For as long as I can remember the picture I had of an American university campus was one where fun, academic success and extra- curricular activities mixed seamlessly. Ten years ago, I made the shift from my home in Bangalore, India to pursue a Maters program at Syracuse University in the US. The idea of living so far away from the familiar was incredibly exciting. I fantasized about my future. I would have a beautiful studio apartment like the ones I had seen in the university brochures, I would be the star of my class and make lots of friends, and I would leave campus with a fancy job in an even fancier office that I would roll up to in my silver VW Bug. I could not wait to leave.
Then I got here. Nothing could have prepared me for the fish-out-of-water experience. Everything was frighteningly new. My fantasies collapsed in a heap of reality. I was a poor graduate student with an odd accent and I constantly felt out of place. I was so afraid of embarrassing myself by saying the wrong thing that I found I was only willing to dive into social situations that either required my attendance or where I was assured there would be other South Asian attendees. How could this be? I was a social, sophisticated, curious woman. What was going on?
With the clarity that hindsight provides I can now say that I was afflicted by culture shock. It’s like any other disease really. There was a cause (I was a million miles from home), and there were symptoms (panic brought on by new situations). I missed India. I missed my friends, I missed knowing where I was going when I left the house, and I missed the taste of Old Monk rum. Mainly I missed ‘feeling at home.’ It was only much later I discovered the cure. I found that ‘feeling at home’ does not come with time nor is it something anyone else can help you with. You have to make an effort to get out there and get comfortable with your new life.
To begin with try and embrace the culture in which you have chosen to live. Learn about what the locals are interested in and get involved. When my husband moved to New York he found a cheap and healthy way to get involved with the city. He began training for his first marathon. Of course, not all of us see glory in running (and sometimes crawling) 42 kilometers and I do not suggest that we follow in his blistered footsteps. My point is he found something that was an indelible part of the city in which he lived and he made it his own.
Most western cities, towns and college campuses offer all kinds of activities and clubs that you can join. It’s a great way to make friends and they always serve refreshments! If you have travelled thousands of miles away from your friends, family and favorite foods then you owe it to yourself to have fun and explore new things.
My biggest problem with Syracuse (other than the fact that it wasn’t India) was that it was cold and it snowed. All the time. It snows too much, what do people do here? I would whine to my friends. Why don’t you learn how to ski? someone suggested. Ski? Me? I took just two lessons, most of which I spent trying to get up off the ground, but I had so much fun that all the cold, and damp, and aching backside was worth it. Plus, ski instructors are usually pretty cute.
As a student in a foreign country worrying incessantly about the future comes with the territory. We have a responsibility to get good grades, find a well-paying job, and get an H1-B work visa among other things. While all of this does matter, remember to make time for a life because the student memories we value most exist outside the classroom.