Confessions of a Postdoc (16): Musings About Family, Friends and a Trip Back Home

(January 2nd, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

As I sat down to write this piece, I realised that lately my ranting has been serious, and maybe even a tad bit depressing. So, let’s lighten up the mood.

Recently, my life got super-crazy-busy when I started working as a freelance science language editor to supplement my abysmal postdoc stipend. Coupled with my regular job, my workout routine, my mild obsession with television and the need to regularly socialise with friends, I ended up having hardly any time to do nothing. Nope, that’s not a typo - I don’t get time to do ‘nothing’. When I finally got an intern to help me out with my increasingly challenging project, I realised I might be able to take some time off and visit my family after 2 whole years! An arduous two-day long journey across the Atlantic notwithstanding, I made it home. Time to hang out with family and catch up with old friends.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are the worst times for foreign postdocs in the US. Whereever you turn, all people talk about is visiting family: Family dinner, family gatherings, family reunions. Family this, family that. This year, I didn’t only escape the hullabaloo; I also managed to spend loads of time with my own friends and family. A few months ago, I watched a play about a deaf man who has been struggling all his life to fit into his dysfunctional, highly self-centred family, until he meets a girl who is about to turn deaf herself. He leaves his unhelpful family for her, she encourages him to build a career, chase after his dreams. But, after a brief honeymoon period loaded with love and success, he gets into trouble with the law, and she leaves him. Alone in the world, he wants to reunite with his family. They welcome him back with open arms and tears in their eyes, no questions asked.

That play affected me, and I realised something I had never consciously thought about. That the only people in this world who you can count on to stand by your side and support you, no matter what you have done or who you have done wrong, is your family. Not your spouse, not your lover, not even your best friend. Only your family. It’s a tricky love-hate relationship, isn’t it? There are disagreements, squabbles, differences of opinion, but there is also love, respect, and a string of irreplaceable memories that will forever bind us together.

My family visits are laden with rituals, like visiting all my relatives. I make it sound perfunctorily, because that’s the only way I don’t get too attached. As if I don’t have enough nostalgia to deal with. I meet cousins who I used to be close to, who I spent a lot of time with. At some point though, everyone including myself, moved on. Either got married, had kids, and moved away, or got busy with higher studies, job and career, and the distances kept growing. I cannot stop reminiscing about the good old days, when life was simpler, when all we cared about was doing well at school, when jobs and career, marriage, family and children seemed so far in the future, that we never bothered worrying about them. At some point though these things became real for all of us, and unwillingly, we all grew apart.

Trips back home are also opportunities to catch up with old friends. Although I don’t get to see them, since they are all over the world, talking long hours over the phone, is still a consolation. This time though, things were different. My best friend got married, and I got to be there. And I love weddings. Nothing can beat the joy of meeting friends and acquaintances years, maybe decades, after you last saw them. One person at the wedding told me how he ran into an old friend he thought had died years ago! Imagine his surprise and delight when the friend turned up alive and well!

So how does all this affect my life as a postdoc? It doesn’t, but I wouldn’t be here without my family, or even without the friends I have had over the years. My friends, the ones that have supported and encouraged me, inspired me, competed with me and pushed me to do the best I could, never shoved me down the wrong path or nudged me to take up the wrong habits. They have been my teachers, my counsellors, dare I say my therapists even, my pillars of strength and support. Where would I be without them?

And of course, my life-givers, my parents. I don’t believe you have to be the best in your class year after year to do well in life; you could be an average student and still achieve all that and more. But I do think that if my mom had not drilled me into studying extra hard and working long hours to create an impressive academic record, if she had not raised me to be ambitious, I might not be here today. If my dad had not provided for us, if I hadn’t been privileged and fortunate to have had the upbringing I had, I, almost certainly, wouldn’t be here. So, for the life I have, and the job I absolutely love, despite the fact that right now it’s sucking the life out of me, I am most grateful to my parents. Theirs is a debt I could never repay.

Everything you experience in life, in your own as well as in others around you, whether good or bad, amounts to something. It’s like the butterfly effect. One tiny little thing, no matter how trivial it might seem at the time, leads to something that leads to something else, that might eventually influence the course of your entire life. The conversations you have had, the mistakes you saw your friends make, the struggles your family faced, the lessons you learnt as children with your siblings and cousins, everything influences the decisions you make and the path you choose in life. And friends and family are an indispensable part of it. So, thank you guys, for everything!

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 02.14.2014

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