The Amazing Jyväskylä!

The Amazing Jyväskylä!
Me at the harbor of Jyväskylä

31 October, 2014

Tihar, when "sweet" bears both literal and figurative meanings ;)

The second most important festival of Nepal has come and gone but the marks of Rangoli in front of every house's door will stay put for a while.

While during Dashain, Hindus worshiped Goddess Durga - the source of power for the Hindu trinity Shiva, Brahman and Vishnu, during Tihar, they worship Goddess Laxmi - the wife of Vishnu, the Goddess of spiritual and material prosperity, wealth and fortune. She is also the embodiment of beauty since she is believed to be an extremely beautiful woman herself.

A mandala of Goddess Laxmi in the making
Final work
This is a five-day festival with interesting customs conducted every day. The first day is for worshiping crow (Kag), the messenger of Death. On the second day, many dogs (kukur) here are seen with tika and flower collar (garland?) because they are the object of worshiping. This is to celebrate the tight relationship between men and dogs. Cows are worshiped on the third day, also with puja (ritual ceremony) to put tika and garland on them. This is also the day when people do puja to worship Goddess Laxmi because cows are believed to be one of the incarnations of Goddess Laxmi. In the afternoon of the third day, a trail of red mud is drawn by the woman in the family from the front door to the place in the house where Goddess Laxmi is worshiped. Afterward, when the mud is dry, they draw footprints on the trail to symbolize that the Goddess has already come into the house. At the beginning of the mud trail, many families arrange flowers and candles to make it into very beautiful Rangoli. The forth day is actually celebrated differently among different communities in Nepal. For the Newari, one of the original settlers of Kathmandu, they call it "my day", meaning one worships oneself on this day. For others, this is the day for worshiping ox. The last day is the most important day and to me personally, my favorite day because of its lovely meaning. It is called Bhai Tika. Bhai means brother. So this day is for honoring the bonding relationship between brothers and sisters.

Mud trail and Goddess Laxmi's foot prints (well, it's supposed to have a trail but my landlords did not draw it because they would have had to draw the trail all the way up to the top floor of their 3-story house
An example of a very pretty Rangoli

There are many different versions of legends about Tihar festival and particularly this last day. However, there's one legend that's more popular than most. Legend says that Lord Vishnu once gave Yama Raj (the God of Death) five days off in ruling his world. So, he went to visit his sister because it had been such a long time he had never seen her. When Goddess Yamuna, the sister of Yama Raj, saw her brother come to visit, she was so happy and did everything she could to keep him happy. At the end of his five days, Yama Raj was so pleased with the his sister's hospitality, he presented a unique gift to her; and granted that any brother who came to visit their sister on this day would have a wealthy and happy life.

The version that I was told by my co-workers at the office is that this festival started when a smart sister managed to save the life of her brother from Yama Raj, the God of Death. When it was time for Yama Raj to come and take away the soul of the brother, the sister invited him to stay for the honor of "brother worship" as well. The sister did the rituals so well that Yama Raj was very pleased and asked if she had any wish from him. So, she wished that he would not take the soul of her brother until seven-color tika she had smeared on his forehead faded, the oil around him was dry and the flower garland on his neck wilted. However, the oil never seemed to dry and left permanent trail around the brother. And the garland was made of a kind of purple flowers that would never wilt. Then, the soul of the brother was saved forever from the hand of Death.

Therefore, on this day, during Bhai Tika puja, sisters draw a circle around their brothers with oil, put seven-color tika on their brothers' forehead and flower garlands on their necks. All of this is for protecting the brothers from the Death and blessing them a wealthy, healthy and happy life. They also prepare very delicious meals for the brothers. In return, the brothers prepare gifts for their sisters to show their appreciation like Yama Raj did.

Those who do not have sisters go to a special temple called Yamaleswar Mahadev in downtown Kathmandu, in the middle of Rani lake to receive tika and blessing. This temple is locked all year round and only open once a year on the last day of Tihar.

Yamaleswar Mahadev temple in Rani lake

Only opened once a year, the temple attracts lots and lots of people on the last day of Tihar

It is a sweet and lovely tradition of Hindus and a heart-warming day for those with brothers and sisters.

