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Small Things: Micro-impressions of Melbourne

I am still getting used to the idea that this is my life, not just some vacation. When I do get a place and Jerry is sprung from “prison,” it will become more real, but for now here is a collection of small things that left impressions on me over the last few days.

  • While Chicago (where I lived in West Loop) smells of chocolate, garbage, and fresh baked bread, Melbourne (where I am staying in Prahran) smells of eucalyptus trees, electric sparks (from the trams), and curry roasted meat.
  • I read the Aussie food labels and cannot tell how many kJ (kilo Joules) there are in a calorie.
  • Rooms are measured by measuring tape in millimeters: furniture in centimeters; small bottles in mL. Small 250mL bottles are tall and thin.  
  • The flow of pedestrian traffic on the side walk is the same as that for cars. People “drive” on the left hand side of the sidewalk. The same for escalators. I have already internalized the ‘look to the right” when crossing the street.
  • In Melbourne cinemas, you purchase an assigned seat in the theater and they have a green, yellow, red color-coding system to let you know when a show is available, filling up, and full, respectively. (At least at the Crown Cinema where I went to see Bruno yesterday)
  • Conversation overheard, “People are getting hit more with trams because of those damn iPods and such.”
  • In Prahran, which is a very posh area of Melbourne (median house price of $AU 803,000) has what looks to be a large public housing complex. The inhabitants seem to be the elderly and European migrants, but I did not do a close study. It was surprising to be walking through rows of one-floor Victorian and Edwardian homes and see this towering monstrosity of high rises, straight out of the South Side of Chicago, or the Paris Banlieue, or Soviet architecture.
  • People seem to be very class/prestige conscious in Melbourne. This might be the effect of being a British colony/Commonwealth without a Revolution.
  • Shower over bath is an actual amenity when seeking housing.
  • The tram and train system is very efficient and gets you to most, if not all places, in the Melbourne inner suburbs. Tram and train ticket policing is very lax.
  • Melbournites have been very friendly to me in terms of striking up random conversations. My red poppies rain coat does serve as a good ice breaker. I need to get better at remembering people’s names and bought some flax seed oil with Omega 3,6,9 to help.
  • Being a vegetarian in Melbourne is easy. There is always one or more very tasty options for vegetarians at any restaurant (at least that which I have been to eat).
  • There are many great vintage stores on Chapel Street that are crammed with “valuable junk.” The clothing is more impressive than the furniture. Although I am so desirous to buy an Egg Chair for my flat, I just don’t want to pay the money for one (approx. $AU 600-800) because it would be the only furniture in my living room. =)
  • I will buy most of my fiction books second hand. Books are relatively expensive here in Melbourne. Non-fiction, I will still have to get specially ordered, but most of the major design books are available here.

Summation: I really like Melbourne.

Life in Melbourne: My first few days

I have finally had a chance to process my diary of my first couple of days in Melbourne. I arrived on Thursday. This covers Friday, Saturday, and the Walk on Sunday.


Friday morning, I spent opening a bank account with the friendliest bank associate ever. The bank is in the middle of the Melbourne version of “Greek Town.” Kyrie was this portly Greek who had to “hide” from all of the little old Greek ladies who came into the bank. When he was helping me, it was endearing to watch them hover in order to greet him or ask his help translating the service they wanted. He was very open and friendly, telling me about his struggle with his new diet and lifestyle change to loose weight, his “Greek” superstitions about not crossing black cats, and his parent’s business.

I had to choose my office either on the 3rd floor or the 5th floor.


I ended up choosing the 3rd floor mainly because it was more private.  The 5th floor space, although much cooler in look and feel, had an open ceiling, which meant that the private conversations that I would need to have, especially as Assoc. Dean, would not be private enough.

Having watched too much Home and Garden TV. I mapped it out in millimeters and sketched its layout. The space feels to cold and corporate in relationship to the warm and personal discussions that will take place in it. My experience of being faculty is that you are often a therapist for your students and colleagues, thus it is important to cultivate a warm and private “safe” space for people. The next step I hope is being able to decorate with more colorful furniture.

The joy of my day was getting to see Jerry in quarantine.

I took a taxi to a neighborhood call Spotswood, which is very industrial. My taxi driver was this Ethiopian woman named Meseret. She was so shocked that I could speak Amharic, and even flattered me that my accent was authentic. Of course, she continued to speak to me in English with some Amharic words thrown in. She told me that there are about 25K Ethiopians in Melbourne and about 5-10K in Sydney. They like Melbourne better because it is more diverse. They and other black migrants live on the outskirts of downtown in an area called Footscray.

