Desi Books Podcast Episode 33

(available at Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 33 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Dr. Rajika Bhandari reading from her new memoir, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility. This book will be out on September 14, so in a couple of weeks. And it is available to pre-order now.

#DESIREADS WITH Dr. RAJIKA BHANDARIINTRODUCTION

A former international student from India to the US and an Indian American immigrant, Rajika Bhandari is an international higher education expert, a widely published author, and a sought-after speaker on issues of international education, skilled immigrants, and educational and cultural diplomacy. An author of five academic books and a nonfiction book, The Raj on the Move: Story of the Dak Bungalow, she is quoted frequently in the global press including in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Times of India, and Quartz. Her writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Education, HuffPost, University World News, Times Higher Education, and National Geographic Traveler, among others. She lives near New York City.

Growing up in India and seeing generations of her family look westward, where an American education means status and success, Bhandari resists the lure because those who leave never seem to return; they become like flies trapped in honey in a land of opportunity. As a young woman, however, she follows her heart and a relationship—and heads to a US university to study. As she works her way through America’s tangled web of immigration, Bhandari lands a job that immerses her in the lives of international students from over 200 countries and the universities that attract them. An unflinching and insightful immigration narrative that explores the global appeal of a Made-in-America education that is a bridge to America’s successful past and to its future, America Calling is both a deeply personal story of Bhandari’s search for her place and voice and an analysis of America’s relationship with the rest of the world through the most powerful diplomacy tool: education. At a time of grow­ing nationalism, a turning inward, and fear of the “other,” America Calling is ultimately a call to action to keep America’s borders and minds open.

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Rajika Bhandari.

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#DESIREADS WITH Dr. RAJIKA BHANDARI

[Excerpted with permission from America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility by Rajika Bhandari. Copyright © 2021 Rajika Bhandari.]

13. The Best and Brightest

“Why did you choose to focus the study on China?” asked Dr. Jorge Garcia, one of my dissertation committee members.

It was the morning of my doctoral dissertation defense. My entire seventeen years of education in India and the US had led up to this moment, this culmination of sleepless nights, and poring over lines and lines of data that had resulted in a four-hundred-page research study. It was a test not just of my work but of who I was, what I knew and, most important, how far I had come in these six years.

“It’s one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and we’re beginning to see dietary patterns in China similar to the West,” I replied. For my doctoral dissertation I had chosen to study how mothers’ education levels in Chinese households affected the eating behavior and nutritional status of a family.

Dr. Garcia nodded, exchanging a glance with the other four professors. “Thank you, please wait outside,” he said.

I stepped outside the classroom and sat on a wooden bench as they decided my fate. Did they do this to every student? I wondered. Were they actually discussing the merits of my work, or perhaps the latest NC State basketball game?

I had completed my doctoral degree unusually quickly, taking just six years to complete both my master’s and my doctoral degrees as compared to the average time of eight years. There was a common perception that international graduate students were brilliant—the best and the brightest drawn from all over the world—and that our academic outcomes were superior to those of our US counterparts. While some of this was true, it was also true that as international students we were held to impossibly high standards and stringent immigration regulations. The US immigration system tethered us to our classrooms and labs, allowing us little freedom to veer from a rigid timetable for study and graduation. Many of my American classmates began to take long breaks from their studies at around the three- to four-year mark in their graduate programs: some took on consultancies and part-time jobs; others simply decided it was all too much and took time off to mull over their dissertation topics. But I plodded on, because if I didn’t, I risked falling out of legal status and would need to leave the US immediately. The stakes for completing on time were much higher for me than for my US-born peers.

“. . . as international students […] The US immigration system tethered us to our classrooms and labs, allowing us little freedom to veer from a rigid timetable for study and graduation.” #DesiReads .@desibooks @rajikabhandari

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Vikram. He had left his class early to join me. After what felt like an interminable wait, my doctoral committee called me back into the room. Everyone smiled at me, which I took to be a good sign.

“Congratulations, Dr. Bhandari,” said Dr. Bishop, “you did a great job.” It was over, just like that. I had become the second person in my family to earn a doctoral degree from the US. 

Vikram and I left Poe Hall and wandered out into the meadow behind the building. It was the same patch of green that I had walked across six years ago, on my first day on campus, when everything had seemed so foreign, so insurmountable. But now I felt a part of it. This is where I had grown up, where my mind had expanded to embrace so many possibilities, and where I felt limited only by my own imagination and the boundaries I set for myself.

