the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, or trying to make our way through the crush of shoppers from around the world along Oxford and Regent’s Street.

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(The Brunswick Centre during Christmas Season)

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(Enjoying the Southbank Christmas festival.)

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(The marzipan treats at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.)

And this magical season lasted all the way through New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I rang in 2014 watching fireworks from the rooftop of a 13-storey building in London. It not only provided a great view of the fireworks at the London Eye; rather, all around the city.

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(The New Year’s fireworks at the London Eye from the rooftop.)

But just as quickly as the season had arrived, the magic ended. The markets packed up, the lights came down, the nights were simply long and dark.

In January and February, London is eerily quiet … empty of its visitors and tourists. I’ve been told that there is usually snow during the winter, but not a single flake fell in London this winter (I think North America had a monopoly on the global supply of snow this past winter though). The rain was omnipotent; it came down in buckets with strong winds. Using an umbrella became pointless as they often turned inside out; shoes and socks were constantly soaked in the puddles of the streets of London; and the cold was a damp cold … never biting (like it does in Canada), but the kind of cold that weighed down on the soul. To be honest, January and February were dark, grey, and perhaps depressing.

And in this context of London, there were more parts of the superorganism that were revealed. The bigger realities that a visitor or tourist doesn’t face. Like learning that everyone sits silently on the bus or Tube (and to talk would break a social contract). That there was no such thing as a British accent (that instead, there were many regional accents from around the UK, and that each accent carried a bit of history and geo-politics with it). That as the city emptied of its visitors, there was the realization that the poor and destitute were still out in the cold and rain in a city where the cost of living and rent is astronomically high and disproportionate to wages. That the importance of the National Health Service as a public institution for so many people was immeasurable, and yet faced a threatened future existence in a Conservative-led UK government. And that the concept of ‘class’ (not simply as a socio-economic divide, but rather as a social hierarchy of families recognized as lords and ladies versus simple folk or the slightly derogatory ‘plebs’ as I’ve also learned) was very deeply-rooted in the history and culture of British life. These were parts of the superorganism of London that you can’t capture as a visitor in London. These are parts of the superorganism that are the lived experiences of people who call London ‘home’; it takes spending time with locals, discussing politics, using the government institutions, and truly immersing in a city to understand such facets of the life.

Needless to say, at such a time, London was isolating. Sure, like I said, there was always something to do to fill the time. But what I’ve realized about human connection is that sometimes we don’t need companionship/friends/family to do things with, we simply want companionship/friends/family to do nothing together. (I’m not sure if that sentence will make sense to the reader lol) Let me say it in other words: from my personal experiences, I think being with family doesn’t mean that everyone in the family will be doing something together all the time; sometimes every member of a family can be at home and doing their own thing (i.e. reading a book, watching TV, or playing an instrument), but it’s the shared experience of doing your own thing (or nothing) together that is confirming of a human connection that fights the isolation. In a city of millions of people, where everyone has to schedule time to spend with others, there is no time to do nothing together. It is the reason why I think London can be isolating. (Not to say that there isn’t a way to combat this isolation; but it’s harder because I think there is little recognition of the isolation to begin with.)

Fortunately, I didn’t drive myself insane in the isolation. My friends and I tried to do our best to do things and nothing together. We went to Bath one weekend in January.

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(Enjoying the Roman Baths tour in Bath in January).

And whenever I needed to feel part of a family, I would visit my aunt, uncle and cousin in Wales.

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(Having dinner with my friend, aunt, and cousin at the Olive and Grape on the top of Meridian Tower in Swansea.)

My parents also visited me for one weekend in February. It happened to be the Family Day weekend in Canada. (Ironically though, I think my brother may have felt the isolation while he was still at university in Canada.)

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(Mom and Papa in front of London Eye and on Westminster Bridge in February.)

