Six years ago, I decided that at some point in my life I will pursue an advanced degree in the United States. At the time, I was in the 2nd year of my engineering and had lost all faith in the nationalized education system. I was teetering on the edge of dropping out of undergrad altogether, not because I had bad grades. On the contrary, I was always slightly above average but what did it mean to be slightly above average in a school where the focus was on rote learning and not investigative intellectual grasp of concepts? It meant the death of curiosity.
For some reason, over the decades, education in America has always appealed to me as a land of the curious minds. Somehow, it’s always been an inviting oasis for students like me who want to question and where it’s almost paramount to challenge archaic tools and constructs to be successful in academia. And then and there I’d decided that I’ll study here one day. I had zero knowledge of what program I would study… what I would do after that and where my career would go next. Of course, life happened at some point. Everything was delayed by a couple of years but it happened.
I graduated from one of the best private universities in the country with top grades in a program I wanted to study with fantastic internships under by belt. Check. I started working at an exciting start-up with challenging clients and projects. Check. Now, what?
What happens after this?
You’re in your mid-20s and you’ve been coasting along. Rowing a boat in the direction of the tide because obviously, everything is fine as long as it’s smooth sailing. But when the waters get choppy and you must absolutely find the shoreline where you can dock to save your life, you must decide where your ship is going to sail. That’s when you decide what alternative course of action you’re going to take to keep afloat.
Why do I feel like the waters are choppy? Because for some reason, much against the popular notion that I’ll have a better future in the US, I’m drawn towards home. “You’ll be so much in love with the lifestyle here that you won’t want to go back,” is the popular consensus of all Indian aunties. To that I’m yet to find an appropriate rebuttal because I can’t lie – I do like the lifestyle.
I read this article about American small talk in the New Yorker. It made a great point about social interaction, “American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.”
And the fact that I wasn’t the only one thinking this made me uncomfortable. In a developed country, the thrust of all operational procedures is towards automation. People in suits making big business decisions have decided that in order to increase throughput while reducing costs we need to automate everything. This has been going on since time immemorial, you will say. So what’s my point here? The side effect of a technologically advanced society is an immediate decrease in sociability. People also function like processes. Or at least it feels like that. I go to my local grocery store and am alarmed to see a longer queue for the self-checkout line. There have been times when people have actively avoided going to a checkout point with a person even though it was empty in favor of a self-checkout point!
I’m so used to being digital in any kind of transaction that when I went to a local full-service bank outlet, I was mildly surprised when I had to physically interact with the cashier to withdraw money. This bank didn’t have an attached ATM surprisingly. It felt nice to be serviced with a smile but I’m sure that smile might have been more genuine than usual because I was the first client that walked through their doors that day.
In this attempt to digitize and automate everything, something very qualitative about our day to day interactions is lost in the bargain. We get more distant from that small shot at human interaction that we have and intimacy is lost percolating into other social interactions that we have. Sociability to an introvert like me is a muscle, the more you exercise it the more you know how to be good at it.
I’m still relatively fresh in this country and carry over a lot of my values from home in how I interact with people. In my culture, elders are revered because they have valuable wisdom gained through experiences. So we learn how to retaliate with respect when we are not in agreement. It’s something that’s subconsciously ingrained in your behavior. I was at a subway station once, swiping in to go to my destination. I had to buy a ticket from the automated machine. An old man was struggling with his change. I offered to help him out. I said, “Sir, let me get that for you.” When I did, he offered to pay me and I refused. He had the most unbelievable expression. “You are not from around here. Are you?” he asked me. Obviously. My looks and thick Anglo-Indian accent were a dead giveaway. Things like this don’t happen, you know? Nobody gives a damn. So when they do happen, you’re looked at with suspicion. The opposite person wonders if you have a hidden agenda or are going to try to sell something to them in any second.
When I get lost on the roads, it’s the worst. On more than one occasion, the stranger I asked directions from told me to refer to Google Maps. Yes, there are nice people who tell me the right way but sometimes, I get a sense of fear when I approach people of the streets. I get a sense that they all are thinking this, “Why is she looking at me like she wants to make conversation? I need to run faster!”
Fear mirrors fear. So, I try to delete that emotion from my body when interacting with strangers. Especially with Uber/Lyft drivers. It’s like being stuck in an elevator but here you know when you will get off. I think someone must’ve perpetuated the idea that asking your customers how their day is going gives you better ratings and tips. And I feel bad for these guys. Driving around all day can get kind of boring, you know? So, when they ask me these questions, I engage them. And it’s refreshing for both parties. They always ask me to stay in touch... which I think is against the company policies! But you see, we are all so deprived of honest human interaction, it feels relatively amazing when someone genuinely talks to you and not just for the sake of small talk.
The best indicator of what is going on in a country/world today is what you see on your timeline on Facebook or through your Twitter feed. Some brilliant marketer had rightly pointed out that these “social” platforms are in the business of news publishing. Not in the business of social interaction. (Communication apps are a different ball game but more on that some other time.) One such morning, as I was browsing through a bunch of articles, I came across this: “Last week, students at Oberlin made national headlines for casting complaints about bad dining-hall food––a perennial lament of collegians––as a problematic social-justice failure. Word spread via people who saw their behavior as political correctness run amok. The New York Post gleefully mocked the students “at Lena Dunham’s college.” On social media, many wondered if the controversy was a parody.”
There are students in some school protesting the food they get in their cafeteria and a liberal-minded celebrity supports their movement because she thinks that not having good sushi is cultural appropriation. Yes! Read that again and again, how many ever times you want. It sounds just as silly to me in this article as it did in 100 other articles that wasted millions of people’s time by introducing a new concept – we can be discriminated based on food and we should take offense at that too. This did not deserve the world’s attention. On this same day, I read another article about a veteran Marathi actor setting up a non-profit for the benefit of wives and children of 1,548 farmers that committed suicide in Maharashtra because of failing crops and burgeoning financial pressures.
How is it that one section of the world can be so privileged that they complain about the authenticity of sushi they get and the other is so dismal that they can’t even grow food to eat? Is that the reason why I need to be here? Because then I’m part of the privileged few who get to walk on dirt-less roads and have water straight out of the tap? Or am I exercising privilege if I refuse this opportunity in favour of roads with potholes and doctor’s clinic that host roadside dogs?
As Indians, we’ve always had an issue with the way Hollywood captures the essence of India. We didn’t even spare Queen B when she adorned henna and Indo-fusion outfits for a Coldplay music video. We were quite bummed when Slumdog Millionaire was appreciated so graciously worldwide. We are constantly wanting to be seen as a culture that is not just a land of snake charmers and unfortunately that notion exists despite the fact that we are one of the foremost exporters of software/IT services around the world. It used to bother me a lot before but it doesn’t now because it happens when you stay here (I mean, North America) for too long. You’re so wrapped up in your bubble of comfort that you forget to see what is happening around the world. It blinds you to the harsher realities of life in other parts of the globe.
Your only source of connection is mass media and these days it seems the sole purpose of journalism is to narrate reports of hate, crime, violence and anger because those things spread like wildfire on social media and keep network bosses happy. I realized my lack of connection with ground realities when I started asking stupid questions like – “Do people eat salads or do we have salad bars in India?” to those few friends who’ve managed to stay in touch with me over the years. I became one of those individuals who did not know what it was like to live in my own country in a span of just 3 years. How can I expect better of other people who’ve never stepped foot in Asia and have only learned about India as a footnote in geography class or through exaggerated representations in pop culture?
The ultimate goal of all NRIs is citizenship (let’s admit it, once and for all) until then everyone is in constant fear of being deported for x, y, z reasons. And to get to that stage there’s a really long battle riddled with a number of compromises. There are one too many crazy stories you’ll get to hear when you dig deep. The quest for a citizenship has made people do the unimaginable, from fake marriages to fake jobs to fake degrees to fake aliases… you name it. Somehow, every foreign national of color is seen that way. As if we are all desperate to get out of miserable lives we lead in our native countries.
I met with an experienced advertising recruiter once for a short interview. We spoke at great length about the state of Advertising, the role of data and digital in the new world order and the business model of big advertising holding companies etc. Then we spoke about my visa situation. He said, “Look champ, I must be honest with you. This industry is not favourable to immigrants seeking visa at your level of experience. Maybe at VP level, yes.”
“I know you have credible 3 years’ worth of work experience but if you compromise on the pay then maybe we can get you a good role and possibly a visa?”
“I’m here to work on good projects and do great work. I’ve never bothered about anything else.”
With that the conversation closed and for a fleeting second, the recruiter felt that yes, there is still some skin in the game and was taken aback with my nonchalance for a work visa. I know he meant well and was sympathetic towards my situation but that’s the point – I’m not here because I want to be a citizen of your country. I’m here only because since the beginning of time, talent and trade has always been attracted to cities that can offer an opportunity to enterprising individuals. What is wrong with that?
This feeling of being an outsider and somebody who is not welcome here becomes more and more pronounced as you go further along the process of securing a legal means to stay in America. It probably doesn’t matter to most people who come here to fulfill their American dream. What is the American dream to the outside world? If you ask me then it is the promise that you can be whoever you want to be and make it to the top. It feels like a lie sometimes or an over-promise made by the founding fathers. Especially now, when an overwhelming rhetoric of “Make America Yours Again” rings in my ears when I wake up in the morning.
Are they succeeding in making me feel that I don’t belong here? Does that mean if I take my dreams to some other place, they’ve successfully booted me out and I’ve hung up my boots? Or does it mean that I’m packing up my pride and honor to be of service to an economy that would rather have me as a welcomed part of their workforce?
I don’t know. Maybe, I need to watch Hamilton and see if America is a place for me or not. And then I read this heartwarming account of an Israeli soldier of why their army chooses to go to India when they are on vacation, “There is a weight that comes with living in this country[Israel], a weight that many of us carry, a lost friend or family member, or simply the everyday stress of not living in the safest of places. One of the reasons I traveled to India was to discover what weight I might be carrying with me, and hopefully rid myself of it. Plus, I heard the food was amazing.”
The food is AMAZING...