Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mind Your Language

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, during a 48-hour train ride from Chicago to Seattle, specifically while staring into the flatlands of North Dakota. The idea started from musing about my life, or what it looked like last year this time, and how a string of events led to starting a new chapter of life in Germany. When my contract was going to be over, and nothing else looked promising, I started looking for a job outside the US. In Israel. Brazil. India. Germany.

Israel asked me if I can learn Hebrew. Brazil never responded. India responded, but only a year later. And Germany offered me a job right away.

So seven months ago, I condensed my life into three suitcases and a carry-on bag, and moved to Germany. My US journey of eight years started and ended in Seattle.

Breakups are messy. They don’t end well. Mine did not either. I moved to Germany, and started a brand new chapter in life. But not before patiently listening to the enormous amount of gyaan that people had to offer for free. Gyaan, that brought tears in my eyes out of gratitude.

“Why don’t you move back to India? It’s high time you gave back to your country.”

“People like you have a misplaced sense of entitlement. This country doesn’t owe you a job.”

“Great. You can travel all over Europe now. Maybe I will come visit you.”

“Germany is just like the US. My cousin’s in-laws’ half-sister’s stepson moved there thirty-three years ago.”


“Let me see if I can set you up with someone. Maybe you can come back that way.”

I mean, my entire life was crumbling in front of me, and here, people were talking about patriotism. Entitlement. Their own travel plans. And an anchor boyfriend.

Germany is a nice country. Buses run on time. Things make sense. Most days, you don’t fear getting mugged or killed on the streets. Before I left for Germany, some people told me that the Germans are very good in English. They also told me that learning German becomes easier when you speak English. I am sorry to report directly from Deutschland that these people are clueless about what they were talking. 

Let me tell you what German sounds like, if you are hearing it for the first time.

Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Tschschshsch. Awkkh.  Awkkh.  Tschschshsch.

Pretty badass, right? My grandpa used to make that sound at eighty, when he got phlegm in the winter, and his lungs choked and refused to start. My car made that same sound in the Nebraskan winter, refusing to start every morning. I should have seen that as a sign.

Bad words

German has many bad words. Not that they are bad per se. It’s just my dirty mind that finds them funny. There is a book store, not so far from my place. It is called HugenDubel. And they just don’t stop at potty. They fart too. Big time. Einfart (entrance). Ausfart (exit). Gute fahrt (have a great trip). Uber Fahrt. Fahrt means a drive. And any idea how the Germans say goodbye? Tschuss! I went red with shame the first few months, every time people around me said it excitedly.

Long words

I often like to think that when the German language was birthing, there were no space bars. What resulted were long, really long words. I mean, how do you say a one-way street? One-way street, right? The Germans have only one word for a one-way street. Einbahnstrasse. And here is the name of a bus stop. Schauenburgerstrasse. And food I order- Hähnchenbrustfilet. It’s nothing fancy, just chicken breast filet in one-word. And my favorite is Science- it is Naturwissenschaft in German. Nothing stops at less than twenty letters.


I haven’t even told you about the umlauts. No, not the omelets. The double dots you see above the vowels. Next time, take a closer look at the Häagen-Dazs cover, okay? The idea is, when there are two dots above a vowel, it sounds somewhere between that vowel, and the next vowel. So A double dot or ä should sound midway between A and E. Mathematically speaking, that’s (A+E)/2? How do you even make the averages of sounds? Apparently, the Germans have figured it all.

As a result, I am often stopped mid-speech, to be corrected.


“It’s Lübeck”
“Pout like a duck. Like you are going to kiss.”

And I haven’t even started about how Y sometimes becomes J, and G becomes G as in God. So Geomar is now Ga-yo-mar, Biology is Biolo-gee, although German is not Garman. Gymnasium is gee-mnasium, and it means, high school! And you say Ya, but write Ja, write Julia, but say Yulia, and now the Cs in clinic, coffee, and October are all replaced by K. Oktoberfest, right? Yeah, everyone knows that!

The Germans are big about rules. So you can enroll in German classes, but you cannot be absent for more than two classes. When I told them that I will be in the US for six weeks, they looked at me really seriously. Not that they had to make an effort, they look extremely serious any given day. And they told me, “Come back next semester, when you feel more dedicated to the cause of learning Deutsche.”

And what about their English? Well, I am delighted to report that the Germans have their verbs all screwed up. So they cook coffee. They make sports (the only sport I know people make is, yeah, making love). Forms become formula. Someone wanted me to fill out a formula the other day. Advice becomes hint (They don’t give advice; they give hints, like I am solving a puzzle). They also ask me to remember them (which means remind them). And someone said, “My husband will come and catch me after work.” I wanted to add, red-handed?

So amid long words, potty words, all the farting and sucking, umlauts, the Js and Gs, their unwavering rules, and the German-genders, I have learnt nothing more than please and thank you and I am a woman and I am a pregnant woman. I picked up the last one when my officemate got pregnant. I cannot speak one functional sentence in German. But I tried.

You know how we say words like, “really”? I figured out the German word for “really”, just because people said it so often. I tried it too, just to fit in. When someone told me something in English, I said, “akkh sow”. They were not pleased. They gave me a dirty look and said, “Did you just say asshole?”

And who said everyone speaks English? Bus drivers don’t speak English. People at the grocery store don’t speak English. And when you ask them something and they don’t understand, they don’t apologize. They get angry. Real angry! They roll their eyes, and speak even louder and faster. I mean, on a normal day, German sounds like people are fighting, from the epiglottis. Imagine how it sounds when people get angry and frustrated.

I was once on a bus to Berlin. When the driver made a long announcement in Deutsche, I understood nothing of it, even though I have been diligently trying to learn German. So I turned to my neighbor, asking if he could translate it for me. He nodded, and repeated the entire message in German, speaking slower and shaking his hands some more, as if that will make me understand this time.

That day, something else happened too in the bus. I fell asleep while listening to an audio lesson, teaching me how to say basic German phrases. For 30 minutes, I listened to them teach me how to say- "Excuse me. Do you speak German? No, I do not speak German. Yes, only a little. Did you come from America? I am from Germany.", and so on.

