Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Initial impressions of Mexico City

[Written last Christmas; I am reminded of Mexico City today after the earthquakes]

I think latitude determines cultural similarities more than longitude. Mexico City reminds me of a combination of Kolkata and Mumbai (and of India in general) in so many ways. There is a distinct smell of the city, a wintry smell of sunshine and fog and a little bit of smoke. I get the same smell every time I visit Kolkata. Although cities in the US are much colder, the interiors are warm. Here, it is just like the winters of Kolkata. You will be freezing inside the house but outside, the sunshine would be comforting. There are hundreds of cops, but no one pays heed to them. People jaywalk all the time. This is what gives me hope. There is something dysfunctional about a sanitized culture where there is no chaos, where people do not cross the streets on a red light or follow the rule book all the time. I have been told that I will need to bargain even at the currency exchange shops. Armed with my limited Spanish vocabulary spanning maybe 30-40 words, I am all set to explore this city. Although my German vocabulary is only marginally better, I never felt at ease culturally. But this seems like a place where I could use my skills from India. 

I landed at 7 am and by 10 am, I was already accosted by a guy barely out of college who speaks no English (I can only suspect that he wanted to sleep with me because when his insistence did not work and I feigned ignorance about both Spanish and English, he folded his hands gesturing me to sleep) and mistaken as a hooker by a cop whom I tried asking about money (currency exchange store) in English. None of them harmful encounters of course. But the most cruel thing happened to me when they chucked my goat biryani in the airport's trash can. I mean, I must have been out of my mind, trying to sneak in a goat inside Mexico. A lot of the dinner last night had gone uneaten, and I wanted to devour the goat from Seattle in Mexico City. They took out that box and another box of five besan laddoos and eyed both suspiciously while I kept praying that if they have to throw one of them, let them throw the sweet. But after gathering interesting biryani eating experiences from all over the world, this one was a failure. I felt that sharp stab of pain in my chest as I parted with my biryani. And since it is Sunday as well as Christmas, all currency exchange stores are closed, leaving me with no money and hence no food except those five besan laddoos. One of the ATMs asked a flat fee of $31.82 for using my credit card. I have a feeling that things will work out and I will not have to go hungry in this city. I later realized that it was a double-dollar sign, referring to 31.82 Mexican dollars.

Things got interesting last night when I was waiting for the flight at a California airport and they made all announcements in Spanish (we were still on the US soil) when I had to go ask them to kindly repeat things in English. It brought back many a memories from the German chapter. When asked to make a line to board the flight, the line looked exactly like it would do in India- a scatter plot. In between, an old man even winked at me and let me cut through the line. I already love this place.

Nothing perhaps stings more than being pesoless and then your goat biryani being thrown away. Merry Christmas, everyone.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Initial impressions of Bangkok

1. Visa: If you do not do your visa from India, it could be a very time-consuming process in Thailand. The same visa is valid for 30 days in India but 15 days in Thailand. Always carry passport-size photos to avoid the hassle of getting new pictures. You have to show 10,000 Baht/person or 20,000 Baht/family to get a visa. That is a ripoff if you are staying only for a few days, because you may not end up using all of it by the time you leave. I took a chance and converted only half that amount. No one even checked it. They only ask you to convert a certain amount of money, but may not even care to see if you followed instruction.

2. The city: Bangkok is very clean, organized, crowded, and not as polluted. Public restrooms are very clean. With wide, multi-lane roads, Bangkok looks like a cleaner and more developed version of southern Kolkata. The river provides an important means of transportation for both tourists as well as daily commuters. I did not see a single beggar or homeless person.

3. At 500 Baht/person, the Grand Palace is a ripoff (given that other attractions are between 50-100 Baht).

4. Bangkok is a food lover's paradise. Street food is out of the world. And Thai food in Thailand is so much better than Thai food in the US.

5. People speak minimal English. Thailand was never invaded by the Europeans, and you can see it. Everything is written in Thai, with occasional translations in English. It makes you realize that one does not need to rely on English to be self-reliant or attract tourists. Far from being a challenge, it was very refreshing to be somewhere where people are unapologetic about not knowing English. When spoken English did not work, I mostly used sign language. Our host wrote down the addresses of major attractions (as well as our home address) on a piece of paper in Thai. We met many cab drivers who could not even read or interpret addresses written in English. That was another interesting experience. We navigated solely based on the squiggles written on a piece of paper that we did not understand.

