The summer of 2016 was a memorable one. What made this summer really special was my visit to the United States of America (referred as the US henceforth), technically my second one after a long gap. The journey, from exploration to conceptualization began in December last year. In December, I started researching summer camps in various subjects, conducted at elite universities in the US. A Math camp named Awesome Math- conducted by Dr. Titu Andreescu caught my attention. Since grade 10, I had been reading Dr. Andreescu’s books. My Math teacher in India is a big fan of his work too. I applied to this prestigious camp, waded through the tough test and the essay questions and got in. I was excited and literally over the moon. The cherry on the topping was that I was also selected for an Astronomy and Astrophysics camp at Columbia University (NYC). Fortunately, there was no overlap between the camps and that guaranteed a long 2 month visit to the US. I could not wait to get on to the flight and my excitement knew no bounds.
This was not my first visit to the US. I had lived in the US for 4 years when I was a toddler. I had heard a lot of stories from my parents about my childhood. Because of all this I had a mental image even before departing. I arrived in New York on the 25th of June. I landed at the famous JFK airport. The ride from JFK to downtown Manhattan was an hour long. As we drove through the burrows of New York, I witnessed both the extremes of living standards, of people in New York. We drove through some evidently poor neighbourhoods, eventually entering the maddening Manhattan. Thus began one of my fondest and cherished experiences of my life.
The first thing I noticed about the US was its culture. People say that since the US does not have a long history, it is not steeped in culture and traditions and many look down upon this aspect of this country. This may be true. However, I see this feature as a big positive. Due to the so-called lack of ‘long cultural background’, there is absolutely no pressure to fit in. Everybody respects each other’s style of working and preferences. As long as you do not do something illegal or disruptive, you will never have an issue doing things your way. However, the US does have some things firmly established as their unofficial code of conduct. First and foremost, everybody in the US is very frank. The Americans almost always make sure the person they are talking to completely understands what is being said, to the point of over-communication. As an extension to this, conversing and connecting with people, and asking questions is very critical. ‘Networking’- in sophisticated terms- is an important aspect in the US. The Americans live by the principle,’ No question is a stupid question’. As an example, at both my summer camps I realized that the infrastructure and facilities are sophisticated and state of the art. If you want to make use of those, you need to go and ask around, ask all those stupid questions – which means ‘networking and communicating’ is important. Another aspect that stands out is that the Americans unlike Europeans stand up more prominently against racism. Although promoting / engaging in racism / racist activities is illegal in many countries, very few can claim that most of their citizens do not engage in the practice in real life.
Along with these observations there are many nuances of the people and practices that catch your attention. Eating habits for example are vastly different from Europe and India. The humongous size of portions and the amount of junk food consumed are the much talked about things that I witnessed. The day we arrived in New York, we were heavily jet-lagged, and very hungry. We walked to “21 Fulton Street” and hastily ordered 3 dishes for 2 people. After the server brought us our food, we had the first hand experience that the American portion size is at least double that of any other place. We had to pack the food and finish it by lunch the next day. The practice of tipping in the US is again very peculiar. In India, Singapore or any other European country I have been to, tipping is moderately exercised. However in NYC, tipping is absolutely necessary and of paramount importance. Not tipping is considered a very rude practice. If somebody feels that you have under-tipped him, he will most likely come and ask you if you are dissatisfied with anything.
The next thing that struck me in the US was the infrastructure, especially the highways or motorways, which literally bind the nation together. It was when I travelled 40 miles in less than 20 minutes in California that I realized why people respect Eisenhower so much (for allotting 2 trillion dollars for the development of these humongous highways). The number of vehicles travelling at around 80 miles an hour, for hundreds of miles is simply too many. The fly-overs, intersecting roads, underground and underwater tunnels are awesome. The investment in better connectivity and development that I witnessed was very inspiring. This is coupled with a support system of police that keeps its people secure and safe. The numerous NYPD and FDNY vehicles going around in Manhattan showed me the US investment in protecting the country, its people and infrastructure.
The primary objective of my visit was to attend the summer camps and delve into Math and Physics. I had the privilege of staying at ivy-league universities of Cornell and Columbia and experiencing life there. This was a very unique and thrilling experience. I got a taste of higher education in the US. The several acres of campuses, some phenomenal faculty members including a few Nobel Laureates, world-class facilities are just some of the basic features these colleges boast of. The close relation students in US universities enjoy with their professors is almost a point of envy. The hours I spent with my professors during office hours, solving new problems, discussing interesting scenarios were the best part of both my camps. The open culture, experimental and self-motivated methods of learning really impressed me. I observed that the balance between sports, extra-curricular activities and academics is maintained very well. The commitment to maintain this balance is so high, that Columbia University has a 5-storeyed underground gym as it does not have a big campus (being located in Manhattan). Apart from all this, the quality that stood out for me was the professionalism of everybody in the university. The professionalism everyone displayed almost took me by shock. Everybody maintains a clear distance between their professional and personal lives and values each aspect equally. As an example, during my Awesome Math camp, I once requested Dr. Andreescu to spare some time for me as I had a few questions for him. Unfortunately, some business work came up for Dr. Andreescu and he could not meet me. However, before the end of day he sent me a message with my RA, asking me to meet him the next day at noon. The professionalism this accomplished professor showed towards a student like me was astounding. Experiencing what college would feel like, interacting with students across the globe, making new friends from far and wide are things I will always remember and look back upon.
USA has been welcoming people from all around the globe for centuries now. They live by the motto, ‘Come together and do great work’. The number of the Americans who are originally of Chinese, African and Indian origin is astonishing. This cultural diversity gives this country an edge. Anyone who is willing to work hard and has talent or skill the country can use is welcomed. It is as if the US imports talent whenever needed. The environment is hence very welcoming. Everybody is encouraged to contribute in whatever way possible. The US indeed feels like a global community.
Finally, after a long 2 months trip, I returned home with amazing memories of one of the best summers. A lot of learning, fun, exposure and friends makes me love this trip to the moon and back.