It was 5am when my flight was about to land, and I was about to step outside my motherland for the very first time. I rubbed my sore eyes after an incomplete sleep, and looked across the aisle. While the fifteen-hour flight had been enough to make my legs numb, it took what I was about to see through the window to numb all my remaining senses. As a silhouette against the rising sun, was the magnificent New York skyline that I’d come to see only in TV shows. I was setting foot in the nation of dreams, and my eyes were set on mine.
Hey there! I am Pranil, an elec to-be-thirdie. I am on an adventure ride in the land of the free and home of the brave, and I will tell you all about it. So buckle up, there’s a lot about this journey that you should know. I am an intern here at the Ohio State University, in the heart of the beautiful city of Columbus. I am working on a fascinating project in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department, which I will describe soon enough. You may choose to read any and all of the sections that pique your interest!
Let’s take a flashback first. I began looking for a Univ intern abroad, because I wanted to try to solve the age-old dilemma of whether or not to move abroad for higher studies. My internship is a result of serious apping, and not one acquired through PT cell. Now, apping is hard work, and I remember having sent emails to more than a hundred professors to get the one affirmative reply I received. I contacted professors who worked in the broad fields of computer networks or semiconductors. I was in touch with fellow batchmates who were also trying to apply; we looked out for each other. For those of you wondering if apping is your way to go, know that it requires a great deal of commitment in both semesters. A positive response to an email is very hard to come across, more so for a sophie. An opportunity from KTH Sweden came up back in November of last year, but I decided to skip it because it offered no stipend. A different professor from Ohio State University agreed to give me an overseas work-from-home project in February. I was getting desperate by this time, but decided to wait a while longer. As luck would have in store for me, Professor Ness Shroff from OSU, who is a visiting faculty at IITB, came to Mumbai for a conference. I met him in person, when he asked me all about my research interests and the courses I had completed in the past two years. It wasn’t so much an interview, as it was a discussion to find out where in his research group I would fit best.
Immediately after that, preparation for my travel began feverishly. My family and I went into overdrive. A lot of check-boxes were ticked within two months – a US visa, accommodation arrangements, foreign exchange debit cards, cellular connection, and more. I got in touch with current OSU students via their Facebook groups; this was an invaluable resource. I bought tickets to fly at night on purpose, so that I would land in Columbus as early during the day as I could, after a brief layover in Newark, New Jersey.
After exploring the city of Columbus for a couple of days, my actual internship began. I work at the Network Research Laboratory at Dreese Labs, which is one of the two departmental buildings for the disciplines of ECE and CSE. I work with Jiayu Pan, a PhD student, on a pet project of Professor Shroff. The project is based on computer networks and scheduling algorithms and has direct real-world applications.
Okay, technical jargon coming up! To put it very simply, we aim to improve the delay and throughput metrics of a network consisting of several clients and several servers by studying the performances of different scheduling policies. For instance, when tens of thousands of people make a Google search, Google will choose to optimally employ each of its many servers to serve the right customers for maximum performance. This testing is done on Emane, which is a network emulator built by the US Naval Research Department. This makes it possible to build any network topology using IEEE 802.11, RF Pipe or TDMA radio models. The framework allows for tweaking of numerous properties of any network layer. Courses that I’ve completed in my CS minor and a few core EE courses are being put to good use here. The project is intensive in coding and understanding of basic queueing theory and structure of networks. It is understandable, then, that the project requires devotion of considerable amount of time. To entice me to do just that, OSU has provided me with a comfortable workspace, flexible timings, free coffee and ridiculously fast internet.
Even so, I have managed to utilize whatever free time I get to explore the city and the country. Right off the bat, the country is very well-developed. The first thing an Indian will notice is the dearth of vehicles and pedestrians alike. The cities are planned out nicely, with wide, perpendicular roads. You can trust the people to abide by the traffic laws, so much so that if the signal for pedestrians goes green, you could cross the road blindfolded without being run over. Where there are no signals for crossing pedestrians, you can use the zebra crossings. Here, it is illegal for a car to not stop when a person wants to cross! Public transport here can be tracked in real time. It was only last week that Columbus was declared as a Smart City by the federal government, which means it will be the first city to get to test completely autonomous cars on a large public scale very soon.
Summer is the best time to visit Columbus, as winters are appallingly cold. The place is hardly humid, and the weather is as pleasant as the coldest winter day in Mumbai. There is frequent rainfall, though, and severe thunderstorms are seen at least once in a fortnight. The residents have learnt to deal with them well enough. In the event of every thunderstorm, a loud siren is set off on all buildings in the campus and the people are instructed to take shelter in the basement of the nearest building.