6. Every third shop is a massage shop. The one before that is a shop selling food.

7. The world in this part of the world does not revolve around Trump, Ivanka, Melania's heels and wardrobe, and US politics. Living outside this toxic circle of US politics for a change was very calming. I did not follow news for a while, and the world was still fine and running by the time I came back.

8. You get to a point where you are tired of seeing Buddha statues. Standing Buddha. Sitting Buddha. Reclining Buddha. Laughing Buddha. Serious Buddha. Solid gold Buddha. Youngish Buddha. Oldish Buddha. Jumping Buddha. Swimming Buddha.

9. Things around are written mostly in Thai (including advertisements). Road signs are written both in Thai and English. Thai first. English below, and in a smaller font. I developed immense respect for this country. Not because I hate English (I don't hate anything except half-cooked or poached eggs). It is truly a mark of a country that has a strong sense of identity, not swayed by foreign identities. I don't think I have seen another country where English is in a smaller font in road signs. If you have seen one, I'd love to hear from you.

10. If you are hopping multiple countries, I would highly recommend you buy your tickets on the same PNR. If possible, but your tickets directly from the airline instead of some travel website. It might seem more expensive, but it actually saves you a lot of money and hassles. We were in Thailand, and then Cambodia. While coming back from Cambodia, we had a six hour layover in Bangkok. We thought that we would wait at the airport. What I did not see is that our tickets had different PNRs. Long story short, they do not let you wait at the airport for that long without a tourist visa (even if you are not planning to step out of the airport). They will not check your bags all the way to Kolkata (in our case). So we had to step out, spend money and get a visa although we only had a few hours and were not planning to step out of the airport. The visa from the previous trip the week before was valid for 15 days, but was single entry only. The system is built so that there are traps where vulnerable tourists can be easily tricked into spending money unnecessarily. I guess that is also how they generate some of their revenue. Long story short, if hopping multiple countries, buy your tickets directly from the airline, and make sure that every leg of the trip is on the same PNR.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Working for myself

One year ago, I started working as a tenure-track faculty at a research university. After the first day at work, Ma asked me, "So what work did they give you today?" Soon after, a few friends who are not acquainted with academia asked me the same question. These friends from the tech industry may know about coding and fixing bugs, but looks like they are not quite acquainted with how academia works.

The funny thing is as an academic, these questions, or the way non-academics see academia never dawn on you. This is a job where no one gives me work. I create my own work. Yeah. Take a few minutes to digest that idea. 

I don't have to show up to office every day, or at a specific time. I could be Facebooking, chatting, or chasing Pokemons all day. No one is going to come at the end of the day asking me how productive I have been. Unless I am teaching a class or have a meeting with other colleagues, I do not have to be at a particular place at a certain time every day. I could be anywhere.

Work-wise, no one tells me what to do. To give a simplistic analogy, getting this job is like getting a car with some limited gas/petrol (startup funding). Where I go with my car and how much gas/petrol I spend is my business. I could take it to Glacier National Park. Or I could drive to New York City. Or I can keep my car in the garage and never use it. Unless I do something drastic like harass a student or smuggle and store drugs in the department, no one can fire me during my 6-year pre-tenure period.

However, I have to meet high expectations by the time I go up for tenure review at the end of my fifth year. This includes consistent performance in terms of getting money through grant funding (getting my own gas/petrol to be able to continue driving my car), publishing my work (showing others how well my car drives) multiple times in peer-reviewed journals, meeting high standards of teaching and mentoring students (training novice drivers to drive), collaborating (carpooling), and doing service such as serving on committees and editorial boards (helping fellow drivers service their cars or helping them when their car breaks down or inspiring others to become drivers or ensuring I do not kill anyone while driving). I am putting this very simply with a car/driving analogy, the process is more complicated and labor-intensive than it sounds.

I have the freedom to do any kind of research that aligns with the department's interests. I can collaborate with anyone in the department, in the country, and in the world. There are three broad expectations (research, teaching/mentoring, and service) that I need to fulfill well in order to be able to get tenure. And these are not something that can be achieved overnight, in a month or even a year. I have been preparing to meet these expectations even before my particular position was advertised. 

So to answer Ma's question, they did not give me any work on day one, and never will. I work for myself now and have to give myself work, if that makes sense.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

What the readers are saying

If you notice, there is a green link called “ShortSurvey” on the right hand side of this page. Sometime back, I had requested regular readers to take this survey so that I can get an idea of who they are. Blogging can often get isolating in this age of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where it is very easy to have a real-time, two-way, instant conversation. However, I am old-school, am neither on Twitter nor Instagram, do not restrict my thoughts to a certain number of characters, and still find that blogging is the best way to express my thoughts. I do agree that interaction becomes delayed and one-sided, and I am not really the best at replying to comments. But about sixty of you filled out the survey, and your responses were enlightening. I promised not to identify people or publish personal comments, so I’d rather post some generic findings. I am all about the stories that data tell, so thank you to those who took the time to respond to the survey. You can still do it.

Sixty percent of those who filled the survey are women.

Sixty-three percent of those who filled the survey live in India. Twenty-eight percent live in North America, and the rest in Europe.

Seventy-eight percent who filled the survey are in the age range of 30-40 years. Eighteen percent are younger (20-30 years) and a very tiny sliver of those who sent me their responses are in the range of 40-50 years.

A good number of those who filled out the survey live in Bangalore.

I do get some of this information about geographical locations from the trackers on my blog. I know that till date, the US, India and Russia are where I get most of the traffic from, closely followed by Germany, UK and Ukraine. I do not know anyone from Russia, UK or Ukraine, and would love to know who they are and how they got here. For example, are they Indians living in other countries, or are they Russians and Ukrainians?

I know that I get a lot of traffic from Sayesha’s and Ovshake’s blog. Thank you!

I also know that a lot of you end up here while looking for “green veins in legs”

Now some more interesting findings. A whooping sixty-four percent of those who filled the survey said that they have never shared any post of mine with the others. Only 8.6% said that they have shared, and the rest responded “Sometimes.” I wonder, why?

Some more interesting findings. Forty-eight percent of those who said that they share said that they do so by email. In this day of quick information sharing using Facebook and Twitter, I had not expected emails to be the prime mode of sharing.

Now onto some interesting comments. There is a question where I ask you if you have any questions or comments for me. There was a time when I had a fancy pair of red shoes as my header. Those are my favorite shoes and I still wear them. Someone commented that it looked like wearing shoes inside a temple. It was hilarious. However, I thought more about it, it did seem like wearing shoes inside a temple. After much deliberation, I removed them and made my blog shoe-free.

Someone said that they don’t like that I have self-esteem and that I have become more stubborn over the years. I don’t know how true that is, but coming from people who mostly know a slice of my life though my own writings, I was definitely amused. What is wrong in having self-esteem?

It was also interesting that most of you said that you started reading me 10-12 years ago. There were very few of you who were recent readers. It does say a lot about the loyalty of readers. Thank you for that as well.

Some of you wanted to know my name, where I live and where I work. I have nothing against these questions, but over all these years, I have tried to maintain anonymity as much as I can. I never share my own posts. I know that people connect more to writers when they have seen their picture or know their name. However, I have shied away from revealing personal information to complete strangers. This was a deliberate decision after a string of harassment and internet bullying episodes I experienced long back. The internet can empower a lot of people with both good and bad intentions. One of you asked for a picture and I did share a picture, only to receive a hilarious response. The person said that they were expecting a much older blogger but I look much younger than what they thought.

One of you asked me a very interesting question. “In a world without work visas, what would you do?” I absolutely loved that question. If I haven’t already, I plan to blog about it sometime. If I have already done so, please remind me. With the amount of writing I do, my memory fails me at times.

One of you also asked if I have ever made friends through my blog and if I have met them. Plenty. Definitely has to be more than fifteen. Okay, maybe that is not a lot, but given the level of anonymity I maintain on my blog, I would think meeting fifteen people over the past twelve years is a lot.

A lot of you mentioned finding my blog through Munnu’s blog. He is one friend I am glad I met during my initial days of blogging. We used to be close friends, although I have no idea what he is up to these days.

For reasons not clear to me, I saw that my blog readership started declining sharply since May of this year. I do not know why it happened, and the numbers keep falling. That has made me wonder how worthy it is to put my time and energy into blogging. Reflecting about it has also made me realize that at the end of the day, I am writing for myself. I am aware that I do not do it that often, and if I could, I would write a little snippet at the end of every day before going to bed. However, no matter how infrequently I write and no matter how much readership decreases, this blog is my own personal nook that I enjoy hanging out at. Sometimes I read old posts, as old as a decade ago and fondly remember those times of my life. My family does not know about my blog, but maybe I could write it in my will so that they can read it if I pass before they do.

All that aside, thank you for reading the blog over the years and also to those who filled out the survey. I have recently added a few more features on the right so that it is easier to contact me and leave a feedback or comment for me one-on-one. So don’t hesitate to reach out in whatever way, by writing to me, commenting, sharing, and helping me keep my blog up and running. You could also tell me anything you would like me to write about, and if I feel enthused enough, I will do it. Some of you did not like a recent template I was using and I changed it after I realized that I do not like it as well. So yes, I do take comments and good feedback seriously. I have toyed with the idea of writing more about academia from a faculty’s point of view, since I am one now. But I also wonder how interesting that would be for readers not in academia. I am a compulsive story teller and I itch to tell stories about my life, things that I see and things that I find interesting. This blog is the longest commitment and longest long-term relationship I have had with anyone or anything.


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Because Seattle will always mean homecoming

Growing up, I always lamented the fact that I was never allowed to live outside home, in a hostel. I knew some people who did, and the celebrity status they received on visiting home blew my teenage mind. As a kid, I was attached to this drama of going somewhere far away so that coming home would be a celebratory occasion, a big deal. I used to fantasize taking an overnight train while people waited for me at the Howrah station, to hug me and tell me how much they missed me and how thin I have become. 

So after high school, I got this random idea of moving to New Delhi. I didn't know where or what I would study there, but I knew it was far enough for me to gain celebrity status whenever I visited home. When I mustered enough courage to vocalize my wishes, Ma said, ask your Baba, and Baba sternly said that there were enough good colleges in Kolkata. There was no need to go to New Delhi, or Pathankot, or Ludhiana, or even to nearby Chandan Nagar. "We grew up in the hinterlands of Bihar, studying in Hindi and Bhojpuri. If we have done well, you will be fine living in Kolkata." These words had a finality that marked the death-knell of my wishes. 

Many decades later, I have had my wish fulfillment from a different person living in an entirely different continent. 

G is the first friend I made when I moved to Seattle in 2006. Naturally, we have a little bit of history. I left Seattle in 2010, traveled the entire world from Virginia to Nebraska to Germany and then landed back once again close enough to Seattle. Now, every few months or so, I take the train to Seattle and receive the same treatment I had wished for while growing up. 

First, there would be excitement about my arrival. Counting weeks, and then days. Then, a lot of phone instructions- "Pack light, don't bring slippers or night clothes, you left them the last time. Don't forget your ticket printout. Call me when you cross Leavenworth." She would be waiting to pick me up (since I live and travel alone, I am not used to people waiting on me, but this is different). In between meeting me and getting to the car parking lot, she would try to catch me unaware at least twice, pinching me hard around my arms or waist (She plays in attack mode while I play defensive, we share a pretty dysfunctional bond that way). She has a new name for me every time, a name I'd rather not disclose in public, while I continue to call her Gundamma. There is also a bus that leaves directly from the Amtrak station and drops me close enough to her place. It is a good 45 minute bus ride through Lake Washington (and a view of Mount Rainier on a clear day) that I immensely enjoy. 

In preparation of my arrival, G would have soaked the rice for the dosa batter, because that is what I love to do, sit on their hardwood floor and eat dosas and idlis and vadas to my heart's content while chatting up with the kids (aged almost five and almost nine). I have my own room with shelves full of my stuff. I bring a list of everything I need to take back- Indian spices, food, and she will mostly open her pantry and give me stuff, asking me not to waste money. She will pre-order any medicines or books I need, take me to the bank, the hair stylist or the doctor, and help me do my laundry. She would drive me to the Indian store where I buy frozen coconut, curry leaves and laddoos to take back. 

As the weekend gets over and I prepare to take the 4:40 pm train on Sundays, she will pack me a bag full of home-cooked food to take back- sheera, pongal, aviyal, poriyal, and another bag of curry leaves. She will ask me to visit the Swami room (prayer room) and bow to the two dozen deities living there, smear vibhuti on my forehead, put an apple in my hand, and ask me to text and let her know once I reach Spokane after midnight. She would drop me off to the train station, but not before making a pit stop at my favorite Indian restaurant and pick two boxes of goat biryani, my favorite, to go. 

I always wanted to experience a similar drama (and I do not mean drama in a derogatory way, but more as an action), a situation where I move away, but not too far away so that I can still visit periodically and experience this comfort of predictability; expressed through soaking lentils and grains to prepare my favorite food, taking me around to buy whatever I need, drinking tea together twice a day (I drink tea only when I have company), taking me to Inchin's Bamboo Garden because I love their garlic lamb, and making me look forward to my next trip. Because going back to someone is always a nice feeling, and while a few hundred miles is not too far, it is just the right distance to make me feel the excitement of going home from another home.


