Those were the exact words I thought of as I hopped on to the elliptical at the gym today. I finally finished reading the book that I had bought quite some time ago, January 8th, 2011 to be specific, but did not start reading until now. It is the personal account of someone, an ordinary human, ordinary like you and me, no superpowers or magic absolutely, who tours South America on his bike. You know, some books and movies and places and people connect with you, and some don’t. As I read chapter after chapter, at home, in my lab, sometimes at the gym, and even at Chipotle, I realized that it is not about him, his journey, his book, or his experiences anymore. At some point in time, without my realizing it, it had become everything about me, my life, and my aspirations. And I realized that I have fucked up. Really big time.
When I was in my early twenties, I realized that I was getting inherently unhappy about the way my life was turning out. My family wanted to see me married to some “well settled” guy after college. Discussions about potential grooms at home made me feel the insecurity to my core. I was still in college, barely earning anything and dependent on my parents, and that made me panic. As much as we all love each other, I was unable to convey to them that this is not the life I wanted for myself.
I wanted to see the world. Not on a dependent visa or using my husband’s money, but by myself.
I realized that the only way I could achieve this was through education. I loved to study, I loved my books, I loved the subjects, but I was never really an academic. Never wrote the engineering or medical entrance exams, never prepared for CAT, no IITJEE, nothing. PhD was so not my thing. It was meant for the bright and brilliant, not me. However, I realized that if I wanted to get away, getting admission into a US university (with full funding) would be my passport and my visa to freedom. The problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to walk that path. No seniors, no role models, no one in the family, not even in college. Talking about mediocre background, it is as mediocre as it could get.
Soon, I started networking with students who had made it. I started saving money from the tuitions I gave. I started secretly preparing for the GRE. I got myself a membership at the American Center. I did not tell anyone about it at home.
Two years later when I made it, I told my dad the news, and he laughed out aloud. It had taken him a few days to get convinced that I was serious, and I was leaving. He said that he will not be able to fund my education. I told him that I had taken care of all of it. When he realized that I was serious and I was determined, he was upset. He tried convincing me into not going. He told me that if I wanted to see the US so badly, I could get married and travel with a partner. He did not realize that that was exactly the life I was running away from. It was not the lure of the US. It was the lure of freedom.
When I left for the US, I promised myself certain things. And this book made me realize how I had not kept my promises.
I had promised myself that I will never grow roots. Instead, I will grow wings. I will live and study and work in all the continents one by one, for five years max. That made it 30 years, 35 if you count Antarctica (I did not). In the US, I grew more disillusioned with the people around me, Indians who struggled to get work authorization and green cards. People who talked about the million dollar homes and the cars they drove. They complained about their children not speaking Bangla at home, or their parents not understanding why they could not move back. Their greatest dilemma in life was perhaps whether to buy a BMW or an Audi as a second car. I absolutely (with a capital A) did not want to end up like one of them. My education was my gateway to freedom.
However I did not realize that with time, I became one of them. The more I tried not to become like them, I became like them. I stopped growing wings. I started growing roots instead.
The ease and predictability of life in the US grew on me. When I finished my masters in Seattle, I found a job there and promised myself that I will never move out of Seattle. When I lost my job, I reapplied for the PhD program in Seattle. They rejected me and I had to move, amid all the heartbreak. Thank God I learned to drive. It’s not that I did not have my moments. Unemployed and penniless, I lived in other people’s homes. But not once did I tell myself, “Screw you US, I am leaving.”
I got into the PhD program a second time at the opposite coast now. It was my second chance in life. This time, I wanted to push myself, drive cross country (alone), spend time alone, and see this country. But a few weeks before that, a freak accident happened on the streets of Sicily and I tore a ligament on my left foot while backpacking Europe. I got scared. I shipped my car and took a flight. What I did not tell myself is, one does not even need the left leg to be able to drive an automatic car.
Soon, I saved up enough money to be able to go backpacking again. I walked the streets of Lisbon, stayed at hostels in Paris, and dreamed of seeing more. I was happy being poor and living on free bread and seeing things that my family had never seen. However, I never told myself that I can give up what I have and move into a new country and start from scratch. I was just too afraid to let go.
The US employment market has tested me once, and it is testing me again. Now that I am about to graduate in a few months and am looking for a job, I realize what a painful situation it is. I am ready to go work in small towns of Nebraska and Idaho and Tennessee (which I would hate I know), but never told myself that I have an option to bail out. Nothing has worked out for me yet, and it scares me. I am scared that I will not find a job in the US, and then I will have to start afresh. Whatever happened to that young girl who wanted to live and work in every continent. If I cannot get a job after my PhD here, screw you US, it’s your loss, not mine. I wonder why I haven’t said this aloud yet.
As I look around me, I realize that over the years, I have amassed a lot of things I do not need. When I moved to Virginia, the first thing I did was buy myself a $600 bed (which is sinfully splurging by student standards). During my unemployment, I had slept on sleeping bags and other people’s homes, and now I wanted to assure myself that it is all fine. As a result every time I think of moving again, I wonder how can I move my bed with me, since I spent so much money buying it (see how material possessions tie you down?). I bought furniture and other assorted stuff and now I don’t want to give it all up. I was even dreaming of buying a black BMW once I have worked for a few years and can afford it, for the only reason being that my adviser drives one. My silver sedan drives perfectly fine and we have gone places all over the country for four years. However, the bed and the furniture and the car are ways in which I was subconsciously developing roots here. I could have saved all this money and done another backpacking trip someplace new. But I did not. I started everything I wanted, and then left half-way. I wanted to learn to dance, and I started Salsa, but gave up after level 2. I wanted to learn Tango, but never did. I wanted to learn different languages so that I could travel, but only ended up learning rudimentary Tamil. When a friend of mine (an Indian who lives in the US) went on a work trip to China, he fell in love with the place, made friends, learned the language, and then after a few years, convinced his company into posting him there permanently. I have seen Indians fall in love with the US, but never seen Indians in the US fall in love with China.
Reading this book brought back the painful realization that I did not become who I had wanted to become.
Somehow in between all this, I turned 31, and stopped taking chances, taking risks. The pressure for marriage grew exponentially, this time not from my family (my mother insists that married or single, I should be what keeps me happy), but from my friends and society. Of the most recent among hundreds of such stories, some friends are trying to hook me up with a Bengali guy who works at a nearby bank. A good friend of mine was telling me the other day how she knows someone who knows someone’s someone who was single until 40, and then she met someone and married him in 3 months, pronouncing that I still had hope. My close friends started to look at my single status as a disability, not a way of life I have consciously chosen because I have not found anyone who is like me, and I am not willing to compromise. I don’t think these friends mean bad. I just think that I am in wrong company.
Anyway, I realize that I need some soul searching. I need to break free of this cycle. I need to uproot myself again and take on new challenges. Maybe I will go back to school again and study something I have always wanted to. Maybe I will start taking Tango lessons. Maybe I will start to see the world again, although I have no idea how, with the meager amount of savings I have. I feel sorry that at some point, I gave up on myself. I failed myself. Being accepted by others and the sense of security became more important to me. When I was younger and inexperienced, I had more hopes, more dreams, and more courage. I have no idea how I lost that person in me, or how to find her again.