Coping with Uncertainity

It’s hard to believe that this semester is almost over. Finals start in four days and in two weeks, I will be back home for winter break. Yet, with the number of assignments and projects that were due this week, it didn’t feel anything like the last week of classes. In fact, it is probably the most stressful period of the semester.

As I look at the CS course management system which lists all the homeworks, exams, assignments and your scores and mean and median scores in the class for each one, most rows now have data. I look at all my scores so far and compare it to the mean/median and try to estimate the grade I can expect. Since final grades are worth atleast 20% in all my classes, my estimates could be quite removed from the actual results.

Meanwhile, I am still looking for summer internships and I’m at various stages with different companies. In the cases where you’ve just applied and are hoping to get an interview, and when you’re done with your interviews and are waiting to hear back, the key word is “waiting”. There is nothing to do but wait.I check my email an unhealthy number of times each day as I’m waiting to hear back. I also do that at the end of the semester – when I check Student Center five times a day for grades.

When I’m uncertain about these results, am I expected to simply forget about it and go on with my life? As an average human, I find that extremely hard to do. I can’t hope for the best either because the higher my hopes, the worse my potential fall. I can’t completely abandon hope either because until I know for sure, atleast a small part of me will want the best outcome. So in these last couple weeks, as the finish line approaches, all I hope for is the maturity to accept whatever will happen at the end – be it favorable or not.

Looking for Pippin

The first time I attended a musical at Cornell was at the end of my first semester here, when ‘Hair’ was produced at the Risley Theatre. Since I didn’t fully understand the socio-political background of the musical, I couldn’t bear to watch after the first act. This semester, my roommate and several acquaintances were heavily involved with the production “Pippin” at the Kiplinger Theatre. I was agnostic at first, but because I had friends in the cast and several housemates were going to watch it, I also decided to give it a shot.

I went to the show with three other friends, one of whom declared at the beginning that he was not a fan of musicals and was likely to fall asleep. I expected nearly the same from myself because I hadn’t slept much the previous night. But the show held my attention with its impressive set, costume, actors and music. There was nothing to complain about.

As Pippin, a young prince with high principles, returns to his father’s kingdom after completing his education, he believes that he is extraordinary and seeks glory. He vows to not settle for something small, to find his “corner of the sky”. In his pursuit of the extraordinary, Pippin tries many things but eventually rejects them all for being ordinary. When he is utterly dispirited and lost, a widow and her son find him and nurse him back to health. Pippin then leads the life of an ordinary farm-owner, with a loving family. However, one day Pippin realizes that this was not the glorious life he had envisioned.

Pippin’s story resonated with me and perhaps it would resonate with most Cornell students. The world tends to have high expectations of students at a university like Cornell, but our expectations for ourselves are even higher than others’. No one imposes the high-stress college lifestyle on us; we choose it for ourselves. Moreover, the fast-paced lives of our peers are enough to motivate us to do more. In every person I meet at Cornell, I find traces of Pippin.

*Spoiler alert*
The musical ends when Pippin realizes that in his search for the extraordinary, he only found mirages. He never found what he was looking for, regardless of how hard he tried, because the object of his search did not exist. He renounces the glory and glamour of the extraordinary and returns to his lady-love. However, they find their young son taking the same path as Pippin did, as he sings the song that the young, dreamy Pippin once used to. The finale was staged so fantastically that it gave me chills.

Although I enjoyed the production, the “love is all you need” turn was too cheesy for me. Either I am not mature enough to recognize it, or a line like that only belongs on the stage and not in real life. In any case, I am glad I went to this show.

When in America, Do as Americans Do

When I came back to college after this summer, I got to spend two days around New York City. I was surprised by the variety of accents I heard on the streets of the city. It’s hard to imagine how millions of people, of varying cultures, backgrounds,nationalities, native languages and English accents cohabit peacefully. What’s even more surprising to me is that no one seems to have to change to “fit in” with the culture. It’s a culture of diversity and everyone is accepted as they are. There seems to be nothing novel about hear a woman with an Indian accent arguing with a man with a German accent in NYC.

Cornell’s undergraduate student population also appears quite diverse. International students comprise of almost ten percent of the undergraduate population at Cornell. But I am not sure of how acceptable it is to be different in the majority culture here. It is not that people refuse to talk to someone who speaks differently. In fact, they may be very interested in knowing about them and the place they come from. But these handful of superficial conversations rarely translate into friendships.

