Guest Blog: Kaustuv and the Keio Uni Symphony

Row, Row, Row..Phew!

This August, I worked as a teaching assistant (TA) at the Downing-Keio Summer School 2013: an annual programme hosted by Downing College, Cambridge for undergraduates from the prestigious Keio University in Japan. There were 60 students in all who came from various educational faculties, and the role of the 7 TAs was to organise workshops and facilitate their learning experience in the UK. More importantly, we were also being paid to eat, live and laugh with the students for an entire month! As part of our job, the TAs were responsible for organising social activities for the students outside of the classroom and this meant that we ended up ‘working’ beyond the 9-to-5 hours that we were paid for. 

Breath in guyys!
That is, if you count organising film nights, punting on the rivers, trips to the pubs, games nights and hosting tea parties as ‘work’! On Monday and Thursday nights, we had organised for the college bar to be open so that the students had somewhere to unwind. The TAs would all assemble at the armchairs and we would encourage the students to drop by to relax, have a drink and chat with us. The students were primarily in England to improve their English language, and one thing which was apparent was that although their reading and writing skills were pretty good, their spoken English was a lot weaker. So perhaps, encouraging them to come and have a discussion with us in the bar was as valuable to them as some of the lessons taught in the classroom. Topics of conversation with the students ranged from British cuisine and hairstyles, to more serious debates such as issues regarding homosexuality in Japan and in the UK. 

How’s that for a cultural exchange? 

Monday 12th August had been a regular night at the bar. The clock struck 11 pm, and the bar staff had sounded the bell for the last orders to be placed. It had been another mediocre night for them, as the Japanese didn’t tend to drink that much. Who could blame them though; most of the students had a tendency to go bright pink after a single drink! As the students got up to leave, I had a final trick up my sleeve for the night... 

“Stargazing in the Paddock!” I yelled. 

Amateur astronomy is a little hobby of mine. I remember once in boarding school in Nepal (Budhanilkantha School), one of the teachers brought his telescope to the middle of the sports field and pretty much the whole school (1000 students) converged onto the field to try and get a glimpse of Saturn through the telescope. The night sky in Budhanilkantha was amazing and we could see shooting stars and satellites glide above us. It was a magical atmosphere with all my friends and since then, I have always had a fascination for the stars. Back to Cambridge, and it was a crystal clear night with no clouds, and no moonlight to mask the stars in the ink-black canvas. In fact, I don’t think I had seen such a beautiful night for stargazing in the many years that I’ve lived in the UK. Furthermore, this wasn’t any ordinary night for looking at the stars: it was the peak of the annual Perseid meteor showers, one of the greatest spectacles of the night sky. 

Around 30 curious students followed me and the other TAs into the Paddock: a large stretch of grass in the middle of Downing College. We lay on the ground and as I began explaining the phenomenon of the Perseids to them, a streak of bright light flashed across the sky, greeted by a chorus of “Yabai!” and a spatter of confused voices frantically searching, “Where? Where?” A few of them said that they had never seen a shooting star before tonight: light pollution had meant that for them, even stars were a mere cameo in the Tokyo sky. We didn’t have to wait long before another meteor appeared, and the next couple of hours became a symphony of excited chatter with the occasional gasps of “Oooh!” and “Ahhh!” 

The Japanese had already established a reputation for their synchronous exclamations at almost everything, and this was another masterclass. We must have witnessed around 20-30 meteors, each one greeted with as much delight and excitement as the last. Around midnight, it started getting cold so we returned to our rooms to get our jackets, and one of the other TAs (Ashley) warmed us up with cups of tea in his kitchen. We then returned to the Paddock to marvel some more under the stars, and this time I brought my binoculars.

If you have ever pointed some binoculars at the night sky, you will know just how much more you can see than with the naked eye. I managed to show the students Andromeda Galaxy, and by this time the Pleiades had risen above the horizon and so, showed them this magnificent cluster of stars. I felt a sharp pang of nostalgia as I remembered first seeing this cluster as a kid in Budhanilkantha and wondering what it was, noting to myself that it looked like a miniature ‘big dipper’ but being uncertain, because its form was only just discernible through my naked eye. 

The summer school was a great experience for me and I learnt a lot of things about myself, education and Japanese culture. I was lucky to be able to work with such a diverse, talented and friendly group of TAs who were a fountain of knowledge with expertise in many varied areas. The Japanese students were an especially friendly and polite group of people who were always enthusiastic about almost anything and everything, and I hope I have made many lasting friendships! Perhaps one day, I may make the journey around the world to see stars in Japan with them.

Intro to Guest Blogger: Kaustuv Joshi

Last time I remember having momo with this guy was back in 2004 just before he was to set sail for Great Britain. Now currently studying medicine at the prestigious University of Cambridge, nothing seems to be stopping him. 

Madeinepal hopes to see him goofing around the far east in the near future. 


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