Back to school – International Graduate Student edition

So it’s that time of the year again – the air is crisp, summer is winding down, and students are going back to school (cue the heavenly choir)! In our house, I get to go back to school too so I have syllabi to write, and notes to get in order, and classes to plan, and – after a summer of partial vegetation – getting back into the swing of things is like pushing a shopping cart with one rusty, sticky, wobbly wheel, through the grocery store!

But this time of the year allows me to wallow in nostalgia as I remember August 1994 when I sat with 50 other international students at the university’s International Graduate Student Orientation. We were a group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students from Asia and South America and Africa and Europe – and one 7-foot tall Canadian basket ball player – huh??!! Canadians are foreign enough that they need American university orientation? Anyway, the very nice university orientater (?) person wrote 4 upper case letters spaced out on the whiteboard – I   I    I    I – and then asked us what word we thought it was. And as usual when an instructor asks an open ended question like that – the entire class develops a case of specific and temporary muteness! But just like nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor silence, so of course in my usual low key, introverted, understated way I yelled out “MISSISSIPPI“!! Shockingly, that wasn’t it – turns out it was INITIATIVE – I like Mississippi better!

After telling us how to open a bank account, apply for a Social Security number, register for classes, get email on the VAX system (remember when VAX was state-of-the-art!!) – we were released for lunch. And really that’s when I realized how woefully inadequate 4 hours of orientation had been! Ordering a freaking sandwich was like pulling teeth – what kind of bread – I don’t know, the sandwich-y kind, what meat, what type of cheese, what veggies, what type and how many different condiments (that word completely threw me – I actually thought for a second it was a COMPLETELY different thing than what it turned out to be!) And I spoke English – or so I thought! But what really broke me was the freaking straw dispenser – I think I stood in front of that little box for about 2 solid minutes trying to figure out how to get the stupid straw out! But no worries – I finally figured it out!

So – to the new international graduate students (and really probably more specifically, Indian graduate students) – here is a short list of do’s and dont’s. Also, I’ve made most of these mistakes so I’m kind of speaking from experience here but these are just gentle suggestions – rather like Indian traffic rules – so feel free to disregard them! And further, I left India in 1994 – before call centers and smart phones and ubiquitous Indian shopping malls – so some of my references are completely outdated!!

1) When people ask “How’re you doing?” – the correct response is “Fine – and you?”. The completely incorrect response is to either a) get a deer-in-the-headlights look, assume you should have been doing something that you didn’t know you had to and consequently never did, and panic or b) go into excruciating detail about your various ailments, problems with roommates, homesickness etc.

2) Getting 75% on an exam is actually considered kind of… pathetic. In India, anything above 60% is First Class and above 72% is First Class with Distinction!

3) If you are working in the cafeteria and you are asked to make a Super Nachos with “Halapenos”, you will find “halapenos” under the letter J! 

4) Cheeseburgers are not made from vegetables with a slice of cheese slapped on top – they are actually beef – so select something else if you’re vegetarian!

5) When you cross the road – look in the opposite direction you are used to – they drive on the wrong side of the road here and it will scare the bejesus out of you the first time!

6) Use deodorant liberally and every day! I know this is a touchy subject but trust me – I cannot stress this enough. When you made that lovely chicken curry or rajma or chole last night and used turmeric and asofetida and cumin and garam masala – all those spices are now in your hair and on your clothes and in your winter coat and you smell like a cross between a dhaba and an Udipi restaurant! And you may be a lovely, funny, articulate person but if you are the stinky kid in the class you will be more ostracized than a gay, cross-dressing, hooker at the Westboro baptist church!!

7) Do NOT, under NO circumstance, even with a gun to your head, ask a woman if she is pregnant unless you can see the baby emerging from her womb!! 

8) The opposite of “postpone” is not the eminently handy “prepone” but rather the cumbersome “move forward”. I know, it beggars belief but there you have it – American English is its own peculiar beast!

9) If you play a friendly game of baseball, remember to drop the bat as you run from the home plate to first base! And don’t let them fool you – its NOTHING like cricket!

10) Don’t be surprised to see a hunk of raw ground beef garnished with onions and served with crackers at a cookout – this is called steak tartar and is apparently quite a delicacy. Try to wait to hurl unobtrusively in the bathroom (which by the way is called the restroom)!

11) NEVER, under any circumstance, walk into class and ask loudly to borrow a rubber – the correct term is eraser! Rubbers are something COMPLETELY different and confusing the two is not recommended.

Oh, and last but not least, if you are ever in a situation where you don’t know or are unsure of the appropriate response – just do the head bob thing – it freaks them out completely!!

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