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Glassy tales

That day, when our order of drinks arrived at the restaurant, I caught G staring mesmerized at them. One look at those two glasses and this is what came out of my mouth-

"God, I can't understand this trend of serving drinks in mason jars. It feels like drinking directly out of a Horlicks bottle."

Needless to say, the magic moment was gone for her. G was irate. She could not understand how I found mason jars aesthetically repugnant. There is something about their perfectly symmetrical, broad cylindrical shape that put me off. They look like a dhol. A vertical “paash baalish” or side pillow. Something I could see storing my Horlicks powder in, but would never drink out of.

She was further annoyed, and seriously so, when I added that a few weeks ago, my landlady got me a set of six mason jars to use, which I most respectfully refused. Confused, she left my place, leaving behind only two out of those six jars. I never used those jars. I tucked them away in a corner of the cupboard where I could not see them and had to stand on tiptoe to get them. The conversation at the restaurant ended with G telling me that I do not have a good taste and I do not understand aesthetics. It is quite possible.

So I came home and brought those jars down, looking at them to understand what was so special about them. The jars reminded me of simple geometry problems, the ones where you calculated the volume, total surface area and the curved surface area of cylinders. However, I try to keep an open mind while trying out new things. That day, after I had made my cold coffee, I decided to drink it out of a mason jar. Maybe I'll feel its magic once I drink from it.

I was wrong. It didn't feel like drinking out of a Horlicks bottle after all. It rather felt like drinking out of a Yankee candle jar. Judge me all you want, but I am not doing it again. I want my old glasses back.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

New school year

For as long as I can remember of my childhood, spring used to be the most exciting time of the year. This is because spring to me also meant new academic beginnings. The next grade. The smell of new books and notebooks. Baba painstakingly covering each one of them with brown paper and then writing my name and class in all of them with his beautiful handwriting. A new grade meant a new class teacher, new subject teachers, a new classroom, a new seating nook, and experiencing all the newness of the world with old (and some new) friends. There used to be a vibrant energy about week one, everyone wearing new school uniforms and looking ready to take over the world. And then, there would be new things to learn. New chapters, new knowledge, and new ways of making sense of the world. I used to be most excited about my math and science classes. Through those, I made sense of my world, fueled my imagination, met people in textbooks who inspired me, and nurtured my dreams (I had plenty, one of them was being an astronaut). My textbooks opened the doors to new and exciting worlds that existed mostly in my imagination, but were very real for me.

You can tell that I am a lifelong academic, and in a way, I am so glad that I never left school (rather, school never left me). For that is the only life that I have mostly known. This week has seen one more round of excitement, with the new academic year beginning. It might not involve smelling new textbooks this time, but there will be other things new. I am teaching a new online course, and this one is way outside my comfort zone. I have neither developed, nor taught this course before. The first semester, I was so scared of teaching that every week after class I would go and check if someone had dropped out. This time, twenty-five odd students will be spending their time and energy learning with me, and I am excited about facilitating their learning and leading this class.

I am also excited about starting a brand new research study I recently got funding for. I will be presenting at a key conference in Boston soon, and I am looking forward to a restaurant that serves Bengali food in Boston. I am also excited about kicking out those new papers and proposals that I have worked over this summer. You can tell that I never really got over my love for school. I hope that you are as excited about school (if you are in one) or about anything you are pursuing right now.

Cheers to new beginnings, learning and exploring new things, making sense of the world we created around us, and to a brand new academic year. 


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Love is color blind

A grandma was fondly showing me pictures of her newborn grandson.

A professor grandma. A researcher grandma. A grandma who has spent many years working on feminism. Black history. Black feminism. 

I don't even know half the names of Black writers and activists she talks about. Excited, I scribble down the names. I am going to look them all up.

Between such conversations, grandma fondly shows me more pictures of her newborn grandson.

I am willing to overlook the fact that she just reiterated, rather unnecessarily, that her grandson is a US citizen. Others do it too, the ones who need constant validation that they fit in, but she is different. She is a professor grandma. She has somehow earned my respect. No human is without biases. I have mine too. 

And then, the unthinkable happens.

She says, "Look at my grandson. He has different colored hair than all of us. Since he was born in the US, he has brown hair. Isn't that amazing?"