When I woke up, we were waiting in an unknown city, just halfway through my long ride. I was starving, and this was my only chance to grab food. So I dashed out of the bus. I wanted to ask the driver how long we would halt, but as usual, I did not know how to ask, and he did not know how to reply. So I held out my hand, and he drew patterns in the air on my wrist watch to tell me how much time we have (I have started wearing a wrist watch here after more than a decade, so that people can show me the time for something happening, even if they cannot speak English).

I dashed out of the bus and landed in front of a kebab shack. However, I blanked out. I remembered nothing of what I had learnt less than an hour ago. Imagine one fine day you lose your communication skills, your ability to make coherent sentences. I panicked, and the harder I tried to remember, the more I could not remember.

In one last desperate attempt, I shouted the keywords I knew. Hähnchen (chicken). Fleisch (meat; the man heard "fish", and that added to the confusion). Essen (to eat). Bitte (please). The man must have finally understood, and later when he asked me what else he should put in my sandwich, I said yes to everything. When he forgot to give me a spoon, I said, Löffel (spoon), and he said, not Löffel, but Löffel. Looks like I said that the wrong way too.

I came back to the bus, only to realize how I had stripped a language off its dignity by shouting out keywords, and that too, incorrectly. If this was English, it would be the same as saying, "Chicken. Meat. Eat. Please. Spoon." instead of "I would like to order a chicken sandwich, and could you please give me a spoon too, thank you?" I was disappointed with myself. This was perhaps the most undignified way of saying something. But I am trying. I am failing and floundering, but I am trying. Maybe someday, I will say that perfect sentence in a perfect accent, umlauts and all, and someone will smile and acknowledge me and give me what I want. Maybe someday, I will learn to string these keywords to make beautiful sentences. Maybe someday, someone will compliment me on how good my German is.

So amid this constant linguistic struggle I face everyday, that has added even more to my sense of alienation, I am trying to find the hidden part of my voice box the German sounds come from. Seven months, and I have realized how much language plays an important role in our cultural and social sense of belonging. When I moved from India to the US, understanding the language wasn’t a problem. I just had to change my dickys to car trunks, rupee notes to bills, restaurant bills to checks, and the capsicums to bell peppers.

I am without a phone for the last seven months, because I have no one to call and talk to. Sure, I have a job where I need help daily to translate every email and website and every meeting where people speak nothing but German. I have a bank account, but it is all in German, and I have learnt from muscle memory what buttons to click on to check my account balance. The other day at the Chicago conference, someone told me that they just met a bunch of Germans, and I should go introduce myself. I ran as fast as I could, but in the opposite direction. For after seven months of all the cacophony that grated on my nerves, I knew that I would keel over and throw up if I had to hear one more word of it. I have been gladly making small talk with every cab driver, grocery store cashier, and hotel receptionist for the last few days in Chicago, just because it feels so comforting to hear English.

And with this, I have realized something else. That Germany will never be home.

Perhaps, the feeling of home has nothing to do with nationality and place of origin. My passport is Indian, my work-visa German, but my home address is not on my passport anymore. Because no matter where I live, it is Seattle, and the US, that will always be home. This is where I belong. This is where all the milestones in my life happened. This is where I built everything, and then saw most things go. My work identity, and even the research I do sitting in my German office, is still American.

But now, I am a visitor in my own home. Because after having two student visas and a work-visa, I now have a visitor visa to be able to enter my home. Ironically, the student visa was for five years, the work visa for three years, but this one that prohibits me to work and earn, the visa mommies and daddies use to visit their children in America, is for ten years. Other than actually being homeless, this must be the closest to what being homeless feels like.


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Loneliness of a different kind

Recently, during a closer introspection of life, I realized how lonely things have become. Although Seattle was in a different country and I was living away from family for the first time, there was no dearth of like-minded friends or interesting activities to pursue. I took writing courses, did salsa, acted in plays (or watched them), danced, and made friends from diverse backgrounds (professors, writers, software engineers, social activists, etc.). My social life during my PhD in Virginia was quite active too. Having two roommates who spoke two different languages made a big difference, and they brought in their own set of friends, food, and fun. Then, I had friends from other groups- Bengali friends, gym friends, department friends, and east coast friends. Due to the proximity of several big cities on the east coast, my social life was not restricted to Virginia. I would be attending Durga Puja events in NY/NJ, Diwali events in Washington DC, driving to the national parks and the beaches on the Atlantic, and there was hardly a dull moment. My car made a big difference in my life too, now that I was quite comfortable driving longer distances (sometimes as far as Rochester, Cincinnati, and Connecticut).

My social life took a kamikaze turn in Nebraska. Suddenly, my real-time friends were reduced to a list of names on Skype. I realized that as students, it is much easier to make new friends. As a postdoc at a new university, I no longer felt comfortable with the student crowd (although they tried, and I tried too). I no longer identified with their life issues (not being able to drive, not passing the qualifiers, not graduating on time). On the other hand, most of the postdocs had families, and I did not fit into that group either. I remember someone trying to introduce me to a group that met for satsang and bhajans and vegetarian meals, although that was really not my idea of socializing. I never went, and they never talked to me again.

Married people came with their own stories (being a trailing spouse, the child never eating or sleeping enough, the mortgage being too high, the car insurance too steep, and the immigration policies too unforgiving, group politics among the Bengalis, etc.). I attended some social events, but did not feel engaged enough. The faces were different, but the problems were all the same. Being in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska never allowed me enough opportunities to escape somewhere. The weather was extreme, the Colorado mountains too far, the beaches nowhere to be seen, and there was only so much one could drive in the middle of the cornfields. That was the first time I actually began to realize what loneliness is. I sometimes went to the local Bengali association, attending the pujas and Diwali amid a group I clearly did not fit into. I kept myself busy by taking pictures at these events, my way of contributing socially. It was not that there was a dearth of people I knew. It’s just that the sample size of “people like me” had significantly decreased.  

