Monday, April 22, 2013

Language no barrier

 As I spend yet another night in solitude, furiously analyzing data, I realize that I have roughly 5 more weeks to go before all this will be over. I have been sitting for so long that I am afraid my varicose vein problems or back problems might begin to resurface. I oscillate between bouts of feeling hungry, feeling thirsty, feeling like using the restroom, and feeling like stretching or taking a nap. Every night I go through this routine, I listen to a particular kind of music. Some nights, I listen to Bollywood of the 80s and 90s. Some nights, I listen to random English songs I have never heard. Tonight, I am listening to Spanish music through one of these Spanish radio channels on my iPad.

It feels strangely comforting, listening to a language I understand nothing of. Sometimes, they play a nice, slow romantic song that I love, but I have no way to find out what that song is, because I do not understand what they are saying. Then, I assume that it is a romantic song, but I have no way of knowing for sure. Remember, I do not understand a word they say. So as the music plays and I type furiously, I nod my head to the rhythms of the music, sometimes adding my own words to the tune in Hindi or Bengali. I sometimes do the same with other languages, listening to random songs in Tamil or Telugu, not understanding a word of what they say. It is good in a way, because then I get to concentrate on the music instead of losing sleep over what they are saying.

Random thoughts cross my mind as I hear more Spanish songs. What if I were to marry someone whose language I did not understand? Forget marriage, what if I were to live with someone for a short duration of time, maybe a roommate, a travel partner, someone I could not communicate with? Someone who barely understood English? It would be awesome, isn’t it? I would love to see how we both would overcome the language and communication barrier, and communicate with our limited vocabulary and mostly sign language. Sometimes, I think that words are overrated, and the more we use them, the more we create opportunities of misunderstanding. I would seriously like to try out living with someone temporarily, gender-independent, who speaks none of the languages I do.

Just some very random thoughts as I spend another sleepless night wading my way through piles of data.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

A sunset …. Right under your nose

This picture is living proof that we have the potential to create what we want, as long as we feel positively about it, but detach ourselves from expectations at the same time. As a photographer, I have a thing for shooting sunrises and sunsets. In Puerto Rico, given that we were living in San Juan on the northern shores of the island, shooting the sun was not a possibility unless I was willing to drive 2-3 hours east or west. Now I was not ready to wake up that early for sunrise, or drive that late in the dark after the sunset. So I let go of my expectations.

During our last evening in Puerto Rico, we were wading along the Condado beach on the northern shore. As we headed to find dinner, I caught sight of this non-descript bylane that looked like a residential area and had a view of the water. Something told me that I had to check it out. I am glad we did, because there we found a narrow bay of water with a view of the sunset. I could not believe that I got what I wanted without having to drive 2-3 hours for it. So for the next 20 minutes, we waited for the sun to set, and got some amazing shots in the process. I have never felt happier. So let there be no boundaries for what you wish for. Who knows, what you are looking for might right be under your nose.

If you want details, this was a bylane by the Condado beach (when you walk with the beach on your right, this is on your left), at the intersection of Barranquitas and Mayaguez.

Saving my own skin

I came back from Puerto Rico sunburned beyond recognition. It was that serious. I am still questioning the quality of the sunscreen lotion I used, but I know I am guilty of not using an umbrella while walking in Old San Juan, and wearing a dress that left my shoulders and back bare. Debbie warned me against both, holding on to her umbrella in the process and fixing her long sleeved dress. I did not take her seriously. This was last Monday.

By Tuesday morning, I woke up with at least two of the many symptoms of an inflammatory response, rubor (redness) and dolor (pain). My skin felt hot, and I was in acute pain. My clothes hurt me, and so did the strap of my bag as well as the sealbelt of the car. Back home, I applied everything I could find- lacto calamine lotion, aloe vera gel, cucumber slices. I took a day off work in fear of aggravating it further, can’t really show up for work dressed like Tarzan and Jane. I had never suffered from anything like this before.

