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.


Sunday, October 02, 2016

My condition has a name

The thing with Condor Airlines (international, not domestic) is that they ask you money for headphones, have an amazing movie collection of exactly two (a horrible chick flick and an animation movie) unless you pay, and don't even let you choose between chicken or pasta if you are at the rear end of the plane (they just run out of chicken). With the bad food, cheap plastic that would have broken while slicing chicken anyway, and the terribly cramped leg space, I am glad that they don't ask money for using the bathrooms. With 11 hours to kill on my flight from Germany to the USA, I decide to watch the movies with English subtitles and no audio anyway, only to realize that while all that Cameron Diaz and two other women did was wear skimpy clothes and plot to avenge the man who was sleeping with all three of them (such intellectually stimulating stuff!), they played the captions from a WWII movie the entire time. Diaz wades into the ocean in a bikini and someone talks about bombing Berlin and moving in to Poland.

Having said that, there were no major mishaps and I did reach Seattle fine. G was at the airport with the kids. The 3-year old kicked me in excitement, got confused between our names, and called me her name. We struggled to load the two huge bags risking herniated uteri, G rightly asking me if there are bodies hiding in those bags. "No, just kilos of German chocolates to last me the year," I replied. The only reason I got away not paying extra for heavily overweight bags is because I made a sad face and told the kind lady at the airport that I am leaving Germany for good. My German bank (can't say enough good things about them, sarcastically though) decided to give me back my entire savings of two years in 50 euro bills. I am serious. Risking thieves (remember Greece from not too long ago?), random bag checks, or emergency plane evacuations, I had to get very creative about transporting thousands of euro in cash.

Seattle is a brief pit stop before I head to my final destination. I have been missing Germany more than I thought. It feels strange that no one is speaking German anymore, people are not stinking of cigarettes, and restaurants are serving water even without asking. Even more surprisingly, I see Indians walking on the streets for a change. In a funny way, I do feel like an alien (in the USA, they call people like me alien), only from another planet. I got to eat comfort food like idli and biryani at G’s place after months. I am getting a little bit of cold feet right now with this new chapter starting for real this week and have been jet-lagged and up since 2 am every day. I am not sleeping well. Often, I start planning what all I need to pack when I go back from Seattle to Germany. Only that I don’t have to go back to Germany anymore. My brain refuses to acknowledge that I am back in the USA for good. For two years, I shuttled between Seattle and Germany, praying that I make it back, bringing German chocolates and taking back my favorite stuff from Seattle (for example, seaweed from Costco). It does not feel any different this time. Of course I am not schizophrenic and do not live in an alternate reality. So it is easy for me to realize this and quickly switch back to reality. Within a few hours of arriving, I have a cell phone and I am using a credit card and microwave. For two years, I used none of these (I used the credit card only to purchase international flight tickets, daily purchases in Germany happened using cash). It feels like someone has pressed the reset button in my life from 2014 (when I left the USA exactly this month). In a heartfelt conversation with a close friend, I told her although I did everything in my capacity to move back to the USA with a job, I am just not able to calm down or feel like I have really moved back. She told me that I am suffering the sure shot signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The funny thing is, I will have to take a driving test again, both writing and practical. It feels like being in college and having to study for fifth grade. It’s not good enough that I drove extensively for many years before I left the US. It’s amazing how many hoops I have to jump just to settle in before starting the most challenging job of my life. Right now, my brain feels like it has been centrifuged and pulverized. I feel exhaustion way more than excitement. I am mostly navigating in auto-pilot mode, reminding myself to take deep breaths again and again. PTSD, it definitely is.