Visiting Jerry was both joyous and heartbreaking. He had a very difficult flight. When I saw him, his nose was all scratched up from be jostled around. He had shitted in his crate so badly that they had to wash it down with a fire hose when he arrived. His toys and bedding had to be put through the wash three times. But they had bathed him and he seemed less nervous (plus ate all his food) the next morning, so that they were no longer worried. The dog kennel looks like a prison, but they keep it clean and warm.


Jerry and I were so happy to see each other. They had an exercise yard where we could play. It is such a joy to watch him run. I get to visit him twice a week, which I’ll do on Fridays and Tuesdays. The staff are very affectionate towards the animals. You can tell that they really care, so I am less worried.

The journey back home from the quarantine station was a bit of an adventure because it was near the 4pm taxi changing shift. Meseret came to pick me back up, but she said that she had to drop me off at Footscary  where I could get another taxi to go to Prahran, the neighborhood where I am staying.  It was like walking through Adams Morgan in the 90s in D.C. The neighborhood was a mixture of Ethiopians, Somalis, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indians. She dropped me off at the main shopping district where I waited for taxis along with a Somali family. Footscray is considered the “black” part of town from which white Australians stay away. But Meseret indicated that she has never experienced any personal racism (as opposed to latent prejudice) in Melbourne per se, just a sense of exoticism that comes with being African (they think she is often South Asian).

After three tries, I found a taxi willing to take me to Prahran. He had a taxi change time of 4:30pm, so he thought he could make it. The driver was named Mustafa. After initially confusing me for Somali, he described how American blacks are Africans as well. He then offered wonderful praise for Melbourne and Australia because they provide universal healthcare. He thought that the U.S. was a terrible place because they “treat people like dogs.” When I pointed out how President Obama is trying to change that, he went into a tirade about American racism and how they want to assassinate Obama the first chance they get. He then talked about how the U.S. Dollar is worth nothing, while at the same time trying to get me to sell my dollars on the black market. Of course, his perspective is 100% accurate, but it made me realize how optimistic I feel about the U.S.

There was one interesting interaction in the taxi. He had asked me which route I wanted to take to avoid traffic in the City. I said to him, “I’ll trust you.” He then said to me, “I was going to take the toll road which would have costs you $4 more, but because you said that you trust me I’ll take the shorter route.” That is when he began to open up about his feelings about the U.S. versus Australia.

He, of course, could not take me all the way because there was a lot of traffic in the City and he was coming close to his 4:30 change time. So he dropped me off on High Street, where I took the tram two stops to Prahran. I was worried because I did not have a tram card, but he told me that the trains were full so you won’t be asked to pay. When I got on the tram, there was no where to take cash, so I got on and off without having to pay. I don’t like not paying, so I will get a monthly pass ASAP.

When I got home in the evening, I cooked dinner of fresh pasta with pesto sauce. Earlier I had bought this amazing ginger barley tea. Melbourne has the best tea shops that I’ve ever experienced. They make Argo Tea feel like McDonalds. The one that will become one of my favorites has little pots of teas made so that you can sample them. I then spent a couple of hours finishing the novel, Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje, who wrote the English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, both of which I have read. I tend to go to sleep around 7pm, which is why I keep waking up at 4am. Note: Australian TV sucks. There is really never anything on the 5-6 channels that they have except sports, kid shows, news, and televised movies. I will have to find the Aussie version of Netflix.


Saturday was blistery, rainy, and cold outside. I have generally been freezing in the flat which only has room heaters not centralized heating. I sleep with two down comforters and a blanket over me at night. Yet it is still warmer than outside. Thus, I decided to spend the day in bed reading. Between 6am and 4pm, with only bio-breaks for food, tea, and the bathroom, I started and finished the novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. It is a mystery that takes place in Sweden. I enjoyed reading it although it had a very dark mood. The moral subtext of the novel explored the violence against women in Sweden. Each chapter presented some statistic on the number of violent incidents against women, then the writer would elaborate on the theme more deeply through the mystery. The main character Mikeal Blomkvist is a financial journalist. Another subtext of the novel is the critique of financial journalism which he feels acts like the sycophants of business CEOs instead of taking them to task for their corruption. I found the critique appropriate to the way the financial pundits have treated many CEOs in the financial crisis. The author died after completing his third novel in the series, so I have to find and read the next two novels. I really like his writing, or the translation of his writing.