In general, international students tend to have few close American friends. Involvement in social groups like fraternities, sororities or co-ops seems to help break this wall, but for those who are not interested in these organizations, forming meaningful relationships with American students can be tough. Last semester, my Swiss roommate and I often had conversations about this. Although we had good relationships with the American students in our co-op house, almost all of our close friends were other international students. She tended to spend more with other exchange students from Europe and I with international students from India.

She said that even for Europeans, the American culture is so different that it was hard to truly be friends with them. It takes a lot of perseverance as an international student to hang out with a group of Americans when you don’t get most of the cultural references and have little to contribute to conversations. It’s like being in a class where you have no clue what the professor is talking about and you can’t ask him/her to explain every detail, so you get bored and decide to doodle in your notebook.

From my one year here, I get the impression that diversity in American colleges exists only in superficial terms of appearance (race, specifically). The mainstream culture is largely homogeneous and adverse to anything unfamiliar. Anything that diverges from the norm is met with superficial curiosity and then cold indifference. The only way to belong is to shed parts of your identity which are alien to the general culture here or find a pocket where everyone else has the same social/cultural background as you do.

Despite the challenges, not engaging meaningfully with American students would be among the great disservices I could do to myself as an international student. So with many of my American acquaintances, I continue to pretend that our mutual politeness is friendship until perhaps some day, we will actually be friends.

Tales from Fall Break 2014

On Tuesday afternoon, my memory of the four days of fall break is in a haze. I had grand visions of following a healthy routine of sleep, cooking my own food, doing the tasks on my to-do list and spending some time with friends. Of course, those visions were lost right after my last class on Friday, when I spent the evening just chilling in a hammock on our porch, listening to music.

Since most students were visiting home or travelling over the break, the campus was unusually quiet and empty. The majority of those who stayed on campus were international students or west-coast residents. The dining halls were closed and there were no events happening on campus. So on Saturday night, some of my sophomore friends from India and I gathered for a small dance party at my nearly empty house. After a long time, I danced to Bollywood music with friends and played cards against humanity with them. They even had a mini foosball tournament at three in the morning.

I woke up at noon on Sunday, made pancakes for breakfast and walked around Beebe lake with a friend. The Cornell campus – especially the trails and surrounding natural areas are glorious at this time of the year. Given the good weather over the weekend, it was a pleasure to just be here.

Beebe lake in the fall

On Sunday night, my two housemates who stayed here during the break decided to watch Gone Girl at the Ithaca Mall. I had read excellent reviews for the movie, so I joined them too. Since then, I have not stopped raving about the film and it takes much self control to not spoil it for my friends who haven’t watched it yet.

After a long, refreshing night of sleep that night, I had a sumptuous brunch at the Mehak buffet, where for once, they actually had paneer in the paneer dishes. Then I spent most of my day at the library. I read for fun, something I don’t get to do often as a Cornell student. That evening, a friend and I decided to go to Moosewood Restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is among the first few things I tell people when I describe Ithaca. I am a big fan. We decided to go at 8pm, but we missed our bus and ended up walking to the Commons from West campus (not such a long walk, surprisingly). When we arrived at 8:32pm, the host politely told us that they closed at 8:30pm. We browsed restaurant row in the Commons and finally ate at Taste of Thai.

On Tuesday morning, most of my friends who had left Ithaca for the break were back. So I met some of them at CTB; we chatted about our respective breaks and made plans for future breaks. As we walked back to campus, I saw someone riding a Big Red Bike. For a long time, I had wanted to ride a bike on campus. The weather was warm and we all had some time on our hands, so we decided to borrow a bike from Uris Library.

We got a bike and as I tried it out on the Arts Quad, I realized that these bikes were quite different from what I was used to at home. My bike at home was heavy and required a lot of effort on my side to move. This bike accelerated at the least pedaling, within a second of my riding it. I panicked and searched for brake, which is horizontally parallel to the right handle in all the bikes I have ever ridden. Before I could find the brake, which was below the right handle, I saw some children playing on the path ahead. In an effort to stop the speeding bike, I ended up falling and scraping my knee. (Yes, the kids were safe. Is this how heroes feel?.)

It had been years since I had last scraped my knees. I regretted my decision to ride that bike on the Arts quad without even knowing where the brake was. But I guess we don’t take risks or learn many new things as adults because we are so afraid of failing or getting hurt. I convinced myself that I had learnt something new today: Learn how to stop something before starting it. I felt like a child all over again as I cleaned my wound and went back home.

And there end the tales of Fall Break 2014. I spent the rest of the evening doing some last minute homework and writing this blog post. It’s time to get back to the busy rest of the semester ahead.