The Diary of an Edtech Startup: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It was a month after I started Smoocer that I realised it comes under the category of an Edtech startup. Edtech means much more than it appears to be. Its not just about online tools that teachers can use to keep track of their students. Edtech startups range right from technologies that sell to schools, products for MOOC takers to learning tools for individual students and learners.

By working on my Edtech startup and in trying to make sense of this industry, I have discovered a few common experiences faced by several Edtech startups whose founders I’ve interacted with. If you’re looking to venture into this space, or if you are already in this space, here are some things that I consider must knows of the Edtech space:

The GOOD: There are tons of opportunity in the market. No matter where you look in the traditional education space, there is almost always visible scope for technology to swoop in and save the day. It can be in the form of Learning Management Systems for teachers or Massive Open Online Coursewares for learners worldwide. Problems, such as poor communication between teachers and students or low accessibility to quality education are well defined problems that have a well defined audience. And this is what makes Edtech such a vibrant and upcoming industry.

The BAD: Just because the problem is clearly defined and existent, doesn’t mean people are willing to adopt your solution. Remember that the Edtech space is entirely and completely dependent on the education space, which is fairly resistant to new technology. The Education industry comes under the late majority in adopting technology. Many a time, you can talk to your customers, understand their problems and craft a perfect product for them. But getting them used to screens after decades of having used paper is like trying to train a human being to do a headstand. For them, computers and phones equate to distracting games and social media, which is nowhere close to effective learning and good grades. Online tutoring is an ideal example of a product that faces this kind of problem. So in other words, finding your early adopters might be as difficult as finding your soulmate.

The UGLY: Even if you come with an awesome product that people are want to use, it’s hard to get it to them. While the market is well defined, the marketing channels are not. In case of B2B products or services, the bureaucratic hurdles that you may have to jump in educational institutes can really slow you down. In case of B2C products or services, like the kind I’m working on, its difficult to find online platforms and physical places where you can market your product. End users, like professionals taking MOOCs in my case, are scattered across the planet, several MOOC platforms and thousands of Facebook groups. It’s not rare for me to be talking to a user who tells me about a very frustrating problem they’ve been facing, like choosing the right MOOC for themselves, that has already been solved to a large extent by services like Coursetalk and MOOCList. They’re just not aware of the solution yet.

I’m not saying that its harder to operate in the Edtech industry than other industries. Just like any other space, this one has its unique set of problems. But despite these problems, Edtech has been the most exciting space I’ve worked in so far. Its vibrant, moves fast and is far from saturation. And the best part? It feels like a revolution.


When Education gets Creative with Technology

Reading Tom Wilson’s post on good technology for education got me thinking about some of the popular and prevalent social technology that have been used very creatively in online education, or more specifically, in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Coursewares). I remember being awed by each of these things when I came across them, and if you’re an edtech fan like me, it’s likely that these will blow your mind too:
Twitterbot: MOOCs often have discussions on Twitter, wherein hundreds of people taking the course converse by tweeting to the MOOC’s twitter profile. These discussions can be quite fast paced and are usually more spontaneous than those on course discussion forums. A particularly innovative MOOC I came across, called E-learning and Digital Culture on Coursera created a Twitterbot for themselves which would answer the course takers’ tweets automatically by picking out certain predetermined words. And you thought video lectures were advanced?
TalkAbout: TalkAbout is a tool that helps people taking an online course to schedule google hangouts with other students taking the same course. I haven’t personally used it, but from what I understand, it also provides some add-ons that can be used during the google hangout to guide discussion. The simplicity of the idea and the way it makes use of exisiting technology (i.e. Google Hangouts) is fascinating.
Padlet Walls: Padlet may not be something you have heard of unless you’re a user of online project collaboration tools. Well, that’s basically what it is. It lets you invite people to share a ‘padlet wall’ to which all of you can post documents, pictures, links, etc. A few MOOCs which included a final project to be submitted by the end of the course request their students to post the final projects on a common wall like this one. Apart from enabling students to see each others’ projects, this is a great marketing tactic for the course too since the content on these walls is usually made public by the MOOC provider who can display all the work that has come out of their online course.
Facebook and Google+ Communities: Creating FB and Google+ groups for online course takers to interact with each other on social media isn’t particularly innovative. But its probably the most effective. If moderated well, these social media groups can play a huge role in giving MOOC takers a sense of community and comfort. Also, these mediums seem to be better at maintaining long term relationships amongst MOOC takers since people continue to use FB and Google+ even after their course ends.
Do you have any other cool MOOC technologies you’ve come across? Share them with me if you have, so that I can geek out over them too.