Giving and receiving tika at Yamaleswar Mahadev temple
What I love most about this festival is that it is also called the festival of light. For three days straight, Kathmandu's citizens enjoyed full-time electricity with no load-shedding. The city was lit up in colorful lights. I kept saying (while vigorously taking photos): "This is such a luxury for Kathmandu ... well, but it's only once a year!"
Kathmandu city sparkling in lights (taken from Swayambhu Stupa)

In an alley, branching from one of the main roads in Kathmandu

A temple in Kathmandu Durbar Square, decorated with lights 

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kathmandu Durbar Square

Another alley branching from a main road in downtown Kathmandu

Aside from roaming the city in the evening to take photos, I do not have any personal take on Tihar like I did during Dashain. I did come to my friend's house on the forth day and we made Selroti together, a sort of round donuts - traditional food during Tihar. It was lots of fun actually because no matter how much we tried, we could not get it in round and plumed shape like they did in the stores. Tihar is also the time for those with sweet tooth. Gosh, they eat so much sweets here for the past few days!

During Tihar, most shops were closed but sweets shops were always open! 

The streets and the markets during the week of the festival were filled with flowers garlands and colorful powder (for seven-color tika) being sold on pavements.
Color powder is mixed with water to make tika
Flowers garlands

I feel blessed and glad to be here during this festivals season. Kathmandu has been so lively, pretty and bustling with its busy citizens. Even modernity has had very visible impacts on people's lives here, I still hope these wonderful traditions will still live on to enrich the spiritual lives of many more Nepali generations to come. It makes me giggle every time I touch upon the matter of modernity and tradition, Escobar always comes to my mind. It could be that I have had to read his book Encoutering Development ... for so many times due to assignments at school. Almost 20 years ago, he was already worried about the local culture and traditions being destroyed by modernity because development was strongly accompanied with modernity and economic growth regardless of anything else. Development, as a result, was being conducted carelessly at the time in regard of culture preservation. Now, 20 years later, his prediction has become more visible than ever in developing countries such as Nepal.

When I was at Yamaleswar Mahadev to seize the opportunity of entering the temple which only happens once a year, right next to the traditional rituals being conducted, people with all sorts of digital devices: camera, smart phones, notepads ... vigorously taking photos and taping videos. Well, I am glad people's lives have gotten better in term of meterials. However, in situations like this, living in the moments should be more important than looking at them through the cameras lens. As a tourist, I do take tons of photos, I'm tired of it sometimes but I know I'm going to regret it afterward if I don't have some photos to mark places I've been or things I've seen. Well ... I could also be quite unreasonable sometimes.

26 October, 2014

FAQs about studying and living in Jyväskylä (Part 2) - Admission

Click here for Part 1 - How to start and living expenses

Click here for Part 3 - Admission - English language proficiency

Click here for Part 4 - Grants/Scholarships

This is the second of a many-part entry about admission to University of Jyväskylä and frequently asked questions sent to my inbox every day. In this part,  I will lay out everything that I know about admission to Master's Degree Program in University of Jyväskylä. And I myself have also gone through this process when I applied for the Master's Degree in Development and International Cooperation Program. 

It kills me knowing that many still pay lots of money to agencies to process the applications for them; especially in some Asian countries. Remember that you are well-educated students with a Bachelor's Degree in your hands, you can do this on your own and save yourselves some money!!! DO NOT GO THROUGH AGENCIES!

IMPORTANT: University of Jyväskylä only offers English courses for Master's Degree. If you are looking for English Bachelor's Degrees, this entry is not going to be helpful to you. 

The very first thing you need to do is to go to for all Master's Degree Programs offered by University of Jyväskylä. You choose one or more programs that you are interested in pursuing. YES, IT IS POSSIBLE TO APPLY TO MULTIPLE PROGRAMS AT THE SAME TIME but I will come back to this later on. Then, you go into the link of interested programs to find out the basic information of the program and requirements which differ from one program to another. 

For example, in order to apply for Development and International Cooperation, you have to at least fit criteria such as: "Have a University Bachelor's degree (180 ECTS credits) in a relevant field, proven proficiency in English and commitment to working for positive social change." There is often a list of the criteria. Make sure to read them carefully before proceeding with your application. 