The pain somewhat subsided eventually. While backpacking Europe a few summers ago, I had developed a deep, dark tan that has lightened up in a few weeks. I thought this is what would happen. But this morning, something strange happened. The dry skin on my shoulders started to peel off, slowly, but surely, revealing new, light, fresh, pinkish skin beneath. Now I am aware of the workings of the body, the biological mechanisms by which new skin replaces dead old skin, but given the way a huge area had burned off, this seemed like a miracle to me. The new skin looks like grafted skin. So I took some time and let myself be amazed at the fact that the body exactly knows where to repair, how to repair, and does it even on a weekend.

Bodily healing is not any different from the way emotional healing occurs. There is no escaping the pain, but once we live through the pain and embrace it, healing is bound to happen, peeling off layers of conditioning, ideologies about right and wrong, and teaching us to look at things in new ways without judgment. Perhaps this is how we evolve and become more mature with time.

As I thought of all this, I looked outside the window. Spring is here, and the tree right outside my room is sprouting new, baby green leaves. It is getting warmer, I hear the chirping of birds all the more, the daffodils and the tulips outside are in bloom, and it seems like the world is done hibernating and is ready to spring back to life again. I am definitely excited about summer.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

40 words in Spanish

            Learning a new language is a lot of fun, and I experienced it firsthand while picking up bits and pieces of Tamil. However, I have never understood why many of my friends suddenly decided to learn Spanish one fine day. Surely it is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and on an unrelated note, a large part of my doctoral dissertation examines the Hispanic population in the US. However, I never understood what was it about the language that attracted people to learn it.

I got my answer recently during my 5 day trip to Puerto Rico.

            The first word I encountered was “Salida” (an exit), when the shuttle of the rental car company drove us from the airport to the rental car agency. Of course I had seen the word before, during my flights to California.
            As we waited at the rental car agency, the second word I learned was “Banos” (a bathroom). I did not know what exactly it meant then, having read the sign outside a restroom. It could have meant women as well, or men perhaps. Debbie and I tried making a funny association to remember it- “Saira Bano banos” J.

            Driving in Puerto Rico is not for the faint-hearted. You get used to it of course. First, all the signs are in Spanish. Second, people drive somewhat aggressively. Third, the bylanes are filled with potholes and are without lane demarcations, pedestrians just flag you down trying to cross busy streets, something you never get used to unless you have driven in India. When I parallel parked my car, half my car was hoisted up the pavement, just like every other car before and after my car was. I said a silent prayer as I prepped myself for five days of driving around the island. The next day, I was kicking ass, innocuously breaking a few driving rules, cruising through the potholes, and navigating my way with a confidence as if I have always driven here. It is amazing how fast your brain gets used to doing things. So the next words I learned were “Pare” (to stop) and “Parada” (bus stop).

            The guy at the hostel gave me a few basic words to remember. “Calle” (a street) was enunciated as “ca-ye”. “Este” meant to go east. “Oeste” meant to go west. Most of my Spanish vocabulary was still confined to driving terminology. I came across a really cool term, cool because it seemed like a scientific term right out of a Physics textbook. “Velocidad Maxima” means speed limit. I was hooked to another word, whose meaning it took me a while to figure out. “Estacionamiento publico” means public parking. I tried saying that word again and again, but it was a tongue twister, which drew me to the word all the more. Why would someone use such a complicated word? If you thought parallel parking is hard, try saying the word “parking” in Spanish.

            Of course I learned a few terms of greetings. “Ola” (hi), “Saludos” (greetings), “Gracias” (thank you, and the s is silent), “de nada” (welcome), “por favor” (please), “bienvenidos” (welcome), and so on. And then there were words associated with food, “papa” (a potato), mofongo, empanadas, and tres leches (a 3 layered milk cake). “Agua” is water, and “Jugo” is juice. I learned some colors too, for example, “Amarillo” is yellow and “verde” is green (I now wonder if Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado or Agua Verde Café in Seattle has anything to do with green).  

            By now, learning Spanish seemed a lot of fun, and I was picking up words fast. There was a “24 horas” pharmacy store, horas meaning hours, and when I tried asking the police if I could park my car where I did in Old San Juan and he told me “No Ingles”, I showed him eight of my fingers and said, “8 horas, car there, park?”. I don’t think he understood anything although he said “si si” (yes yes), but Debbie was clearly taken aback, wondering if horas meant the word it sounded familiar to J. I know the police didn’t understand me because later that day, I found out that I was parked the whole day in a lane meant only for officials to park. Thankfully I did not get a parking ticket.

            Now this gets interesting. I thought that “mujeres” is women’s restroom and “caballeros” is men’s restroom, until someone told me that restroom has got nothing to do with it. It is similar to restroom signs that have either “women” or “men” written in front of it. Now how do I remember that? Debbie had an amazing idea. She asked me to remember that women dance mujras and men dance cabarets. There you go. By the way, women are also “damas” and men are “hombres”. So now, I was starting to learn synonyms too. And of course “amigo” is a friend.

            By now, I was hooked to Spanish and wanted to learn as many words as I could. So I went to the local Walmart, pen and paper in hand. There, I wrote down the Spanish words for everything that fascinated me. I learned that “prohibido fumar” means smoking is prohibited. I learned that “zapatos” is slippers (something I heard the airport official say, probably asking us to remove our shoes during the security check). “Joyeria” is jewelry (learning languages is all about making associations. So Debbie thought Joyeria is a joyous diarrhea). “Camas” is a mattress (Debbie once again gave me a knowing look, associating the word “kaam” with a mattress). “Ropa Para” means clothes. “Hogar” is home. “Nina” is a little girl, “Nino” a little boy (remember el nina and la nino from the geography lessons in school?), “bebe” is a baby, and the more complicated “recien nacidos” is a newborn.

            So with a vocabulary of nearly 40 words learned in 5 days, I left Puerto Rico with a heavy heart, wanting to learn Spanish. I loved the Spanish music channels I listened to during those long drives to the beaches and mountains. I don’t know what it all meant, but it sounded so very sexy. Every male voice in those songs seemed to me like a handsome young man was playing the guitar, speaking words of love to his beloved. People swear by French as “the” language of romance, but I have never really felt attracted to it. First, everything is nasal, and then, what you say is only half of what you write. I fell in love with one particular song they played again and again, and now I have no idea how to find it. The only words I remembered is “masima masima” (which makes no sense to me, it means mother’s sister in Bengali), and I did not have Shazam with me. Does anyone know what song this might be?

            I don’t know where I can learn more Spanish. Sure, I can say 40 words, but I can’t weave them into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. I saw some amazingly good reviews, and some amazingly bad reviews for Rosetta Stone. I friend of mine who similarly fell in love with Mandarin after visiting China told me that he took Mandarin classes at the local community college, made Chinese friends and listened to them talking, watched Chinese movies, and listened to Chinese songs. Maybe that would help? I don’t know. Anyone out there who learned Spanish recently?

            My next dream is to visit Spain. And find a job in a predominantly Spanish speaking state or country, preferably Puerto Rico.


Monday, April 01, 2013

The joys of not knowing

            For the longest time recently, I have been stressed out about not being able to find a job. I am 4 months away from finishing my PhD, and most students from my cohort already have a job. I am an international student studying in the US, which means that I must additionally be in compliance with the rules and not stay unemployed in the country. Further, life as a single person (man or woman, doesn’t matter) is not easy. You are entirely responsible for taking care of you, and the love, understanding, and even the temporary financial cushion you need while you look for employment is missing. Come July, my apartment lease is going to expire, and I will not have a home to live anymore. It is battling with the uncertainties that have made my life so miserable.

            Needless to say, I have had multiple meltdowns over the last few months. I have stared at the ceilings wide-eyed at nights, clueless about where I am headed. When I started my job hunt 6 months ago, I conveniently omitted applying to places I did not see myself living in; the small towns in the middle of nowhere where I know I am going to be chronically depressed. I knew I have the time and the options, and I would always find something better. In retrospect, it was a mistake. US funding agencies are going through some significant sequestrations and budget cuts. Universities are having a hiring freeze, and labs are no longer hiring that many postdoctoral researchers. I almost got a job in one of the reputed schools in the South, and then they denied me the job because they decided not to hire anyone. Surely there is no way I could start counting my chickens.

            I started my job hunt with the mindset of exclusion. I don’t want to live in the Midwest. I don’t want to live where it snows. I don’t want to live in small towns. I would prefer a sizeable Indian community around. It would help to have an international airport and a Macys nearby. I want to do a post-doc in an elite school. Soon, I realized that I was doing myself a disservice with the high expectations I had set for myself. Finding a job is not just about my abilities and qualifications, it has a lot to do with who is hiring, who has the money, and who I am shaking hands with. So now, I am applying to every school, every interdisciplinary department, leaving no stone unturned, shamelessly proactively introducing myself to everyone. My adviser still thinks that I will have a job before I graduate, but that rejection from the southern school was an eye opener.

            Eventually, I have sensed a shift of energy, a detachment I have developed with this process. I am still proactively looking for jobs and applying. I am not ready to quit and move back to India for many reasons, but mostly because I don’t have a plan if I have to do so. However, I have realized that stressing myself out and comparing myself with those stellar personalities I rub shoulders with is not going to help. I have personally known people who have multiple job offers 6 months prior to finishing a PhD (or people who didn’t even need to finish their PhD), who have professors from Ivy League schools vying for them, wanting them to work in their labs, people who drive cross-country and make summer trips to Europe when they finish school because they have all the time, money, and a lucrative job waiting for them with a window office overlooking the sea. I’d have loved to visit Greece or Spain as a graduation gift to myself, but let’s be realistic here. We are talking about basic survival needs, the need to have a home and be able to feed oneself, fuel the car, and afford a gym membership without asking for help. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves and try to build some fancy vacation itineraries when it might not happen.

            Of late, I have realized that worrying about something unknown in future is counterproductive. And what’s so wrong with not knowing about the future. Why do I have to know what will happen to me months in advance? With some introspection and mental effort, I have started to enjoy this moment of not knowing where I am headed next. This way, I visualize my future whatever way I want to. At times, I think that I am going to be a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. Then I imagine myself as an educational adviser working for UNESCO in Paris. Sometimes, I visualize myself going back to Seattle and spending a few years scaling Mount Rainier and spending summery weekends by the beaches of Olympic National Park. Sometimes, I want to move to San Diego and enjoy the sun and the Pacific. Maybe I could work for the AAMC in Washington DC, since my dissertation topic is directly relevant to the medical workforce. Or I could start working on my DrPH degree on Global Health next year, and work in other continents like Africa and Latin America. And why education or public health? I could be a photographer working for Nat Geo, or better still, work for myself. I could be a writer visiting countries and writing about the lives of people. The opportunities are limitless when you have a vivid imagination.  In fact, the more I visualize my imaginary future, the more I realize that imaginations spring from the heart and not from the head.

            Imagination is a powerful tool to create and shape one’s future the way one wants to. We often think that external circumstances and other people shape our life events, but how often do we realize that what we become in life is a manifestation of who we imagine ourselves to be? I know I will eventually find a job, there is no denying that; if I don’t, I will probably be the only qualified person in this world who has been unable to find gainful employment, and I don’t see that happening. However, once I know where I am working, I will know, and will not be able to undo the knowing. But this moment of not knowing is beautiful too. The more I am fixated on the idea of finding a job in academia in the US, the more I see myself getting frustrated. Maybe I am not meant to be a professor in some US institution, and what is the big thing about being something or not being something anyway? Who am I to define who I should be or who I should not be? The more I imagine alternative possibilities, the more I find my fears allaying and my inhibitions dissolving. After all, the purpose of going through the graduate school journey, or of doing anything for that matter is to enjoy the ride, learn something new, meet someone unknown, learn a new skill, go to a new place, do something you have never done before, make a plan, fail, and do a better job at it, and most importantly, find happiness in what you do. I have done all this in graduate school, and to let the fag end of my journey be fraught with fears, insecurities, and frustrations would be defeating the whole purpose of educating myself in the first place.

            So I tell myself every day that it’s okay to not know everything that will happen to me in the next few months. I have 16 more weeks in graduate school, and I should just focus on being done. Things have a way of falling in place and working out eventually, they always have. The end of graduate school might be the beginning of a new chapter in life, a new journey to look forward to, something that will take me to a new place, and make my life meaningful in some way. I don’t, for a moment, underestimate the power of hope and imagination for that matter.