Da Nang

After a 16 hour long train journey, Shivani and I found ourselves in Da Nang, a city in the middle of Vietnam. Da Nang is much smaller than Hanoi. It has less people, less traffic and fewer people speak English.

I really enjoyed being there, because it had a good mix of everything. There were beaches to hang out at, a riverside with lots of hangout spots, some beautiful bridges and it was fun to just walk around the city. We encountered some statues, museums, churches and old buildings.

Da Nang was more spaced out, which is why the roads were wider and there were fewer commercial spots at most places in the city. We noticed a lot of tourists renting and riding motorbikes there. It was rainy and cold most of the time we were there, which was a bit disappointing since we were hoping to meet pleasant weather after Hanoi.

We spent 3 days in Da Nang which turned out to be a perfect duration for us. We spent two days in the main city and by the riverside and one relatively pleasant day at the beach.

Mi Quang, a noodle dish that originates from Da Nang with Thai coconuts! 

A night besides the riverside! At this bar, we met a waitress originally from Ho Chi Minh city who was our age and trying to improve her English before she could get a job on a cruise ship and travel the world. 

A view of the Dragon Bridge that is one of several bridges over Han River. The Dragon Bridge connects one part of the city to another. The two parts are quite different from each other in that one is more city like and the other is filled with hotels, beaches and sea food restaurants. 

Eating Delicious Bahn Xeo (rice crepes with beansprouts and egg) on the popular Hoang Dieu Street. This place was hidden at the end of tiny alley and took us quite a while to find. As soon as we sat down we were served a standard meal which everyone seemed to be eating. Shivani ranks this meal as her best meal in Vietnam!  
On our third day, we got a few hours without rain. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we wanted to do that day. 

There are several cruises along Han river for $5 per person which take you past the several bridges in about an hour or two. 


I spent two weeks of my December break in Vietnam with my best friend from high school. It was pretty fun. For one, this was the first time I got so much time with my best friend. Also, I love Vietnamese food.