This is the criteria for Development and International Cooperation, academic year of 2015:

Admissions Criteria 
Eligible applicants should: 
Have an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. Students are admitted into disciplinary programmes in education, ethnology, philosophy, political science, sociology, or social and public policy. Thus, students with a BA degree in one of these subjects have a certain advantage in the selection process. However, students have also been admitted with undergraduate studies in a variety of disciplines, including the humanities and legal studies. Students admitted to the Master’s Degree Programme in Development and International Cooperation should exhibit an outstanding academic record and potential for post-graduate (doctoral) studies. 
Applicants should also demonstrate a commitment to working for positive social change. Development-related work experience is not required, but voluntary or work experience is considered an asset. International or other cross-cultural experience is also viewed favorably.
Applicants are required to have a good command of English, both spoken and written. Applicants must prove the required proficiency with one of the following language tests:
- The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL): TOEFL Internet based test, minimun score 92, TOEFL Paper Based Test, minimum score 580
- The University of Jyväskylä DI code for TOEFL-test is 9818. 
- International English Language Testing system (IELTS): Academic training, overall band score 6,5 
- Cambridge ESOL's Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE): minimum grade C 
- Cambridge ESOL's Certificate in Advanced English (CAE): minimum grade C 
- Pearson Test of English (PTE): PTE Academic, minimum grade 59 
A language certificate (one of the mentioned above) is required of all applicants, except of those who have completed a Bachelor’s degree in one of the following countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom or United States have obtained a minimum grade of 2 in English as an A1 language or a minimum grade of 5 in English as an A2 language as part of International Baccalaureate examination. 
As registering for and participating in a language test, and finally obtaining the results, may take a long time, please arrange to have your language test well before the application deadline. Applicants who do not prove sufficient proficiency in English, will not be considered for admission.


When you are certain that you meet all criteria, start preparing required documents. 

During this documents preparation time, the most confusing thing might be filling in the application form on the website of University Admissions Finland (UAF):

University of Jyväskylä is among many universities in Finland that have potential candidates go through this portal for their online application. NOTE: THIS PROCESS IS TOTALLY FREE OF CHARGE. 

The first thing you want to do is to create an account on this portal, with this account, you can create your own profile and manage your application form. You can save the draft of your application form and come back later to finish it if you cannot finish it the first time. 

After finalizing the application form, submit it online first, then print it out, sign it and send it together with other required documents to:

University Admissions Finland

Yliopistonkatu 2
FI-00170 Helsinki

IMPORTANT: each application form has a UAF application number, this number is often sent to your email after you submit the online application. REMEMBER TO PUT THIS NUMBER ON THE ENVELOP AS WELL. 

IF YOU ARE APPLYING FOR MORE THAN ONE PROGRAM, YOU MUST SEND SEPERATE SETS OF DOCUMENTS FOR EACH PROGRAM. For example, if you are applying for Development and International Cooperation program and Intercultural Communication program at the same time, you have to submit 2 seperate sets of required documents by the programs themselves even though you are apply for the same university. 

There is detailed instruction on UAF's website, please read carefully:

There is a list of frequently asked questions as well:

IMPORTANT: Do not forget to include the time it takes for your application to reach UAF by post. THE DEADLINE OF THE PROGRAM AND THE DEADLINE FOR YOUR APPLICATION TO REACH UAF ARE DIFFERENT. Try to give yourself some time to spare so that the posting won't cost too much. I learned it the hard way, believe me!

UAF will process your applications and forward them to University of Jyväskylä. And if you are qualified, the program personnel will contact you for interviews and such via emails. The time frame also varies from one program to another. You can find the information on the web page of the program you care applying to.

Please, do not hesitate to contact the program staff if you have any uncertainty; but please, please, please, make sure you have read carefully the instructions and frequently asked questions before asking them questions that might have been answered on the website. They are busy people too. 

Also, I have received lots of questions concerning the possibility of being accepted because they are not very confident about their transcript. Well, since you've asked, I will give you my personal opinions. These are by no mean official from the university. The following opinions are absolutely of my own, based on my experiences and a year studying here. Please do not hold the university accountable if you think you have done a good job with your applications due to my opinions expressed here but you are not accepted. What I am going to say here is very specific to my program Development and International Cooperation, and again, based on my own experience and point of view. 

