Sunday, August 28, 2005

To Belong

Your first school and university are always important. The friends you make, the lessons you learn - most of those will last you for a lifetime. It is in those times that your character is set, your die-hard habits forged. Love them or hate them, those times will always be with you.

What about your second coll?

Starting life in a different country is bad enough. Doing it in a new coll makes it stranger. Grad students come into a university with a rich and detailed past which has already shaped them. Can they ever really belong? Feel like a part of the university? When they leave, how much will they miss it? The place, the people, the culture?

Well, first you have to know them.

So what have I learned about Penn State? What drives them, what brings them together, what are the people like, what is this place?

There are many answers, many points to be raised, but one has to start somewhere.


I'm talking off American Football, of course. That mad sport where big undergrads pad themselves up into intimidating giants and hurl themselves at each other. Somewhere along the line, a ball which is not a ball gets passed for a touchdown.

I'm sorry, but my knowledge of the sport is currently limited to the bits I picked up from movies. I dare say though that before the year is done, I'll know a lot more. Over here it's inevitable. Penn State loves football.

Love? That's a pretty strong word, isn't it? After all, all that they're playing is Amateur league. The Big Ten universities of the East coast play each other. Sure, some of these kids may go on to make pro, but how big a deal is the whole show?


Football games here are held in a stadium with a seating of over a 100,000. On match days, the stadium is filled to overflowing. University Park temporarily becomes one of the top 4 most populated areas of Pennsylvania.

Think about that.

Old students come back to watch. Current ones rent out their apartments for a day. Scalpers sell tickets at ginormous prices. Considering that the team has had a less than 50% win record over the last two years, it's funny that spirit still runs this strong. What's funnier is that most of it is because of one man.

He studied English at an Ivy League school. He listens to opera while planning football strategies. He and his family donated 3.5 million dollars to the university (he is rumoured to be the highest paid university employee). He's taken the PSU team to the heights of College Football glory, yet insists that his players are in Penn State for an education, not just for football, and requires them to take proper, and not fraud courses. He's nearly 80 years old. He worked as assistant coach for 16 years, and has been head coach since 1966.

Meet Joe Pa.

The university, in honour of the Paternos' philanthropy, named an extension of the Pattee Library after them. So now we have the Pattee and Paterno libraries. Personally I think it's a bad idea to name something after a living person, especially if he is still in the university's employ. But that's the way it works here.

The Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library is housed in Davey Lab (Davey and Osmond Labs house the Physics department.). Such a change from the brown bound rows of books at Kelkar. What's really nice is their check out policy.

First of all, aside from journals which can only be taken out for two hours at a time, standard books can be issued by graduate students for.... the semester. Semester loan. Now, I wish I had had that at Kanpur. And second, the limit on the number of books you can check out per person is.... no, guess. Go ahead. Give it a shot.


200 books per person.


Continuing on the subject of books, there is a very nice cafe - cum - bookstore downtown called Webster's. It looks really good. Lots of second hand stuff, shelves filled to near overflowing, and what seems to be a rather nice collection of old and new SF&F. I could probably just sit there and read. I guess I'll save that for the occasional weekend.

Of course, man does not live on words alone. He's got to have grub. I haven't yet signed up for the meal plan, so I'm still eating out. Except for breakfast - I go for cereal then.

On campus there exist a few eating places in the HUB - which is actually the Hetzel Union Building, but which actually is the HUB of student events. On weekends they show movies there and have board games that you can borrow for a few hours and play. More about that later. Downtown, however, offers much more variety - there are Chinese restaurants, Indian ones (The India Pavilion serves an all you can eat Buffet for about $7.00), Austrian, American - and if you wander a little further afield, you can find Viet-Thai and Korean restaurants too. In Pennsylvania the law is that you can smoke if you are over 18, and you can drink if you're over 21. But you have to prove your age with a state issued ID (like a driver's license) or your passport. As we're not too fond of carrying my passport around, the other international students and I usually can't join our American friends when they enter bars. We did do it a couple of times while we were carrying our passports, but for me, since I don't drink, it's just not worth the hassle. There is, however, a nice band at Zeno's, one of the downtown bars. The Department of Motor Vehicles does issue a non-Driver's License proof-of-age ID - I'll have to get one sometime.

Most places close by 8pm, so if you're feeling peckish late at night, you can either go to the local supermarket which closes at midnight, or one of the places that serve alcohol after 9pm, or like me, you can visit Ye Old College Diner. The Diner is something which I sorely missed at IITK - it's open 24 hours. Well, most days. It has hiccups in its service schedule occasionally. Now that my eating schedule has changed I haven't visited it in sometime - but I rather like it. I have a favourite waitress who actually remembered me, at least in the days when I was semi-regular, if only because I'd ask her each time if they had tuna. They usually didn't, which was a pity, since the tuna and the BLT (bacon-lettuce-tomato) sandwiches were among the best on their menu. Another place I've visited a couple of times is Baby's .... something and Shakes. I can't remember. It's a kinda retro-diner, with a 1950's (?) ridiculous red and white decor. They serve marvellous milkshakes.