March brought the arrival of spring: a great deal of sunshine and the return of warmer temperatures in London. If you listen closely in March, I think you can hear the superorganism of London singing ‘Hallelujah’! There were numerous walks and runs in Regent’s Park and up Primrose Hill, roaming around museums and galleries, and study sessions in coffee and tea shops in Camden. There was the opportunity to watch the Sleeping Beauty ballet and the La Traviata opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in April. In May, there was the Making of the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Bros Studio in Watford, and finally the Cartwright festival in Cartwright Gardens. Such experiences revealed other parts of the superorganism: Londoners spend sunny weekends sunbathing in the parks, grandparents take their grandchildren to watch the Sleeping Beauty ballet, young mothers meet up with their friends in coffee and tea shops in London, masses of young children still revel in the Harry Potter series (as I found from my trip to the WB studios), and the Freshers that I first met in September celebrated the completion of their first year at the Cartwright Festival before heading home for the summer.

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(Regent’s Park in early Spring.)

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(Busy, sunny day on Primrose Hill.)

The battle against seven exams in June was successfully accomplished (and perhaps won). Finally, bags were packed, and there was a move out of the Commonwealth Hall in the Russell Square area to the Lillian Penson Hall in the Paddington area where I am staying for the summer until I leave London. There have already been some goodbyes … and some more to come in the next two weeks.

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(Senior Members at the farewell dinner hosted by the Warden of Commonwealth Hall.)

So, what have the parts of the superorganism of London revealed to me in this one year of immersion? What is the story of the superorganism of London?

From where I stand, I think the over-arching theme of London is: that there is true inspiration, strength, and beauty to be found in a city of grand history, of diverse nationalities and languages, of many industries (whether finance, academia/research, retail, transportation, tourism, etc.), and in acceptance of any individual who chooses to call London ‘home’ whether for a few hours to a few years. There is freedom in the anonymity that comes with the population of this city; you can be whoever you want to be, and you can express yourself in a different way every day. There is also a harshness that demands to be felt and tackled – and it makes the people of this city stronger. London taught me many things … it taught me to appreciate the sources of inspiration, and the beauty, whether found in the surroundings or from the people I met. It gave me an opportunity to try a lot of new things (so many new things), to make new friends from (really) all over the world, and to own my independence. On its bad days, London can be dark, grey, taxing, and isolating. On its best days, London is an indescribably international, vibrant, and poetic place in the world. As I’m getting ready to leave, I’m so very grateful for the year that I’ve had here. In this journey of life, it was truly a life changing year.

"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
~Samuel Johnson

As I was trying to decide what to write about today, I was conflicted between choosing a topic that everyone would find interesting or a topic that I thought would be personally interesting. I reflected on my year again … My essential reason for being in London this year has been to attend an amazing academic institution, and I thought, why not tell you a little bit more about it? So first things first, let me tell you about LSE: how it looks, what I learned, who taught me, and what it means to me to be finishing a one-year MSc at LSE.

As a preamble to this story … I should share: I graduated from Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville, Ontario, Canada; to this day, I am sure is the best high school in Ontario or at least Halton. There are numerous teachers, administrators, peers, and community members who made the school an exceptional institution, but there were also little things that added to our school’s charm; one of those things being the architecture and design of the school. 

Iroquois Ridge was built in 1993 (I think) .. and I’m thankful to whichever individual decided to not make it look like a prison (i.e. with suffocating hallways and cramped classrooms), and instead a beautiful and open building where learning could occur. One distinct feature of the school is the main hallway, which is a three-storey atrium with a skylight. The hallway is referred to as “The Street” because it is lined with trees, old-fashioned street lights, and the classroom windows on either side look like shop windows along a street. As a result of this look, the Street would be a place for students to gather, to socialize and to hold events during lunch or after-school. 

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(The Street in Iroquois Ridge High School being used for the Holiday Marketplace event. Source: http://goo.gl/8cVG6L)

I share this because … the London School of Economics is located in an area of London historically known as Clare Market. In 1657, Lord Clare constructed a small market building to the west of Lincoln’s Inn Field and became a retail area, which later spread through a maze of narrow and interconnecting streets. According to Wiki, these streets were “lined with butcher’s shops and greengrocers.” Now, the buildings along those narrow and interconnecting streets are home to the classrooms and offices of LSE. The small streets are pedestrian streets and during the school year, these streets are always lined with groups of students socializing or promoting club activities and events.