I liked the fact that Vietnam is a developing country. Developed countries to me have little sense of risk. Developing countries are different. They’re less organised, peoples’ lives are more interesting and there’s more to learn about them. 
Our flight from Singapore went en-route Ho Chi Minh City (where we were to later return) to Hanoi, one of the northern and capital city of Vietnam. We had a two hour layover in Ho Chi Minh which is a southern city of Vietnam, where we hoped to grab some lunch at the airport. That did not happen. My visa on arrival took far longer than expected. Vietnam requires several country’s citizens to either get a visa before landing in the country OR get an approval letter online which expects your arrival and makes you eligible to get a visa on arrival. I chose the latter option. 
First, I had to queue up to submit my visa application form and approval letter. Then, I had to wait for them to process it and call out my name with my stamped passport. The processing part took quite long, and I had to show them my boarding pass, which indicated that my next flight was boarding in 15 minutes. The authorities were being quite nice to people who had to catch another flight and rushed our applications. 
Once I had my visa, Shivani and I ran from the international to the domestic airport (which were right next to each other) in the rain. We had to check in again and go through security check again, which took some time. But we made it to our next flight, which is all that really matters. 
We reached Hanoi airport around 4:30 PM and took our time to leave the airport. At 5:30 we took a bus from the airport to the city, which is an hour and a half away. The bus was surprisingly cheap. It cost us 2 USD per person (after we figured out that they were trying to overcharge us). By the time we reached the city it was 7 PM. Our original plan was to take a train up to Sapa, a city 8 hours north of Hanoi. But just the night before our flight, we had discovered that train tickets to Sapa weren’t available online. So we decided to spend 2 extra days in Hanoi which made it a total of 4 days. We later discovered that train tickets online sell out because local travel agents buy them and re-sell them. So we probably could have gotten tickets to Sapa had we known. 
Vietnamese Pho (Noodle Soup) on our first night in Hanoi
But 4 days in Hanoi was good too. We ended up doing things all of the 4 days we were there. Hanoi weather was kind of cold. It was ~10-15 degrees celsius. The sun never comes out in the winter there apparently, and it was a bit rainy. Hanoi looks much like an expanded version of a small town of India. It’s very large, has lots of traffic and little shops falling onto the roads selling groceries, clothes, tools or anything else you might need to buy. There were hardly any high rise buildings or malls. There were lots of lakes, which was interesting to me because I’d never been to a city with so many lakes inside of it. This meant lots of nice parks and areas to chill beside lakes. Coffee and tea stalls were popular, so was street food. The street food in Vietnam is safe even for foreigners and quite low on oil. So we could effectively eat street food for all our meals and not fall ill. This is very unlike street food in India which should not be eaten on a regular basis. 
Che (pronounced chay) a popular Vietnamese dessert 
Meals on the street would usually cost less than $5 for both me and Shivani. Coffee was cheap too, but got more expensive in indoor cafes. I really loved Vietnamese coffee. It’s dark coffee with condensed milk. Its pretty heavy, so by the third day I started cutting down on my coffee consumption. 
Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served with condensed milk. The filter (silver cup on top of the glass) is filled with coffee powder and hot water, which drips into the glass.
Photo Credits: Shivani Kalra
Egg Coffee, a specialty of a popular Hanoi cafe. It was possibly the best coffee I’ve had. The foam, which fills half the cup, is made of egg and below it is Vietnamese coffee. 
Coconut Coffee, found at a cafe in Hanoi. I think it was just the cream which was coconut flavoured.
There’s an area called the old quarter of Hanoi which has most of the hotels, hostels, the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, the Hanoi prison, the night market and lots of cafes and popular eating joints. My favourite place was the Hanoi prison, where I learnt a lot about the French acquisition of Vietnam and the Vietnam war. Another attraction is the Water Puppet Theatre which puts up shows of the traditional Vietnamese art of Water puppetry. As the names implies, it is a show of puppets in water. There is live music sung in the background and the puppetry depicts different aspects of Vietnamese traditional life. Personally, I didn’t really enjoy it much and didn’t think it was worth the $5 entry fees. There were no translations, so it was hard to understand what really was going on. 
Shivani poses for me at the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Meeting up with my friend from college Elson and his friend at the bridge across Hoan Kiem Lake
We stayed in the old quarter for the first two nights and couchsurfed for the next two nights at a place a little outside of the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s couchsurfing community is pretty tight, and they have a lot of events and get togethers that we unfortunately didn’t know of until our third night in Hanoi. 
One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was how laid back it is. People were clearly underemployed and pace of life seemed slow, atleast from an outsiders’ perspective. But I think that plays a major role in making Hanoi such a popular tourist attraction. I thought the hype behind it is a bit much, but I can definitely see where it comes from. It isn’t often that you come across a city with friendly people, convenient transport and cheap food. 

Day 4: Angkor Wat

We woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at what is often called a wonder of the world, the Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and the sun didn’t show up until around 8 am. The reason that sunrise at Angkor Wat is so hyped is that unlike most monuments, the Angkor Wat is built facing the west, so the sun rises from behind it. The reflection of the Angkor Wat falls on a lake in front of it. The Angkor Wat is not a stand alone temple and is part of the Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples. Many people spend up to 3 full days there. The sad side to that is that Angkor Thom is now private property and charges $20 per day. The complex is so large that you need to either bike or take a tuk tuk to get from one temple to another. There a small route and a larger route depending on how many temples you want to see. Florence and I took the smaller route. 

