Saturday, March 28, 2020

Remember who you are!

The incident dates back a few years, I was living in Kansas City at the time ...

It was a summer evening and I had driven my family to 'The Cheesecake Factory' on 119th St. As I got out of the car I paused to go over the order with my wife and absentmindedly kept my drivers side door open. My door was partially blocking the next parking spot and I couldn't see that there was a car waiting to go in there. The car didn't honk or rev its engine - instead this person drove full speed and parked the car next to me! Missing my door by a hairs breadth! I was completely taken aback by the aggression of the moment and I tried to see who the driver of the car was. The driver got out with his middle finger raised and shouted at me - "Go back to your country!" 

I wasn't going to let this man stop me from placing my order - so I went in placed my order and waited in the to-go crowd at the restaurant. He was there, glaring at me and I glared right back - bemused at his insecurity. And yet ... as I drove back home, I realized I was hurting from the incident - overtaken by a profound sense of exclusion.

In that moment and in others over the years I had a distinct feeling that America had rejected me. That I, with my GRE score, my Masters degree and a decade of professional life in the Sciences was not good enough to stay in America. 

As the corona virus ravages the world - making the U.S. its epicenter, I had that feeling of exclusion return to me. Watching millions of people lose their jobs and livelihood was dispiriting enough - but to feel yourself invisible in America's eyes was even worse.

I spent a day working from home and watching the coverage of the pandemic. And as clips played one after the other, I marveled at how expendable I was. 

Government's emergency bailout with $1200 support for individuals - not for me.
Unemployment benefits for taxpayers - yes to the taxes, no on the benefits.
Furlough or reduced work hours ? - not an option for me on an H1B visa.
Reduced rent perhaps? - It wouldn't matter as I would be forced to leave the country.

I turned off the TV and wondered how excluded my father must have felt when he first came to Mumbai. 

Born right after India's independence in a rural fishing town, my father was one of 5 siblings. They lost their dad - my grandfather, quite early in their lives. And my Dad at the age of 16 had to figure out how to take care of the family with no one to guide him. 

He moved to Mumbai because at the time it was the one place in the country that offered social mobility. Upon reaching there, he realized, he was under-educated and didn't speak English. So my dad sold vegetables and fruits during the day and studied by the street lamps at night. He put himself through night school and taught himself English, eventually earning a Bachelors and an MBA. Later he found a stable job, married and bought a home. 

And in 1999, through diligent saving - he bought me my own computer. I have treasured the receipt of that transaction and kept it as a reminder of the sacrifices my Dad made for us. The pocket phone on which you are probably reading this is many magnitudes more powerful than my first PC. But to me - it was a Supercomputer! 

The bearer of my family's aspirations and hopes - I wove my dreams into that Computer through lines of code. I would rename it on a weekly basis, giving it names of the Supercomputers in the U.S. - CRAY, STAR, Paragon,  and so on. 

It was never just a machine to me. I would talk to the compiler - admonishing it for messing up a string or looping infinitely. When, 'The Matrix' was released next year, I started building 'agents' in C. One agent would jump into a structure of another and eat up all its power ... this and countless other games ... When I slept at night, the computer gave me dreams, sometimes showing me solutions that had eluded me during the day. 

When I started my Engineering program, it took a hellish commute to get home. I would travel more than 2 hours every day, in a crushing crowd of people on Mumbai's local trains. Eventually when I got home, it would be late evening and I would be bruised and aching from the travel. And yet ... all the stress of the day and the aches in my body would magically evaporate the second my fingers touched that keyboard. 

Even now decades later, if I am ever feeling down or have a bad interview - I remember that little Computer. And I remind myself of where I come from. It centers me and helps me confine this all prevailing sense of exclusion. 

The world seems to be spinning out of control today. People falling sick and dying .. economies in free fall ...  and nothing but uncertainty ahead. And yet somehow I know - I am going to be fine. I may not know when and where, but I know eventually I will land on my feet.

I may be thousands of miles away from home with the odds stacked against me. But the Cheesecake driver or the recession can never strip me of who I am.

I am my father's son!

- Sanket


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