I'm going to tell my kids I was there, in Vienna. January 2023.

A few months ago, while coming home from work, a kid asked me in the elevator – “Are you Korean?” I said, “No.” Unimpressed, he returned a few moments later and asked, “Are you Japanese then?” I said, “No, I’m Indian.” He seemed surprised. What is it about me that screams, “I’m not Indian?” Is it because of how I look, how I speak, or what I eat? I get this a lot, and it has become more frequent. It happened the first night I landed in Ahmedabad. It happened when I was in Kanpur, and it happened when I was in Vienna.

I understand that, at times, people are merely curious and do not mean harm in any way. In all instances, I have tried to answer people’s questions honestly, explaining that Nepal is a different country and that I’ve never been to China, Japan, or South Korea. And even though I was in Assam for two years for high school, I’m not from Assam, and I’m definitely not an Assamese. I call the beautiful state of Tripura home. It’s located in Northeast India, bordered by Bangladesh on three sides. This is not an essay on the history of Tripura or its geographical boundaries. However, my identity and upbringing significantly affect how I view the world.

If IITK helped me change my outlook on life, IIMA helped me see things more clearly while making many things quite blurry. But this essay is not about my time at IITK or IIMA. If you are interested in those, you can read College advice for people who are exactly like me or What my IITK-IIMA journey taught me about India, the world, and myself.

This essay sums up the experiences of roughly 8 months in Vienna through the eyes of a confused 23-year-old with a funny accent who needed to use the political map of India to describe where he is from. An alternate title for this essay could have been – “Double degree review: The IIMA and WU experience.”

I’m pretty sure there are excellent articles online that make detailed comparisons across various indicators. If you are lucky, you might even find articles where they assign a rank to these higher institutions of learning. I’m not going to do any of that. Why am I even writing the essay, then? Hopefully, someone on a similar journey would resonate with these words and feel calm, knowing things tend to work out even though things seem unclear. Life is beautiful.

The essay does not have a set structure or a chronological order, like feelings. I felt a wide range of emotions over the last several months. My aim with this essay is to put these feelings into words – using a language I learned a $\frac{1}{2}$life ago but a language in which (weirdly enough) I feel the most comfortable expressing my feelings in. Putting me on a path to learning English is perhaps the best thing my parents did for me, in addition to everything else.

Feelings come and go, as with most things in life. Keeping a detailed journal and taking many photos helped recollect some memories. So, where do I start? A chronological narration would make the essay sound like a diary. In contrast, a reverse chronological order would make this essay look like a CV I’m meticulously preparing for a job interview. Should I start in the middle? That seems like a logical choice, you know, similar to eating a plate of rice – make a hole in the heap of rice, pour some dal, some of that fish gravy into it, and start eating from the center of the plate, making your way towards the periphery, slowly.

This story starts with me trying to beat the sunrise – or a race against time if you will. I had to travel to the Vienna International Airport for my early morning flight to Istanbul and eventually to New Delhi. I decided to go back and sit for the final placements at IIM Ahmedabad during the semester break at WU. But before leaving Vienna for a short trip to India to take part in the final placements process at IIM Ahmedabad, I had to pack and put away stuff I had accumulated in Vienna.

I’m not the right person to tell you if you should attend IIMA (you should!), but it is a magical place, and who does not like magic?

So, where were we? Right, getting late for a flight. A friend had generously offered to keep my stuff at her place. Rushing through the Vienna winter, I left my things with her and got to the airport before departure. That day, I discovered two things – white wine tastes great after a rice meal, and I love airplane coffee. I liked that free airplane coffee so much that I decided to submit a pending class project on the following topic – determining the willingness to pay for a cup of good cup on some international flights. 1

I also talked to a couple from New Delhi seated next to me, returning from Istanbul after serving on some mission there. It says a lot about the medical profession and Humankind. That we have figured out ways to cooperate efficiently, at scale, blows my mind. This couple had no business serving in a foreign country – yet they did because they had the skills, and someone benefitted from their knowledge.

I traveled to a few places and talked to people along the way. I had the good fortune of talking to a gentleman in his 60s who returned to Budapest to sell off his ancestral land in the village and move permanently to the Netherlands. Two really tall, lovely ladies from Serbia brought pastry for the whole hostel – for strangers they’d never met before. I also met someone who moved from Bangladesh to France years ago for better opportunities. I spoke to him in Bengali – we understood each other even though the dialects differed.

Two French boys offered to pay for the wine we had over dinner because they thought splitting the bill and exchanging coins was too tedious! In all these, I’m reminded of three themes: everyone is trying to do better than yesterday, people identify themselves with their homeland, and people associate you with something.

Even though the gentleman left his home country years ago, he spoke of Bangladesh fondly. The older gentleman, who was about to sell off his ancestral land, spoke fondly about growing up in Budapest, and the women from Serbia spoke highly of their homeland.

Asking where one is from is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions you can ask a stranger. When I tell people I’m from India, they almost always seem surprised. I speak “differently” and do not look “very Indian,” I’m told. When I speak Bangla, you can observe a marked change in the expression of whoever is listening to me, as if to say, “Wait! Where did this sound come from? Did he just speak Bangla?”

But what is an Indian? I was born here, and I will die here – not in Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Bhutan, Nepal, or Japan – places that people thought I was from. People tend to have different preconceptions about other people depending on their place of origin. Fortunately, I did not face explicit discrimination because of my nationality. Still, it is pretty clear that in the current world order, people from a particular part of the world have more access than others.

I’m not an expert on how the world works or should work, but it takes no genius to see that your passport decides where you can go and when. I could not join the first few weeks of my classes at WU because of delays in paperwork. In contrast, some classmates could choose to fly to a new country and stay there for up to 90 days, with only a few questions asked.

My documents did arrive eventually, and I’m happy to report that I also received my graduation documents from WU. However, it does seem like the current arrangement is quite unfair. Ironically, humankind has not seen a better time than the present in terms of the flow of information and easy exchange. Yet, so many parts of the world and opportunities remain inaccessible to so many people.

These uncomfortable realities aside, I truly loved the city of Vienna and the overall double-degree experience. A city steeped in history, with so cafes on almost every street, Vienna represented a truly global city for me. The city has excellent public transportation, world-class institutions of higher learning, and many multi-lateral organizations. 2 If there is a single word I could use to describe Vienna, it would be “beautiful.” They had perfectly trimmed bushes around dustbins, for God’s sake. