Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nothing to lose

There are times in life when you take in a lot of garbage. And then comes a day when nothing really happens, but a small something tips you over. You realize that you have had it, and you are done taking in all the garbage. I think I reached that point recently.

It happened the same day I wrote my earlier post. I was walking back to my office, and the wind was strong. It was raining as well, and thankfully, I had my umbrella with me. I have very fond memories of this umbrella because I bought it on a rainy day during my trip to Europe. So it is a souvenir. Anyway. The wind was strong (Nebraska is infamous for that), and my umbrella kept turning the wrong way. There was no point in carrying it if I was getting wet anyway. So I tried to close it.

At that point, my finger got stuck in the umbrella, tearing a little bit of flesh and drawing a few drops of blood. I find the sight of blood very repulsive, and as I looked at my finger in horror, something in me flipped. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, mingling with the rain, as a bunch of school kids on an educational excursion walked by me. These were not tears of sadness or fear, these were tears of anger pent up for a while. The umbrella incident was totally random, but it invoked a strong sense of anger in me, because it was symbolic of the helpless situation I was in. And I realized, I don’t want to be helpless anymore. I don’t want to feel like a victim, because I have not done anything that should make me feel like a victim. I am done being in this toxic situation that I am in.

And suddenly, in my head, I heard my own voice. Screw you job! Screw you visa! Screw you insecurity. I don’t have to take this. I don’t have to live in a country where I am perennially afraid of the insecurities. I don’t want a colleague suggesting me ever again, even jokingly, that I should have tried hooking up with a citizen, like many people wanting to stay here do. I am done. I am so done with this life. It is no better than being made to feel like an outcast, being asked to sit separately, like the British did to the Indians pre-independence, or higher caste people did to lower caste people.

The epiphany of “screw you” perhaps came from self-worth, and gave me more strength than anything had given me in the last few months. I have a PhD (I am told that less than 1% people have a PhD, but in America or around the world, I do not know). I am in good health. I can speak in English. I can learn. I can relocate anywhere in the world. I can do math. I can think. I have the energy. I have the courage and determination to do what it takes. I can take risks. Most importantly, I am alive. Why am I forgetting all my blessings? Why am I constantly trying to fit in? When I moved to the US eight years ago, I had nothing. And I had nothing to lose. But now, what do I lose if I don’t find a job? Absolutely nothing. I just go somewhere else, and take my skills and ideas with me. I haven’t spent a single day for the last few years when I have not worried about a visa. No self-respecting academic should ever fear that. Because wherever I go next, I take my brains, and my ideas with me. I realized that a high school dropout is perhaps more fearless than I am, armed with fancy degrees and all.

This realization gave me a lot of strength. Often under duress, we tend to think that we are helpless. We are not. This will be my chance to reinvent myself, create my future, and start a new chapter in life. I am looking for a job, but I already have enough work to sustain me for a while. Then what am I so scared of?

When I get a job, this post will be shelved as one of those inspiring notes written during crisis. If I do not, these will become words that will dissipate into nothingness. In either case, I will have nothing to lose. And that thought that I have nothing to lose is empowering in itself.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Ides of March

A few months back, they selected my doctoral dissertation to be among the top three in the field. And last month, they told me that they do not have additional money to renew my contract.

The bipolar nature of academia baffles me. How could these two extreme things happen within a span of a few weeks, I cannot explain.

So I am back to looking for a job, a postdoctoral position to be more specific, not knowing what awaits me. It has been six weeks since that day, and I still haven’t found anything. But in these six weeks, numerous meltdowns and heartbreaking days of staring into the unknown later, I have had some profound realizations.

I have realized that I cannot control everything. That instead of resisting the waves, I can only learn to ride with them.

I have realized that the transition time between the end of something and the beginning of something else is the region of greatest possibility. I make the analogy using Lego blocks. Whenever something ends, anything, a relationship, a career, a job, a life, we lie like a pile of Lego blocks, broken, without direction, and feeling useless. But that is also the exact moment when we can recreate and redefine ourselves, mold ourselves into something new, create new possibilities, and become someone different. I think that if we were never broken, we would never get a chance to build ourselves again.

I have realized that the US is extremely unfriendly and unforgiving for people who require a job as well as a visa. Even when they have a PhD from the US.

I have started looking into my options in other countries, which I had not done before. The complacency of having a job in the US had stopped me from looking into my options elsewhere.

I have learned to reach out to other people. I don’t just wait for a job posting to show up. I proactively contact people, asking if they are looking to hire. Sure, nothing has come out of the effort so far, but failure is not the opposite of success. In fact, success and failure lie side by side, the opposite being not trying at all.

I have realized that people can ask to interview you, and you give a job talk with full gusto, only to be told that they do not have a position, but they will keep you in mind. What baffles me is, if they never had a position, why did they make me prepare a job talk and make a presentation in the first place? Human behavior is sometimes difficult to make sense of.

I have realized that there is more to me than what I do, my professional identity. When asked about who I am, I say that I am an educational researcher. However, there is much more to me than just being an educational researcher.

I have learned to be able to stare at the ending of something, and let go. If I do not find another job (with the visa in place) in the next few months, my stay in this country is history. I have been here for more than 7.5 years now, and to think that I might just have to leave everything I have and leave one fine day is heartbreaking. It is worse when you know that it was not your doing, and you cannot do anything to make the situation better. The feeling of paralysis that comes from helplessness is very difficult to come to terms. In fact these days, I notice in me a tendency to push doing certain things that bring gratification. The other day, my mom remarked that I need a haircut, and I told her that I want to save the occasion for the day when I find a job (equaling a hair cut with finding a job). I am seeing that the rice at home is beginning to get over, and a part of me is debating whether I should delay buying the big bag of rice until I find a job, because I don’t want to leave it unused if I have to go. The rice connection doesn’t even make sense to me, one needs to eat everyday, job or no job. Yet the prospect of spending for something makes me feel guilty, not knowing how much I might need to save for the rainy day.

I have realized that there will never be a dearth of work for me, even though there is a dearth of jobs. The number of papers I am involved in right now, it will take me at least a year to finish writing all those papers, job or no job.

I have started to notice myself as an observer, like I would observe someone else. Some days, I feel so lousy, it is hard for me to get up and get ready for work. Other days, I am naturally strong, telling myself that this is just a phase, and things will look better soon. I have better days when I feel stronger. But when I do not, the day drags on aimlessly, and inefficiency spirals, to make me feel even more lousy.

And of the many other realizations, I have also realized that I can look at the situation whatever way I want to. I can blame myself, my luck, or whatever. Or I can be kind to myself, and tell myself that it was not my fault. That come what may, I am in control of my life, and a certain external situation that was not created by me should not have the power to disorient me. Sure, I can choose to dance to the whims of fate, breaking a little bit every time the weather is rough. Or, I can choose to stay calm while the storm passes, because things will be better again. Is my pain greater than the collective pain of the world? I am looking for guarantees and securities in a world where airplanes disappear into thin air, and sturdy ships sink into the bottom of the ocean. Is my pain any greater than their pains? Or tomorrow if I was diagnosed with a terminal disease, will the job situation still bother me so much? It is all about perspective.

But most importantly, I just feel annoyed that anything should come in between me and my work. I dream of a day when I will be able to wake up and start working with enthusiasm, not having to worry about things like employment and visa.


Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Art of Giving

With time, I have grown disillusioned about the gifts we often give people, and what it means to us or other people. When I was little, there was no trend of giving gifts every time we visited someone. Visiting somebody usually meant getting a box of mishti (sweets) from the local sweet shop, and getting a bar of chocolate if there were children at home. That was the standard norm. No one expected any more. Gifts like clothes were restricted to members of the family, once a year during Durga Puja. And then there were birthday gifts and wedding gifts. But that was it.

Yet now, I see people getting each other gifts all the time. I have done that myself. You visit someone, and you get them perfumes, jewelry, home decoration stuff, and what not. If you visit someone’s home, you get them gifts. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fathers Day, Mothers Day, Friendship Day, Hug Day, Housewarming, Baby Showers, the list never ends. I have often thought about the value these gifts have in our life. Wrapped in nice and shiny paper and presented in colorful bags using ribbons, where do these commercial tokens of love eventually end up? Is it merely a formality, or did it really mean something? When my sister got married, I got to see up close how much of gift analysis and gift abuse went on- Who gave what? How many? Who did not give what? Everything needed to be remembered in precision, because the same quality of gift would be given to them when they invited you. That part I understand, but what amazed me was the huge number of gifts that were recycled. Clothes and jewelry and kitchenware that did not live up to our standards, or were duplicates. Since what we wear is so personal, it is only natural that what we did not like, we would not wear. But that gift was a token of love to begin with, so it felt wrong to recycle it at someone else’s wedding. But what if that gift was a recycled one to begin with?

