/ LIFE

A Student’s Guide to Living Abroad II

This part is about the grind.

This is the last post in a 2-part series. While the first part highlights the preparatory phase, this post focuses on how life is different from what I expected when I first went abroad; it highlights the ups and downs based on a set of anecdotes and experiences.

The Disclaimer

  • My primary motivation to write this article is to present a balanced view of both sides of the coin when it comes to living abroad. However, you will note that at certain points there is a certain amount of cynicism with which I look upon the conventional notions that (I believe) a significant proportion of my peer group (and myself at one point) subscribed to.
  • I write this article after having spoken at length (over the past year and a half) with a number of my friends that come from Indian universities and were accepted into the ‘top’ programs across the United States. I add to this my own experiences living and traveling in Europe. While this covers a significant portion of the target audience, I would agree with the claim that my dataset is limited and thus my arguments might be too specific; difficult to generalize at times. I will try my level best to keep the discussion general but over and above that, I trust the reader to make rational assumptions when extrapolating my arguments.
  • This last disclaimer is mostly for when my parents call me up concerned about my mental health; I’d like to clarify that I’m quite happy and satisfied with where I am and I absolutely love the work I’m doing. However, this is mainly a result of the right combination of opportunities and luck. I fully recognize that this is not a combination that works out for everyone (or one that will continue to work out for myself in the future), and that is why I present this argument with a generous dose of cynicism at times, as opposed to painting a rosy picture of life.

The Prelude and a Regulatory Warning

“Freedom!”

My first thought when I stood facing the immigration counter at Mumbai airport, en route the next phase of my life in Geneva, Switzerland.

Like many Indians going abroad, I considered this my chance to be “independent” (often synonymous with ‘wild and free’). Freedom from the oversight of my parents; Freedom to spend my money where I want; Freedom to travel the world; essentially, freedom from the bucketload of socioeconomic constraints affiliated with the average ‘stay-at-home’ Indian student’s existence.

In my head, I was planning all sorts of activities - I had travel plans lined up to Madrid, London, and South Africa. They were mainly machine learning summer schools; a combination of work and studies. Maybe that was why I didn’t give a second thought to the life that I was leaving behind and the people waving goodbye from the other side of the window at T2, Mumbai International Airport. Maybe I was so excited for what lay in store that I didn’t feel sad for what lay behind me as I headed into a jostling crowd of ‘foreign’-bound Indian aunties and uncles.

Everyone tells you leaving home is a life-changing experience; most stories conveniently omit the ‘hard’ bits of their experiences. Suddenly, you’re thrust into a world of possibilities. It could mean that you travel the city, meet new people, share new experiences, and try out new cuisines. This worldview meets with a counterview called ‘reality’ pretty soon. All these ‘new experiences’ sound pretty awesome until you realize that they could also mean you’re stranded on the tram stop at 1 am with no mobile network, as you squeeze your way out of the crowded bar of puking partygoers after a meal of tasteless, parboiled vegetables that constitutes a ‘traditional’ supper. Life is funny that way.

For the most part, I believe it is a great idea to be excited about new phases in life - temporary or permanent; good or bad. But on the other hand, it is unnecessary to have the wrong expectations of people and places you’ve never been to. A lot of my friends ended up getting an inaccurate idea of the responsibilities associated with moving abroad and they were more often than not in for a rude shock rather than a pleasant surprise. They seem to have coped well, but then not everyone is that lucky.

In an era where ‘living my best life’ porn has hijacked the purpose of social media, I think it grows increasingly important to provide a reality check to counter this gold-plated fantasy people assume everyone else lives. Calibrating the right expectations at least for the peer groups I am a part of is what I hope to achieve in this post.

This is as much a reflection of the experiences of my friends in the United States as it is an observation of life in Europe. Its suitability for extrapolation to life in other countries would depend on regiospecific patterns and nuances, but I hope some of the ideas I highlight can calibrate expectations on the right scale. For my part, I definitely believe I have had (and continue to have) a well-balanced life at CERN, but I concede there have been lows to match the highs. I will utilise these as anecdotes to highlight some common misconceptions that I had and how they impacted my life.

Of course, my opinion might be too cynical for many (including myself) to take seriously, but I hope the readers can make that distinction for themselves.

In retrospect, I emphasised the setting for this article twice (once in the disclaimer) but I feel in the current light of a blind mass-migration of Indian engineering graduates abroad this is a really critical point to drill in.

Goals

I left my home, my people, and my country behind in search of opportunities to launch a career as a computer engineer; full of an effervescent joy for the life that awaited me.