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(LSE’s Old Building on Houghton Street. Source: http://goo.gl/Tw5C2e)

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(Pedestrian streets of LSE Campus. Source: http://goo.gl/K7IyP7

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(Baby Tembo, the small bronze elephant sculpture by Derrick Hudson on the steps of where Clare Market would be in front of the Student Services entrance of the Old Building. It’s one of ten statues donated by Canadian businessman Louis Odette who studied at LSE in 1944. Source: http://goo.gl/MG7wRR)

Funny how my journey has gone from the Street in Iroquois to the small ‘streets’ of the LSE campus…

On campus, there are a few buildings where I’ve spent the majority of my time: the Old Building (home to the Social Policy department, and the student common room), the New Academic Building (where we had lectures for Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy, and Sexual and Reproductive Health Programmes), Clement House (lectures for Financing Health Systems, Measuring Health Systems Performance, Health Economics, and Behavioural Public Policy), and the LSE Library (not usually known by its full title, the British Library of Political and Economic Science). Most of the buildings on campus (with the exception of the brand new Saw Swee Hock Student Centre) are acquired old buildings (built in the early 20th century) that have been renovated on the inside. As a student, such architecture creates the effect of walking around a campus that is visibly historic, yet with newer classrooms and lecture theatres inside for student learning.

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(New Academic Building on LSE Campus. Source: http://goo.gl/Yaoj96)

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(The spiral staircase in LSE Library. Source: my own picture!)

Two of my favourite courses this year were Pharmaceutical Economics and Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs. In Pharmaceutical Econ, we covered concepts like characteristics of in-patent drug markets versus generics (off-patent) markets, pricing of generics (using tools such as internal and external reference pricing, or tendering), and how to incentivize generics use (as a means of reducing health care expenditure). I think this course was fascinating was because the theoretical concepts we were learning were applicable to the ‘real world’. There were many discussions in seminars that engaged all of us, and drew on examples like the patent laws in India after the ruling on Novartis. Similarly, I think Sexual and Reproductive Health Programs was a course in which there was a great deal of intersection between international development, gender equality, medicine, and health policy concepts. Having experiences from my third year Embedded Learning Experience in Uganda also allowed me to connect my practical experiences with the theory I understood in class… And as a result of the SRHP class, my dissertation research area focuses on female genital mutilation.

Needless to say, such intriguing courses were taught by professors who are leaders in their respective fields and for whom I have the highest admiration and respect. Dr. Panos Kanavos is the Programme Director for our MSc International Health Policy programme and Deputy Director of LSE; he taught us Pharmaceutical Economics. Dr. Ernestina Coast is an Associate Professor for Population Studies and was the instructor for Sexual and Reproductive Health. We were also taught Financing Health Care by Professor Elias Mossialos, the Director of LSE Health; and Behavioural Public Policy by Professor Julian Le Grand, the current Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy, and who was a senior policy advisor from 2003 to 2005 for the former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dr. Irini Papanicolas taught Measuring Health Systems Performance, and is also my academic supervisor for my dissertation at the moment. 

As this 1-year MSc program comes to a conclusion, I’m thinking about what this program has meant in the context of my academic life and perhaps my future career. Academically, I have no doubt that the education and learning that I have experienced at this institution would not have been replicated anywhere else. I came with the expectation that as a world-renowned institution, LSE would offer resources, faculty, and an experience that would not be found elsewhere. In retrospective, I’m happy to know that that expectation was met. I’ve had a chance to interact not only with lecturers who have presented material and facilitated discussions that have expanded my thinking and the way I think, but also peers who have come from extremely diverse backgrounds from business to health sciences. It’s been a true privilege to learn alongside such peers and to have them in my network as we move into our futures. Moreover, while I’m sure teachers and peers in any institution create a positive space, I think the program at LSE was distinct because of the way in which it brought all these elements and lectures together in the International Health Policy program. I’ve had a new found appreciation that … health and health care is not just about the health sciences. It’s not just about medicine or biology or global health intersecting. But that in our world, health (as a concept) and health systems (as an umbrella term for all the activities that provide health) require a foundation in economics and social policy. Completing the IHP program at LSE has provided this theoretical foundation alongside the development of skills in cost-effectiveness analysis of health care, and research skills in general. I recognize that there are limitations to what a 1-year taught MSc can achieve … it’s an intense program, but the constant lack of time means that depth in the study of some concepts is sacrificed at times. I’m sure that were such weaknesses in my knowledge and skills exist, there will be future academic/career prospects that will strengthen my learning. As I’m about to begin medical school in the Fall, I’m excited to find ways in which what I’ve learned this year will intersect with the study of medicine to allow me to be a more … not sure yet. More compassionate doctor? More knowledgeable health policy analyst? A well-versed public health official? Better researcher? Better systems thinker? More humble person? …There’s no one answer to what education allows us to be, is there?

