Monday, August 15, 2005

Learning to Walk

I often like to characterize myself as a misfit - perhaps in a lame attempt at coolness, most often as a whiney excuse. I lived in India from age 6.5 to 22.5. That's 16 years. The two languages that should have been mine - Malayalam and Hindi - I never tried properly to pick up. Consequently, a large part of Indian culture has always been off limits to me. Another consequence is that I never grew up. I hated talking on the phone, I wasn't too fond of meeting people, or dealing with shopkeepers, or asking for directions. Why? The language barrier. That was what I told myself. Sooner or later they would notice my lack of proficiency in the language, and then the questions would start, and I would be embarrassed/mortified, and have no good reply. That was the crutch I provided myself, and I could always take refuge in that.

Until now.

Now, for the first time in my life, I am in a country where the predominant language is the one language I speak fluently. English.

That means no more excuses. If I want something, I have to go and ask people if I don't know how to do it. I have to communicate - interact. I'm standing free.

For years I've traded one ivory tower for another. This last move was really no different. I went from the isolation of school to the seclusion of IIT Kanpur. From there I moved to PSU. But now in Penn State, I have to look after myself.

No more dhobi - I've got to do my own laundry. No problems there, though I still have to get the hang of ironing properly.

No more mess hall. Well, that's not quite right. I'm likely to be busy, so I'll probably sign up for a meal plan and eat meals in the dining commons. Even otherwise I usually just stop at a restaurant or deli and order stuff. But I can expect to spend the occasional weekend morning cooking something for myself. That is, once I shift into my new apartment. Which should happen on the 22nd or so.

So basically, I have to figure out what my needs are and then go buy the stuff I need. Nobody's spoonfeeding me any more. A few days ago my roommate and I were hit by an infestation of houseflies. They just started with about 3 or 4 one night and then multiplied by the next morning. It was horrible. I must have killed atleast 16 flies by now. I'm getting quite good at it - but there are still atleast 5 left. It's like the Hydra - whenever I kill one, another takes its place. Plus what worries me is that if the survving ones mate and breed, I'll end up with uber-flies. Temporary solution - I bought a table fan. For $20.

See that's the other thing about the States. Everything is expensive. When you convert it into rupees, at least. The important thing is to be economical, but not to get frightened by the money you're spending - if it's on essentials. Still 20 dollars was actually a bad bargain, considering I could have perhaps got a secondhand one for $10, or a smaller one for less at Walmart.

Walmart. I visited it for the first time yesterday night, and I didn't get much time to really wander round, but yeah, things are usually cheaper there. It's a busride away from the campus, and there are few other big stores nearby that I'll have to visit. Once I shift and figure out what I need, that is. And after seeing what my roommates bring.

Still no idea who they're going to be. I checked a site here that gives your roommate assignment, and it lists me alone in a four bedroom apartment. The ridiculous part is that there is a (metaphorical) line of people waiting to get an apartment at White Course. I know, because one of my Physics batchmates is one of them.

Guess I better introduce them. Zhongyao Sun is the guy waiting to get into White Course. He's from Beijing, and it's his first trip out of China - he has been to Hong Kong though. His English is pretty good, and we're reasonably friendly now. But he's a bit too liberal, which is why Arthur and I suspect him of being an agent of the Chinese secret police.

Arthur Tsobanjan is from Estonia, a little republic that broke away from the old USSR, and that is pretty close to Finland. His father is Armenian, his mother Ukrainian, so his first language is Russian. But he spent the last 6 years studying in the UK (2 in school, 4 getting a Masters in Imperial College, London) so he speaks with a British accent. Like me, he to hopes to get into Gravity. Most of the others want to do Condensed Matter, I think.

Xinyuan Dou is probably the biggest of us, sizewise, but he's also very quite. He's also from China, and I'm pretty sure he has a paper or two to his name, on carbon nanotubes, I think.

The only person who is as quiet is Young-Moo Byun. Luckily that's pronounced just as it's written. He's from South Korea, and is 28 years old, which makes him the oldest of us. He's shocked that I'm going for PhD at age 22.5 - he thinks I'm smart, which is a common error people make. He worked in computer programming before, and true to form will probably go into computational Condensed Matter Theory. His English is actually alright, he just has a couple of pronunciation problems which he is already correcting, and a confidence problem, which needs a lot more work.

The fifth international Physics student I met is Cheng-Ing C. I forget the surname. He's a Chinese Malaysian, and he did his undergrad in Taiwan. There is supposed to be another guy from Taiwan joining us in a couple of weeks - he's been having visa problems.

We also met Ronald Stites - he's one of the Americans who will be joining us. At last, a person who has lost more hair than me. Friendly chap, though.