I am just another kid trying to make a living for himself and his family. I genuinely believe I am lucky to be on a path to make useful contributions in my line of work - artificial intelligence. Early on, I had a lot of vague ideas about ‘changing the world’ that eventually gave way to narrower, quantifiable, concrete goals within a ‘grand plan’. In fact, I have this ‘Book of Ideas’ that highlight some mind-numbingly awesome plans I came up with as a kid along with a commentary on the pros, cons, and obstacles for each. Funnily enough, some of these plans have already been “copied” by startups that are doing really well for themselves. But I take solace in the fact that this serves as validation - some of these crazy ideas actually had substance to them!

Coming back to my goals, I’d get a bit technical here if I were to highlight specifically what I’d like to achieve when I say ‘change the world’ but I’ll save that for a more detailed post later on. For now, let’s just say that there are always tweaks and improvisations to this ‘grand plan’, but I am happy that I am somewhere in the vicinity of realizing it in the next decade or three.

Reality Check

I think excitement comes naturally when we consider living abroad - exploring new cities, cultures; working or studying at elite universities and leading an Instagrammable existence. I was no different. It was a fantastic country to live in, wonderful friends that I already had, brilliant researchers on my team, and extremely supportive parents. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot of my friends heading to the United States were similarly quite pumped about learning from top-notch faculty, engaging with a wonderful set of classmates, building a global network of professionals, and receiving opportunities to work at firms at the bleeding edge of the tech revolution that AI is leading. I think it was a fair set of ideals to bear in mind, but most of us were not prepared for the point at which the tsunami of reality hit us. Lectures were hard; assignments took a significant amount of time and effort eating into the major part of the day; classmates and roommates were not the most helpful, often creating issues when living together; and the job market was dismal given the sheer number of applicants for the same post, factors including the political climate, arbitrary hiring practices, and the role of plain old luck in acing a standard programming interview. It takes a bit of time to realize this world is not as glamorous as it is made out to be. It is rewarding, but only after months of hardwork, weeks of sleepless nights, and almost daily battles with annoying roommates. To be perfectly clear, these are a cumulative set of issues over a short period that affected the bunch of friends and people don’t have to deal with all of these at once (unless they get really unlucky). But these issues do crop up from time to time and it takes a nontrivial amount of effort to address them.

Finances

Independence comes with its own set of freedoms and the freedom to manage your own finances is one of these. A lot of people heading into grad school underestimate the mental impact of having to pay back a loan has on a candidate that is going through the grind of assignments and exams on a daily basis. If you are like me, you are constantly reminded of the exchange rate whilst purchasing groceries at the local supermarket. They have all these sayings that really don’t make sense to you until you are thrust into situations where they apply. Managing finances reminded me of how responsiblities and freedoms were two sides of the same coin, and how real shit could get if I had been the sole breadwinner for my family. Sure, I was relatively lucky because I was generating a comfortable income, but had I been in a situation where I had no income but only expenditure I daresay I would be under considerable mental strain as well. I cannot possibly fathom the amount of stress that one would have to deal with if one’s family depends on their future income - that’s real adulting right there. It impacts work; it impacts studies; there is nothing you can do about it except hold on to the idea that you will eventually get a job and pay everything back. That will make all the sacrifices and risks worth it.

Loneliness

Solitude is a great place to visit until you realize nobody might be waiting for you back home.

Everyone likes the idea of having ‘me-time’ and the best part about living on your own is the ability to determing where to spend your time outside of the classroom/workplace. But on occasion, it also feels nice to have people around. This hits hard (at least initially) - particularly for those of us moving from a very active familial environment to a studio apartment living in a room with housemates who might not be around much. You move from constantly having somehting to do into an environment where you might actually have nothing to do for hours on end (unless you’re like me :P) - or at least nothing you’d rather do.

Loneliness hurts, and most of us are afraid to talk about it; afraid of seeming weak and desperate. In my opinion, it’s a factor for a lot of mental problems that people claim to suffer from. I’ve been there for a short while and it isn’t a great place. Luckily, I have friends who never let me feel lonely for really long (annoyingly lovable pricks), forcing me to speak with them, do something I enjoy (sketching, cooking, running) or simply go out and meet new people. Find yourself a friend circle that will help you stay strong, engaging with you when you need them while giving you some personal space otherwise. At the same time, reciprocate the favor and do make time if you feel your friend(s) need(s) you. Most people just need for you to be there on the other end of the line and they’ll handle the rest.

Damage Control

I feel like I’ve been a bit too serious throughout the post so I’ll share some lighter views before heading into the next part of the article.