Ohio State University was founded in 1870, and the campus has since blossomed into the beautiful expanse it has become today. The uniform red-brick construction shows its age, but looks pristine. It is more than thrice as large in area as IITB. This is understandable, because Ohio State is a university (unlike an IIT, which is an engineering institute) and houses far more departments. The campus is not walled off, but actually blends right into the city of Columbus. As a result, there are countless commercial establishments like shops, restaurants and apartments (like mine!) in and around the campus. The campus, however, is less greener than our institute. There are several recreational parks within it, though. Two rivers flow into the campus, and one of them joins the other within it. The Recreation and Physical Activity Centers (RPACs) are the SAC-equivalent of IITB and house more sports than you’d think possible. The Ohio Stadium here is among the biggest football stadia in the country, and bears witness to the nail-biting rivalry between the varsity football teams of the states of Ohio and Michigan every year. This rivalry is so huge, that every time Ohio wins, the letter M is erased from all visible spots in the entire campus (which explains why 25 mph the ‘Speed Li_it’ on university roads).
To get to know a new culture, it is important to break ice with its people, be it with bus drivers, grocery store owners or fellow university students. In this process, the American accent is starting to rub off on me and I am starting to lose my ‘r’s. Americans value their freedom, self-reliance and privacy above all. Everyone I’ve met here is quite friendly and helpful, without exception. Unlike Indians, though, this warmth extended by them is restrained. For example, instead of a casual “Hi!”, Americans one-up on it every time with a “Hey, how’re you doing?”. As affectionate as it may seem, funnily enough, an answer to this question is never expected. An “I’m fine. How about you?” is the model answer. The people here do not like to make small talk, giving off an impression that they are very busy at all times. This makes Americans look very superficial, but it is usually just customary for them to be very friendly at the outset.
The people here are highly self-indulgent. Nowhere is it more evident than their shopping marts. It takes a very long shelf to accommodate just all the types of cereal that people eat. I kid you not, I once saw an entire rack containing ‘back-scratcher’s. There are infinite types of milk, cheese, yogurt and more sold here. (Just a heads up – dahi is called non-fat grade-A yogurt here) People own expensive personal vehicles. All buses here are air-conditioned and WiFi-enabled. Almost everyone owns iPhones and MacBooks. After all, if there’s one thing you can count on Americans to do, it is to splurge.
It isn’t news that the cost of living here is high. This was obvious to me from the very first day, when I had bought a chocolate bar for $3.00. It was then that I decided to not buy anything without knowing its price. Doing this is difficult, because no product here comes with a printed MRP! I stopped mentally converting prices from dollars to rupees in my first week here, because it was giving me anxiety. Yes, this is a world where Starbucks is the cheapest cafe and Pringles are the cheapest snack. Then, there’s also the system of tipping. Waiters and delivery guys expect a minimum of fifteen percent as tip. (Here’s a tip from me – the method of tipping fails when you use Indian Forex cards, for technical reasons. Thank me later.) From what I’ve heard, healthcare is extremely costly here, and if you’re not insured, you’d be homeless before you end your sneeze.
In countries like USA, vegetarian Indians like me are bound to face trouble. All restaurants primarily sell meat. Only a handful of outlets, like Subway, have actual vegetarian options. One can always ask for a non-vegetarian dish without the meat; this once made the cashier at McDonald’s laugh at my face. There are Indian restaurants here, but they serve blander food than we’re used to. The closest Indian convenience store, which sells paneer and Maggi, is eight miles away. Oh, did I mention how almost all restaurants provide around ten types of soft drinks, and allow unlimited free refills? No wonder that a third of the American population is diabetic or prediabetic.
Columbus, in itself, is a beautiful city. When here, one must visit the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the neighborhood of Short North, Goodale and Tuttle Recreational Parks, and the Ohio Statehouse in the plush downtown amidst corporate skyscrapers.
Ohio is in central eastern America, which makes it relatively closer to cities of tourist interest like New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington DC. WIth a few of my friends, I visited the spectacular Niagara Falls and enjoyed a memorable tour there. I plan to visit Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which is the nation’s second-largest amusement park, and is home to the world’s largest roller coaster. The 4th of July will be a great time to travel and see how the Americans celebrate their independence. With so many places yet to be seen, experiences waiting to be had and my project yet to be duly completed, the remainder of my stay in Columbus promises to be eventful.
It’s now time we address the dilemma that I described in the beginning of this piece – of whether or not one should move to the US for higher studies, or even permanently. I learned a lot, during my stay, about the American dream – the good, the bad and the ugly. Yes, if you want the highest standard of living, if you define success along those lines, then the USA is the place to be. It is definitely the place where any sufficiently enthusiastic IITB graduate is very likely to make it big. However, though the American life is replete with luxury, it lacks the cultural heritage and family values that we Indians are used to. If you choose to live in the states, be prepared to consciously put in extra efforts to build close friendships and relations. “The price for riches”, as the Ethiopian guy who once sat beside me in the bus says, “is relationships.”
When my short stay here will be done, It will be with a slightly heavy heart that I leave the US, only to be warmly welcomed by the bustling and often chaotic paradise that is Mumbai. At this moment, as I sit here now devouring Cheddar Pringles for dinner, I realize that even though American cream & onion might be the greatest flavor on planet earth, it is certainly no Indian magic masala.