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.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

Stuff that memories are made of

            Today, I completed exactly a month of leaving the US. As much as I love my new place, I wondered why I am missing the US so much. When you ask such questions in solitude, the universe gives you answers. I realized that happiness and sorrow do not necessarily exist in series, but can coexist in parallel. Just because you are happy about a new chapter does not mean that you will not be sad about the conclusion of the previous chapter. So I let myself feel the happiness and the sadness at the same time. I did not check my feelings. One needs to feel what they are feeling, and be done with it. You don’t necessarily have to do anything to rectify the situation, but just feel the feelings and be done with it. So I allowed myself to do that.

            To crystallize my thoughts some more, my stuff arrived today, exactly one month into my move here. Two suitcases with all my stuff, and a third suitcase that G had painstakingly packed with food. Spices. Snacks. Things that I loved eating. And when I opened those suitcases, I realized something. That our memories may exist in the mind, but they are created in the body first. I had specifically asked G to send me some specific brands of soaps and lotions, because I have always used them. Sniffing those soaps and lotions brought back so many memories. I unpacked my books, diaries, and notes, and when I touched them, my body exactly knew how it felt touching them. What came back are memories of my old apartment where I used to lie in bed on weekends and read those books. Bowls. Knives. The familiar feel of my sweaters and coats. When I dabbed some perfume, that smell reminded me of driving to work or going out for dinner with friends, wearing that perfume. I opened some old letters to see the familiar writings of friends, which brought back even more memories. Just like when I listen to songs, every song brings back memories of where I heard it, who I heard it with, and what was I doing then.

            Memories might exist in the mind, but it is the bodily feelings that create them. The senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Just like the smell of my hands after peeling garlic reminds me of Sunday lunches of steaming rice and goat curry in Calcutta. Or the smell of coffee, that reminds me of Seattle. The smell of Irish Spring soaps might not mean anything to you, but right now, they are sitting in my closet, filling up my senses with my initial memories of the US. The mind does not forget these memories because the body hasn’t forgotten. Our senses get used to doing familiar things in a repetitive pattern. The familiar taste as I bite into a Chipotle burrito. The familiar sight of the green freeway signs in English. The familiar sounds of listening to the NPR radio every morning, or listening to certain familiar voices when you dial a phone number. The familiar feel of the bed, the car’s steering, or the phone’s touch screen. It is this familiarity that substantially reduces cognitive overload, the energy spent to figure things out, because things are mapped into a pattern in your head. What is going on for me right now is some active, heavy duty deconstruction and reconstruction. Like new tissue replacing old tissue. New muscle memory replacing old muscle memory. New sights and smells and sounds and tastes and sensations are replacing the older ones. I guess there are two kinds of missing something. One, where the loss engulfs you and consumes you, and does not let you move forward. And the other where your sense of loss doesn’t stop you from embracing whatever the future offers, and while you paint your new life, old memories remain as smudged sketches, a happy reminder of the past and a hopeful possibility of the future.

            So as I build newer memories in Europe, I am savoring the remnants of my older memories from the US. They will fade with time, I know they will. Even the memories of people, their voices, and how they look fade with time. New data replaces old data. New technology replaces old technology. What I am caught in right now is kind of a limbo, an in-between, transition zone. But all said and done, I am glad that the suitcases made their way here fine, just like I did.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Clueless in Seattle

I am in Seattle this entire September. It is not even Christmas break or April Fools’ Day. The last time I was here this long was in 2010, right before I was moving to Virginia to start a PhD. This time however, I did not take a flight to Seattle. I drove, all the way from Nebraska. Actually I did not drive directly to Seattle either. I took a rather circuitous route. I first went south, to Houston. Then I went north, to Chicago. Then I drove east, to Washington DC. From there, I drove west, to Seattle. I still think that I am reasonably sane. I just wanted to drive all four directions. Alone, in my car. And I did that. Three weeks and 8,000 miles later, I reached Seattle. I met many friends on my way, 42 to be exact. I made 10 new friends as well. For years, I have seen people do cross-country road trips, creating their trajectories using Google maps, and posting them on Facebook. Someone once did a smiley trip, driving from Boston, dipping down to Texas, and going up to Seattle, drawing a smiley on the US map. Then someone drove four corners, from Maine to Florida, to southern California and Seattle. There is no dearth of crazy people. I think I have finally enrolled my name in that list too. It takes you 8,000 miles to drive from Washington DC to India, via Europe. That is how far I went.

I had a lot of realizations in this road trip. It is only natural, when you are on your own, sitting for hours inside a car, doing nothing but driving. The music keeps you distracted initially, and so do the landscapes. But there is only so much music you can hear and so much scenery you can see. When you have had your fill, you go back to thinking. About life, about people, about the sky and the ground, and everything in between. About the past and the future, and everything in between as well. So I thought about a lot of things. And realized that I have nothing much to show in life. Certainly not if I held out my social checklist and pen, trying to check boxes.

Of all the 42 odd friends I met, I found a pattern. The people who were graduate students, doing their PhD four years ago now definitely have a well-paying job and a wife, a car, if not a home. And the people who had a job and a wife and an apartment then now have a house, a few kids and a pregnant wife, a BMW or an SUV, and a permanent residence in the US. The F1s have moved to H1Bs, the H1Bs have changed to green cards. The sedans have become SUVs. The rented apartments have become self-owned houses. The singles are all parents now, single or not. People have progressed, and have much to show from this checklist of achievements. They have run marathons, taken the ice bucket challenge, climbed Mount Rainier, created their own photography website, and have at least visited Alaska, if not South America. And all I have to show is a PhD. An effing PhD on a topic no one cares about; not enough to help me get a faculty position anyway.

I know that I had never signed up for a traditional life by any standard. Predictability bored me. When people went one way, I wanted to go another way. In the mid-twenties, when my friends were preparing to get married, I was preparing to move to the US. Later when more friends were getting married, I was busy changing jobs, running analyses for my PhD, or traveling. When people were raising babies, I was taking salsa classes, performing in plays, and dancing on stage. And now that those friends are about to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, I am pretty much still where I started from. And this makes me realize that I have nothing much to show in life, except for hundreds of travel magnets and hundreds of friends I have collected over the years.

Do I regret it? No. Is it freaking me out? Maybe a little bit. Given a choice, would I live their lives? I don’t think so. For better or for worse, my journey has been my own, and I own it. But once in a while, I pause and wonder, is this what I wanted? Of course the constant Facebook updates of people living wonderful lives and eating gourmet food has a lot to do with this. At 33, I didn’t think that I would have no job stability, no stable source of income, no savings, no one to call a spouse or a partner or a sugar daddy, and would be so lost and clueless about where I am headed. I didn’t know that I would be living my life in one year contracts, changing jobs and going to new places every year. Who would I be, given a choice? Well, I would be a professor in Seattle, working at UW or Seattle U. Or I would be working for the UN, the WHO, or the World Bank. I would like to live in a little condo overlooking the bay, and Mount Rainier, sharing my life and living space with Mr. Pi (a mathematician and a fictional character in my head). Mr. Pi is also a professor in rocket sciences, a field that not many of us understand. I write academic papers in the day and fictional stories at night. We go hiking, biking, and sometimes indulge in late night desserts at Dilettante, or take a stroll by the Alki beach, marveling at the Seattle skyline.

But I don’t see myself anywhere close to these fictional dreams. Instead, there has been a little bit of a situation. You see, my life has been caught up in an intricate web of uncertainties. I thought that as people grow older, they become more stable, accomplished, and sure of themselves. But now I know that sometimes, people get lost, unable to find their way out. They see their friends zoom by them, and wonder what they could have done differently in life. So now, I suddenly find myself a little lost, with my close friends telling me, "I told you so." Not too long ago, when I was finishing my PhD, I thought that I would next be a professor at an American university. But none of that happened. I moved to Nebraska, spending the worst one year of my life in America. Three days ago, I sold my car, something that I was very deeply attached to. Tomorrow, I will complete my eight years of stay in the US. And in less than one month, I will start the next chapter of my life, in a new country, in fact, a new continent. 

I am moving to Europe.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Facebook Retro

If Facebook existed during my grandparents' or even parents’ time, this is what their walls would read like:  

1. Chitrahaar about to start in 10 minutes. Thank God it’s Wednesday! Where is my Rasna?

5 people liked it.
Comment: Did you check out Jitendra’s white shirt and white trousers and white shoes. Those 30-plus pills are working wonders.

2. So happy to get mommy's telegram today. Want to send her an inland letter soon.

33 people liked it.
Comment: Say pranaam to mataji.

3. Upgraded from a B&W television to a color television. Now the neighbors can come and watch the World Cup ’86 with us. So excited!

86 people liked it.
Comment: Maradona kicked ass and balls today.

4. We have a new member in the family now. A shiny new blue Bajaj scooter. Humara Bajaj!

10 people liked it.
Comment: Badhai ho!

5. Went to do grocery but forgot the bazaar ki thaili. Since plastic bags have not been invented yet, I came home empty handed.

2 people liked it.
No comments yet.

6. Off to watch the latest Amitabh-Rekha movie in our Humara Bajaj at the Gopi cinema hall. Multiplexes? What are those?

19 people liked it.
Comment: How were the tulip fields?

7. Nuclear family. Learnt a new concept today.

8 people liked it.
Comment: I learnt a new word too. Privacy.

8. Off to Puri for our honeymoon. Yipeee! Will visit the Jagannath temple too. (The average middle-class Bengali's travel destination those days mostly used to be Digha, Puri, or Darjeeling).

21 people liked it.
Comment: Have fun. Wink wink.

9. Went to pay a surprise visit to my friend but her door was locked from outside. So sad. I wish we had telephones.

14 people liked it.
No comments.

10. The day started with watching Rangoli, followed by breakfast of luchi torkari, and an hour long session of Ramayana. I love Sundays!

21 people liked it.
Comment: Hanuman kicked ass today!

11. Load shedding !! %#^%&^% Spent two hours in the darkness, listening to Akashvani.

2 people liked it.
Comment: Those bleddy mosquitoes sucked the blood out of me too!

12. Chitramaala airing. Friday night fun!

6 people liked it.
Comment: Can I come and watch? Our TV is not working. Low voltage here.

13. The milkman is diluting so much water in the milk these days. Have to talk to him tomorrow.

21 people liked it.
Comment: Ever heard of Mother Diary?
What? No!
Me neither.

14. That insufferable Mala-D advertisement is so embarrassing. It is so uncomfortable to sit and watch the evening news with the in-laws these days.

33 people liked it.
Comment: My three-year old has started singing the song!

15. Raju ke baapu, I miss you. Come back from Madras soon.

86 people liked it.
Comment: Awwwwww!!

And so on .....


Sunday, June 15, 2014

The dilemma of choice

A write up based on personal reflections.

In the year 1994, my father was transferred from a small town to a somewhat larger city a few hours away. Work being work, we had all decided to move with him. I was starting eighth grade, and my small school from the small town did not offer computer science as a subject then. But the bigger school that I was joining taught computer science as a compulsory subject from the sixth grade. Needless to say, my parents were worried.

When I joined the eighth grade, I started with collecting all the class notes, homework, and assignments worth two years. That was the first time I had ever typed on a computer. With the number of subjects we study in school, and the amount of things we learn, catching up on two years’ worth of learning was going to be a lot for me. I was neither terribly excited, nor discouraged. I just knew that I had to catch up. There was no other way out.

I put in a lot of hard work. Other than learning everything taught about Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) in school, the computer guy working in my father’s office recommended that I should join coaching classes. So I spent a hot summer going for computer classes in Link Road at 10 am four days a week during my 1.5 month long summer vacation. I got more exposure to the subject, more practice with working on a computer, and learnt about floppy discs and flow charts and binary code conversions. My performance in the first school exam was bad. I did not fail, but scored in the low sixties. By my next exam, I had moved up to the late eighties. Everyone was happy and relieved. At home, everyone saw it as a difficult situation that was overcome using hard work and interventions, a disaster prevented in due time. No one really saw it as a gateway to a wonderful career of possibilities.

I had enjoyed learning everything about computer science that year. When I moved to the ninth grade, we had to make a choice of taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father never interfered in what I should study, or how much I should study. My mother didn’t do it either. But in this particular case, she decided that I should study home science. She said that she would be able to help me with the subject, and since the ICSE (10th boards) would be my first important exam, I should do everything to get maximum marks, no matter what I decide to study. My ICSE performance would determine whether or not I was able to get into a good college and study science.

Had this happened now, I would have politely told her, no thank you, please let me decide things for myself. But 20 years back, I did not have much perspective in life. I am not sure what I was thinking back then, and I was not even a lazy student who wanted to score good marks using short cuts. I now realize that my mother’s motivation to push me to study home science was well-meant, but solely based on the fear that what if I don’t do well studying computer science, since I have missed out on two years’ worth of knowledge. My improving grades in school did not convince her enough. I was not too sure about what I wanted, and somewhere down the line, her fear might have rubbed off on me. For much to everyone’s surprise, I opted for home science.

Although we talk about all subjects being equally important, we usually have a pre-conceived notion of their hierarchical importance. In India, science is valued more than the humanities, and an engineering degree is valued more than a pure science degree. Let’s face it. No society is free of biases or stereotypes. These biases are mostly governed by our future usefulness to the society when we seek jobs, or even making ourselves more marketable in the marriage industry. I have a lot of female friends who got a master degree because that would upgrade their status from getting an engineer husband to getting an IIT-graduate working in the US. We don’t live in an ideal world. So back in school, we had a trend too. The hierarchical choices of subjects based on the brightness of the students were computer science, economics, and home science respectively. And much to everyone’s surprise, I chose home science. My mother must have considered offering coconuts to the local deity that day.

Honestly, I did not know what I wanted to study. I liked studying everything. I was doing well in school. But my mother’s fear somehow became more real than my own confidence in acing a subject. At age 14, I was being asked to make a decision which I was told would affect my career for the rest of my life. And I did not want to make mistakes. So the decision was clear.

Did I enjoy studying home science? I sure did. I learnt about cleaning, stain removal, first aid, and safety measures. For my practical classes, I was expected to polish metal, arrange flowers, and bake. My mother mostly helped me in those projects. I have enough reasons to believe now that she influenced me so that she could do half my assignments on my behalf, for her enjoyment. Force and motion and atoms and molecules, she did not understand so much.

My teachers were surprised about my decision. And so were my friends. I used to hang out with the “computer science” gang of students, and when the bell rang for class, they would often forget and wonder why I was not coming with them to the computer lab. I never had any associations about studying a “less challenging” subject. I was scoring in the nineties, getting help from my mother, and was enjoying hanging out with a new set of friends. I even passed the ICSE with flying colors, scoring in the higher nineties, and easily got admitted to the science stream after the tenth grade. For ISC (11th and 12th grades), my new school in Calcutta (we had moved once again) only had a choice between biology or computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics being compulsory for all science students. It became even easier to make my choice. Students who wanted to be doctors opted for biology, and the future engineers chose computer science. I didn’t know what I wanted to become, but biology was my default choice.

Twenty years ago, my mother had influenced my decision with the best of her intentions that I score maximum marks in the exams. So the short-term interests were served. But did it serve me long time? I am afraid not. For most of the things I learnt in those two years studying home science, I do not apply in my life anymore. I don’t arrange flowers, I use a washing machine to remove stains, and I learnt all my cooking after moving to the US. There is nothing I need for my home that I cannot Google and find out. I know my acids from my bases for home remedies, and what I don’t know, the internet knows. So I need nothing that I learnt then.

