Friendships in a foreign land

I moved to a city on the east coast of USA around 1 and a half years ago. The first question people asked me during my initial months, as soon as they realized that  I was not from here, was whether I liked it here. In response, I would always say it’s okay or it’s nice or that it’s growing on me. In reality I hated it here. I was new, did not know anybody, was new to the whole culture that is America and was plain homesick. But, how could I say that to anyone. I had to put up a brave face and say that it’s growing on me, that I’m starting to enjoy or get comfortable here.

It’s not easy to make friendships in a new place and especially so in the US. In the US, there are new people coming in every month and sometimes every week. In such a scenario, people don’t like to talk to the new person a lot. In fact, during my initial months, only a Srilankan in my office even bothered to ask me how I was doing. The Americans pretty much restricted themselves to saying “Hi”, that too only when you said that to them first. So then, of course, I felt lonely. My officemates never went for coffee or lunch together, in fact, every one of them pretty much had lunch at their desks, not saying much. It is only after a few months that I started to get acknowledged by a “Hi”.

In such a scenario, I started to look for friendships outside of my office. I went to postdoc meetings, hanging out with them at every social event. I made friends with one postdoc and we hung out for quite a bit, but that turned sour quickly for reasons I still don’t know. I signed up for plenty of meetups. I lived with roommates and started hanging out with them more often. My roommate and I eventually became very good friends. I went to play badminton and started learning volleyball. In the meantime, my officemates became friendlier, and we started having some good times. I also met another postdoc from India during a departmental conference and we started having some weekend fun together.

So, it is only after 6 to 8 months of my stay here that I could truly say that the city was in fact growing on me. And recently, during a potluck at my officemate’s place, when someone asked me again if I liked it here, this time I confidently replied that yes, I do like it here, but only because I now have friends and that the place matters less compared to the people. And, I also added that I hated this place during my initial months precisely because I didn’t have any friends. After all, it is the people who make a place worth living in.



The beginning

So what’s the natural course of action once you’ve defended your PhD thesis? Everybody knows the answer to that. It is to do a postdoc. It was what everyone I knew did. And, it’s what was advised to me by my advisor. So, I took up the one postdoc offer that I got. No surprises there, coz when you’re from a developing country like India you get one offer from US or Europe if you’re lucky. So, I accepted the one offer and set about asking for advice from everyone who has traversed this path before, which was basically everybody who finished their PhDs before me. As expected, they told me it was going to be tough. I would have to work longer hours. I would have some amount of freedom in the problem I chose to work on, but overall it was going to be work, work and only work. On the plus side, they told me, I would learn new techniques, would develop new problem solving skills and would become better at my job. They also told me it would be fun.

But, what they didn’t tell me was how lonely it would get here in the US. How the culture is so different from that in India that the first few months might make you question your very decision to come here. How people here don’t give a damn about the new person who has just arrived, because to be fair to them, they see new people arrive by the hundreds every week. So then, you are alone trying to get things done, trying to settle down, trying to make a new home in this strange city, this strange country where no one knows you and you know no one. It is during these first few months of settling down here that you realize how much you value your family, who despite being several thousand miles away from you, still provide the emotional support you so desperately need. It is here that you reach a whole other level of the learning process. And this, is just the beginning.