My make-believe world of role modeling professor grandma comes crashing down. I look closer at the picture. Not a wisp of brown hair. I also happen to know the parents. Not a wisp of brown hair from there either. Is it my ageing eyesight? I wonder what other strange ideas brew in grandma's imagination. Grandma does not live in the US by the way. Grandma lives in Kolkata. Is love that "color blind"?

Genetics died a mocking death that day.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Sans Antonio, not sans love

San Antonio, Texas.

shut the alarm at 5:30 am and went back to sleep again, getting late for day one of the conference. When I finally left the hotel at 7:30 am, I looked like a mess, feeling as if a train rode over me. I had to attend an award ceremony and looked like I was going to be late for my own ceremony. It was a bad start to an important day.

However, my 64-year-old Uber driver showed up looking like a total diva. She wore a cute flower hat and had other floral hats and decorative paraphernalia in the car. There was a carnival going on and she was returning to work after a night of revelry. When I complimented her about how cute she looked, she even got off the car and posed for me before writing me her number, in case I needed a cab again. A true diva she is. I named my Uber driver the flower lady. She had brightened my morning on my first day in San Antonio.

Some of you also know about my love for biryani. Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing I Google is [name of the city + good biryani]. I did find one restaurant with good reviews, but the trip involved three bus changes and an hour and half of a ride one-way. It was 15 miles away. So I let go. Looks like I was not going to have my biryani in San Antonio.

But then, I was texting the flower lady's pictures to her, since she had scribbled her number, in case I needed a ride again. That is when I had an impulsive idea. I did not want to eat my biryani alone. I asked if she likes Indian food and she said she had never eaten Indian food before. So I asked if she would like to join me for a meal, and she readily agreed, much to my surprise (we are complete strangers, we only know each other's names). She even asked me if I would wear a dress or trousers. When I said that I did not bring a dress since this is a conference, she said that she will also wear trousers, like me.

"Why?" I asked.

"It's a girls' outing. I love to wear dresses for an outing, but I want to wear what you will wear."

I found her adorable.

So we met up on one of my freer afternoons. She picked me from my Airbnb and gave me a flowery headband that she had handmade for me. We went to the restaurant, I had my biryani (it was quite good) and packed some back, she had her first Indian food, we chatted for many hours, and she dropped me back home. We even wore our flowery headbands at the restaurant. I did not know that I had so much to talk to a 64 year old Spanish-speaking lady I have nothing in common with. By the way, she wears an Apple watch, and was getting her phone calls on her wrist. I've never seen a more fashionable and tech-savvy dida/diva. Dida is grandma in Bangla.

It feels good, having that human connection in a stranger city, someone to share your meals with. She offered to drop me at the airport when I was leaving town. While leaving, she said, "Take care. Maybe we will meet in Vegas again."

I wanted to wear the flowery headband for my conference talks.  

I got a ride, I got great company, I got my biryani, and I got a headband too. It's a win-win-win-win situation. 

A few days later, she took off from work to drop me to the airport. She refused to activate the Uber meter and did not take any money. At the airport, she took my address so that she can write me hand-written letters. And she got on her tip toes and planted two kisses on my cheek before driving away.

There is something about sunny places. I think it makes people way more nice, warm and friendly.

On that note, if you could live anywhere in the US, where would you live? Other than Seattle, I would live in Puerto Rico. It is truly my kind of place.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Craving Seattle

I was in Seattle recently. While leaving, I had the same feeling of sadness that I have experienced every time, no matter how nearby or faraway I live. The invisible and intangible umbilical cord keeps me tied to this place.

I took some time off during this trip to do what I love doing- reflect while passing some of the familiar streets and neighborhoods that were an integral part of my twenties. A bus ride from Green Lake to Fremont, Dexter Avenue, the troll, all the way to downtown. A walk from the Montlake Bridge to the university avenue. A drive through my previous workplace in Redmond. A trip to the Lincoln Square Mall in Bellevue. I do it every time. Yet, I never tire of it. 

Somehow, in the process of a laborious and complicated rubric cube solving exercise that lasted me seven years, I was able to find my way back, at least somewhat near Seattle. When I had left Seattle seven years ago, I had no idea about where life is taking me. Had someone showed me a crystal ball and told me that in seven years, I would move to the east coast, actually finish the PhD that I did not finish the first time, move to the mid-west, move to Germany, complete two postdocs, and come back, I would have only stared at them in disbelief. Yet, it all happened. And I was able to slowly inch back as close as I could.

