May 3, 2013

Traveling on the wrong side of the road

International students gear up for a cultural shock
It was four in the evening. I was tired, groggy and reeked of the 24-hour-long flight from Mumbai to Cleveland. The level of excitement I had while boarding an airplane to the U.S. had waned a little bit. And the incessant chattering of the loud people in the back seats had only made the flight seemed endless. I thanked God that the flight landed. And now that I got through the unnerving immigration process, I couldn't wait to walk outside the airport and take my first photograph ... of my first view ... of the U.S. My hosting student was gracious enough to pick me up from the airport. She was driving me to her place, where I would spend the first week of my life in the U.S. and all I could think about was how she drove on the "wrong side of the road." Things felt out of cue, there were too many symbols painted on the road and signs that indicated miles over kilometers. I realized in that minute that I was in another country, far from home, and had to learn a few default habits all over again. The first day in the U.S. passed by in a haze, and I woke up only a whole day later. Thank you, jet-lag! After that first day, what was in store for me were a series of small shocks. And this is a story of those small shocks. 

The first big learning experience was during my graduate student orientation. It was a week of meeting with the school's staff, faculty and other incoming students. There were students from all over the globe, the first time I had seen all of them together. I was curious. I was excited. I wanted to introduce myself to them and hear about their lives. There were other students from my own country there too, and it calmed me to see them. I did not feel all alone. I noticed how a few students were uncomfortable to break out of their shell and speak to the domestic students and other international students. Silos were beginning to form. It is a big change and a big choice to make--whether to make an effort to communicate with other students or stay in your familiar bubble with students from your country. I believe I chose the right option. I had come very far from home, to learn from a new culture, in a new country. It was time to leave inhibitions behind, to be confident and to interact within a global confluence. 

It was during these first interactions, that I slowly started to realize that a few things I had taken for granted were suddenly setting me apart in the crowd. Besides the fact that I very clearly look Indian, there were other subtle characteristics about me that set me apart. 

The right kind of English and turning defaults into errors
My English, that I thought was flawless, suddenly was under scrutiny. I spent 27 years of my life learning and speaking the English language that the British had gifted my people with. And suddenly words were spelt differently and pronounced differently. Letters were dropped and substituted. Colour became color, offence became offense, sizeable turned to sizable, cheque changed to a check and metre became meter. Words changed meaning. Learnt became learned. People didn't want my surname anymore, but asked for my last name. It was no longer right to say the boot of a car, biscuits were cookies and petrol was now gas. Suddenly I was making so many errors, without actually making them. 

All basic standards of measurements were shattered. Basic things like the paper size were different.  I had held the metric system very close to my heart and mind. But they no longer helped me in the U.S. I couldn't shop for paper without the U.S. standard of measurement. Who thought I would have a problem picking paper! Paper sizes were not measured on a metric scale, A4 was now the letter size. The list was endless. And it hit me. I missed home. I missed my friends, my family, my usual coffee, my usual driving speed and my dear little A4 paper.  

The first few weeks in the U.S. were intense. In just a day, I felt overburdened with responsibilities that I took for granted while living with my parents. I had to search for a place to live, set up a phone account, set up a bank account, set up the university's insurance program, the list was endless. 

Where to go for help
For those who will be making the trip to Cleveland like I did, you will find the help you need, just look for it. Weatherhead’s Student Affairs Office, student council, and culture societies were all there to help me. You will get through all of this as smoothly as smooth can be. You will find a good home to live in, though no promises on how good your landlord will be to you. And finding a good roommate can be a hit-or-miss situation. But over the months and as time goes by, these small little shocks will become part of you. You will notice how you change the way you speak and the things you do have all changed to help you acclimate to a new culture, to a new country. I still miss my family, but I have new close friends, a new favorite coffee and a new driving speed. All jokes apart, life comes to you when you least expect it. 

My student life in the Cleveland, Ohio, has taught me a few basic things to know if you want to live in the U.S.:
  1. Learn the currency, and try to leave behind the metric system.
  2. Remember the right conversion system. Not the metric system. Leave that behind too. You are traveling in miles now. Oh and did I mention, on the wrong side of the road? ;)
  3. If you value your safety, avoid unusually cheap areas. Believe me, it is not worth it.
  4. Live as close to campus as you can. You will be glad you did. With the many team meetings and the six months of frigid winter, you will have less to complain about if you lived closer. And no matter how adventurous you think you might be, no one wants to be out in the cold.
  5. And most importantly, number FIVE. Break out of your silos. Embrace the change. Make friends with unexpected people. And learn to love surprises.
After two years, Cleveland has become my home. I learned to love it. You will learn to love it too.  
Soumya Nair, MBA '13

Learn why other students (video) chose to study management in Cleveland at Weatherhead School of Management.

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