However, this decision permanently steered me away from a whole new world of possibilities, and closed the door to studying computer science. I could have grown up to become a computer scientist. I could have been working at the Mountain View office of Google. I could be writing codes and inventing languages for a living. I could be a computer science professor by now. I could be doing many things right now that I am not solely because I was never exposed to this field. In the purpose of serving the short-term interests of better grades, my long-term interests were screwed. Now that did not prevent me from moving to the US, getting a PhD or working as a researcher. But something that could be did not become, because I did not know any better. And it is a universally recognized fact that a degree in computer science increases your probability of getting a better paid job, having many more opportunities of employment, rubbing shoulders with some really smart people, and never having to worry about visa issues. I am not saying that I cannot learn whatever programming I need to learn now to get my job done. But it is too late for me to know how my life would be different if I had studied computer science as a subject in school.

I often tend to reflect on my life experiences to understand what could be done better. And from this incident, I have learnt that closing our heart and mind to learning something just because it may not serve our short term interests is wrong. You don’t take that structural equation modeling (SEM) class in graduate school because it is tough, and is not a requirement to graduate. However, will taking that course make you more marketable when you look for a job in future? Will it give you skills that your peers will not have? Will it open the doors to exploring newer research possibilities? The aim of learning something cannot be either good grades or graduating on time. But that perspective, that wisdom, I have gained at this age.

If life ever had an undo button, I know that right now, we would be back to 1995, sitting in the living room. I would tell my parents that I am graduating to the ninth grade soon, and will need to choose between taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father would look up from reading the newspaper and tell me that I should do what I think is the best. My mother would tell me that I should study home science so that she can help me with it. And I would smile, letting her know that I have decided to study computer science, and ask her not to be afraid about me failing.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Facebook Wall(Street) Journal

My daily dose of entertainment these days comes from the FB post I read on my feed one by one, without seeing who wrote them. It gives me a chance to snicker, while I wonder if loss of IQ has a correlation with the amount of time people spend on FB. This is of course after I have “unfollowed” many people in the last few months, because I do not have the mental bandwidth to go through all the garbage they spew. From romantic trips in Hawaii to theme weddings and babies sprouting teeth chewing on organic strawberries, I have seen it all. It is not so much the news that is distasteful to me as it is the self-aggrandizing way in which it is portrayed, that seems distasteful. On an average day, when I read my feed, it looks something like this (note that it is not what one person writes on their wall, but how different people writing different things appear on my wall):

Narendra Modi blah blah blah.

Having an awesome time in Uganda. Going to Botswana tomorrow.
[And why would I want to know that?]

Narendra Modi blah blah blah. Sonia Gandhi blah blah blah.

Production of India's Ambassador car suspended.

My darling son [insert name of baby] just ate an entire banana. Yipee!

Emma Watson graduates from Brown University.

Made goat curry and steamed pulao for lunch. Who wants to come?
[Note: She is actually not inviting anyone. Just being mean and showing off about how she is eating nice food on Sunday].

Missing you darling. Come back soon.
[I have no idea who they are missing and why they are not contacting them directly, unless they are aliens].

Share this with 30 people in the next 5 minutes and Sai Baba will fulfill all your wishes. If you fail to do that, you will face misery for the next year.
[This makes me strongly suspect that my present day miseries might be attributed to one of these people].

20 reasons why [tall people/thin people/MBAs/Republicans/Arranged marriages/Bengali food/Single women travelers/People with B positive blood group] are great.

OMG! GMOs are killing people! Global warming is real! OMG! GMO! 

125 reasons why non-vegetarians are sinners and should become vegetarians.

Every time you share this, Bill Gates will donate 5 cents to the poor and needy.

I love Chweetu! He is the cutest.

A list of 25 quotes by [Albert Einstein/Paulo Coelho/Aristotle/Bill Gates] that they never said.

I hate my life. Some people are such losers. Sigh! (Comments: What happened dear? What happened? What?)

OMG! Look, we are in the park. Look, we are smelling the roses. Look, we are walking on the grass. Look, we are eating an ice cream. OMG! Life is so good.

RaGa sucks! Om Na Mo Na Mo.

And the circus continues.