The temples at Angkor Wat went far beyond the temples I have ever known. They are more like historical ruins, with a few statues of Buddha here and there (though it was originally built for Hindu use). The colour of the walls is beautiful, mainly dark grey with tinges of green moss and the occasional red sandstone colour. There is no functional use of the temples we saw in the religious context. Its mostly a tourist spot where people walk around. Unlike other temples I’ve seen, the temples at Angkor Wat involve a lot of exploring and getting lost, much like you would in an ancient palace. The Angkor Thom is multi storey and very big in itself. After many stairs and galleried floors, you reach the core central area where there are three stone structures resembling stupas/mountains on top. This place is filled with rocks and tourists sitting on them. 

We spent over an hour exploring the Angkor Wat before we moved to the next temples. Most of them were similar in that they all had similar structures and materials with which they were constructed. They varied in size and complexity. Some temples were quite small and didn’t play as much with my sense of direction. There was an element of mystery in many of the temples. Some of them had unknown faces carved, like the Bayon, which was personally my favourite temple. Others were still incomplete for unknown reasons, likely to be the death of the creator. There was reconstruction work going on at every other temple we went to. Other countries’ governments were helping in conservation efforts such as the Indian and Chinese government. 

The Bayon temple was one with multiple mountain like structures with faces carved on them. You could go up to it and see the faces up close. 
Some of the temples in construction were a blend of old and new, not in a nice way. One of temples for example, had white concrete, red sandstone, grey rock and green moss all together, which definitely reduced the beauty and authenticity of it. 

Another interesting temple was one which was such a maze that it was very common for tourists to get lost inside. It also had many trees with roots outside the ground. (I wish I could remember the name of the temple) 

While driving from one temple to another, we came across some great architecture. There were stories told through depictions on walls and statues built on railings, as if welcoming tourists. 

We conversed with our tuk tuk driver for a while. Turns out that he only recently started earning through a tuk tuk, as he was a chef earlier. He worked at an Italian restaurant, but apparently that paid less than driving a tuk tuk and had more work. His salary as a cook was $100 a month. 

By noon, we were both exhausted and ready to go home. We had spent 7 hours walking around temples and the sun was getting to us. After spending a few hours napping, I went to the night market for dinner.   

I ate khmer curry, a coconut based curry with pumpkin, carrots and your choice of meat.
I also tried a cashew milkshake, something that seems fairly popular here. It was interesting, that’s all I can say. I think mine had far too much added sugar for me to enjoy the shake.

I got a $3 back massage after dinner. I almost got a khmer massage but I was told that its similar to a Thai massage in which they beat you to pulp. Later I discovered that it isn’t as brutal as the Thai massage and is more about pressure points on your body. 

I bumped into the night market’s art center, an area selling handicrafts among other types of souvenirs

Day 3: Night Market at Siem Reap

Our bus ride to Siem Reap took 3 hours longer than expected. We were under the impression that Siem Reap is 3-4 hours away, but it took over 7 hours in the end. The bus was pretty comfortable. It was air conditioned and they gave us bottled water, breakfast and wet towels. During the ride, we got to see many villages and rural areas of Cambodia. Apart from abandoned houses and dusty roads in functional villages, houses on stilts above water were a common sight. 

Fish Amok, a traditional Khmer (Cambodian) dish. I was
pleasantly surprised by the perfect spiciness and texture. 