I went with Ken and Ditte to the Walk for Harmony march to celebrate diversity. It was really cool to see how diverse Melbourne is. The Hmong, Chinese, Poles, Jews, Oromo, Eritrean, Muslim, Gong Fa, Taiwainese, Greek, Indian, Brazilian, and other ethnicities were all in the house, so to speak. I have provided a link to my Facebook photo album, which best captures the spirit of the event. Melbourne is really a cool place.

More on the rest of the week tomorrow.

Gratitude and Mentorship

Every morning, I read from Deng Ming-Dao's 365 Daily Taoist Meditations. Now that I have moved to the Southern Hemisphere, I am off track to my friends and family in the Northern Hemisphere with whom I share them. Today's meditation for the Northern Hemisphere was Gratitude.

When you drink water,
Remember its source.

Being spiritual means not taking things for granted. Quite the opposite, you remember how everything that comes to you fits into an overall scheme. You acknowledge the precious quality of everyday things. And you maintain a gratitude for both the good and the bad in your life.

--Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Taoist Daily Meditations (Harper San Francisco: 1992, p. 195)

This meditations sends my thoughts in the direction of mentorship based on an op-ed piece about Supreme Count Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s “life” by David Brooks, entitled The Way We Live Now. There are three aspects of his description of her that deeply resonated with me.

The first is the fact that she had, as well, lost a parent at the age of nine years. Brooks goes on to say, “It is amazing how many people who suffer parental loss between the ages of 9 and 13 go on to become astounding high achievers.”

The second is the sacrifices in relationships she has had to make including her relationship to her ethnic identity.

The third is the most important and one that colors my sense of gratitude. I will quote Brooks directly to capture it, “Her ascent wasn’t a maverick charge against the establishment. Instead, at each phase her talents were noticed by a well-placed member of that establishment — a famous law professor, a revered D.A., a partner at an elite firm. She was elevated and guided.”

Mary Pratt, the partner of Renato Rosaldo my dissertation advisor, once said to me, “You have a knack to attracting powerful allies.” I have never really had the arrogance to believe that any of my achievements have been mine alone. I have always been aware and had a strong sense of gratitude for the long list of those who have “elevated and guided” me:

  • Mr. Selvy in 7th grade who was the Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle, and thus taught me to be a gifted presenter and nurtured my inner-linguist. Every time I get up to do a presentation, I thank him for those Saturday speech competitions reciting Soujourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” and Rotary Club presentations.
  • Mr. Allen in 8th grade who suggested that I be interviewed on a series desegregation and its after effects, which was my first blush with “fame.” From that experience, I learned that I “represent” many positive things to people (in terms of being black, female, and smart) who also share in my successes.
  • Mr. Foster in high school, who gave me my first set of acrylic paints and taught me the discipline and appreciation of form.
  • Mr. Reed in high school, who opened up the world of great literature for me and pushed me to express myself in words eloquent, beautiful, and most importantly, true.
  • Professor Kilbride, who gave me my first fieldwork experiences in Kenya while a wee undergraduate. 
  • Professor DesChene, my first real female mentor, who would never allow me to rest on my anthropological laurels and supported me in the most untraditional of anthropological topics, phone sex, because she knew that I could not be bound by anthropological conventions. And to this day, I cannot be bound by anthropological conventions.
  • Professor Rosaldo (Renato), who ran some much interference for me at Stanford that while other people think of graduate school as this infantilizing process, I think fondly of it as where I learned to circumvent barriers in order to make manifest the most bizarre and unusual of your ideas. From him professionally, I learned the importance of having a powerful ally who will allow you to...skip the proposal writing course because you had already completed the output of it, take your qualifying exams one year earlier (which saved me from disaster when he had a stroke), win an NSF grant, and write and accept a dissertation whose form and content he did not completely understand, yet supported anyway. From him personally, I learned the importance of being attuned to your own spirituality, which is what allows you to really circumvent all barriers.
  • Dr. Rick Robinson, who gave me my first non-academic job at E-lab/Sapient and opened an entirely new universe of possibilities and understanding for anthropological knowledge.
  • Parrish Hanna, who is more of a big brother than mentor, per se, but I’ve learned how to always seek my next challenge and has become my model for how to handle, in the future for me perhaps, “mind-blowing” success with kindness, humility, and grace, and thus remain a down-to-earth person.
  • Ric Grefe, who is the first person that I’ve ever directly asked to be my mentor because there were aspects of his character that I actively wanted to acquire: compassionate leadership, progressive long-term vision for an organization, supreme skills of persuasion/manipulation if necessary, and boundless curiosity about how the world works and how to make it better. He is given me the most opportunities to cultivate my leadership skills with Design for Democracy, the German Marshall Fellowship, and even the U.S. Design Policy Initiative, in which I have learned to truly trust my own leadership and vision.
  • Dr. Roberta Feldman, who has guided me through two very difficult professional situations with DforD and UIC.  She epitomizes “strength of character” for me, because throughout the bullshit she has been put through in her career, she remains focused on what matters, which is “the work.” She has taught me that if you preserve and focus on doing what is necessary to sustain “the work,” then you will always triumph over the political BS. Institutions come and go. Power individuals with personal vendettas against you come and go. Recognition is fleeting. In the end, what remains is your personal integrity and the work itself. In both of these is the power one never cedes to another individual and institution.
  • Dr. Ken Friedman, who will become my primary mentor in guiding the next few years of my career. It is rare that someone says “Write down your dream job” and hands it to you. I have been given such an amazing platform by which to grow almost exponentially in the next few years. Even yesterday, it was fun to watch him “work it” with the Victoria State Ministry of Innovation and Economic Development. The fact that I was present in the meeting at all demonstrates his desire to elevate my work. And what makes this situation so ideal is that I will help him achieve his goals by just doing what I do (exceptionally well).