At home, in the apartment, I eat cereal in the morning - occasionally I make myself peanut butter - jam sandwiches.

Ah. Home. I forgot about that.

On the 22nd of August I finally left the flies of Sproul Hall behind, and moved (a day late) into my accomodation at White Course apartments. For some reason the name had made me think that the buildings would be white - actually, they're brick. The name possibly comes from the sand in the adjacent golf course.

Moving took a little longer than expected. First I had to wait for transportation to shift my stuff - the International Student Services (ISS) dept kindly took care of that. After reaching White Course, I had to wait again while a slight glitch was sorted out. It turned out that they had given the key to my room to a maintenance person for repairs and cleaning, and he hadn't returned it. Unwilling to send me into a room which might not be clean and the key to which was in somebody else's possession, they shifted me to another room in the same flat. So I shifted from the B bedroom to the C bedroom. This has caused me slight inconveniences as I have had to change to my address on all the forms that I had filled. However, problem sorted, I shifted into my new room.

The flat is already furnished, and comes complete with:
In each bedroom:
telephone and net connections, a bed, a wardrobe, a chair, a desk with an inbuilt light, two sets of drawers, a mirror on the back of the door and blinds on the windows.
In the flat in general:
a sofa, chairs, a dining table with chairs, a washing machine, a dryer, a fridge, an oven, a microwave, kitchen cabinets....

My roommates are Josh, who is in Chemistry and work with RNA, and Masaki, who is Japanese, and works in Communication and Interpersonal Dynamics, or something similar. Interestingly, the third roommate, who was supposed to occupy the C bedroom, and who would now occupy my old B bedroom, has not, to the best of my knowledge, arrived. Today was the first day of fall term - maybe he's come. I'll have to check.

All in all, the flat's a good deal, and though a little expensive, since it already has everything and I don't have to arrange for extra facilities, and since I don't spend much time there, I'm inclined to think that I'll stick with it next year. I'll have to see how it feels through the year. There is a campus bus that runs quite close by, and it's only a short walk/cycle away from my department.

Oh. Right. The cycle.


I've got wheels!

After Shivakumar told us about the cheap cycles available at Walmart, I stopped looking for a cheap secondhand bicycle, and Arthur and I went to Walmart to shop for bikes. There are two Walmarts nearby - we somehow missed catching a bus to the first, so we ended up going to the second one. I ended up buying a cycle for about $54 - but the accessories - helmet (which doesn't fit properly and which I hardly wear), front and back lights (mandatory for night cycling), pump, lock - came to more than the cycle, I think. The final total was around $115-125. Arthur bought a more expensive bike for $98, but it had better gears.

Then came the fun part. We cycled back.

Our timing had gotten a little messed up, so Arthur was running late for an appointment with a prof. It's been about a year since I rode a cycle for any slightly prolonged period of time. I was (and still am) terribly out of shape, so Arthur quickly left me behind as we cycled off. It didn't help that there were uphill rides, and that I was still not used to changing gears (it is my first multi-speed bike, after all). But Arthur was very kind/considerate/thoughtful, since he checked back on me every now and then, and once when he had left me out of sight, and I had slowed down to the point that I found it easier to get off and walk the cycle, he came back to check that everything was okay. Which was fortunate, considering that I didn't know the way back as well as he did. Arthur still managed to meet the prof, and I completed my first ride on the edge of a major roadyway, with traffic whizzing past. The fun was in the downslopes - the speed you build is amazing, as well as scary, considering that you're cycling on the hard shoulder of the road, which isn't that wide, and you have traffic whizzing past you from behind at who-knows-how-many miles per hour. Since then I have confined myself to the campus and downtown. More road warrior adventures will have to wait for another day. I still tire very easily while cycling - in contrast, my walking has improved to near old levels. But with a cycle, I can explore the campus more quickly, and discover new places.

Of course, with people, you still have to do it the old-fashioned way. My circle of acquaintances has grown, but of course, a lot depends on how frequently you meet. Getting to know people is not easy. I have always been a little reticent about getting acquainted with people in situations where our roles are not predefined. Even when the introductions happen smoothly and quickly, I can often find myself alone in a crowded room, sometimes tired of the niceties that one must spout to keep a conversation going. But a new place is a fresh start, where people don't know you. That works both ways - while you may not have a friend who understands you completely, with whom you can be perfectly casual and at ease, you also have no prior reputation, you are free to make a fool of yourself. Which is what I proceeded to do with abandon during the International Students Orientation.

One trick for getting to know people is getting involved in a group activity. So, despite my reservations, during Orientation I signed up for a game of broomball.

