Wednesday, October 05, 2016

On being one's boss

As the train rolled into the station close to two in the morning, almost an hour behind schedule, I pressed my nose to the window pane trying to make out as much of the city as the view would allow. Silhouettes of tall buildings stood as vanguard in the downtown landscape. Traffic lights blinked red and green and occasional cars waited and sped by in otherwise empty streets. Little local stores stood in the darkness dwarfed by larger ones. There wasn't much to make of the city in the dark.

It took another hour to get home, home being a temporary arrangement of sorts. As I debated whether to fully unpack or wait until I moved to a more permanent place in a few weeks or months, the philosophical voice in my head (also known as brain chatter) told me to go ahead and unpack since all homes are temporary anyway. Running alarmingly low on energy, I was glad for all the home-cooked food G had meticulously packed me (even including dessert) as one would do before sending off their kid to college.

After struggling to fall asleep between delirious bouts of tossing in bed, I finally did in the wee hours of dawn. Despite my ambitious plans of showing up at work by 8, that never happened. I slept fitfully for the next few hours, to wake up and realize that I feel even more tired. I walked up to the window and drew the blinds to get my first view of the neighborhood. It looks like any American suburban neighborhood, at least the ones I have seen. Pretty family homes with yards full of potted plants and trees adding color to the fall season. A little grocery store at walking distance which is a huge relief for someone with restricted mobility. Except for the occasional whir of cars stopping and rolling at the Stop sign, there are no sounds at all. No people, no view of the sea and no ships sailing by. I live thousands of miles away from Germany now.

Thus began life in another prison as I molted and liberated myself out of the last one.

Day one at work was very unusual. I never made it to work. Exhaustion induces sleep in a way more potent than drugs or alcohol. I never became fully awake or cognizant of the world until about 4 pm. Just that "poor thing, she is jet lagged and tired" will not take me very far.

Day two: So as not to repeat what happened on day one, I woke up at 5 in the morning and got ready to take the 7 am bus. I was on campus well before 8, only to get stuck because there was no one to let me in. The day was spent mostly doing paperwork. ID cards and visa stuff, setting up computers and emails. It is amazing how much time all this takes. People came by to say hello and introduce themselves. It is pretty much getting married and being a new bride. People show up in hordes to meet you, smile, say how pretty you are (in this case, how fortunate they are to have me) and asking me if I remember them (from the interview). As a new bride/employee, I have to do my homework. I have to know names and faces and be able to match the correct name to face, pretty much like the old aunt of a distant cousin who says, “Remember me?” I have to be familiar with what research they do so that I don’t look lost when they talk. This is also the time when people want to rope you in collaborations since you are new and they want to help you. It is always good to memorize everyone’s CVs.

But here is the strangest thing about being a professor. Suddenly, you don’t have an advisor. No one tells you what to do and you are your own boss. The feeling can sometimes be quite confusing especially since all this while, you are used to looking for validation. Most people respond in two ways. Either they get off the tangent and don’t work as much, or they try to over-compensate and work too hard. Striking the right balance is the key.

It feels like a decade’s worth of training leads up to this final moment of being an independent researcher and faculty member. It’s liberating and scary at the same time. At home, I feel like a little child, cowering and clueless. But when I go to work, I put on my best clothes, my confidence, and show that I am sharp, smart, and bright. It’s a show, a mask I put on until I can figure out how to effortlessly navigate my way around.

I thought that the brightest spot of my day was finding a bus that runs from home to work (not having to drive in America is a rare luxury). It became even brighter when I was issued a card that would let me ride the bus for free. Little joys in life.