One can see from this long list (which is just the career, semi-non-personal list) that the sources of my flow of “success” are very wide and deep. The act of listing it out this way makes me heart overflow with gratitude for each and every one of them.

What would your list look like? Who is part of your flow? For whom do you feel gratitude for guiding and elevating you?

"Architecting" institutions

Every once in a while, I have these epiphanies about design practice that causes a major shift in my thinking. One was the realization that designers make prototypes, not the finalized product (which has to go through this manufacturing phase). This explained to me why some designers who do not adopt a human-centered perspective have a hard time conceptualizing the consequences of their designs. They are removed by two layers of abstraction from the effects of their designs on the people who will interact with them.

Another one is that architects don't design houses that they will live in. Yes, architects do design their own homes, but in general, they design homes that other people will live in. This changes the relationship that an architect has towards the edifice she is building. Designers have a way of separating their identities as designers from their identities as human beings in way I never understood as an anthropologist. All of a sudden it makes sense to me why designers can feel a sense of alienation from their work. If you are building a house for someone else, the decisions you make and passion for them when building  for yourself is quite different than those made for others, where you have to be less passionate about having your way. This need for empathy for others is what I teach to my students about why they need to conduct research to inform their design decisions. Yet, it also requires that you have to separate yourself from your own thoughts and feelings if they come in conflict with the clients. Thus, designers spend a lot of time trying to manipulate clients into accepting their way.

This really hit home for me because my new boss, Ken Friedmen, asked if I would have a spot on the American Design Council when it is formalized as an Federal Advisory Committee. I told him that I wouldn't and that my role would be taken over by the Designated Federal Officer. This discussion happened when I was choosing between two options for offices and thus was thinking deeply about the effect of architecture on human interaction. I thus realized that in terms of being an architect for the U.S. National Design Policy, I am building a house I will not live in.  There is a way in which I have attempted to constantly mute my feelings about the Initiative because it is not my house. I work diligently to make it happen, but I try to stay away from the emotional highs and lows of the experience. I thought I was doing so because I was trying to be Taoist about the whole thing, but I realize in part, that I distance myself from the experience because I'm not designing my house.

I wonder is this the right way to architect all institutions or if you slowly kill the passion for the craft of making them. I remain unsure.

Life in Melbourne: Intro

Yesterday, I arrived early in Melbourne, Australia. I cannot believe that this is my new home. I got to the flat on Alfred, the flat complex where I had stayed before. I am in a different unit that is not as posh as the other unit, but I like it. The morning was spent unpacking and dressing. The afternoon was spent greeting people at the University and then shopping at the Prahran Market.

The Prahran Market is exceptionally cool. It is an indoors farmers market, where one can buy fresh pasta, cheeses, breads, and organic fruits and vegetables. I bought organic pumpkin, spinach, onions, udon noodles, yogurt, pasta and pesto sauce, oatmeal, artisan bread, green and chai teas, as well as apples. At first I thought it was really expensive, in total about AU$ 90, but then I calculated what I would spend at Whole Foods, and it ends up being the same. =)

Today, I go to fill out paper work, decide where I want my office to be, and finally go visit Jerry in quarantine. I miss my doggie so much. Anyway, it is good to be home in Oz. I'll hope to have more photos later.