Learn as if you were to live forever … x

Exams are done (yes, all 7 exams have successfully completed and submitted for assessment), and my MSc dissertation is a work in progress at the moment.

Which means, for the first time all academic year, I’ve had a chance to structure my day in a way that isn’t based on the scheduling of my lectures, or seminars, or revision sessions. I have some flexibility with my time, and the resulting space to breathe. These are the moments that I cherish as a student … the feeling of a break after a period of hard work; the feeling that you can go to bed late on a Tuesday night and wake up late on a Wednesday, because …. why not? And in this freedom, the mind and heart wander to some of the things that we can make our new priorities or tasks of the day.

For example, this blog.

In the beginning of the academic year, I made an earnest promise that this time I would be more consistent with my blogging.

Lol

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

And it’s not like I haven’t thought about writing in my blog over the year; I’ve definitely thought about writing. So there have been missed opportunities. But somehow I don’t feel entirely guilty about it.

To explain further: are you familiar with the observer effect? It’s a scientific concept that (boiled down to its essence states) the act of observing something changes the thing which is being observed. In particle physics, the application being that measuring an electron will require an interaction with a photon that inevitably changes the path of the electron.

In other words, I think if I had systematically written about my journey in London this year, I may have inherently changed the journey I was having. So perhaps it was for the best to have solely lived the experience.

The reason I think this concept has a greater implication is because recently, I also came across this article in the Telegraph about how taking photos may impair our ability to make memories. The research comes from Dr. Linda Henkel from Fairfield University in Connecticut, and in short concludes that relying on technology (i.e. a camera) to record an event has a negative impact on the ability to form a memory (or recall) of the event. (The caveat being that zooming into a particular detail helps preserve the memory). 

In an age were an estimated 70% of UK adults and 58% of US adults use smartphones, 1.23 billion people are active users of Facebook, and another 200 million are on Instagram (not to mention the increasing popularity of Snapchat), I think reflecting on how we use cameras to record our lives and what impact this has on our cognitive psychology are vital questions. Do we have any experiences that are just for us alone? Or does every moment require a picture? Do we go for dinner with friends or out for a walk without having the thought “I wonder what filter I could use for this picture on Instagram?” … I have to admit, I’ve definitely had a thought like that too. And it takes active reflection to ensure that there are moments that are just for me, and not my camera and I.

That being said, Dr. Henkel’s previous research shows that photos can help us remember if we take time to reflect on and interact with the pictures. 

Now, as I am 18 days away from returning back to Canada, I thought, let me take the time to do some reflective writing … some reflection on the photos from this year … to share the stories that were not shared on Facebook or in person. And perhaps in a storytelling mode, there will be a chance for me to remember my journey better, and a chance for the readers to connect with my journey this past year.

I had my first day of lectures at LSE today!

I had lectures for two classes: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis in the morning, and Health Economics in the afternoon.

One of my all time favourite concepts in health economics (in general - not referring to the course) is the comparison of a health care market to a perfect market. I was first exposed to this comparison in 3rd year, in my Health Policy course, with Dr. John Lavis who explained how health care differs from traditional goods and services (and it does). As Professor Kossarova was reviewing the comparison in our introductory Cost-Effectiveness Analysis class, I had a strong urge … to share this concept with everyone and anyone so that they could appreciate it as well.

The reason: As citizens of Capitalist societies, I find that most of us have a sound understanding of the characteristics of a perfect market. We could explain how goods and services are exchanged, what characterizes buyers and sellers, etc. But I find that most of us do not grasp how the health care market significantly differs from a perfect market. And isn’t that odd? We will ALL need (or have needed) access to health care at some point, and yet most of us probably could not explain the market in which it exists.