Seattle to me is like falling in love with someone and never getting over them. This time, the people I met talked about skyrocketing real estate prices, worsening traffic, racism in the backyard, the rapid expansion of greater Seattle, and other such things. Yet, I am oblivious to these vices. In my time capsule, I am spending my 27th birthday at midnight, climbing the troll and digging its nose for a goofy picture. I am a graduate student absconding from work and spending the day at the Gasworks Park, feeding ice cubes to the ducks and seeing how long it takes before they realize it. I am eagerly waiting for my Husky sticker to arrive so that I can start taking free bus rides again. And I am that poor student who is walking down the halls of the health sciences building, meticulously reading every advertisement to see if there is an experiment I could qualify for and earn a few extra dollars, cheap free goodies, or even a slice of pizza for my time. Sensitive teeth experiments where they alternatively squirt warm and cold water on your teeth and gums, sleep experiments, nutrition experiments where they feed you some liquid everyday for three weeks and monitor your blood sugar, respiratory experiments where you run on a treadmill and they monitor your forced expiratory volume, or ergonomics experiments where they ask you to type on a bunch of different keyboards and ask for your feedback. Someone asking for my feedback used to be novelty back then. That is why I did it all, with full gusto. 

I am insanely happy with where I am right now. Yet every time I leave Seattle, I do so with a prayer on my lips. That someday, someway, I find my way back to Seattle. That is my happily ever after dream.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Building on an abundance model

The first recommendation letter I ever wrote for someone was under extremely ironic circumstances. An international colleague I had briefly worked with wanted a letter of support for their green card/permanent residency application in the US. I was a postdoc in Germany then, trying very hard to find a faculty position in the US. I applied for innumerable positions, almost a few every week, got Skype-interviewed by some, but never heard back. I never got invited for campus interviews. It was one of the darker times in my career when I was constantly engulfed in worry, self-doubt, and fear that the situation would never change and I might run out of my postdoc time without a faculty position. To write a letter vouching for someone about why they should be able to stay and work in the US long-term was ironic.

I did write that letter, a stellar one too. My situation was independent of their situation, and as colleagues, we support each other in our careers. But this was not before I emailed them back asking why they were considering me as a potential referee. What I did not ask directly was, "Why should people reviewing your application believe me when I myself have been unable to find a faculty position in the US?" I asked if a letter of support coming from someone outside the US would be effective at all. What they said was eye-opening.

“Are you kidding me? You are an international scholar who has worked in both the US and Germany. A letter from you would be incredible.”

The revelation was eye-opening. As intuitive as it is, I was not viewing myself as an international researcher. I was viewing myself as a researcher who was struggling to find a position in the US, and was hence working in Germany. Rather than approaching my situation from a position of abundance, I was approaching it from a position of deficit.

In life, reality is subjective, not single, and there are often multiple perspectives to it. The fact that I was struggling to gain my foothold in the US was a reality (more real for me). And the fact that I had work experience in multiple countries as a result was also a reality (more real for my colleague).

It made me wonder how often had I undermined myself similarly. How often I had focused on the “don’t haves” and not on the “haves.” I grew up in a culture where highlighting one’s accomplishments was considered bragging or showing off. And I now work in a culture where it is not just necessary, but imperative to highlight one’s accomplishments. We do that in conferences and meetings. We create websites to show the expanse of the work that we have done. It’s a cultural shift that takes some time and experience getting used to.

I often tend to think, “Shit! I have no experience running structural equation models.”

However, I usually don’t think, “I have some good grant writing and collaborative experience now.”

This email exchange taught me to position myself from a perspective of abundance and NOT from a perspective of deficit. I started enlisting every achievement I should have highlighted earlier. The list wasn’t spectacular, but not bad either. Along with being my own critic, I also became my own champion.

My colleague eventually got their permanent residency. And I got my faculty position. The department told me how excited they are to have a colleague with international experience. People started viewing me in a certain way only after I started viewing myself in that way.    


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

What would you get rid of?

I was recently at a leadership workshop where they talked about attaining consensus with your team so that everyone is more or less on the same page. It brought to fore our personal values that we bring to the table at work, and how it varies across people. It was a fascinating conversation. The group activity we did was even more fascinating. I am sharing it here, hoping for some interesting conversation.

Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Due to bad weather, your ship is sinking. You, along with 15 other people, quickly collect your valuables, evacuate the ship, and get on a lifeboat. But soon, you realize that the lifeboat can only hold so much before sinking. You need to quickly discard things. You have no idea how long it will take for help to arrive, if at all. Rank the items in the order that you would discard first (number 1 is discarded first, number 16 is discarded last). Their respective weights and value is provided too.

We first took 7 minutes to do this exercise on our own.

Then we got into groups of 4 where we took 10 minutes to arrive at a consensus about the order in which to discard things. What it meant was that at the end of those 10 minutes of conversation, everyone had to agree.

Then, we got into groups of 8 and did the same. The point was to arrive at a consensus by discussion, without coercing people to agree with you. How quickly and effectively can you convince people about what goes and what stays in the lifeboat? Here is the list. Prices and weights follow the US convention, so apologies if some of them do not make sense to you. For me, many did not. Pounds and ounces really do not make any sense to me. 
1. Deluxe emergency preparedness kit (30 lbs; $200)
2. Case of bottled fruit juice (27 lbs; $75)
3. Cell phone with video camera (5 oz; $500)
4. Service dog (50 lbs; $22,000)
5. Marine handheld GPS with compass (2 lbs; $450)
6. High power flashlight (8 lbs; $55)
7. Emergency hand crank radio (12 oz; $45)
8. Suitcase filled with clothing (40 lbs; $500)
9. Box of gold/diamond jewelry (40 lbs; $1,000,000)
10. Personal laptop with family photos (5 lbs; $300)
11. Five life jackets (15 lbs; $200)
12. Two bottles of whiskey (6 lbs; $100)
13. Irreplaceable cancer research samples (13 lbs; priceless)
14. Swiss army knife (10 oz; $35)
15. Cabana umbrella (12 lbs; $250)
16. Two bottles of SPF 15 sunscreen (2 lbs; $15)

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. It was eye-opening to hear what some people said. It also put me in touch with some of the assumptions and values I bring to the table. I look forward to your thoughts. I am not sharing anything from the fascinating conversation we had at the workshop so as not to bias or influence you. I might share those in the comments as we start talking.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Why I don’t do Whatsapp groups

There is a reason I consciously stay away from Whatsapp groups. These groups are usually filled with a deluge of fake news, forwarded messages, inspirational quotes written by questionable authors, blessings from God, and low-IQ jokes I do not need to read. Some of these jokes are so sexist and misogynistic that I am surprised women (and men) share, read, enjoy, and smiley-emoticonize them. Most of these stereotype women as shopping-maniacs, mother-in-law-haters, diamond-hungry (from the husband) people who are unable to stand up for themselves. Then there are saints walking on water, doctors performing medical miracles and transplanting the liver where the lungs should be, dating and mating tips no one needs to know, and so on. You can see why I am wary of these groups.

However, sometimes, I share my number with specific individuals because there was a need to stay in touch or sync up at some point of time. "Let's meet in downtown at 6 pm. Send me a Whatsapp message when you get there." That kind of thing. But then, some of them start sending me good morning messages and inspirational quotes every day. Why? Did I ask for them? These messages are usually appended by multi-colored flowers or sunrises in the background. Why am I being sent these? Why don't these messages stop even when I am not responding to them? Sometimes, my phone dings a good morning message in the evening, just because it is morning in some other part of the world. Sometimes, there are twenty quotes by Einstein that Einstein never said. Am I missing some social etiquette that I am supposed to know, etiquette where you wake up and instead of making coffee or using the bathroom, start roll calling random people good morning messages?

All these messages get muted first, and then blocked for life. But my question is, if that person was walking in front of me, in person, would they repeat the same thing that they just sent me? Imagine waiting at the bus stop and someone walks by me, suddenly shouting, "Good morning! You look like a flower today. Strength does not come from physical capacity, but from will." Or someone stopping by in my office and saying, "When a girl says that she can't live without you, she has made up her mind that you are her future." Or, "For every girl with a broken heart, there’s a guy there with a glue gun." Who is this making such sweeping generalizations? And why are they sharing these nuggets of wisdom unsolicited, even though they never hear back from me? I am not asocial by any stretch of imagination, far from it. Those who have met me know that I can talk about different things for hours. But again and again, I find myself at a loss for words when someone shouts out that "The Indian national anthem just won the best anthem award of the world by the UN," or "Good morning friend, have a nice Sunday, be with someone who is good for your mental health." Because, you, my unsolicited Whatsapp friend, are certainly not good for my mental health.

I was cell phone-free for 2 years, between 2014 and 2016. Those were the best two years of my life.