Broomball is ice hockey - only there are no skates, only your sneakers; there is no puck, only a blue ball; and there are not hockey sticks, only .... sticks called brooms, though they really aren't. Otherwise it's pretty much the usual field game - offense, defense, goalie. Try to score. Try to save. Try to block.

I won't go into the details of the match, except to say that my team lost (twice). Personally I think it's because our offensive lacked punch. Naturally, I was playing defensive ;). Nevertheless, in other respects it was a success - I met quite a few people, some of whom I still run into now and then. There was Rayos, originally from Nigeria but who has lived a lot in the UK. There was Valentina from Columbia. There was 'Charlie' from South Korea, and Philip, and Mathai (a Keralite settled in UK). Most of the UK people are just exchange students who've come over for a year. There was also an undergrad from Hong Kong called Yan Tze (well, that's my guess as to how her name is spelt).

Another night, the ISS people took us out bowling. This was my first time (in my life) out bowling, so I sucked colossally. Actually that's not a valid excuse. Venkat was bowling for the first time too, and he won both his games. Venkat is the talkative Madrasi Bombay chap I mentioned last time. He likes to tease me, and unfortunately I tend to respond, but I'm learning to dampen my responses. For some reason he seems to gets a kick out of my being a physicist. Whazzever. He's an Antenna Engineer. Or will be.

I still managed to meet a couple of people, including my first Egyptian - a girl called Passant. Everytime I say her name I think of the chess move 'en passant' - in passing. I met her again later when a group gathered to play board games. One group played Monopoly, but I watched the group that was playing Risk.

I arrived too late to join the game, and I have never played Risk on a board - I've played it on a computer, but that was different. Actually the others hadn't played it either, so they made up some of the rules on the way. That made it more chaotic, but way fun. I just stood outside and kibitzed, passing comments that provoked the occasional burst of laughter. The game never really finished - we called it quits around three in the morning. I didn't learn any names, but I would later meet Passant and one of the players again - an African guy called Selom. Again, my approximation.

Besides games, social gatherings are a good time to meet people. There was an International Coffee Hour, where I finally met Shivakumar. Shiv is one of my new physics batchmates - he did Electrical Engg in B'lore, then a Masters in Physics at Texas A&M University. He knows Vishwesha quite well.

I suppose I'd better introduce the rest of my batch. I described some of them last time, but now the batch is pretty complete. First off let me add Chune Yang Lum, the Singaporean wunderkind, who did 2.5 years National Service. If you've ever filled out a visa form, you know that there's a section where you have to say whether you've had

a) any Military Service
b) any training with explosives
c) any training with Chemical weapons/warfare
d) any training with Biological weapons/warfare
e) any training with Nuclear weapons/warfare.

Chune Yung had to tick yes for a,b,c and e. His training didn't actually involve using nuclear or chemical weapons, but he did train in defense against them. He's also climbed some 6,000 m peak. Scary chap, he hardly looks his 26 years.

Secondly we have Joel. Well, that's the easy name he gave himself - his Chinese name is something else. He's from Taiwan, and had a lot of visa problems, so he arrived late.

Then we have Edward Wilson-Ewing. He's from Canada, and plays Ultimate. Ultimate is Ultimate Frisbee, which I like to say is like touch rugby without the touching, and without the rugby. He's trying out for the PSU team.

Then we have the Americans. There's Ronald Stites, whom I mentioned last time, and David Caven, and Aaron Miller, who's from Pennsylvania but studied in Cornell, and Adam Henderson, and Seth Timpano (who studied here in PSU in Astrophysiics but then switched over), and Gerardo Giordano (who's married, like Ronald), and Joshua West, who worked here in the summer, as did Maria Dahlberg, who's the only girl.

That covers the 18 of us.

The other community that I've slowly been getting to know is the White Course one. It turns out that Venkat is Zhongyao's flatmate. Philip stays in the same hall as me. So does Anushree, an Indian girl who's in Integrated Biosciences. India-wise, there's Smita, who's very sparky despite being confined to a wheelchair, and who is studying Special Ed; there's Uma (that is in fact, just Uma. She's dropped her last name, I don't know why) who's doing Industrial Labour; Nilesh who is in Aerospace if I'm not mistaken, Ashish, an Indian family whose names slip my mind, and Kripali, who's lived in the States for a few years. I've also met other people, like Andrea, Kripali's flatmate, but only time will show how often I run into the same people.

Of course, getting to know people aside, I made a fool of myself on general principles too, like the time during Orientation when I took a one-time introductory class in .....


Heheh. I was horrible, but it was fun, and I may join the classes, after I figure out how busy my schedule here is. Fall term started today, and we had two classes. Tomorrow will tell me more. For now, I had better stop, or this entry will never get finished. Adios, amigos.