This brought in a very important realization. We are perhaps subconsciously programmed to hang out with people “like us” unless we make a deliberate attempt not to do so. Bengalis hang out with the Bengalis, married couples hang out with other married couples, and people in academia hang out with other people in academia. This is perhaps because it gives us a lot of common topics to talk about. I mean, what would an Indian postdoc talk to a Russian chef? Ever seen how totally incompatible adults hang out with one another, and gladly do so because they have children who are playmates? Thankfully, my diversions and hobbies kept me engaged. I read, watched foreign language films, wrote, took pictures, made travel plans, and so on. However, the loneliness persisted.

Things in Germany are far worse. Language and culture are huge barriers, but what creates a greater divide is my failure to hang out with the Indians here, just because we share a common cultural background, and perhaps nothing more. I felt much more comfortable with the few Americans I met in Germany. On the other hand, I made some good Korean friends. I had more in common with them, because they are single, researchers, people who have traveled the world, and provided me a first-hand perspective of an interesting life. We were experiencing a shared struggle of learning the German language, and getting used to the culture. In a way, we were all the same: foreigners. Whenever I needed company for a walk, or wanted to visit a local café, they were usually there. However, some of them are leaving, without promises of returning anytime soon.  

Things are perhaps not as unhappy as I am portraying. Most days, I am really happy reading a book while watching the ships, and not have anyone interrupt my thoughts. However, the human connection is definitely missing from my life now. There are still enough people I see on a regular basis. However, I don’t have much common with them anymore.

Recently, when an old school friend contacted me after many years, I was surprised that I felt a mixture of happiness and dread. For I knew that somewhere during the conversation, she would either bring up things like her kid not eating and sleeping and pooping enough, or ask me why I am not joining the bandwagon of married people. She would not talk about learning new statistical tools, trying something new on Coursera, or finding some cool solution to a scientific problem. However, I am still expected to be enthusiastic about keeping in touch, just because we were once together in the ninth and tenth grade (a time when we had everything in common).

You see, these people are not bad people, but just different people. Not diverse, but different. I now realize why people procreate (other than the usual reasons about human instincts and the urge to spread your genes). It keeps people busy with regular, organized activities centered around care-giving duties (cooking, cleaning, playing, teaching, socializing); sometimes even chores, but engaging activities nevertheless. Being the caregiver for two children, my mom was really busy at my age. She was sending us to school, supervising our homework, managing the home, caring for the in-laws, adjusting with my dad’s erratic work schedules, and being in charge of the family single-handedly. I, on the other hand, have no such roles to play. My major responsibilities include feeding myself, taking care of my health, making sure that I show up at work on time, meet deadlines, keep the house clean, and that’s about it. Sometimes, my biggest dilemma for the day is no, not how to educate my children better, but whether to wear a red shirt or a grey shirt at work. No one will be hungry or waiting for me at home if I am late. In fact no one will even know that I am late.  

Naturally, I dread my weekends. Work gives me a serious engagement, a sense of accomplishment, and an avenue of socializing (precisely why I don’t like working from home). But the weekends are hard. Sometimes when I come back to work on Mondays, I realize that I am croaking, because my vocal cords have gathered cobwebs over the weekend with no one to talk to. While people look forward to the weekends, thanking God that it’s Friday and what not, I really wonder how I will kill time. Because engagement requires planning, and planning requires energy and enthusiasm. So I take the easier way out, either watching back-to-back movies until my back hurts, or working some more. Sometimes, I try the selfish way out, by Skyping with my family to relieve me of my loneliness. However, they are even busier, and nowhere to be seen in the weekends. They are often traveling, attending weddings, socializing, trying out the food at new restaurants, catching up with the latest movies in the theaters, and doing a gazillion things on the weekend. Precisely the kind of life I would like to live in Germany.

A couple of realizations before I end this reflective post that turned out to be more of a rant. With age, my acquaintances have increased (800 friends on FB, and counting), but my friends have decreased. In my twenties, I hung out in big groups, engaging in planned activities and small talk. Now, I want to spend more individual time with a smaller group of people (the smaller, the better). I don’t want to make small talk in big groups, but big talks in small groups. Also, the people I identified with at some point (because they were school buddies or college mates), I no longer have anything in common with them. They have been replaced by a newer set of friends, definitely smaller in number (and getting smaller every year). A handful of close friends have passed, making me realize that death is no longer something that happens to the older people, people my parents or grandparents knew. Even people my age can die (and why not? I think that I am almost done with half my life).  Most importantly, I am realizing that it is so important to have a critical mass of friends you can meet on a regular basis at any given point of time. Because that is what helps the extroverts get more extroverted, and the introverts like me to be sufficiently engaged. Instead, that critical mass of friends is almost going to hit single digit numbers for me, as a result of which, the introvert in me is getting more introverted, retreating into a shell. They even have a cool term for this. It is called the Matthew effect.

The other interesting thought is understanding whether your interests earn you friends, or whether your friends earn you interests. I have done both in the past. For example, I have made friends because of my interests (acting in plays, dancing, learning music). However, I have also pursued new interests (like watching Thai horror movies or learning Korean) because of friends. I guess one way out of this ordeal would be to keep doing the things I love doing (joining a dance group, doing Zumba, traveling, and so on), and hoping that new friendships develop organically this way. Or maybe I should just move to Seattle. That is one place where I will never have to worry about not having enough friends, or not having enough things to do in the weekends.

P.S.: I shudder to think how much more I will be ranting in my fifties.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Germinating- Part 3

I came here on a 12 month contract that was first a four month offer, and recently became a 15-month gig. This means that I should be applying for my next job. But I have decided not to. When I moved to Germany, a feeble voice inside me grew stronger. It is that inner voice that somehow gets drowned amid noise, external conditioning, and safety plans.