Yesterday was the International Students' picnic, where I met a few other people - including quite a few Indians. I better write down their names before I forget them - my temporary roommate, Nilendra Joshi, from Nainital. He's a Ford Foundation scholar, is joining the Entomology department, has about 5-6 years work experience, tends to sleep a lot, and is sometimes prone to bursts of talkativeness. Arjun, from Bangalore, also with plenty of work ex, worked in Infosys and IISc, going for a Master's in Computer Science, and still remembers some Russian from the time when he studied there. He and Arthur started chatting away, and I just kept laughing. I couldn't help it, it was just funny listening to them speak. I felt like Russell Peters in the elevator with those Africans.

Akshay - don't remember much else about him. There was also Radhesh (?) - again, I can't recall any details. And of course, there was a Southey - Venkat (short for Venkataraman), Tamil origin but settled in Bombay for the last so many years. He's going in for EE, and he's going to be in White Course Apartments too, though in a different hall. Apparently there were also a few IITM guys, but I didn't run into them. And then there was Mithun, again from Bombay I think, who's come to join the MBA programme.

There were a few Indian girls hanging around, but the only one I met was Holika. No, actually, that was Venkat and I heard at first, her name's actually Kolika, and she's a Bong.

Probably the worst thing you can do after travelling thousands of miles to study in a different country is to end up hanging out with only your fellow countrymen (and women, but you know Indian guys ;) ). I vowed to myself that I wouldn't do it, but it seems that I'm no better than the rest. I did meet a Bangladeshi guy while hanging out with the Indian crowd, but eventually I broke free, and then was miserably alone for a little while until I ran into Arthur. So now I was hanging out with my Dept mates.

That actually didn't go too badly. Zhongyao (or Yao, as he now asks everyone to call him before they murder his name) had earlier introduced me to an old universitymate of his called Carol - like many Chinese, she had opted to take an English name for convenience. Now Arthur and I started talking with some of the student volunteers - they were taking names for a few sports teams, and Artthur was signing up for soccer. They weren't taking names for tennis, but the volunteer - a nice Malaysian girl called Nadia, who's a 3rd year undergrad doing biotech - introduced Arthur to a Chinese Chemistry student who also played tennis. I was actually able to pronounce her Chinese name, but she goes by the handle of Sherry in the States. Unfortunately she wasn't so fluent in English, so our conversation quickly meandered and died.

It was a little funny (and sad) seeing the Chinese split into two groups sitting on the grass - mainland and Taiwan, but no one was making any trouble. Yao was excited to see so many Chinese students - and he ended up noting down all their names (40 of them) in a little notepad. More proof he's with the secret police. Still, it was nice for him to find people to speak his native tongue to.

Native tongues, of course, are the slightly ironic reason we ended up in the States so early. Arthur and I found it a little ridiculous that we were being asked to report for an Intensive English course before orientation. Thankfully, though, the class turned out to be a lot more than that. Mind you, we did cover some English problems - it appears I tend to mispronouce the 'v' sound. But a lot of the class time (which was 10.00am -12.00 noon, and 1.30pm - 3.30pm) was taken up with the American classroom, the difficulties of being an international Teaching Assistant, and American culture. In the first class this involved watching an episode of Friends (mphah!); another time we watched a very interesting clip from a movie called Stand and Deliver, based on a true story. Check it out.

It was planned rather smartly - the first instructor was Alina, from Romania, who has been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for 8 years, has been in the States for five, and who has been in Penn State for nearly 3 years. So yes, start off with an instructor who is herself a foreigner, ease the students into their new setting with somebody who underwent the same process herself. Now back her up with an American who has a significant amount of experience abroad too - this was Danielle. A fierce Democrat (who recognizes that the party is not doing too great, but argues that Bush is hopeless; we spent at least half an hour discussing Bush, USA foreign policy and our respective countries), she used to train in modern historical fencing. Basically it's fencing which is more freestyle than collegiate (Olympic) fencing, with less rules. She talked about it while giving a demo on how to give a presentation - and she brought the swords (foils, really) to class! It was pretty cool. She has a tendency to say 'you know' a lot, but does not scare us as much as Alina, who accidentally keeps telling us things about TAship that frighten us. Like all the legal disclaimers we have to include when we announce a syllabus, and how occasionally a student may sue a TA.

Today the course ended, and after her morning session, Alina took us out to an Austrian resaurant caled Herwig's. I had a lunch that was so filling that I'm still not really hungry - and it's now 9.30pm. I had a bratwurst. It's a lovely little place, run by a family, and nearly everything is homemade. Bring your sense of humour is what they say - and they are quite a hilarious family. Check this out: a small notice on the table asks you to eat all the food you are served, or else you will be forced to choose between:

1. Scrubbing dishes
2. Being beaten with a large wooden stick (which is red, and hangs rather prominently on the wall)
3. Asking for a box and being charged $35 for it
4. Warning them in advance, so that they can give you smaller servings and charge twice as much.

Heh. :) .

I have more news to tell, of America in general and Penn State in particular, but that will have to wait for later.

Until we meet again, Dear Readers.

Au revoir.


Post a Comment

<< Home