Netflix maybe full of teen dramas and their seemingly complex lives, but the truth is that teens are years away from a serious reality bite, the one that starts gnawing at your brain right about the end of your carefree undergrad days. What next?
Do I get into an MS program? Do I get into a PhD? Should I try my luck at a starter job? Should I take a year off? What will become of my career? Oye teri! Vicky ki job lag gayi! Maybe I am destined to live off my parents for the rest of my life. Maybe I am hopeless…Sigh, if only my first name was Uday and last, Chopra…
I was somewhere north west of these thoughts, when I finished my MS and was considering what to do with the rest of my life. An MS in Physics gets very few employers to turn their heads…a glance maybe, in this country, and so I decided to go ahead and spread the misery, by teaching Physics.
Now that turned out to be so much better than I expected. Compared to the dry, harsh and somewhat crazy existence in Delhi, the school on the hills of Sahyadri, in Pune, was the perfect little transition getaway. And that is where my brain started getting into a graduate school state of mind.
Dang! A PhD! The thought of being taken from a title-less existence to a Dr. Acharyya was enough to convince me that this was my true calling (Kidding of course!).
This article is a Once upon a time story of my move to the US, to pursue a PhD. This is not, however, a how to apply to schools tutorial. This article is about my own experiences of moving from a bustling, all too familiar life in New Delhi to a country I had only seen in movies and sitcoms. Maybe there are a few tips hidden along the way for anyone who is thinking of the move, never having been to the US before.
Would love it, if you read on…
Preparing to move from India to the US
So, there I was, cutting out paper squares to practice verbal GRE words. Little did I know that the DIY Angrezi prep would come in handy in my new found career as a writer, much later! Who would have thought that curmudgeon is a thing! But thanks to GRE, I now know that US politics is now full of curmudgeons!
Anyway, after a few weeks of practicing and rediscovering the English language like I had never before, GRE finally came and went. And a few late night applications later I received an acceptance nod from a few of my desired schools, in the US.
I chose Michigan State. And I was excited, left my job and returned home to Delhi. With a few months to go for the move, I was now in preparation mode.
So I got on with my checklist. The first step was to get the F1 Visa out of the way, once the University papers arrived. The American Visa, or their official bouncer, is deliberately made out to be a test by fire. It is like the old school checks on a suitable alliance for marriage. Everything, literally everything, is matched.
Your health, your family wealth, your fingerprints, your eyes, the shape of your ears, perhaps even the number of hairs sticking out of them! And on top of all that, if you somehow appear to be a bit shady to the clairvoyant Visa officer, your application is sent off for further screening to look for who knows what, in-grown nails perhaps! I got lucky, I didn’t have any. Had just got a pedicure done! Seriously though,Visa officers are usually fine with you as long as you don’t seem shifty while trying to justify your desire for researching plutonium!
Anyway, when the formidable Visa was out of the way, it was time to buy those huge check-in sized bags that are big enough to carry a studio apartment. And then came the essentials for a starter grihasti in the new land – the all too necessary pressure cooker, a few pots and pans, daal chaawal, spices and enough mega packs of Maggi to sustain me until I was able to foray into a Walmart for fresh hunt!
And I was quite attentive to veteran travelers and their invaluable tips. Get a haircut before you leave. It costs like $30 bucks for a decent one! Carry extra spices unless you want to pay $8 (~500 bucks) for Garam Masala! Carry traveler’s checks instead of cash. And whatever happens, always take good care of your teeth. Unless you want to sell your kidney to get an implant!
Armed with tips and warned by virtually everyone that a move to the US is always for good, however much I may have protested, I bid goodbye to everyone, teary eyed and feeling nervous for what the future held.
The move and the first impressions of the US
They had me at “Hello”
The flight was long but I was quickly distracted from my nascent pangs of homesickness, thanks to the little Tv screen with 73 channels! After 2 stops and a day of traveling, I was silently applauding myself for my already well developed worldliness. I knew all the pleasantries while greeting the flight attendant, the Immigration Officer and the TSA agents. And when they did a palat kar smile, I felt I was already accepted into their tribe!
So I began my search for a sense of belonging, striking up conversations with anyone, I was around with for more than 2 minutes. In the next week or so, I realized that Americans are equal opportunity greeters. Unlike us Indians who are quite selective about our adoration when it comes to strangers on the streets, Americans generally smile and nod to anyone. Now that barely made me feel special and did shatter my “maybe I am going to get accepted by a group of American F.R.I.E.N.D.S and we will have coffee at Central Perk together” dreams!