In Finland, grades are not a significant factor to judge the performance of students. This is the greatest concept I have encountered in Finnish education system. Of course, one should not make it an excuse for not trying one's best in studying. One should only take this as encouragement to do better to prove oneself worthy. Therefore, please do not worry too much about your Bachelor's Degree transcript. It is of course put under consideration but I believe, with the philosophy they have here, by no mean the significant factor in the selecting process. 

From my experience, the most important part in the application is the motivation letter. Please, do not take this letter for granted. Just think for a minute, your CV, your transcript, and even the college you have gone to for your Bachelor's Degree say very little about you. But what you express in this motivation letter will show the lecturers who you are, what you might be capable of, how much you know about the program, what benefit it'll bring you in the future, and if you will be able to pursue the program till the end. Invest some time to read the program's structure and write the best motivation letter you possibly can. And be persistent with what you have written in your letter when you answer questions during the interview. The very common question in the interview is: "Why did you choose to apply for this program?" which should be the main part of your motivation latter. 

That pretty much covers everything you need to know about admission to International Master's Degree programs in University of Jyväskylä. Believe me, it's worth all the effort!

Best of luck!

University of Jyväskylä's main library

08 October, 2014

The observation of books

Once again, I found myself wandering around Thamel, a touristy area in Kathmandu. I had just borrowed a scooter from my friend and was too excited to ride it but did not know the way to any other place rather than Thamel. This time, I was hoping to score some Haruki Murakami’s books, English version, with an affordable price since I had visited some book shops in this area before and known that they carried lots of used books. It’s almost impossible for me to purchase the English version of his books in Vietnam or Finland. However, it seemed hopeless. Apparently, he is also very well-known here. His books are often displayed up front in stores and wrapped with plastic. A paper-cover book of his is about 8 dollars. Well, granted that it’s cheaper than on Amazon but still … it’s expensive for me. Even though it’s not hard to find pdf of his books online, it still feels better to physically have a book in hands and read it whenever I feel like doing it; because there’s no way I would understand Murakami’s books after reading them for the first time. Interesting note though, in Murakami's latest book (photo below), the main character goes all the way from Japan to Finland to find the truth to his past. There's some very familiar description of a summer cottage next to a lake somewhere in Hämeenlinna. 

Anyway, as I was intensively checking titles of hundreds of books in the “used books” sections in several book shops in Thamel, I was amused by the similarity of the books collection they have here. It would be the norm to find sections of books in anthropology, psychology, politics, economy, history and especially religion in most of the book stores in Thamel. I have not been to book stores in other areas yet so I cannot conclude for all. But it should be surprising to see books that belong to academic references other than traveling in this touristy area of the city. So far, I have spotted some books that I know of such as Making Globalization Work by Joseph Stiglitz (I’m actually doing a book report on this one!), The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman, etc.

There are also lots of history books of which the highlight is Vietnam War. Yes, it seems like the world is very much interested in reading about what happened in Vietnam during the time we were fighting for our independence. I guess, the reason that it remains fascinating until this day is the existence of one tiny Asian country that was able to kick the most powerful nation in the ass by forces. Books about this war often flood the entire history section of several book shops that I’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the fact that the world knows of Vietnam with that strong image. However, I am very tired of hearing about it or being asked about it every single time people find out I am from Vietnam. I am fed up with documentaries about Vietnam starting with the statement: “… years after Vietnam war, the country is on a steady pace of development …” or something similar down that road. It is about time that Vietnam should be known about things other than the war such as its beautiful beaches, friendly people, to-die-for food, picturesque landscape or some fascinating professions like ceramics, pottery or even noodles-making, etc.