            Instead, I am spending my energies writing grants, asking for money so that I can design and implement my own projects here. The phase following a PhD is one of the most fertile phases, where you are getting new ideas, and are ready to do independent research. However, again and again, I find myself working for others, fulfilling other people’s dreams of tenure and success. Most people become professors a few years into completing their PhD. I am still looking for that position. So instead of waiting, I decided to already start my own research. It is a big risk in a way, and failing only means being unemployed, and going back to living, even though temporarily, with parents. However, taking this leap of faith is a big philosophical shift I am making. I want to stop chasing jobs, friends, relationships, and opportunities. Something feels dishonest about it. I just want to keep doing what I love doing, and allow things to develop organically. The message of the debit card and the advance salary was not lost on me. When my debit card did not work in Germany, I could have panicked and called the US, even asking friends to wire me money. It felt scary to be poor and hungry. For the first four days, I understood what being hungry felt like. I have never felt food insecurity in life. If anything, I ate more than I should. But for the first four nights, I had one boiled egg and one potato for dinner, with some salt and pepper powder G had the intuition to pack for me. Food has never felt tastier, and I hungrily lapped up the last morsel. And just when I was wondering how I will go hungry for the rest of the month, I got my salary in advance. So my plan is to stop micromanaging my life, and let go.

            During my second week, I had a rather terrifying experience at the grocery store. It overwhelmed me to see that everything, including the overhead aisle descriptions, were in German. There were things that I could see and identify (like fruits and vegetables), but it took me forever to find salt and sugar and oil. There were a dozen varieties of body lotions, and there was no way for me to figure out what to buy. When you see the picture of a mountain, with some strange German word written, it could contain anything- salt, cigarettes, or drugs. I realized that I did not even read anything while grocery shopping in the US. I instinctively knew that the blue box is Morton Salt and oil was in aisle number 5. I was later told that an app called Word Lens translates words. It is free, and you don’t even need an internet connection to use it. Five months, and I still feel disoriented in the grocery stores, especially while looking for something new. However, I am mostly navigating from memory and experience.

            During the first few months, people helped me with everything, from setting up auto rent pay to choosing health insurance plans, finding me staplers, schedule for gym classes, maps of the city, and even translating things for me. The tech support guy at work installed Microsoft Office in English, but the acrobat reader was in German. So I tried to work my way around, remembering things from muscle memory. It felt a little sad not having someone to celebrate a little milestone with, when I got my first salary in Euros. Europe is a good combination of the first world experiences of the US, while offering some of the comforts of the Indian way of living. Buses run on time, restrooms are clean, and the quality of research is quite good. People walk and bike more, eat together, and there is more of social bonding. I feel like a child once again, slowly learning new words, the German map, and the names and capitals of the German states.

            I love Germany, and miss the US at the same time. I was reflecting on why leaving a place is sometimes so painful, and getting used to a new place so overwhelming. Perhaps our senses get used to doing familiar things in a repetitive pattern.  However, my brain is slowly, but surely beginning to make associations and connections, like figuring out which bus to take to reach faster. The first few months, I feared getting lost on the streets, and never went anywhere beyond the seven bus stops from work to home. I mostly walked in straight lines, without taking turns, so that finding my way back was easier. Remembering a name like Madison Avenue is easy, but not a name like Samwerstraβe, which sounds very different from how it is spelled. I live by the water, so I always tried to remember where I was with respect to the water. My brain is mapping new visual imageries, directions, street names, and signs. It makes me realize that most of the things we do every day happens at the reflex level. When you need to take Exit 10 and you see the sign, you do not start counting from one to ten to see what ten sounds like. But now that I am learning numbers, it is not so easy for me to remember that drei means three and zehn means ten. So I start counting from one, somewhat in a rote fashion.  

            All this has taken me back to my experience of learning languages as a child. Remember how as children, first we learnt basic words? A for apple, B for boy. And there would be big colorful charts of fruits and vegetables hanging all around the walls in classrooms. Now I know why. The more you see them, the more you remember them through visual associations. That is why teachers made you repeat things hundred times a day. Ma said that I could recite Bengali poems verbatim as a kid, even before I understood the language. That is because I had memorized the phonetics. When you say pomegranate in English, I can instantly visualize it. But if you say Granatapfel, the visualization is not so easy. My effort to make sense of the German language has renewed my appreciation for the immense cognitive processing children are constantly doing, breaking down complex information into simpler one, and retrieving it again to make sense of the world.

            A colleague once asked what German sounds like, and I said, “akhh schw akhh schw”. When I did not know Tamil, it sounded like “andre pandre wangopongo”.  Once you know a language, you cannot undo the knowing. So I will never be able to tell what Bengali sounds like, because it is not possible for me to do that level of macroscopic deconstruction anymore. I am slowly learning some German key words, but learning the language will happen at two levels. One, identifying the words by reading them, and two, being able to say it the German way, and not the English way. I know danke (thank you) and tschus (good bye). I know zucker and salz (sugar and salt). At the mensa (cafeteria), I look for huhn or hähnchen (chicken), and eat using a löffel, gabel, and messer (spoon, fork, and knife). And einbahnstraße (one way street) is a pretty cool word (ein means one, bahn means vehicle, straße means road, the ß signs means double S). However, after all this German hearing every day, I cannot wait to come home and watch movies in English. Hearing American English feels like such a luxury now.

            I am slowly beginning to get used to the smaller spaces and things. The roads, cars, kitchen appliances, trash cans, and food portions that seemed so much smaller at first do not seem that small anymore. Every day, I am in awe of how beautiful this place is. Seasons are changing, the trees are shedding and sprouting leaves, and the water looks different every day. One day, I told myself that I could live here forever if the salary was better and the work contract longer. Then I checked myself, remembering that love for anything, people or places, happens not just “because of” something, but also “despite” other things. You cannot love a place one day if you start earning more or become famous there. We often confuse the cause and effect sequence. Love happens despite the limitations. I think living in different places makes us wiser, not just because we get to sightsee and learn more new things outside us. It also opens our eyes to who we are, what lies within us, and what we are capable of doing. Living here is making me more aware of myself- my strengths and weaknesses, how I respond to stressful situations, make sense of things, and how I use my instincts to navigate around. If I had never left Calcutta, I would have never known who I could be.  