Life is worth living, no matter what.

For all my claims of having developed a melancholic worldview, I think moving out of your home is a critical experience for moulding a wholesome personality. As we grow up, most of us mature into young adults (I didn’t). This maturing doesn’t come about on its own - it is a product of experiences (and bad ones matter more than good ones), learnings, principles, and practice. Living and studying abroad is a really fast-track way of achieving a ton of experiences in a limited time span. It teaches you lessons in a way nobody ever could have imparted the same ideas. I genuinely believe it’s worth a shot, for the right reasons, and in the right situations. Everyone isn’t immediately going to be able to move out of their houses, but if you ever get the opportunity, do try it out!

Travel

One of the best parts about living in a new city is that traveling anywhere even within the city is basically a vacation with very little travel time. Plus, you can make trips to friends in nearby cities which makes for a very active set of weekends.

In practice, at least during the semester, this isn’t going to work well mainly because the fatigue is often not worth the weekend of fun. Sure, if you can manage to make the time and you find it worth it then by all means go ahead. All I mean to say is that it varies with people and situations. On the whole, though, Spring Break and Winter Break make for wonderful week-long trips that result in a significant amount of Instagrammable content (for the future influencers reading this).

Adult Supervision

No more adult supervision because you’re the adults now. Oh… crap!

Nobody is around to shout at you for coming home at 2:30 am anymore. No more lectures on how you’re missing out on umpteen health benefits because you don’t eat eggplant curry. Nobody around to check that you’re studying and not bingewatching Game of Thrones on the night before your exam (I aced that exam, okay!).

For Indians with the typical familial restrictions on dressing, partying, drinking, or dating, this is a gold-mine of opportunities. I’ve had quiet, docile friends turn into alcoholic partygoers. That’s an exaggeration, to be fair, but my point is that this opens up the doors to a lifestyle most would never have access to if they continued to live around imposing families. You can now go out when you want, party as much as you’d like to, stop drinking milk (I’m surprised how much that comes up) and eating stuff you don’t like, watch movies late into the night, call your significant other over, maintain an active dating life, or whatever the heck you want. There is nothing to stop you save for the fear of consequences arising from poorly reasoned life choices.

Fortunately, my parents aren’t controlling in any sense (and neither were most of my friends’ parents), but I do know of the occasional case where the kids lashed out at years of unhealthy restrictions by taking every opportunity they got to engage in activities that were not accessible to them before. It usually didn’t end well but those are a result of their decisions alone. So it’s a fine line between freedom and anarchy that is entirely dictated by the amount of responsibility one would decide to exhibit when ‘let loose’, so to speak.

The Joy of Living

Life is an uphill ride. Pedal hard, because you’re sitting on a bike with no brakes.

Life is going to be hard, but the fruits of your labor will be just as sweet. It is really cool to survive all these experiences. When you look back at the arduous path you took navigating a series of situations in the best manner you could, it feels really satisfying that you ended up where you did. For a change, mom cannot take as much direct credit (although she will try) for your success albeit their presence did make a critical difference everytime. You can actually feel happy about adulting like a real adult, something that tells you you’re probably ready to grow slightly older and more mature than you were before.

Frankly, I doubt I have grown any more mature than I was two years ago, but I have definitely learnt a ton of vital lessons about living, loving, and losing. Obviously, as a professional I have developed far more than I would have imagined, courtesy a wonderful team and encouraging community. That would probably be another post at a later stage - highlighting how 2018 has been one heck of a rollercoaster ride. But I would say I genuinely enjoyed this journey and look forward to the next chapter starting later this year!

Generalizing the Arguments

I have frequently used the term ‘abroad’ where I really mean to imply ‘away from home’. I realize now that the same arguments apply in situations where one moves to a new city albeit within the same country. For India, where cultural diversity varies drastically from region to region, moving to a new city may as well be equivalent to moving abroad.

I have utilised examples for both working and studying abroad and it should be noted that there are subtle differences between the two where I have painted the picture in broad strokes than would highlight these nuances.

Life in Switzerland

Switzerland, for the most part, is just plain wonderful. In comparison to many other countries, we have little crime, little poverty (if you’re poor and homeless, you really can’t afford to live in Geneva), lots of mountains, valleys, rivers, and a big-ass lake. I spent a week traveling around with my family and can confirm it is, for the most part, composed of a charming and picturesque set of villages and towns with a dash of modernism added here and there. Swiss chocolates and cheese are renowned the world over and finally I can claim to understand why.