Regarding religion and culture, of course, there are hundreds of books about Hinduism and Buddhism; how they are practiced in Nepal, the number of God and Goddess (I was surprised that this book about Hindu God and Goddess was so thin, considering that there are approximately 300 million Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism!) There are several popular books about the Living Goddess, the unique religious tradition of Nepali. Oh, now I am reminded about this couple I met the other day in a book shop which was a pretty special one in Thamel. The guy asked the shop keeper to suggest him any book at all since it seemed like he was quite clueless on what kind of book he wanted. The shop keeper suggested him lots of best-seller books which were made popular by the movie version. Still, this guy couldn’t decide. I was reading a new Murakami’s book which was just released early this year. I then suggested that he should get one of Murakami’s books since they were terrific. However, when I was briefing one of the books to him and made a comment that Murakami’s works were quite dark and heavy, he said: “Oh, I am actually looking for something a bit bright and easy to read.” I said: “Well, you go ahead and look for some chick flicks then if you want something bright.” Upon existing the fiction section, I suddenly remembered a perfect book: From Goddess to Mortal. I mentioned it in one of the entries here. It’s a biography of a former Kumari, the Royal Living Goddess of Kathmandu. I turned back to suggest the book to the couple; it is absolutely a positive story, extremely interesting and it provides correct knowledge of the most fascinating tradition of Nepal from someone who has actually been through it. To my surprise, they were oblivious about this famous cultural feature of Nepal. I wondered how they did not even have a vague idea about Kumari when her photos are displayed every where around the city. And if I was not mistaken, the girl was holding a Nepal guide book as well and I am pretty sure that no Nepal guide book would miss out information on Kumari. Man, this is so unfair for the country. Guys, please, do some research before you travel to any country at all! You spend lots of money anyway, don’t waste it by coming back from the trip with only photos in your cameras.

*long sigh* haizz .....

Geography wise, books about Tibet are plenty in all the book stores. I’m not sure why though. Maybe it’s because they’re very close to each other and people often travel there after Nepal.

The number of fiction books though is the biggest among all. I think it is true in most books stores I’ve ever been to. The most popular series is obviously Dan Brown’s collection. Every single book store here carries Dan Brown’s, from used books to brand new ones. This is also true for Stephen King’s novels or Sidney Sheldon’s. And OMG, Twilights and Fifty Shades of Grey are every where! Well, I have to admit that I once finished more than 1000 pages of Fifty Shades of Grey within two weeks or so; when its e-book was still available on Internet. But it’s the kind of story that I would read for one time and then never come back to it again. So, I wouldn’t really want to spend money on the books. Twilights? Do not even mention it! What a waste of papers!

Sidney Sheldon collection

Stephen King collection

What I find surprising is some classic book series are so cheap here compared to the price of English books I would have to pay in Vietnam; especially Sherlock Holmes. I texted my younger sister immediately when I found out and she asked me to buy the collection of short stories for her. She cannot go through with the long stories. I checked and this collection cost 400 rupees (about 4 USD). I mean … wow! So, I’m thinking maybe I’ll buy the long-stories collection too, so that when her English is a bit more advanced, she’ll be able to read it. It’s good practice anyway. There’s no downside of purchasing a good book. Ah, lots of copies of Shakespeare’s plays are also often seen on display. 

Regarding reading culture, I do think many Nepali are big readers since they take education very seriously. Schools, colleges or universities can be seen in every corner of the city. Around my neighborhood, I can easily point out at least 10 education institutions ranging from kindergarten to  university. Even from the 80s, girls were already encouraged to go to schools and their families would be so proud if they did well in schools. I learned this from reading the book From Goddess to Mortal. The family of Rashmila – the former Kumari in the book, has four daughters and one son. All of them receive equal opportunities to attend schools and reach their academic potential. Because Goddess is believed to know everything, the chosen Kumari, the incarnation of Goddess Taleju, was not expected to attend classes. While most Kumaris (before the year of 2000, I think) retired from the office almost illiterate, Rashmila, with support from her family, found her way back to elementary school when she was already 12 years old. She had to work much harder than other students in order to skip 2 grades every year and catch up with students of her own age. Since the new democratic government was formed, there has been improvement on this matter. Kumaris now have their private teacher come to Kumari’s House (Kumari Ghar, in their language) to teach them for a few hours every day. So, when they retire from being Kumari, they can attend classes with students of their own age immediately without much struggle.

Pilgrim Book Store, Thamel 
Well, this entry surely makes me sound like a big reader but the fact is I am not. It is true that when I am really interested in something, I can spend hours reading a book about it. I enjoy going to book stores, reading books and ending up not buying anything, haha. But I find it interesting as I observe the book collections here. Supply should meet demand. Book stores carry books that are actually bought by readers. It would not make sense to do otherwise. So it also reflects on the reading taste of Nepali, even though this area is very touristy. 