            Despite everything promising, I still sometimes have bad days, when I do not sleep well, wake up disoriented, and miss everything my life in the last few years was. I still haven’t found an English library, and terribly miss reading and smelling books. After feeling like an Indian in the US all these years, I now feel like an American in Germany. The Nebraskan landscape had seriously deprived my visual senses of beauty. But for better or for worse, it was still a known country. Now, my life feels just like a huge blob of boundless, formless, and rootless energy. Being rootless can be empowering and exciting, but being rootless can also feel very scary.

            Bank accounts. Keys. Address, telephone number, and email. Campus card. Bus pass. I have slowly grown some roots here the last few months. I have stopped recreating my Indian life here by hanging out mostly with fellow Indians (something I always did in the US). There was nothing wrong with that, but it isolated me from the more local experiences. A young Indian man from the city recently contacted me on a social networking site, writing, “Hi, myself [name] this side” (It is an Indian-English way of saying that I am so and so from such and such place). And I smiled, telling myself that I am not taking sides anymore.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Germinating- Part 2

The next day, the departmental secretary picked me on time, as promised. I met my supervisor, who in turn introduced me to the rest of the department. She told me about a cake and coffee party later in the day to welcome me. The first thing I noticed was being the only non-German, non-White member in the department. Everyone spoke English, but their English is quite different. It sounds cute in a way, because people often pause to think and use the right word. The people in my department walk to the mensa (cafeteria) every day to have lunch together. Later in the afternoon, people take a tea/coffee break and chat over cookies. People sit and eat, and don’t grab a sandwich or gobble or nibble or eat alone in their office, unless there are deadlines. Someone bought me lunch the first day, since it was cheaper buying it using a card. At the mensa, thousands of people from the campus sat together and ate. Everyone was running around to make sure I was comfortable. Later that day, someone brought me a piece of plum cake, someone made me tea, and everyone came and introduced themselves, telling me how excited they are to have me here.

I met my adviser’s secretary later that day, who was soon to become an important person in my life. She gave me bus maps and printouts of bus schedules to and from home. Later that day, she took me to the grocery store and helped me buy milk, eggs, fruits and some vegetables. My US debit card was not working for mysterious reasons, and she loaned me a few hundred euros. Since I could only carry so much without a car, my first buy in Germany were a liter of milk, one dozen eggs, four bananas, three potatoes, and three onions. From there, she rode the bus with me, and walked me to my home, so that I have no difficulty taking the bus on my own. Since I was so new in this country, I was constantly comparing Germany with the US. If the previous night was about how spacious US is and how cramped Germany felt, today was about how helpful the Germans are. I could never imagine a departmental secretary in the US taking me grocery shopping and riding the bus with me after work. The next day, she once again drove me to the International Center, the city hall (everyone new in town need to register there), and to three different banks to help me open an account (you need a prior appointment with a bank to open an account, and we did not know that). Knowing that I am having difficulties accessing money, she even arranged to pay me my salary in advance. Three days in the country and I was to get my first paycheck. I was filled with gratitude. Not too long ago, someone had deducted two days of my salary because I needed to go to Houston to renew my passport, and they refused to let me work on the weekends to make up for lost time. I hope that they are richer, now that they have my two days of salary. Perhaps the law of conservation of kindness says that there is infinite kindness in this world, and when someone has been unkind to you, you will soon meet someone who will go out of their way to be kind.

I know that my stay in Germany is going to be very different from my life before this, and there is no point comparing things. Last August, I was driving all over the US, visiting every place my heart desired. And now, I am so far away, farther than a phone call or a Whatsapp message. I have spent six months of my life without a car or a cell phone connection. Most of my close friends are now people from the previous chapter of my life. Yes, Germany does not feel like the US. It is smaller and cramped, and I struggle to move freely in my room without hitting my knees here and there, because I have managed to acquire a lot of clothes in these few years, a lot definitely by non-US standards. The laundry machines are one-fourth the size and equally expensive, and I am forced to do laundry more frequently. I terribly miss Chipotle and Netflix and driving to national parks and proudly showing off my national park pass. Life feels like living in a foreign movie without subtitles. I ache to go back to the US every day, not as a tourist, but with gainful employment. I don’t even know how many light years I am away from getting a faculty job. I have hundreds of friends in that country, and now, I cannot even pick up a phone and hear their voice, or show up at their place Friday night. The German keyboard is different, with the Y and the Z interchanged, and with many other new keys that confuse me every day. 

However now, I can watch the sunrise from my room every day, and take long walks by the water, watching the huge ships that arrive from Scandinavia. The Bainbridge island ferries are tiny compared to these ships. I can travel to dozens of European countries without needing a visa. Theoretically, I can have breakfast in Germany, lunch in Denmark, and dinner in Sweden. I can learn German, learn to live on less, and live a more active life without a car. I can walk and bike (we have dedicated bike lanes everywhere) and take the train more frequently. I can learn the map of Germany, and get used to the different units of measurements, buying milk in liters and measuring lengths in meters. I can revel in glory that now I have worked in three different continents. I can enjoy eating in proper china, and never use disposable plates and spoons (disposable plates and spoons are a no-no here). Most importantly, I can learn to stop looking back to see what I don’t have, and instead, look ahead to see the whole new world that awaits me.

Honestly, I did not choose this life. This life chose me. This job chose me. My life is not perfect here. But I am trying my best. Because no matter where I am, I choose to be happy, productive, and thankful for this brand new chapter of my life.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Germinating- Part 1

In two weeks, I will be completing six months of living in Germany. There is so much that has happened in these few months. As I look back, the initial few weeks seems like a distant memory, life from a different era. This month also marks the first anniversary when my ex-adviser in the US told me that my contract will not be renewed. One thing led to another after that, and seven months later, I eventually ended up in a small port city on the northern fringes of Germany.