So, in order to dispel ignorance in the world in regards to the comparison of a perfect market to a health care market, I am posting a picture of my notes from this morning.

And I send this picture out not just to the few friends or family members who will read this, but especially to American conservatives.

In light of current events, I find that almost any news article related to American health care has a plethora of American cons writing about health care in economic terms. But these ideas are presented without any recognition that health care IS different. And to those individuals, I say … in every and any health economics class, there is a recognition of this difference and there is a recognition for government involvement in health care markets. Now is not a time to hold fast to small government … it’s just not possible for health care markets. (But if you really do want ‘small government’, then how about we minimize government involvement in women’s/maternal health, eh?)

[EDIT: I recognize that the above paragraph is an over-simplification of the issues presented by American cons. But it is a rebuttal for the numerous attempts to use ‘small govt’ as reasons not to interfere in health care markets. That argument does not hold.]

There is simplicity in these concepts: health care is different than traditional goods and services; a health care market is different than a perfect market. And I think that simplicity (and the profound effects of that simplicity) is the very quality that makes this concept so beautiful to me.

Ok. That’s my nerd post of the day. Thanks for listening and learning.

  1. Camera: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS
  2. Aperture: f/2.8
  3. Exposure: 1/160th
  4. Focal Length: 35mm

Lunch in London’s China Town on a Sunday afternoon. 

  1. Camera: Canon PowerShot SD1200 IS
  2. Aperture: f/2.8
  3. Exposure: 1/320th
  4. Focal Length: 35mm

Who is this man?

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Hint: yes, he is Indian. He was born in 1856, and passed away in 1926.

… Take some time. Try to think of an answer. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you a story …

This week is Orientation Week at LSE. And today, I had my induction for the LSE Social Policy Department. 

In North America, I only heard the word “induction” being used when a famous artist/sports celebrity was being “inducted” (i.e. admitted) into one of the “Hall of Fames” (Music, Hockey, etc).

In the UK, “inductions” refers to the introductory sessions for many occasions, like new school programs or residence halls. (Which makes sense if you consider that “induction” means “formally introducing” someone into something). Thus, most students attend many ‘inductions’ for their programs during Orientation Week.

As such, I had my induction (i.e. introductory welcome session) for the International Health Policy (IHP) program yesterday (on Monday), and since the IHP program falls under the department of Social Policy, I attended today’s induction session for the LSE Social Policy Department. 

Our first presenter, Dr. David Lewis, the head of the Social Policy Department, began his presentation by asking us who was the man in the picture on his slide. The picture, of course, is the one that I included above. 

So who is he?

The man in the picture is Mr. Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, or RD Tata, the second son of Jamsetji Tata (Founder of India’s Tata Group, and a pioneer in Indian industries). Ratanji was responsible for the growth of Tata Group in the beginning of the 20th century, but moreover, he is important to our narrative because of his social consciousness.

In 1912, Ratanji donated approximately £1,400 (or £135,000 in today’s GBP) to begin the department of Social Policy at LSE. Although brought up in a well off family, Ratanji was concerned about poverty in India, and felt that scientific studies in poverty were necessary. The grant continued for another 19 years until his death, equaling a sum of £26,600 (or over £9 million). The first lecturer of the Dept, Clement Attlee, became the British PM under whom India received its independence and UK received the National Health Service (NHS). 

After this first slide, Dr. Lewis continued to speak about the significance of and research at LSE regarding social policy, but for me, that beginning was inspiring. A first generation Canadian from generations of Indian descent is studying at an institution that began with the vision of helping the destitute in India… and many other students of Indian descent filled that lecture hall. I wonder if Ratanji Tata ever imagined what his legacy would be… it’s truly remarkable at the moment.

The induction talk by Dr. Lewis was followed by Professor John Hills who said some words that stuck with me as well. Now, I can’t quote him verbatim, but this is a close paraphrasing of his words:

When I walk around campus, I see posters for the Business and Finance students to get a job at Deloitte or Ernst & Young, but I think as Social Policy students, there is more to your time here besides getting a job.

The LSE motto is ‘to understand the causes of things’. As students of the Social Policy department, I hope you see your role as attempting to understand the issues facing society, from health, social security to criminal justice.

