I was 13 and-a-half years old when I moved to the US. In a couple of days I will complete 28. A majority of life, and certainly all of my adult life has now taken place in the United States. I felt that now was as good a time to reflect as ever. The memory has faded a little, but there’s enough to put down to many words. Here’s a raw, unedited attempt. I hope it’s as interesting to you as I have tried to make it.
Sometimes you can’t help but feel that you’re the subject of an experiment. You have no idea what kind of data the experimenter is trying to gather. You’re helpless to change the structure of the experiment, or to take yourself out of it. As you’re going through it, it feels like the cruelest thing. I hardly kept a quality journal ever, and I cannot easily recall exactly what I felt like in those days. Having been plucked out of the safe environs of Hyderabad, and transferred to the sterile environs of suburban Minneapolis, I must have felt subject to an experiment.
The first day
I hardly was conscious of this at the time, but I had a reputation among friends in India; in EPHS, I was starting off with a blank slate. On my very first day in school, I was super nervous. Here are a list of things that went wrong:
- I twice spelled my name out to someone who was asking me to pronounce it. Seriously, they must have thought my English was awful.
- I was completely lost inside a building which was not a perfect quadrilateral.
- I couldn’t for the life of me get my locker to open up. Also, where was my locker again?
The only reputation you can hope to foster with such an awful start is one of an eternal doofus, who is completely lost in an environment he has not seen before. But soon enough, I figured my way around the building and stopped getting lost in random corners. The question remained: what kind of a person did I want to be to people who had never seen me before?
I was eager to impress. I have a good memory for arbitrary facts and I also am able to recall things from memory quickly. So in class, I was always the first person to raise his/her hand up to answer questions. That was the only thing I knew how to do well. I didn’t think much about it back in India since I think people had come to expect that out of me, but in EP it sure was novel. The novelty wore off quickly, though. It’s strange how people update their priors after receiving new information. Whereas I had revealed plenty about my enthusiasm for academics, I soon found myself asking the question: who are my friends in this place?
Denizens of EPHS
Eden Prairie High School was big then. Almost 3600 students between grades 9 and 12. School back in India was about 600-700 students big, with students between grades 6 and 10 (with very few in 11th and 12th grade.) The other major change from India was that my classmates weren’t constant. With each period I had to change rooms. Sometimes I’d find who shared classes with me… whew, there’s one thing common at least. But on other occasions, there was a genuine question of how I would get to know people better and find out who I would get along with.
The one thing that America seems to like is gatekeeping. This is something I’ve come to know now, but it was hardly something we recognized back in the day. What I mean by this is at a young age, students who score higher on exams are sorted into “advanced” or “enriched” classes, whereas the others get the regular (or even remedial fare.) In EP this sorting had happened in Middle School. Since I came in the middle, I suppose I could defy the rules. But of course, not knowing the backstory behind it, I didn’t use anything to my advantage.
I found that in general, the kids in the Enriched classes seemed genuinely interested in academic topics like I was. While there were a few such academically inclined students in the other classes, there was a preference for talking about music, skating, TV, etc. I have joked to people before that Western music took some time to get to India… in 2003 people were still catching up to songs from 2000. It was genuinely hard to tune into conversations around popular culture, for the simple reason that establishing a basal understanding of pop culture seemed to require 4 years of catching up and I simply didn’t have the time.
A bunch of Nerds
And so out of convenience I chose the nerds wherever possible. And I only mean nerds in the dearest terms imaginable. At least we could talk about solubility rules in Chemistry, or discuss proofs in geometry. There were classes where I felt like I didn’t get along at all… for instance in the American History class that I took in 9th grade. The only extracurricular conversation I remember from that class is one where I learned the word “dipstick.” It was an inane conversation where people were trying to come up with arbitrary pejoratives.
Thinking back the one thing I think I failed to appreciate as a teenager was that adjusting takes time. I hated it by the end of 9th grade. While I had some other nerds who I got along with, the fact remained that I hadn’t gotten to know anyone with the kind of depth that I had gotten to know my friends in India. We lived in a neighborhood with few teenage kids. We didn’t attend any extracurricular activities. Around that time, I got a hold of several friends from India on Yahoo Messenger. Man I had missed talking to them. For a few days during Spring break, I stayed up until 3 AM hoping to find some of them online so that I could talk to them about something… anything. Pretty soon I had made up my mind: I just wanted to go back. I had a lengthy conversation with my dad about this on one spring day as we took a walk along Purgatory Creek. We talked about how I didn’t seem to fit.