My earliest memories of the first few days in Germany go back to sitting in my room and staring blankly at the water in front of me. I did that a lot, introspecting and looking back as the huge ships crawled by in front of my window. It was raining the day I landed, bags and suitcases and all, and in a way, it felt like I had never left Seattle. By the time I was done with my ten and a half hour long flight and another tight connection of an hour long flight, I had lost my sense of time. My immigration took no more than two minutes. Coming from the US, the concept of a hassle-free immigration was so new to me. There is something written in my visa in German that I do not understand. It made the officers at the airport say, “Oh, you are a scientist?” I realized that it was in my best interests to say yes, rather than argue that I am not a scientist the way you would imagine a formidable looking person in white lab coats and glasses mixing colored chemicals in the lab. So I lifted my head, flexed my shoulders, and said, “Yes, I am a scientist”. And that was it. An immigration process that took all of two minutes, and I heard the golden words: “Welcome to Germany.”

This was the beginning of a brand new chapter in my life, at age 33, after living in the US for 8 years and never imagining that I would leave that home.  

A colleague from the department was waiting at the airport to welcome me, with his shy smile and shiny new rental Mercedez Benz. As we drove through the Autobahn (a freeway without speed limits), he confessed that his English is not so good. After a good 70 minute drive during which I spotted a spectacular sunset, a rainbow, and two IKEAs, he dropped me to my guest house. He had picked up the keys already, and as I entered my room, I wondered where the rest of my apartment is. All I saw was one room, smaller than my bedroom in Nebraska. I tried opening the two doors, hoping that there will be more rooms. One led to a tiny but very clean bathroom, without a bathtub. And the other one led outside, to where my colleague’s car was parked. He asked me if I had cash, and when I said no, he gave me a 50 euro bill and disappeared, not before telling me that the department secretary would pick me up at 11 the next morning.

After he left, I collapsed on my bed, more out of the initial shock of feeling like an American leaving America for the first time, and discovering how tiny the rest of the world is. This room reminded me of my first dorm in Seattle, exactly the same size, furnished, with a common kitchen and a view of Mount Rainier during a few lucky days. I noticed that I was sitting on a twin bed, something I haven’t slept in since I left that dorm in 2007. Every year, my apartments got bigger, and so did my bed. Something in me felt so defeated, I opened my suitcase and changed into my Google tee shirt and track pants.

Slowly, I started noticing things around me. I guess when you ask for single housing, the Europeans take you literally. There was a tiny dining table at one corner that had exactly one chair. My laptop has a wider screen compared to the television set. A set of drawers, one book shelf, one table, one chair, and a couple of lamps. Very functional. I stepped out of my room to the common kitchen. Everything was very neatly organized and labeled. I saw my room number on the fridge, freezer, and spice racks. I was to share a fridge with four other people. There were plates, cups, bowls, and glasses, all in twos. My stomach was screaming, and I had no energy to step out in the dark in an unknown city with a 50 euro bill and hunt for food. Thankfully, G had packed me an apple and a packet of biscuits, and there was a piece of cheese I had not eaten earlier from my flight, which was my dinner for the first night. I somehow managed to set up the internet, only to realize that there was no wi-fi in the building. I had high hopes of using my iPhone to stay in touch with friends using Whatsapp and Viber. Little did I know that my shiny red iPhone, which cost me quite some money because I had to break the contract when I left the US, would be reduced to an alarm clock. Later when I lay in bed, I remembered asking everyone and their mother (including my mother) to visit me in Germany. I wondered how that will happen, given the size of my room. I browsed through some photos of friends and their kids on my phone and involuntarily, a few drops of tears fell on the pillow. The last thing I remembered was asking myself not to cry, because if crying made me hungry, there is no way I could find more food. Those were my initial few hours in Germany.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Job Interview

Whenever I have distanced myself from the seemingly monumental events in life, everything has looked comical from a distance. I was recently in India for a job interview (never thought I would do that, especially after living abroad for 9 years and loving every bit of it). I realized that I was missing the black box with the knowhow of the workforce there. I no longer knew about the work life there, how much people earn, and who the important people are. So this was my opportunity to understand the job market, and the way interviews happened. The eyebrow-raising experiences started no sooner had I reached the European airport wherefrom I would catch my connecting flight to India. 

It seems like competitiveness is in-built in the Indian gene, even for those who are now the proud owners of foreign passports. As I waited for the flight at the gate, I observed that 80% of people around me were Indians, the rest mostly Europeans. The moment the person made an announcement for only Zone A members to board, the entire 80% Indians belonging to the zones A, B, C, and D jumped in and stood in line. The Europeans looked like they did not care much. Perhaps it has happened in the past that a plane left without taking all its passengers.

By the end of the flight, I was tired and irritable. I hadn't slept a bit the night before. The flight was long, the layover longish, the food insufficient, the leg space cramped, and the temperature freezing. This was no vacation, there was no home cooked food, and I would have to figure everything out once I landed. I realized that I was whining and complaining. I was grumpy. I was almost sleeping while walking. The flight had landed 10 minutes before time. Millions of people from another flight that had landed the same time as ours were running past me, bumping into me, inadvertently hitting my knees with the corners of their suitcases. It was 4:45 am.

Standing at the immigration line among millions of people, I heard a certain intriguing conversation:

Man A: Bhaiya, kya yeh Air India ka immigration line hai?
Man B: Pataa nahi. Mera to US passport hai.

I stood there, trying to figure the correlation between the two sentences. I constantly felt pushed forward by my heavy backpack, only to realize that people do not keep distance from one another in a line. Although I spent the first part of my life this way, I had forgotten the essential skills to survive in India. I was just whining like the many NRIs I dislike, who are constantly complaining about India. I turned behind to see not one person, but a volley of people. Perhaps an alien from Mars would feel less disoriented than I did during my first few hours there.

The next four days were packed with excitement of the highest degree. The drill consisted of a job talk (an hour long presentation), followed by a personal interview. I think I am a lot more observant than I used to be, so every two minutes, I was noticing something that amused me. The high traffic noise levels on campus (situated right by the main road), how natural ventilation still ruled (compared to air conditioned rooms), how I was sweating already while it was freezing in Germany, and so on. Anyway, I have summarized ten of the many things that happened during the interview.

