Never Too Cool For School | What else is there in life but to study, my friend?

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Chronicles of a 35-year-old student who recently moved abroad for an MBA, taking on conventional wisdom, grande-sized debt, and a harsh winter.

If you have a head full of books, you’re probably not worried about looks. | Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

“Jeevandalli…. ododbittu mattenide maga?”

~ (Translation from Kannada: What else is there in life but to study, my friend?)

For years, I poked fun at my close friend who had uttered this sentence — presumably, in a moment of weakness — during the first few days at the start of our engineering degree. While most of us were introducing ourselves to each other, swapping stories and letting off steam after an intense year of preparing for various competitive exams, his motives were clear with this statement. But in his defence, when he saw raised eyebrows all around, he hedged his position to “At least next four years ge”, raising his right hand to make four. There was also no mystery on who the Gold-medallist would be, as he duly followed up on his statement, and at the end of four years, was done with “studying”. Though he never uttered that statement again, we never let him forget it.

*

Sitting in a cramped aeroplane seat, I recounted the last few days — they were a hazy blur, filled with hasty packing, last-minute purchases, and half-hearted goodbyes. I tried to recall the first few days of my first experience of staying away from home during my undergraduate studies and hoped that my next two years would be as enjoyable as the time I had then. It had been a while since I last sat in class, and what I was feeling can only be described as a strange mix of anticipation and nervous excitement. I was getting restless on the second leg of my flight on what was, literally and figuratively, the longest day of my life; and towards the end of it, I could only feel my second leg, courtesy the legroom.

I got up to stretch my legs and take a few steps to get the circulation going again. Seeing my gingerly walk, an air hostess asked me if I was fine. Great. This was my chance to plunge into small talk and strike up a pleasant conversation out of nothing. I had to work on acquiring this skill quickly; otherwise, I wouldn’t acclimatise to one of the U.S.’ key social norms.

I quickly asked her about how she dealt with jet lag; after all, she must know something that most of us didn’t, given her profession. And any help would serve me well, given that I had paperwork to finish and events to attend the next day. Sadly, all I got was a shrug and that she wished she knew better — sleepless nights and hazy mornings were part of her routine. Hearing this, I told her that it was something I had an idea about, given that I had become a parent a year earlier. Cue smiles and congratulations. Great. ‘Mission Impossible #1: Small Talk’ has been accomplished.

The day I landed, the magnitude of my decision to pursue an MBA at my age hadn’t sunk in; that too, alone and away from near and dear ones. Yes, I had stayed apart for over a decade during my earlier education. But this one felt different; in a movie setting, this is when a sombre soundtrack would play in the background. The financial situation was alien too, given how inexpensive my previous education was (I ended up making money). Does taking on a massive student loan count as an attempt at getting closer to American culture?

During orientation, I was building on my small talk skills, one baby step at a time. Almost everyone I met was incredulous that I had a PhD and was now pursuing an MBA; one gentleman mustered the social courage to ask me why. Weary of having negotiated admissions essays and interviews all this while, I proceeded to share an old joke that was used all the time in grad school....

Q: What is the difference between a large pizza and a PhD in Mathematics? A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.

I told him that I had to pick up new skills as the ones I had wouldn’t get me over the line (like the wrong person being blessed with long legs in the wrong circumstances, was my metaphor; jet lag was my excuse for my foggy state). As I tried to keep up with my new surroundings, my mind kept revisiting the last few days before my departure — a time when everything was familiar, easier, and ran on autopilot.

Truth be told, this wasn’t the toughest set of questions I had faced — those had come from from my parents. They are my biggest well-wishers and were rightfully worried about how this move would impact everybody, especially my young family. Valid concerns. I reassured them by saying that I was reminded of a couple (them) who had moved to the U.S. nearly 42 years ago with only 7 dollars each in their pocket and, somehow, had done ok. Their story was incredible considering my mother hadn’t travelled beyond her State’s border before that; she didn’t know any English — meaning, she couldn’t read the newspaper, speak to others, answer the phone or the doorbell, nor watch TV; she couldn’t tolerate the cold and had come with only a thin sweater in mid-November; her husband, the only familiar face, suffered a slipped disc and was bed-ridden for months initially; a letter once a month or so served as the medium of communication with near and dear ones. Even today, I shudder to think what would have happened if their friend who had been contacted via letter, and been requested to pick them up from the airport, hadn’t shown up. Looking back, everyone is grateful that it all worked out, and it was all because of the kindness of friends and strangers.

With a wry smile, I told them that it was amusing they were labelling my move “risky”, given their previous feats and experiences. Unlike them, I didn’t have the guts to take a familiar overnight bus journey with just 100 rupees on me, leave alone a transcontinental flight; I could speak the language, and had plenty of cultural context; the Internet was my biggest ally, and with a touch of a button, we could see each other on video; heck, my biggest worry of “fitting in” could be conquered with a strategy that involved figuring out the rules and popular names of American football. Clearly, I had first-world problems compared to what they had gone through.

As for my close friends, they were surprised and happy for me after I dropped the bombshell on them. There were plenty of hugs and congratulations during the lunch we had hosted, which was filled with the sharing of fond memories from days gone by and prognostications for days to look forward to. As the afternoon progressed, the crowd slowly thinned down with reluctant, bittersweet farewells (the kind you spend ten minutes in the hallway on carrying on from the last-discussed topic). I thought we had said our final goodbyes in the hallway and turned around, when pat came one last tap on the shoulder. As I turned back to face him, I saw the boomerang I had thrown was in sight and hurtling back towards me. He smiled at me and had the last word:

“Jeevandalli…. ododbittu mattenide maga?”

*

(In this series, a 35-year-old chronicles his experiences after moving abroad for an MBA, taking on conventional wisdom, grande-size debt, and a harsh winter.)

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