Respite for the Summer
The parents were kind enough to send me on a trip back home that summer so that I could mix with my friends back home. And I’m fortunate for this trip. I went alone. It was a rite of passage of sorts. I did some things I might not have under parental supervision. I don’t recall exactly what kinds of things (I wasn’t the most debaucherous of kids then) but the freedom was something I savored. Being able to talk in Hyderabadi was a great feeling, so was tasting the chincha-gulachi amti from Alka Bai, the household cook for a decade. It also felt great to explore the home back in India. Though it doesn’t stand today, it remains the place I’ve lived the longest ever, so I still think of it as home.
But soon enough the time came along to head back home. Again, I can’t recall exactly how I felt, but it must have been as much with dread as with anticipation. When I stepped into classes that year, I recognized some people from the previous years. I started getting along with them better. I recall that around this time I had also started feeling more “relaxed.” For whatever reason, I wasn’t quick to open up about life outside of school with most people in the first year… but I recall being more eager to do it in the second year. Perhaps I had realized that there was nothing to lose by being more open… and if I could make good friends in India, perhaps I just needed to give it more time. I spoke to people about my summer in India, about how I liked to “dress up” (I did the funny thing of wearing a full-sleeve button-down shirt for “Formal Friday”) among other things.
Eden Prairie was in its heyday of growth back then. But most of the Indian community was much younger, and the Indian kids were mostly elementary schoolers. We didn’t really have all that many high-schoolers of Indian origin – maybe about 8-10 out of 3600; certainly less than 1%. I remember realizing at some point that most of friends would be non-Indians and that I’d better get to know them sooner rather than later.
One of the best things that happened to me that year was that some friends suggested I start doing extracurricular activities. Sports were out of the question, of course, since I had neither the inclination nor the capability for physical activity then. I think people saw that I was quick at mathematics and I would do well in timed mathematics competitions, so they recommended I join the Math team. The club leadership in Math Team was comprised of the same people who led the Quizbowl team, so I naturally got roped along. Quick math and the ability to store and retrieve information from memory started helping me make friends! What a strange idea!
By the end of 10th grade, I had already worked my way up to the “A team” in quiz bowl, and had overcome my initial nerves with joining the math team. Some of it came naturally, but there was a lot of time I committed to it. I couldn’t have put in all the time, though, were it not for my parents supporting these commitments. On several occasions my dad picked me up late from after-school practice for math team. More often he chaperoned the entire quizbowl team to meets in different parts of the city. He was always a reserved presence, letting my feel my own way on these teams, willing to talk about specific events but not playing armchair quarterback. Quizbowl and Math team meant the world to me back then, as I really started making better friends with my teammates. It’s hard to say that my parents could have done anything more to support me back then.
I made a few great friends during those days. I do keep in touch with them on and off, but we’ve mostly gone our way since leaving HS. My best friends from math team were Amy, Trevor, and Richard. Richard, the best mathematician amongst all of us, was the de facto captain. We went to many an “captain’s practice” at Richard’s place were probably played video games as much as we did math. Amy was also well-studied in math, but for whatever reason I don’t recall talking much math with her. The best memories I have with Amy are listening to all the Justin Timberlake songs that were popular in 2005… “Summer love”, “SexyBack”, etc. Oh, and exploring the campus at Minnesota where we took classes as HS students. Trevor I got to know very well because he was also in Quizbowl. We scored similarly in games, though I mostly played second fiddle to Trevor. Trevor’s mom was also a proud supporter of EPHS activities and she often joined us to chaperone tournaments, keeping our teenage idiocy in check, no doubt.
Quizbowl team with Ken Jennings (broadcast on Twin Cities public television)
There were others who I got to know very well through classes: Becky, Ian, Matt x 2, Daerek, Anu, Jens, Danny, Sam, Andrew, to name a few. I am not doing justice by just relegating them to a short sentence here. But I think the biggest thing I remember about them were how different everybody’s interests were. Matt was a champion debater and a skilled orator who could convince you on many things with his arguments. Becky was (and still is) really good at sketching and studied Japanese, when most of us were sticking to Spanish/French. Danny was (and still is) always up to something interesting – we probably thought he was a CIA agent in disguise. Daerek was in a different league with his strategic thinking; you couldn’t outsmart him in most games we played.