One: Ghar ki murgi is worth a lot more here.  

67% of the candidates were alumni or currently working in the same institute. I know this, since we could watch each other’s presentations (many universities in the west do not allow it). It seems like inbreeding is rampant in Indian universities, even the top ones, which is something frowned upon in the schools I went to. If this had happened to me in the US, I would be living in a nice little condo in Seattle or Washington DC right now. I see the advantages of both. When you spend time and money training someone and building a working relationship over the years, you want to employ them. However, US universities (the ones I know of at least) come from a different mindset. Letting your students go to find a job elsewhere helps them get diverse experiences, and increases the overall diversity of any institution. There is a reason marrying into your family is genetically frowned upon for evolutionary reasons. Not in the academic kingdom in India it looks like.

Two: Do you have questions? Wait, we don’t care for them.  

During my interview, I was surrounded by 12-15 professors sitting in the shape of a horseshoe magnet, while I sat at the center. Initially, they gave me a choice to sit at the center or by the corner with the other professors. Since this was my show, I was going to be at the center. I did not tell them this, but they remarked how brave I was, and someone even snickered. The interview went on for about an hour, maybe more, since I lost track of time. They asked me a lot of questions. However, not once did they ask me if I had questions for them. I had prepared my own set of questions to ask, the job expectations, the focus on research versus teaching, the funding structure, and so on. “Do you have any questions?” is something I have heard everywhere in the US- in classes, job interviews, and so on. In fact, not having questions is severely frowned upon, and people do their homework to ask intelligent questions. I have been severely criticized by my adviser too often for not asking enough questions. Asking questions shows that you have done your homework, and you are capable of critical thinking. But my perception of the Indian interview is still the same where I left it a decade ago (the one for my first job was back in 2005). People do not care about your questions. They want you to be shy, afraid, and take orders, rather than ask questions. While sitting at the center and making eye contact with everyone did not perturb me a bit, everyone was wondering why I was not cowering.

Three: I already have an answer, and your job is to figure out what that answer is.  

In an interview at this level, people usually ask open-ended questions. These are questions that do not necessarily have one correct answer, and how well you defend your answer distinguishes you from the rest. The interviewers asked me open ended questions alright. But right into my interview, I realized a key point. When someone asked you a question, they already had an answer in their mind. Your job was to guess that answer by some mind reading. It often happened that I started responding to a question, only to be stopped and led in a different direction, because my answer was not what the person had in mind. So much for open-ended questions. Let me give you a funny analogy. Let’s say someone asked me, “What color shirt was the man walking by you in the morning wearing?” Now even if you were observant enough to notice that the man was wearing a brown shirt, the interviewer might have the answer blue in mind. So as you start reasoning your answer, the interviewer might throw a strange bone your way, saying something like, “But what color is the sky?” This question has no relationship whatsoever with the previous question, but has the answer the interviewer wants to hear. You might get a little creative and say that the sky is red, orange, blue, or black, depending on the time of the day. But this analogy makes him angry, because this shows you can think, and perhaps think more than he does. For every open-ended question they asked me (questions about designing a study, designing an intervention, framing policy, and not necessarily what color shirt the man was wearing), they already had the “right answer” in mind. My challenge was to guess that answer. It did not matter what answers or ideas I had, and how creative I could get. It so happened that at one point, someone got really frustrated and said, “You are not answering my question. This is the answer I have in mind.” Any further conversation or reasoning was useless.

Four: “Grant”ing a wish.  

I was not aware that grant writing is not considered one of the coveted skills for a position of this kind here. Having seen cut throat competition for getting grants from the NSF and the NIH, this was news to me. I was trying to direct the conversation to the two grants that I have applied for, listed in my vita. At some point, someone got irritated and said, “Forget grant writing. What else can you bring?” I realized then that some part of the puzzle was missing. I eventually found out that I was right. Competitive grant funding was not considered important where I was interviewing at, even though it is a research institution. Everyone who writes a grant gets the money. I was not sure if this is good news or bad news. Competition ensures quality control, and that people do not waste time and money studying unimportant things. It was like being trained to be a Mughlai chef, and going to a five-star hotel to interview and realize that biryani is not a part of their menu.

Five: Sartorial elegance.

It was interesting to observe what the interviewers and the interviewees wore. First of all, I do not understand why so many people wear clothes a few sizes bigger. Let me burst the bubble, it does not hide your obesity. It’s not that you are in your teens and still growing (unless you account for lateral growth too, which perhaps answers my question). It’s not that I haven’t seen sharply dressed people in other fields in India. Just not in academia. Oversized salwar kameez, and running shoes to go with them (someone told me that it is the typical Punjabi auntie look). Formal trousers and running shoes. Dupattas, which no matter when present or absent, look weird. Tight slacks that end above the ankle and show socks. Pink shirts. Kurta pajama and chappals. An interviewee wore white formal shirt, trousers, and tie, and while this is great, he also wore a red jacket to mar the look. I do not claim to be an expert in dressing. But this was a job interview, not a carnival or Halloween. I wore a simple starched white shirt, black trousers and black suit, and felt like the most overdressed person.

Six: I was in the US too, you naïve and stupid interviewee.

The fact that you studied in the US might be held against you, especially if the person interviewing you could not make it. Given the nature of my field, I had to bring up the US and German references once in a while (social science is very context-driven, and the research problems vary across countries). I mean, no shame in admitting where you studied. While explaining how to address a particular research problem, I remarked that student grades are never openly displayed in the US, and unless someone tells you their grades, you can never know. So I never knew the grades of my classmates, and focused more on competing with myself and not the others. I must have hit on a raw nerve somewhere, because a youngish faculty sharply interjected, “I have been to the US too, it does not happen like this and you are wrong.” Wow. That was some rudeness. But when the “jobgiver” says that “You are wrong”, it is perhaps a good idea to shut up. (This is another interesting thing. In the US, no one will openly tell you that you are wrong. It reminded me of my university days in India where professors did not bat an eyelid to tell you how wrong, stupid, or worthless you are). Other than this singular episode, I kept hearing many a sentences from senior professors that started with, “When I was in Michigan in 1965 ….”, “When I was a scholar in Germany in the sixties ….”, “When I was visiting New York….”. Now these sentences might not have any context or relevance to the ongoing discussion. It is acting Asrani in Sholay, and being the angrezon ke zamaane mein jailor. It is their way of letting you know that you are not the only person who went to the US.