At one point, we stopped to pick up stranded passengers whose bus had broken down an hour ago (apparently, this is quite a frequent thing in Cambodia). What was most interesting was that the bus conductor just pulled out seats in the standing space that runs down the middle of the bus and the new passengers sat on them for the rest of the journey. Since this was the end of the festive season, many of the travellers were families with small kids who kept crying. We got to Siem Reap around 4 pm and took a tuk tuk to our guest house. The owner of it was chinese and Florence was able to use her language skills effectively to help us figure out our plans in  Siem Reap for the cheapest possible prices. 

Night Market Adventures
Our photographer, a friendly old woman pretended that she was
going to run away with our camera just after she took this

Our guest house is quite close to the  night market and pub street area, which is super touristy and filled with street sellers, bars, massage parlours and food stalls. Its much safer here than Phnom Penh and we can walk around at night without worrying about safety. But once again, this is probably the most upscale area of Siem Reap. We saw some of the non fancy parts of town on our way to the guest house, and they looked very much representative of a developing country. Even on pub street, prices are quite cheap. Florence and I ate local food just outside of pub street for $3 per person. There are loads of money changers and ATMs. People speak english. 

We enjoyed the night market. We got fish massages, but I refused to put my feet in for more than a few seconds at a time. The fish biting was a strange sensation. 

A Newbie’s Lessons from the Game Industry

I was never a full time gamer, but after watching a talk on game design by Jane Mcgonigal and a few lectures by Kevin Warbach, I started thinking about projecting education through games. People are always talking about how information needs to be converted to a consumable format, and so far that consumable format has been videos. But videos just change the format in which information is presented, it doesn’t change the interaction people have with the content. While I think videos are far more affective than books and texts, I also think that games are far more affective than videos.

The problem is that so far, it hasn’t been done right. Games are still mostly for entertainment, and we still face the challenge of making games educational without losing out either the game element or the educational element. I have been trying to create a game on cultures and have learnt several things about the game industry in the process, with the help of mentors and experienced professionals:

a) No money: The game industry is facing the problem of how to monazite games in the face of competition from free games. Some of the best games have had to be made free of cost, because people aren’t willing to pay. Game designers are encouraged to incorporate the monetization in their game early on and not leave it for later. At the same time, the audience for video games is increasing as more people use electronic devices and the nature of games diversify.

b) Competitive and high failure rate: There is a 95% failure rate among games that are produced and the competition is severe. The number of games on the IOS and Android market are testiments.

c) Easy to produce: Producing a game isn’t so hard any more. There are several softwares that are available for non coders. Some good ones I have come across are Unity, Game Maker Studio, Adventure Studios and Game Salad.

d) Making games vs thinking of them: Thinking of game ideas is easy, and it may be appealing in your head. But when you actually start making the game, your ideas suddenly aren’t as fun as they were in your head. So its a good idea to start prototyping asap. (This may sound obvious to any entrepreneur or businessman, but I think it applies even more so for games than anything else I’ve come across so far)

e) Prototyping: From my experience so far, some prototypes don’t even make it to the customers, because you notice problems and change it before its fully complete. (This may not be a good idea though, since you could be overly self critical) Prototyping video games has been very different from other kinds of prototyping I’ve seen or done. It can be anything from drawing on paper to actually coding the game.

f) B2B educational games: A lot of educational games are sold to institutions like schools or businesses who need very specific type of information to be taught to their students or employees.

So far, the game makers I’ve contacted have been very approachable and friendly. They have been willing to fix meetings without knowing me directly or indirectly. This may be a characteristic of the gaming industry or Singapore, I’m not sure, but either way I have been very lucky with regards to talking to the right people.

Day 34: Riding the bullet train AKA the Shinkasen

On a field trip to Kyoto, I got a chance to ride Japan’s famous bullet train, locally known as the Shinkasen. I traveled by the Tokaido Shinkasen, which operates between Tokyo and Osaka. It was very fast, very smooth and an amazing experience. 
The exterior of the Shinkasen
There are different kinds of Shinkasens running on each line. Some stop at more cities than others. The one I took was the express train (the fastest one), called the Nizomi. Here is a video I shot when the train seemed to be at its highest speed (which is over 300 kmph according to wikipedia):

The train was very sleek on the inside. There was lots of leg space. For people on the window seat, there was a ledge on the window which you could lean on if you wanted to sleep. The train wasn’t at all shaky and one could easily walk around without realizing the high speed of the train. Of course, a visit to the toilets (which are probably the fanciest train toilets I’ve come across) is enough to remind you of that. The toilets are located at the rear of each compartment and are shaky as hell.