Of course, my liberal-leaning self was absolutely thrilled with this induction. Yes, I think I am going to be very comfortable in this school and this learning environment. And here’s hoping that I will be part of the remarkable legacy of the Social Policy Department at LSE.

“I’ve always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.” 
― Robert Michael Pyle

Had a chance to mail some post cards to loved ones today! Look out for one of these to wind up in your mailbox some time next week! :)

In my experience, when someone is a new visitor or tourist to a city/country/environment, they often pick up on little things that are considered ‘normal’ to local residents. (After all, isn’t ‘normal’ relative?)

For the past 3 and a half weeks, I’ve been observing all the little things that have made me very aware of the fact that I am living in the UK! For me, these little things have been adding to the ‘British’ experience.

I realize that in a few weeks, the novelty of these ‘little things’ will wear away. So I decided to make a list of all the distinctly British things I’ve been encountering in a typical day…. maybe it’ll help you experience/imagine my immersion in all things British.

My list of British things:

- Capital FM station playing on my alarm clock radio to wake me up (it’s the London radio channel playing the latest pop songs; currently overplaying Ellie Goulding, Olly Murs and Jessie J)

- Two taps in the bathroom: one for hot water, one for cold water

- 220 V outlets

- Ground floor (not 1st floor) … apparently the British like to count their floors as “G, 1, 2, 3” instead of “1, 2, 3” (much easier … not)

- Rain (it rains at least once a day. at least.) Except for the two days a month when it is sunny all day … those are the best two days of the month.

- Left-hand traffic

- Queues (not lines)

- Lifts (not elevators)

- Free weights measured in kg at the gym

- “Mind the gap” on the London Underground

- The eerie rumble of the London Underground subways, which I can hear from the basement, ground, 1st and 2nd floor of Commonwealth Hall. And let’s face it, when standing on the massive escalators at some Tube stations, I think one realizes that the entirety of London’s underground is pretty much hollow.

- British accents. And I’ve learned there’s no such thing as a “British accent”. People from different areas of Britain have different remarkably different accents. Someone from the north will have a very different accent than someone from the south of England. So when I say “British accent”, I mean not just British accents, but the cumulative mix of accents, both national and international. This city truly is the capital of the world. 

- The bells chiming at St Pancras International station. There is a clock tower at St. Pancras station, which is a five minute walk from my residence hall. Just before bed, if my windows are open, I can hear the chiming of the bells in the clock tower.

- The weight of British coinage in a purse. It’s heavy!

- Substituting American brands/shops with British brands/shops. Sure, there are multi-national corporations and brands that can be found all over the world (I’m looking at you Starbucks lol). But familiar brands/shops for me include Metro, Sears, the Bay, Shoppers Drug Mart, Walmart.. or the infamous Tim Hortons. Now, there’s a different set of brands/shops to remember. Waitrose substitutes Metro, Marks & Spencer for Sears/Bay, Boots or Superdrug for Shoppers, Asda for Walmart… and nothing substitutes Timmys <3 (haha) 

… I’m sure there are more examples. But that’s all I can pick up on. May be these will all feel common place by the end of the year; for now, I’m happy to make these idiosyncrasies a part of my daily life.

I live at Commonwealth Hall in London, UK.

It just so happens that this University of London residence hall is a 5 minute walk from King’s Cross/St. Pancras International railway station.

I’ve often seen travelers walking down Marchmont Street on the way to the railway station … sometimes the travelers are visible tourists (with cameras dangling around their neck), sometimes the travelers blend in with the locals. But mostly, you can pick out the travelers because they look lost and confused as they cross the street, unsure if they need to take a turn to get to Euston Rd. 

I made this observation about the travelers when I was stopped one day by two tourists who asked me the directions to St. Pancras. Once I realized that the individuals walking by me with luggage are mostly headed to the railway station, it gave me a greater appreciation for the concern of people. 

A couple days later, as I was crossing the street to head to the University of London campus, I was standing beside a young couple who was speaking a foreign language as they crossed the street. As the three of us reached the other side of the intersection, I realized that they seemed to be lost and confused. So I approached them and asked “Excuse me, are you looking for directions to somewhere?” .. and the woman, a little taken aback, said “No, we’re just looking for a pub”.