But hey, I am not delusional. I don’t expect to create BFFs out of thin air. But nevertheless, for me, with my years of experience of dealing with and being able to read Indians, it was hard to interpret the friendliness displayed by another culture. Took me a while to realize that they were just being polite. They really didn’t care if I was having a Good One! They didn’t know who I was, but hoped whatever one was going on with me, that day, was good!
American cities seem like they just walked out of a Jawed Habib haircut. Not the discounted version, but the really expensive one. Every lawn is trimmed, every tree is cut to a uniform size and based on hear-say accounts, every neighborhood society has guidelines for what the color of your house, kinds of plants in your garden or even the mailbox in your front lawn can look like.
So clearly, Gupta uncle in my Delhi pados would have been seriously reprimanded for his pink villa with red polka dots! And of course, he could have never have gotten away with Tommy, his white Pomeranian, relieving himself right in front of our house, for me to ninja around every time I would pass by it. Yes, they pick up after their dog’s nature call.
I was amazed…I got reminded of the number of times I have witnessed early morning ablutions, while gazing out of the train window admiring the countrysides. Or for that matter people peeing two feet away from a perfectly functional Sulabh Shouchalay. I realized that some, not all, of us Indians have a concept of a very tiny radius of personal space that we care for. As long as our house is clean, we could care less if we threw the trash a yard away, on the road.
And as time went by, I found myself picking up, after people, leaving behind Kurkure packs or throwing a plastic bag out of a fancy car, back home. I just convinced myself that they were lacking training, like Tommy.
Right of way?
May I remind you that I am from Delhi? You know, where cars arrange neck to neck like Lego pieces? So when I saw people driving a few feet away from each other, following traffic rules while changing lanes and even stopping at a “Stop” sign with literally no one on the streets, I realized how much protocols are hard wired in Americans. That and the fact that there is a police patrol car probably hiding behind the bushes.
In India, each city road has a unique character. In Kolkata, you have to meander through the narrow roads and in between the rickshaws that prakat out of nowhere. In Bangalore, you can literally cook and have a picnic while at a traffic stop. And in Delhi, you can get a parallel education in some of the choicest words of “endearment”! And we don’t really know what a “right of way” is. Usually it is about how much bigger and fancier my car is.
Funny story is that the second day, upon my arrival in the US, I went out for a walk and heard a voice speaking to me at the corner of the street I was about to cross – Walk sign is on. Please cross the street carefully. I did a double take wondering if my Mom had really arranged for someone to watch over me!
The Red Tape that moves ahead
This was yet another education. Back home, a trip to the bank would mean a day’s commitment. People never stood in lines and waited their turn. Someone would always cut through with a ready excuse of oh, it’s just a small question I have for the teller and then end up solving five of his life’s most profound problems, taking up a solid hour. I was used to it.
Occasionally yelling and asserting my right as the loser who came in 15 minutes before the bank opened, to get a head start. Bhaiya line mei lagiye would be my earnest protest with the others looking up to me as their next Rani Jhansi. Naturally so, when I walked in the Credit Union, in my campus town, I was handed a token with a promise of personal assistance!
And there I was, walking out of the bank 15 minutes later with a bank account, a debit card and smile…with the rest of week free to pursue anything else. Official work just happens to be smoother there and frankly speaking, I could never get used to it. You see I was hard wired the other way…
My move to the US may have been a happy turning point, in my career, but not a day passed without me longing for the unmanicured landscape of India. In the US, people hold the doors open for you, they say excuse me a lot, they make eye contact when they speak and are usually intrigued by your exotic background.
Yes, it is interesting to experience a new culture and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to mingle with people from all over the world. ‘Coz America does happen to be a melting pot where all sorts of races come together, much to the dismay of the present administration.
However, all its conveniences, speedy bureaucratic procedures, steadfast traffic rules and polite gestures, made me aware of the differences, between the two countries, and reminded me how much I was not at home. Even after almost a decade’s existence in the States, I missed the food, my family, the varied shapes of homes, the myriad colors in fashion and sometimes even the incessant honks or the overly passionate drivers yelling expletives at each other.
So, when I felt that I had made the most of my experience, of an American dream, I couldn’t wait to get back to the place I belonged. And I shared my story in My experience of returning from USA to India.
Many, like me, have made the way back home, proving the skeptics wrong (Read Reasons why NRIs are returning to India). Once done with my PhD and having gained a decent work experience, I came back, slowly re-learning my way into a life I was brought up to love…
But I do hold doors open and smile at strangers asking them if they had a Good One, still. Of course, often triggering their creep radar and sometimes with an odd response of Good Two!