The inside of the Shinkasen

There are separate cars for passengers who had reserved seats and those who hadn’t reserved seats. Apparently, the train gets pretty full during the Obon festival in August when people visit their families and passengers in the non reserved cars have to remain standing throughout the journey. There are also separate cars for smoking and non smoking passengers.

Day 14 & 15: A day in the life of a zen monk

An overnight field trip took us to Kamakura, a town of temples about an hour and a half from Tokyo. We stayed at the Engaku-ji temple, which is a Buddhist temple with about 25-30 practicing monks and several daily visitors.

Getas, traditional Japanese slippers worn by
monks at all times. 

After experiencing yet another delay caused by a train accident, we reached Kamakura in the afternoon and were shown our rooms. The first thing we were asked to do is change into geta, traditional Japanese slippers. We were then taken on a tour of the temple complex. The monk who was guiding us told us to walk in two lines with our hands placed on our stomach. The idea was that our arms shouldn’t swing on our side. On the tour, we saw the daily life of a monk. The monks eat, sleep and meditate in one room, which is common to many of them. There is no concept of privacy and everyone does things in the presence of other people. Everything was built the traditional Japanese way in an attempt to preserve tradition. All the rooms had tatami flooring, including our living quarters. The food was cooked using firewood (we were told that was helpful during the 2011 Fukushima disaster when electricity became temporarily unavailable). The temple complex was pretty huge. There was a zen garden, multiple buildings, preserved relics and places of worship. I don’t think we saw all of it.

The visitors quarters, where we meditated and ate. The
boys also slept here. 

After the tour, we went back to the visitor’s quarters (which was to be the place where we spent most of our time) to eat. Their eating rituals are very interesting. The men and women sat in two rows facing each other and wooden tables were placed in front of us. Two monks came and served the food. We were first handed three black bowls of different sizes wrapped in white napkins with chopsticks and a tiny handkerchief. We had to unwrap the napkin and place the chopsticks and three bowls next to each other on the table with minimal noise. Then, the two monks started serving the food. They would extend their hand for the bowl, which is when we were to bring our hands together in gratitude and then hand our bowl to them. They would fill the bowl with food and when we wanted them to stop we had to slide our hands together. For dinner, we had rice, miso soup and pickle. The rice was traditional Japanese sticky rice with seaweed in it. The miso soup had lots of vegetables in it. The pickle included a radish that we were asked not to eat right away. All the food was vegetarian, which is a Buddhist tradition. We started eating after everyone had been served. (It took a while for everyone to be served because each of the three dishes were served one by one, which meant the two monks going down the row of wooden tables thrice.) Just before we started eating we were asked to place a few grains of rice in front of our bowls on the table. These would be collected later and placed on the roof for the birds. The food was delicious and surprisingly filling. The monks came back twice for re-fills and we were repeatedly told to finish every bit of food that we took. We had to eat in silence and hold the bowl in our left hand while we ate with our right.

After we finished we were asked to wipe our bowls with the radish and then eat the radish. A kettle of hot water came around, with which we had to fill one of our bowls. We then cleaned the other two bowls using the hot water. The water would be transferred to the second bowl in which the first bowl would be cleaned. We had to drink this water and whatever remain morsels of food were left. When they meant finish your food, they really meant it. We used the little handkerchief to clean our chopsticks and wipe our bowls dry. We wrapped the bowl back to the form they’d been given to us in and put them on shelves behind us. They were to be used for breakfast the next day.