The funny part of this story is that the woman said “p-oh-b”, and my (slowly acclimatizing) brain couldn’t comprehend the word ‘pohb’. I requested her too repeat the word three times before I understood that she meant “p-uh-b”.

But the even funnier bit is that when I was sharing this story with a colleague, she said, “Wait, so you actually stopped and asked this couple if they needed help? How Canadian of you!”

How Canadian of me.

In a city burdened with tourists, maybe it’s understandable that Londoners are not the friendliest of hosts. I’ve been told that British hospitality and kindness is well and alive in the rest of the country, but it is often hard to find in the heart of this city. So for me, to be recognized as a polite Canadian in London was a moment of Canadian national pride, eh?

And I think this particular story stuck me because it happened at a time when “world news” included stories about the racist backlash to the selection of the new Miss America.

I was astounded by the racist remarks of Americans to the selection of Nina Davuluri as Miss America … primarily because a number of the racists claimed that she was not “American”. That’s right … some Americans thought that a woman who was born in New York, and brought up in Oklahoma is not ‘American’. 

Which is the kind of story that makes me reflect on my own identity … what am I? 

I am Canadian.

Some may say I’m a first generation Canadian or an Indo-Canadian. But those would be descriptive modifiers of one constant: I’m Canadian.

Canada is the only place I’ve called ‘home’ since I’ve been old enough to know what ‘home’ is. I’ve lived in Canada since I was 6 years old. I identify with other Canadians, Canadian culture and most importantly, I uphold Canadian values. (and I know I uphold Canadian values not because I ask lost travelers in London if they need help, but because right now, I feel like placing a pot over Pauline Marois’ head and banging it until she cries and changes the new Quebec Values Charter)

I realize this post has been a bit of a rant … some of it is funny, but I think most of it is layered with a deeper connection to nationalism and personal identity. And the only real way that I can conclude this post is to say that in today’s day and age, in an age where technology ties us so closely together both electronically/virtually and physically (i.e. a 20-something who was born in India, raised in Canada and living in the UK for the year), we must treat one another like citizens of the world - not citizens of a city or a country - but citizens of the world. We all belong here. And we are all ‘from here’ … that’s all I know to be the truth and that’s the one way I know how to treat others … as equals, as companions, as fellow citizens.

So, good morning/afternoon/evening to you  … this Canadian in London is thinking about you. Much love <3

Many of my friends and family began the month of September heading back to school or cheering in their respective Frosh Weeks. Fortunately, among the universities and colleges in London, school does not begin until mid-September or late September (for ex. I don’t begin classes at LSE until Oct. 2nd)! And most students will not be moving into the residence halls until the weekend of Sept. 15th or Sept. 22nd. So, this week, from Monday to Thursday, 9 am to 5 pm, I had training for my role as Senior Member at Commonwealth Hall.

Now, a little background for those that don’t know: the University of London has a number of constituent colleges (like LSE, UCL, Kings, Queen Mary, etc). And while the colleges have their own residence halls, the University of London also has 8 intercollegiate residence halls that are home to students from all UofL constituent colleges. These 8 halls include: College, Connaught, International, Lillian Penson, Nutford, and the three Garden Halls (Hughes Perry, Canterbury, and Commonwealth). Each hall has a management team and a wardenial team. The wardenial team lives in the respective hall and is reponsible for student health and safety. The wardenial team includes 5 Senior Members (International has 7 because it is significantly bigger), and 1 Warden that leads the team. During the training, all 40+ Senior Members gathered for workshops that included Mental Health Awareness, Drug Awareness, Fire Training, Environmental Sustainability, Equality and Diversity Training, Conflict Resolution and Emergency First Aid Training. The week was exhausting to say the least given the amount of knowledge and skills that were presented and practiced.

But the absolute best part was the each evening included a social night… bowling on Monday night, comedy club on Tuesday night, a British Military Fitness session on Wednesday night and a BBQ on Thursday night. In four short days, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some wonderful individuals who will be my fellow colleagues in the upcoming year. It is truly exciting to be part of such a fun, talented and enthusiastic team. Can’t wait to see what the year has in store for all of us!