But the day also felt strangely anti-climactic. I had often imagined this moment. Would I cry, would I shout with joy? But what I felt instead was relief and fatigue. Relief that it was all over except for a few cursory edits to the dissertation and the expensive printing. Fatigue at the long journey to get here and the equally tough road that lay ahead.

It was also my last day of work at the youth program. The team gathered during lunch to say farewell to me. Jose, who had the logical mind of a researcher but the soul of a poet, liked to begin our weekly meetings with the reading of a poem, and we all took turns each week bringing in a poem to share. That day it was my turn, and I had selected Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, “Where the Mind Is Without Fear.” I began to recite the poem slowly and deliberately.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; 

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments; 

By narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; 

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way;

I felt a sudden rush of tears, and my vision clouded as I struggled to read the words. I was thirteen and back in Barne Hall at Lawrence School Sanawar, the smell of the tall pine trees drifting through the open windows as the deep voice of our headmaster, Dr. Shomie Das, rang out in the auditorium, reciting Tagore’s poem only as a great orator could. We all listened, spellbound. That was home, a place I knew; a place my mother had known. There was a sense of belonging. But here at this youth program, in Raleigh, in North Carolina, I had no history, no background, no path behind me that I could turn back and look down, knowing that others before me had walked that road. It was only the here and now and the road that lay ahead. It was an existence without context, without heritage, without history.

“I had no history, no background, no path behind me that I could turn back and look down, knowing that others before me had walked that road. […] an existence without context, without heritage, without history.” #desireads .@desibooks @rajikabhandari

I swallowed the wave of homesickness, tried to steady my voice, and pushed on, completing the poem.

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 

Where the mind is led forward by thee 

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

The room was silent. I glanced up at Jose, hoping he hadn’t noticed my watery eyes. He looked at me probingly, then cleared his throat and asked the group what was first on the agenda for the day.

Vikram and I had not discussed it explicitly, but we’d made an unspoken decision that we wanted to stay on in the US for at least a few years. We had worked hard as students, and it seemed foolish to head back to India immediately when we could stay on for a while, earn some money, and test our newfound skills in the American workplace.

I wondered whether I was cheating the system. Six years ago, when I had stood sweating and nervous before the consular officer at the US Embassy in Delhi, he had asked me that fateful question: “Do you plan to return to India?” The F-1 student visa that I was applying for is what in consular speak is called a “single-intent” visa, which means that as an international student coming to the US, the burden was on me to prove to the consular officer that I intended to come to the US only to study and fully intended to return immediately after completing my education. 

I had looked the officer straight in the eye and said a confident “yes.” And I had meant it. If it were not for Vikram, I might not even have been motivated enough to come to America. My family was back in India; I liked most things about India and had never known anything different, and I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t want to return to my own country.

But I had now experienced something different over the past six years. There were things about my life in America that I was beginning to enjoy and wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I loved the freedom of zipping down a North Carolina country road, the wind in my hair; I liked the fact that I didn’t have to worry about frequent power cuts or having a limited water supply; I liked the sanitized feeling of the streets in America; I liked that I didn’t have to excuse my presence in a room full of men; and I liked that I could buy large containers of pasteurized and homogenized milk that didn’t need frequent boiling to control the bacteria. In short, I liked the comforts of my first-world existence. I had weakened in my resistance to America—I had become the proverbial fly trapped in American honey.

When I had first arrived as a student from India, most Americans would ask me: Do you plan to go back home? For some reason, they felt this was a perfectly appropriate way to start a conversation. Back then, when the pull of home and India was much stronger, I bristled at this line of questioning, responding with an emphatic “Yes, of course, I do plan to go back. Why wouldn’t I?” 

But I was no longer so sure. I had reached a crossroads. I could turn back and go home, or I could forge ahead along the path that lay ahead. America, it turned out, had choices and opportunities. After all, Starbucks, a brand that symbolized America, proclaimed that “happiness lay in choice,” and Burger King encouraged all its consumers to “have a burger their way.” Now I had to make a more consequential choice. It was for me to decide whether or not I wanted to seize the opportunity and live the American dream as millions had before me.

“When I had first arrived as a student from India, most Americans would ask me: Do you plan to go back home? For some reason, they felt this was a perfectly appropriate way to start a conversation.” #desireads .@desibooks @rajikabhandari


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You’ve been listening to episode 33 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Today’s #DesiReads was from Dr. Rajika Bhandari, reading from her latest book, a memoir titled America Calling.

Episode 34 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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