We were instructed to go take a bath. The women went first and had 25 minutes to use the communal bath. The communal bath is another Japanese tradition, in which you wash yourself with soap and water first, using a hand shower, and then you get into a hot tub of water (which also includes other people) in which you soak to relax. This was my first time using a communal bath and it was weird at first for all of us. But it turned out to be a really fun and relaxing experience.

After the bath we went to do zen meditation.We were told some general guidelines about posture (sitting up straight with crossed legs) and focusing our mind on our breathing (count your breaths). The monk then made a loud song by banging two bricks together (it made us all jump the first time) to mark the start of our meditation. We did 10 minutes at a time. He would end each session by ringing a bell and then banging the bricks together. I think we spent about an hour and a half doing several 10 minute long meditation sessions, but I’m not sure, because another thing about Zen Buddhism is not having too many clocks around. In the middle of meditation, we were served hot tea and a sweet which tasted like chalk with sugar. The last 10 minute session was an outdoor session in which sat on the deck of one of the little cottages of the temple complex. It was next to a zen garden and we could hear the frogs in the water croaking as we meditated.

Instead of water, we drank cold green tea

At 9 pm, it was bed time. We asked for water and were told that drinking water wasn’t safe, so they’d have cold green tea sent to our room. I learnt later that replacing water with green tea is fairly common. The next morning we were woken up at 4 a.m. for chanting. We were handed sheets with Kanji characters on them and taught their english pronunciations. We chanted for a few minutes and then did more meditation. This time, it was easier to focus, and my legs didn’t hurt as much as they had sitting cross legged the previous night. Breakfast was served at 5:30, which included plain rice porridge. To be honest, I couldn’t eat much of it. The eating ritual was the same again and we ate in silence.

The Zen garden by which we meditated at night

After breakfast, we had to do our share of community work by cleaning. Some of us cleaned dishes, some cleaned the living quarters and others swept the courtyard. We were thankful for half an hour of rest after that. We went for a second tour of the temple afterwards. While we were sitting next to the same zen garden by which we had meditated the previous night, my friend explained to me the Chinese origin of zen buddhism and its spread in Japan. A Zen garden is composed of rocks and water. Rocks in chinese culture represent permanance while water represents impermanence. But the two concepts are two sides to the same coin and are not diamterically opposed to each other. A zen garden embraces the complementary nature of the two.

As a part of the tour we watched a short film about the monastery. Several new monks arrive at the monastery every spring. But many of them are turned down because some of the monks who show up just do so to get food and shelter. The temple likes to ensure genuine interest of monks in Zen Buddhism. They also like to see perseverence, which means that monks are expected to not give up if rejected once.

Meeting with the abbot

After the meditation we walked over to meet the abbot of the monastery. The abbot had a constant smile on his face and he looked very peaceful and unworried. His expression reminded me of the Dalai Lama’s when I’d seen him in Dharamsala a few years ago. We had a question-answer session with him. The session deserves a separate blog post. But some of the interesting things that came up were Buddhist belief in following the natural order of things and being mindful of nature, enlightenment and how it’s all about recognizing oneself, hardships of life in the monastery and how it prepares you for other hardships in life. I learnt that monks get to see their families twice a year. They typically spend about three years in training and then leave the monastery to go to their own temples. Another random fact about Buddhism is that Buddhists believe in ghosts and afterlife, and they think that even when a person dies, he or she continues to exist as a ghost.

Spending a day in the monastery taught me so much about Zen Buddhism. Although I wouldn’t choose such a life myself, I can appreciate those who do. Most of all, I admire the ability of these monks to distance themselves from modernization and technology (especially in an advanced country like Japan) and continue to preserve traditional culture. The control they have over their emotions and mind is incredibly powerful and very useful in real world situations. If these monks were to step out of the spiritual world to enter the life of an ordinary human being, they’d without doubt be much better and more successful at it.

