Here and away

Between America and Me

I’m a sucker for self-help routines.

Over the years, I have compiled a rulebook of life advice ranging from “hacks” I borrowed from Silicon Valley gurus to virtues I learned from my grandparents. Sometimes these hacks entail waking up at 3 a.m. for an oddly specific meditation regimen or taking an 11 ½-minute “coffee nap” in the middle of my 8 a.m. econ lecture.

Yet some days, it seems that no life hack, meditation or nap schedule is going to help me get closer to the “perfect” life I desire.

Despite almost 20 years of practice, it’s often laughably difficult to just be a functioning person. Bombarded with productivity tricks, meditation techniques and endless advice, I’m often left paralyzed by choices about how best to use my time. Is eight hours of continuous sleep good, or should I nap in bits throughout the day? Water before coffee or after? And should I finally try that stretching routine my dad followed before bedtime in his college days?

This is a subject everyone wants to weigh in on, and the advice on how best to spend my days has been all over the place. Each day, it comes from a variety of sources: professors, strangers, best friends and books. Other times, it comes from larger ideals I borrow from the communities and cultures I exist in.

Indian culture, for example, dictates that I be cordial but not too chummy with my parents. But that dynamic often seems out of place in the progressive European surroundings my family and I later found ourselves in. American culture offers its own set of suggestions. On one hand, Americans are explicit in their words of love or criticism. On the other, I grew up learning the importance of subtle hints that often define my relationships back home.

When pieces of advice from these cultures and conventions collide, simple tasks and interactions become severely disorienting. Mundane activities such as ordering a cup of coffee invoke my belief system, new rules shape interactions with strangers, and slowly I begin questioning which values are personal to me and which are reflections of my present surroundings. Of the many experiences that take place when moving across the world, this lifestyle disorientation is the clearest — it is one thing to adapt to a new country’s culture and its people; it’s another to be a completely different person while still maintaining a sense of self. It is important that I be more explicit with my roommate in my currently American context, but is it also a trait that I actually value? And if so, how do I readjust to friends back home?

When such choices come up on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis, it’s hard to decide which set of values I should stay true to. And I begin questioning whether anything I do is grounded in my personal values — if I even know what those are. This confusion is both a disconcerting and a heartwarming feeling. I recognize the privilege that allows me this breadth of choices, but sometimes it’s impossible to choose between dating advice from my English mum and that of my American aunt’s.

As the world grows increasingly interconnected, I see many international students in the United States, and American counterparts abroad, grapple with the same dilemmas. We empathize over our unique pasts and similarly conflicted current realities — and how the two perpetually clash. Across the world, I see communities weigh the needs and demands of their diverse peoples, and movingly, sometimes I see them do it well.

One July evening this past summer, I found myself in a New York City park reading a journal by a consultant who recommended I clear out my entire collection of socks — you know, for inner peace. And as I got ready to make my way back home to say goodbye to my favorite ankle-lengths, I looked around to find a mix of fellow parkgoers who seemed nothing like each other. Yet, these diverse people from across this country — and beyond — were somehow making it work. Despite their differences, they seemed to form one large, functioning unit. And for a second, I stood undisturbed, immersing myself in this sea of assorted cultures, lifestyles and mannerisms.

Maybe I didn’t need a sock-purge to make peace with myself after all.

Jayesh Kaushik writes the Wednesday blog on his experience as a first-generation immigrant. Contact him at [email protected] .