The things we did
I got to know most of these people through my Junior and Senior year; we played some intramural ultimate frisbee, even though we were never any good. We always found a park near someone’s house were we could play kickball or some other activity. We played a lot of Mafia. Though I can’t say that I was good at playing Mafia (one of my recurring taglines was “guys, remember how bad I am at Mafia?”) but I enjoyed watching others strategise about who to exonerate and who to accuse as mafia.
One of the first time we had people over was for my 17th birthday. I remember mother made Pav Bhaji and everyone really enjoyed it. When I look back at my facebook, I see a ton of posts from friends reminding me that I owed them curry for some arbitrary reason: not studying with them, being late so something, just something they were craving. I was happy to oblige. And so was my mother, who did all of the cooking, ever. It was great to have people home, to show them how we lived, to feed them good food.
And the places we went
By this time, too, I had learned to drive a car. I remember practicing a lot in the Hennepin Technical College Parking lot. I took my prelim license examination on pi day 2006 (Mar 14, duh.) I wouldn’t have remembered this obscure fact were it not for a blizzard the previous day that left me scared shitless about taking the exam. What if my brakes didn’t work in the snow?! But thankfully it did. So whenever I had the permission, I could take the rusty, trusty Pathfinder places. I came to enjoy driving. People marveled at how I drove below speed limits (yeah, I was super cautious then, more relaxed now.)
We went on a couple of camping trips – I can’t recall the exact timing of these – to Minneopa state park, and we got to experience time away from Family. We also ventured into Uptown Minneapolis once and Richard introduced me to bubble tea. Around this time I had acquired the name “G-Unit” because of my love for Hiphop. One of the fond memories I have from this time is a trip we made to the Old Spaghetti Factory in downtown Minneapolis, courtesy of Sam. By this time we had established many traditions then, like having ice cream at Culvers after quizbowl tournaments.
And the things we didn’t expect we’d do
When I started my senior year, my brother was starting his freshman year in EPHS. Naturally as the older brother, I had some new responsibility to keep an eye on him. I believe Gaurav wanted to try cross country running that year. I can’t say that I was coerced into signing up with him, but I must have figured it was a good idea. I remember how awful my first mile was. My first 5K was a glacial 26:34, as I now see I’ve recounted in a facebook update from Sept 2006. I recall that by the end of that season I was able to run a mile in under 7 minutes. I was never in it to compete, but it did make me feel uncomfortable in many ways, and I’m glad I did it.
It was a good thing that I found running, too, because it forced me to start making friends outside of the quizbowl/math team circle that I had gotten used to. Also, just like others had their different interests, I had found mine. Running is an important thing in my life today – something to which I hope to stay committed to for a long long time. And the enthusiasm with which I run arbitrarily long distances sets me apart.
We had a variety of fun things senior year: applications to college, prom, newfound freedom. College applications ended up being uneventful – I applied to a few places and picked the one closest to home (it helped that there was a lot of scholarship money on the table. :-)). Prom was fun, good to get to know people in a more “grown up” way. We hung out at Ian’s afterwards, which was I think my first sleepover ever.
Me running a race in highschool.
I’ve recently been hearing about how subjecting some algorithms to a random shock helps those algorithms find better solution. The shocks help by preventing the algorithm from getting “stuck” in some place. In one way, life is an algorithm where I am trying to find some poorly-defined sense of accomplishment. Moving to Minnesota from Hyderabad, then, was a big shock to this algorithm. One can not prove counterfactuals in life, so I will never know how life might have panned out had I stayed in Hyderabad.
I can surmise from the facts. I had a scholarship for an IIT-prep academy going into the 9th grade (I felt it was wholly undeserved, as there were others who had studied harder than me for it.) It was being seriously sold to me as a ticket to entry into an elite institution. Perhaps I would have tried to find my peak in the IIT spiral. Were I to continue along that path, I might have developed a solid set of analytical skills. Perhaps I might have enjoyed watching cricket regularly, and really gotten to appreciate the rise of the IPL and other such phenomena.
But that shock has been good overall. It has exposed me to bigger things. I learned to approach things outside of my comfort zone. I am immensely lucky to have lived in this different trajectory for the last several years. I hope that everyone is able to cultivate such experiences. I realize that moving countries might not be possible to all, but perhaps one can strive to put him/herself in different situations and see how they approach that scenario. Phew. That was a marathon effort, but something I have been thinking about for a long time. I am glad I had the opportunity to reminisce.