Countdown to Melbourne: Departure Day

At 11:30 PM tonight, I leave for Melbourne, Australia to begin a new life. Jerry is ready to go with his vet paperwork in order. I am just waiting for my laundry to dry so that I can finish packing. I am really excited. It is not everyday that you are offered your dream job or the opportunity to start  life is a place so far away from what you have known. Based on my call to Qanta's airline, I will most likely come back with a version of an Australia accent.

So I'll keep you posted on my Aussie adventures.

Countdown to Melbourne: Day -03

Yesterday, I went to see part of the Pechanga Powwow in Temecula, CA with Ellen (who lives in the house up front) and then went to a hilltop with Uncle Sonny and Mike to see the fireworks. I keep waiting for some "I'm going to miss America" tearful moment, but it is not happening.

The Powwow was cool to watch because the Native American's own sense of irony about celebrating the 4th. When we had arrived, they were performing the Gourd Dance to honor the warriors. While the singers and drummers played a song called "Stars and Stripes," the MC pointed out how the Native Americans first fought against the Stars and Stripes and now they fight along with them.

The fireworks were pretty cool. It is always fun to see them from a vantage where you can see different towns all around you. We did not have music playing so it was mostly a visual experience, but it is neat to see the new firework configurations like the geometric squares and smile faces.

Today will be a low key day. I will probably repack my stuff and finally the preparation of Jerry's crate. He leaves tomorrow to go to the travel prepping kennel at 1pm. This is where I am going to be super sad because I won't see him again until Friday. Yes, I know I left him for three weeks but I knew he was with family, so I was not worried. He is going to be with strangers who do not love him.

Uncle Sonny decked out his crate with a portible fan. He is such a spoiled dog, but I love him.

Countdown to Melbourne: Day -05

The past two days have been frustrating completing my permanent residency visa forms, but I sent them off to the migration service about 30 minutes ago through US Post Office Express Mail. Yippee!

The process of filling out the details of my life for the past 10 years uncovered some interesting facts:

  1. I've lived in 7 different flats and apartments in Chicago.
  2. I've traveled to over 13 counties including Cuba, France (3 times), Hong Kong, and Australia, of course.
  3. I've held only three jobs since graduating with my PhD from Stanford, with an average stay of 3.3 years. Swinburne will by my fourth job. 

What has been really interesting is that random women in Riverside (the public notary, the Sheriff who did my fingerprints four times) are "so proud" of the fact that I am going all the way to Australia as a professor. The public notary gave me a hug this morning. I

The amount of documentation required, such as letters of service from your previous employers, has been daunting. Most the HR people I knew at Sapient or Arc Worldwide are not even around anymore. I don't keep job offer letters. Yet, the rest has been mostly tedious data searching and listing. I would have never gotten the list of all the places I lived in in Chicago without the people search services offered for $3.95. = )

Yesterday, we got Jerry his Giant-sized crate. This morning, Uncle Sonny, cut the holes in the back and added a fan for ventilation. It's going to be a posh palace for the dog, and he is worth it.

Now that the paperwork is done, I can feel like I can begin to relax and reflect before leaving on Tuesday. Let the count down continue.

Countdown to Melbourne: Day -07

One week from today, I move to Melbourne, Australia to take up a position at Swinburne University of Technology. I have traveled cross-country to visit friends and family. I have delegated responsibility for most of my US-based responsibilities, except the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative, which I will continue until the formalization of an American Design Council.

So at Day -07 of my countdown to Melbourne, I can officially feel the excitement I have about the move. When I was visiting in New York, my best friend from college's Dad said to me, "Do you know how rare it is get this kind of opportunity? And how rarer it is for someone to take advantage of it?" I know what an amazing opportunity I have to do great things at Swinburne: build a doctoral program in design anthropology, help facilitate the creation of several new graduate-level design programs, and expand my network within the Asian-Pacific Rim. I think I'll try to pick up Mandarin Chinese.

I hit the ground running with a faculty retreat and the Melbourne International Design Festival starting the next week after I arrive. I just hope I can get business cards made in time for the networking bonanza of the Design Festival.

Stateside, I have to finish my immigration papers and prepare Jerry's crate for next week. I can't believe I am on the verge of restarting my life from scratch. Super exciting.