A slogan on the importance of education on a street of Kathmandu

01 October, 2014

Dashain and a stronger sense of home ...

It’s the seventh day of Dashain festival in Nepal. It is the most important traditional holiday of Nepal that lasts for 15 days, an equivalence with Lunar New Year in Vietnam or Christmas in the West. This holiday celebrates the defeat of devils. The Goddess that is worshiped during this holiday is Durga, Mother of the universe. She is believed to be the force behind the power of creation, preservation and destruction which are represented by Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. The word "Durga" in Sanskrit means a fort, or a place which is difficult to overrun. Another meaning of "Durga" is "Durgatinashini," which literally translates into "the one who eliminates sufferings." Thus, Hindus believe that goddess Durga protects her devotees from the evils of the world and at the same time removes their miseries.

During this festival, what Nepali do the most is flying kites, which is meant to send a message to the God to stop sending rain down to the valley. Children enjoy playing with their giant bamboo swing. The sacrifice of goats’ blood to Durga and Kali Goddess. These Goddesses are known to fight the devils with their thirst of blood and furiousness. 

The children enjoy playing with their bamboo swing in my neighborhood

There’s an interesting story about Kali though. When the earth was invaded by devils, Kali – as an incarnation of Durga – came down to earth to fight the devils and free humans. She was strong and undefeatable. However, she was into the killing too deeply and got carried on too far to the point that she was killing humans as well. Shiva saw that and jumped under her feet when she was stomping on earth. When Kali looked down, the interference of Shiva awoke her from her uncontrollable anger and she stopped the killing. That’s why the most common statue of kali that we see depicts a Goddess holding human heads and one of her feet on Shiva.

Animation of Goddess Durga
Animation of Goddess Kali

A similar feature between Dashain and other traditional holidays in the world is that people go back to their hometown or visit their relatives. The women, of course, work their tails off in the kitchen to feed everyone during these gatherings.

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a Nepali family to celebrate Dashain with them on the seventh day – one of the most important days of Dashain. It’s a traditional family: parents and 2 sons. I am the only friend of the younger son who invited me to their house; he works with me in the office. The rest of the guests were the oldest son’s friends from work and a group he often socializes with. When I was invited, the guy told me there would be all foreigners. So, I guessed he thought I would be more comfortable socializing with other foreigners living in Kathmandu. Well, I actually ended up spending most of my time hanging out with his cousins because I was not comfortable with the foreigners. I also enjoyed hanging around his mother when she was cooking. It made me a little bit homesick actually. But I felt like at home. In the end, she asked me to come back to have rice with them some other time; she said: "You are now our daughter, right?". I was really overwhelmed.

The father was delighted when he found out that I was from Vietnam because in the 70s, he studied with lots of Vietnamese in St. Peter Burg under Soviet Union time. He still even remembers some Vietnamese words after all these years. In fact, he was so delighted that he soon introduced me to the foreign guests as his daughter, which really took me by surprise and surely confused the guests tremendously. He told me that he had true respect for Ho Chi Minh. It made me so happy. It’s endearing that he and his wife really tried to pronounce my name correctly. Their son (the one that works with me) for some reason has no trouble pronouncing my name. I had not really noticed it until today. While seeing his parents, his older brother and other foreign guests struggling to pronounce my name, I suddenly remembered that from day one, he has been calling my name correctly with no effort at all. Strange! 

So, my friend, the only person I knew in the house, spent the whole afternoon flying kites with his bother’s friends on the roof top. His mother told me that this was the first time after 3 years that he got to enjoy Dashain since he had been studying in India until last July. I joined in with others on the roof top a few times. The rest of the afternoon, I was watching TV and talking with my friend’s cousins downstairs. They were very lovely kids whose English was excellent.

I am excited now because during this holiday, one of my friends will leave me her scooter since she won’t be in Kathmandu but will go back to her hometown with her husband and baby. I will get to go around the city on a scooter, which I haven’t been able to do for such a long time now. It should be fun! 

And my best friend is coming. I can't wait to see her. It's been over a year now!