Dear Nice Man on the Train

I saw you when you were trying to explain to the other train passenger why you couldn’t exchange seats with her. I don’t know exactly what you said, but I was enchanted by how friendly you seemed. You were smiling all throughout as you spoke to that woman who would do anything to keep her family of eight together in the train. I wish she didn’t try so hard and inconvenience other people. 
Well the woman is beside the point. I actually just meant to appreciate your patience and friendly attitude with her. You are a person who at first glance, I would have immediately characterized as careless, unemployed and of low morals. You had an ear ring and a rough look about you. Your thin frame and dark looks made you seem like one of those men in Delhi who can’t stop staring at every woman in the vicinity. But you aren’t from Delhi, are you? You got on one of other stations of which the name I don’t recall. 
Forgive for my ignorance. I hadn’t heard of four out of six places that the train stopped at. Well that changes things. I’ve been reminded over the past few days that people in smaller towns are much nicer and less selfish than people in cities. And they’re also so much more diverse. A nice looking old man could easily be the troublemaker of the town and a rough looking young man like you could easily be the nicest person in town. In the city, on the other hand, it’s much easier to place people in broad categories and be right about them. I’m not sure why. That might just be me knowing city folks better.
Getting back to the point, your smile changed my first impression of you in a split second. It lit up your face, and your patience in explaining why you couldn’t exchange seats was admirable. I couldn’t hear what you were saying, but you sounded very reasonable. From what little I could hear three rows away, the smoothness and clarity with which you spoke, packing as many words as you could in each second, increased my confidence in my second impression of you. I was sure that you were a nice guy. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.
Hearing the benefits of smiling and the quotes that have become clichéd with time, I had become accustomed to ignoring them, and overtime, forgetting how much a smile can do. Unconsciously, I had stopped smiling as much as I used to, simply because it was more effort than keeping a straight face all the time. You reminded me that smiling does make a difference, one that matters. A smile can make somebodies day brighter, it can make a hard blow seem softer and it can make bad news better.
You also made me catch myself judging people before I talk to them. Here I am, proudly believing that I don’t judge people until I get to know them. Maybe I don’t set eyes on a person and say to myself “Oh, looks like a bitch”. But on seeing a person like you who turns out to have a personality seemingly different from what I would have expected, I realize that I do judge people simply by expecting them to be a certain way. I certainly won’t look down on you for being that way, but I’ll assume I know you already. When I expected you to be an immoral, unemployed, selfish man, I was judging you based on your looks. Even worse, I categorized you, assuming that all people who look a certain way have similar personalities and backgrounds. You challenged that and reminded me that the human race is diverse in its personalities, habits, behaviors and appearances, none of which are necessarily interconnected.
I am mostly done with my philosophical rambling, but I want to tell you one last thing. I wish I could erase the last time I saw you from my memory. It was a few minutes after I first saw you talking to the woman. You picked up your backpack and went past me towards the back of the train to find your new seat. I don’t know how that woman convinced you, or why you caved. Did you do it because you didn’t want to assert yourself and further argue with her? I know a train seat is something that doesn’t actually mean much, but seeing you give in to her relentless persuasion reminded me that there is some truth to the saying nice guys finish last. The people who are kind and sensitive to other people’s troubles get left behind when there are selfish people to take advantage of them. This is not about the train seat. Your new seat was probably just as comfortable as your original one. This is about nice people like you getting pushed around by people who don’t care if their demands cause inconvenience to others. And if that’s the truth, what’s the point of even trying to be nice when you can get things your way being selfish and pushy? If it wasn’t for my liberal arts education, I would have completely given up on trying being more thoughtful of other people. But seminar discussions, casual debates in the dining hall and college in general have taught me that being nice and assertive aren’t worlds apart. There is a middle ground where you don’t have to selfishly push others around and at the same not be a pushover. It’s unfortunate that few people find that middle ground. Most are on either end of the scale. But people are increasingly self-aware now and I have faith that more people like you will find that middle ground. Until then, keep smiling.
Yours Truly,

A distant admirer