I live in a village on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border called Saint-Genis Pouilly (‘saun-genie-poo-ey’) and bike down to the Swiss side where I work (yes, border crossing is chill out here). It’s cheaper, less travel, and closer to the beautiful Jura mountain range than the options I had available in Geneva. However, there are understandably fewer social events, gatherings, and parties in Saint-Genis if you’re new to the area as opposed to Geneva that actually possesses some semblance of nightlife. It isn’t as important initially, but this lack of socializing opportunities might get to some people later on.

The working week is about 40 hours, with some ups and downs based on your personal preferences. My team is pretty relaxed about how I manage those hours although I am usually at my office for about 8-10 hours a day. I also have side-projects and personal commitments that I work towards in the additional time I have. Evenings are usually meant to cook dinner, chill with my housemates (we recently realized we share a love for chess!), or simply watch a few episodes of Fresh Prince of Bel Air (I just started BoJack Horseman, though). Finally, on the weekends there are usually outings planned, parties to attend, places to be, or a few movies to watch. Incidentally, this weekend I’m spending on wrapping up some incomplete blog posts. I get enough time to spend on myself and I signed up for Taekwondo lessons at CERN about three months ago. Turns out CERN has everything from a finance club to a sailing club for its members to subscribe to. That makes it really convenient and affordable to find activities for your spare time!

The Pros

There are a lot of pros to living in Switzerland: firstly, the standard of living is pretty high. You will be enjoying top-notch services wherever you go; discomfort is rare and usually addressed quickly. Next, the weather is pretty mild throughout the year. To be clear, there are rainstorms and snowstorms but the frequency of these and (judging by Mumbai standards) is really not much. The temparature reaches slightly under freezing on a bad winter day but it isn’t too bad to step out of the house, almost ever.

There are mountains to hike up and valleys to ski down. Water sports open around the summer and adventure activities are aplenty. Geneva also has a lot of festivities around the few months of summer although it reduces around the winters. I had a lot of fun learning ice-skating this winter (two lessons and I can skate without falling), courtesy a friend who proved an encouraging mentor.

Finally, and most importantly, the crime rate is almost zero (if not zero). Like, there is literally no danger if you walk through the city unaccompanied at even 3 am in the night (I know because my friends and I have done this :P). Sure, there are some areas where it might be unadvisable to do this but for the most part, it is perfectly safe to hang out anywhere at any time. This has its advantages because living and traveling is much easier when you don’t have to worry about the safety of yourself and your belongings. Small things like if you have to visit the ATM at an odd hour, you don’t have to think twice about your safety which is not what I heard about many other cities around the world.

The Cons

There is a price to pay for everything and boy does Geneva take that adage seriously. It costs between 10 and 25 Swiss Francs ($12 - $28) to have a fairly decent meal and travel costs about $16 if I’m going to and from the city (passes make it cheaper in the longer run). I’m not the partying type but I have been to parties and I can confirm that booze is not cheap either, so if you like having a good time, be prepared to shell out for it. The price isn’t as much of an issue because most people here are also paid well to live in Switzerland (well, we aren’t paid as richly at the student level but it’s still a comfortable wage). But it takes a while to adapt to the cost of living (I know it did for some of my friends and myself).

The main issue I faced coming in as an Indian student working in the summers versus working in a year-long contract was that the summers were all fun and frolic which didn’t serve as enough preparation for what comes later. The nature of the work environment at CERN is that most of us are temporary hires (‘temporary’ ranging from a few months to a few years). You barely get used to a certain set of friends and suddenly, people are leaving and you have a completely new peer-group to hang out with. In my case, it took a huge mental effort to convince myself to go out, attend parties, network and expand my friend circle. I’m not so much an introvert as plain lazy to engage in these activities but my housemates were really active in this sense, and the atmosphere even at home was quite lively most of the time. On occasion, they dragged me off to parties that ensured I maintained a healthy social life. I was fortunate enough to keep bumping into crazy friends (man, did we have good times!) but this always came with the regret that the time we had to hang out was finite. It was the only issue I ever had with life out here, but I also understand that they hire us in fixed-contract roles for a reason and it’s really not that bad to get to know new people from time to time. On the bright side, this ensures I have friends in most major cities around the world. That is pretty useful when you’re couch-surfing on vacation ;)

Conclusion

I have attempted to provide a complete picture of life abroad as an Indian student. Sure, I write this in my limited experience and capacity but it’s a start and I hope to be able to expand on this as I move to the next stage of my career starting grad school in a new country.

I fully understand there might be biases that creep in and experiences that others might not share. I have tried to keep it rather broad bearing in mind the audience for this post and I hope you found parts of it relevant to your respective situation(s)!