Seven: Forget the future. We still believe in history.  

The questions asked to me were mostly to test what I did not know, and not what I knew. It focused on the limitations (even calling it weaknesses), and not the strengths. No one pointed out what I can add to the department. Everyone told me what I do not have. No one wants to see what you can build. They just want to see what you cannot build. I cannot justify how someone looked at my vita, went back to the year 2001 when I was studying biology, and started asking me content-questions from then. Not your typical open-ended questions, but very subject-specific question. Can you give me an example of this in evolution? What follows mutation and genetic drift? I was aghast. At one point, I told them that it would perhaps be more fruitful if they focused on my more recent qualifications, since the job did not require specific knowledge of biology per se. But here, a biology professor might have looked into my CV and decided to test my knowledge. It came as a shock all the more because I do not remember taking a closed book exam since I started my PhD. The factual answers, everyone can find the answers to.  So the focus was always on critical and creative thinking. But most of the questions I was asked here were nitpicky, fact-based questions.

Eight: Manpower versus machine power.

I have observed this generally in India. A lot of people are employed in positions that do not matter. Although my friend reasoned that this is how you address unemployment, this was not very apparent to me at first. We went to a restaurant, and three people were hired just to open the door, salute you, and hold the door. In my opinion, people can open their own doors (however, three people found employment this way). Similarly here, there was a constant volley of people moving in and out of the interview room, serving tea and coffee, serving biscuits, serving “tiffin” to the faculty in the middle of an ongoing interview or talk, which was very distracting. I am coming from the perspective of not one, but two countries I have lived in other than India. There is a well-stocked kitchen with tea bags and coffee and milk and sugar. People get up, move their ass, go heat a pot of water, and make their own tea and coffee. They even clean up after themselves. You do not hire a gang of people to constantly serve you food and beverages. It was very distracting, taking interview questions, only to have the committee room’s door open and someone ask from behind, “Upma khayenge sir?” (Will you eat upma?)

Nine: We have casteism here too.  

Although we were on our own for breakfast, we were invited for a huge spread of lunch and dinner (vegetarian, which brought back earlier memories of working at a Marwari school. I had almost forgotten that workplace rules can actually dictate what you can eat, or cannot eat). The way I see it, lunches and dinners at meetings and conferences (not to mention happy hours and drink sessions) are actually avenues for people to network and socialize professionally. The uptight, formal environment at meetings and interviews make many uncomfortable, and these food and drink sessions are for people to ease in. In this case, I was wrong. Sure, we were invited for dinner, but dinner did not mean socializing, networking, or getting to know the faculty better. The two groups of faculty and interviewees sat separately in two different corners of the dining room. The faculty talked and laughed and joked among themselves, while the interviewees made nervous, quiet conversation with one another. There was no interaction. It was a plain and simple- “Come have your dinner and leave” affair.

Ten: If you aren’t good at filling forms, you do not deserve this job.  

The sheer amount of forms to fill, paperwork, and signatures baffled me. Getting into the campus needed paperwork and signatures. Getting out of the campus needed more paperwork. Getting internet required more forms, with someone actually asking me to go get a faculty’s signature, else he cannot validate it (and to think that I was new on campus and had no idea who this faculty was, and needed internet only for two days). Someone came to drop me because I had a suitcase. The first guard must have taken pity on me and just asked me to sign. Soon, the second guard came running, reprimanding the first one for not taking signatures of the people with me, and perhaps every pet, squirrel, and fly that entered the campus. Asking for a ground floor room instead of a first floor one (since there was no elevator and I had a heavy suitcase and a recent case of lower back pain) earned me more disapproving glances and paperwork, until I got frustrated and asked the guard to lift my suitcase and see how heavy it was. There were three separate forms I had to fill out (with a pen, and not online) before taking the interview, where they asked me irrelevant questions like “father/husband/guardian’s name”, past salary in the last five jobs, and so on. I had to provide a passport sized picture, not knowing if I am actually getting the job. I can understand Amitabh’s frustration in Deewar, asking Shashi Kapoor to get the signature of all those people who had maligned him and his dad. The system lives on forms, signatures, time logs, and information no one has any business of knowing. On that note, I sneaked out of the guest house at night, to spend time with my school friend, and come back the next morning before the interview. As I was reentering the gate at 8 am, I was stopped by the guard, asking me in the local language, “Aren’t you the one who left at 11 pm last night?” Another one from last night had asked me when I am coming back, a question I had refused to answer. I think these questions were not part of the protocol, but the guards got a strange sense of power, knowing when random people left and reentered the campus. I haven’t answered questions like “Where are you going?” and “When will you be back” in a decade, and do not plan to answer them anytime.

I guess navigating your way in India, and getting things done takes different skills. The idea would be to not take things personally. It is a chaotic system undoubtedly, but the system can be tamed. For example, I saw how the paperwork and signatures decreased as familiarity increased, and how smiling and making small talk with the cooks actually earned me brownie points, since they started asking me if the food is to my liking, and served me extra helpings. So when I should be networking with the faculty during dinner, I was making small talk with the cooks, and getting more food. It is a funny system, but definitely something you get the hang of soon, especially if you grew up here. Sure, the lines are longer, the bathrooms smellier, and I was surprised how my room reeked of odonil and naphthalene. But once you move past the sweat and dust and cobwebs and naphthalene balls, the system can actually be controlled. Somewhat.

I never got the job. A part of me is hugely relieved that I do not have to make a decision, wait, or relocate. I just got here, and am immensely enjoying the European chapter of my life. More on that later.