It also made me think of another fundamental concept- the value (and not the price) of the gift. Gift exchanges usually happen based on their prices, but what about the value? To me, a handwritten letter from a friend, or a travel postcard from a travel buddy means a lot more than an expensive brand of lipstick. I have carefully preserved every letter and card I have received over the years, but commercial merchandise did not mean the same to me. If this is the case, why send gifts to people, especially people whose homes are already brimming with stuff? What value does it add to their life anyway?

So a few months ago, I made a decision. I decided, no more gifts. Only presents. What is the difference? I see a present as something that is valuable for the present, not necessarily a piece of stuff, but an attribute that one will enjoy. For example, taking the time out to spend an evening with someone and have dinner, instead of sending them a gift for something. Remembering someone’s birthday, and calling them, instead of sending them a message on Facebook. Sharing a list of favorite movies or favorite sings with someone. Remembering what is someone’s favorite dish, and cooking it for them. Taking someone’s children to the zoo or the park, instead of giving them an expensive toy. Doing something, teaching something, or helping someone with your skills to show that you care. I had my moments of doubts, when I feared that people might criticize me behind back, calling me a miser. But I remembered the famous saying, “Be the change you want to see.” And I think that it has worked out well so far.

Last week, I was visiting someone in Philadelphia who agreed to host me although there is a baby at home, and they don’t exactly live in a palace. I needed to be there for work, and was on a tight budget. So I didn’t want to spend money on hotels. Also, I saw it as an opportunity to bond with my friend, spend time with her, and hang out with her family, including the baby. But once again, fears crept up my mind as I was faced with the gift dilemma. I was visiting the baby for the first time, and tradition demanded that I got something for the baby. But here was my dilemma. I could not carry something big from my place, because I was taking a flight and had baggage restrictions. I have no idea about gifts for babies. Even if I did, I do not know what the baby might already have. America is the land of plenty, where most people suffer from excess and not scarcity. And knowing how picky everyone is about clothes these days, I did not know what clothes to buy for the baby. Knowing how unwanted gifts are recycled by many, I did not want to give something that would be a waste of time, money, and resources. So I went there empty-handed.

But I have one skill that I could use to give them a present. I am a photographer. So one evening, we all went outside, and I took hundreds of family pictures. And on another day, I did an indoor photo session for the family once again. I know that new parents (or even not so new parents) love having pictures of their baby. So I put in the time, and made the effort to make the baby smile, give ideas to the mom about how to dress the baby up, and took hundreds of pictures of the family that they have been proudly showing off to their friends on Facebook ever since. And that serves my purpose and makes me happy. If I gave them something from BabiesRUs, I would never know if the baby liked it, already had a duplicate, or was being put to good use. But the value of what I gave them was immediate, and palpable. I think my plan worked.

So this is what I plan to do from now on. Give a present, and not a gift. Spend one-on-one time. Have conversations in real time. Listen. Write a hand-written letter. Send a thank you note. Take pictures of people. Take the children to a park, or do hands-on fun activities with them. Teach a skill. Take time to call people on their birthdays and not just send a Facebook message. Make an effort to meet people. No more expensive toys or jewelry or clothes. The more materialistic we get, the more we miss out on the human touch. And people have enough money to buy what we gift them anyway. So what is the point?


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Job

How often do you say, "I'm looking for a job", instead of, "I'm looking for the job"? 

This difference of one word (a versus the) makes a world of a difference in our attitude toward seeking gainful employment. To me, "looking for a job" shows my complacency, inadequacy, and my inability to bargain for more in life. Whereas "looking for the job" shows a definite aim and structured plan of action. I didn't realize this difference until very recently, when I started looking for a job, and went like, wait a minute. I'm already in the seventh page of my curriculum vitae. I have three degrees beyond a bachelor degree, including a Ph.D. I have done very well in school. And all these years of training later, I don't need "a job". I need "the job". 

It might be a good idea to pay close attention to how I frame my words. For often, what you ask for is what you get in life.


Monday, April 07, 2014

Building Up

I think that the transition time between the end of something and the beginning of something else is the region of greatest possibility. I make the analogy using Lego blocks. Whenever something ends, anything, a relationship, a career, a job, a life, we lie like a pile of Lego blocks, broken, without direction, and feeling useless. But that is also the exact moment when we can recreate and redefine ourselves, mold ourselves into something new, create new possibilities, and become someone different. I think that if we were never broken, we would never get a chance to build ourselves again.