My article "Graduate Life in the States" from Pathways 07
Late one night a few years ago, a slight, serious young man one month out of college, who had been recruited by a chemical engineering firm, carried a couple of large suitcases into Chennai's international airport. Written on its side was an address with the words U.S.A. at the end. Yes, his destination was to the 'land of opportunities'. But his heart was filled with one doubt. Thanks to the Indian market sector (and the IT boom) his salary as a chemical engineer had been rising exponentially, as the companies competed vigorously for "talent" a human quality that was sounding more and more like a mineral to be mined. His decision to leave the country which he loved the most, his family, and friends, and to leave a heavily paid job, to an unknown land was creating babble in his mind. His fears were not of what he misses back in India, but of what he would would be experiencing in the States. For a guy who had spent most of his time in the A.C. Tech canteen and cricket grounds, and of course Satyam Cineplex, and the ever quenching Coolbiz juice shop, things were going to be different from the moment he landed in a different country.
India was not merely home; it was where the action was. Was this the time to be leaving? He had made his decision based on a conservative, farsighted logic that a graduate degree would give him more status and security in the Indian job market. He felt sure that he would be returning to India pretty soon.
For him, the United States wasn't so much the land of opportunity (there is plenty of that back in India), as the land of leverage, of certain well-defined comparative advantages. Graduate education being one thing that India lacked, his American Diaspora was only a rite of passage into the Indian technical elite. He realized however, that it was not a journey he was making alone. He was only one of the enormous numbers of Indian students making this particular pilgrimage. He thought to himself, “'it's time for the survival of the fittest”.
The first several weeks in the US were a learning experience. It was no alien planet for him. There was always a close-knit network of fellow Indian graduates who hung out together. There were seniors who were mentors in fact; there were fellow incomers, who just like him were having fun finding their feet in the new world. Except for the occasional homesickness, it felt like they had never left India. As a matter of convenience most Indian students stayed together, not in apartments, but in houses they renamed as 'the desi colony'. This largely subdued the pain of anonymity in a foreign nation.
Then came the day to report for duty. Though this rather sounds like a war, it is in fact a battle of characters. The relationship between international students and Americans is very unique. The dominant international groups, by far, are Chinese and Indian students. His rule of making friends with Americans helped him understand the world of characters around him. Among all the uproar about academics he had to do the laundry, cry with onions, cook good food at least for his roommates, do the dishes and take care of shopping as well. Not to mention the need to recollect statistics to keep bankruptcy at bay and to save dollars to buy a desired ipod or a laptop. To make things worse, his friends back in India occasionally called him to talk about their pay rises.
Our friend took every thing in his stride however, remembering the maxim “Life ain't filled with problems, but with challenges”. He started enjoying his daily duties and new experiences. Then there were impromptu cricket matches in the grassy plazas between buildings in warm weather, loafing around town, Indian student get-togethers, weekend sleepovers, all-night parties with seniors with generous supplies of diet coke (hey believe me, that was true in most cases) and of course the never ending saga of watching Indian movies online, having tons of junk food spending one full night watching India playing cricket against Australia or Pakistan, and downloading songs. Lab was more fun for him. He made friends with Africans who have a special taste for music in the name of Reggae. How else can a person spend 4 hours of non-stop, no time to sit, experimentation than by dancing to the music running in his ears. Life was a learning fun centre. His one motto to others was, ‘Serve everyone with a little bit of CLS – Care, Love and Smile’. He was making more and better friends.
Soon there were Dead Weeks. These are monster weeks, when our friend was assigned a ton of homework, article reviews, project submissions and presentations, with the prospect of final exams in the following week. The sense of accomplishment one gets after this week is exponential. Our friend realized that it was in situations like this that Indians turn out to be the best among the best.
Quite suddenly, he is faced with the most important learning week in his graduate career. One result drives his guide to blissful madness and our friend gets a perverted sort of ecstasy from working madly with no food, drink and sleep. Yet more work and all of a sudden his advisor appreciates his night shifts at the lab and asks him to write it up as an article for a journal. Having not so much, as leafed through a journal in his undergrad days, he is forced to use his resourcefulness to draft an article for the journal while all the while warning him that his work must be completely original. Plagiarism is a serious crime in the US and even rephrasing a sentence from another article could have cost him his career. Life in subsequent semesters becomes smoother, with fun with friends from all over the globe, new things to be learnt and above all a sense of achievement. All work and no play make any person more than a dumb kid. He continues the saga of playing all games that he did back in his under grad days. But this time, it is all scheduled to import the maximum fun out of life.
And amidst this life as a student in the US, there is the trip back to India. The planning starts a couple of months ahead of his departure back to where it all started Chennai international airport. Our friend makes the most of his time before his trips, because this is also the time when many of his roommates are graduating and leaving to other parts of the country for their career. This is a period of fond farewells to those who graduate or get a job. Bidding farewell, our friend boards the flight to Chennai.
Arrival in India is always an emotional moment. That one moment when your feet touch your native soil cannot be compared to anything. Then comes the bear hug from parents, the slaps from best buddies, the surprise visit from his school friends, wanderings around the city, the blank calls from past crushes, and the nostalgic moments when visiting the university in the one month he stays in India. There is also a moment of retrospection when he appraises his decision of going to the US for higher education. He, that is I, look at my friends who are professionals in top-notch companies, but who are now back in our days shared in college. Was I right in forsaking a high-paid job for a doctoral degree? I think about my life back in my research laboratory. I guess I am achieving for the betterment of the world. That one moment when my dad was introduced as the father of Hari, when my friends came from far off cities to have fun with me, mom giving me the TV remote and says you need a break, call from my sixth standard teacher and blessing me, etc., were elating moments which I would never forget in life. A Desi I am when it comes to fun. An Indian I am when it comes to achievement. I like being both. Which one are you going to be?
1. For someone who had spent most of his time in the A.C. Tech canteen and of course Satyam Cineplex, things were going to be different from the moment he landed in a foreign country. PS he says he has spent more money in Satyam and Coolbiz than his tuition fees.
2. The first several weeks in the US were a learning experience.
3. Apart from academics, he had to do the laundry, cry with onions, cook, do the dishes and also keep bankruptcy at bay.
4. What most students feared were Dead Weeks.
5. A moment of retrospection when he appraises his decision of going to the US for higher education.
6. Cricket is more than fun in the States.
Hariharasudhan C.D. (aka H2S)
PhD candidate – Univ of Kentucky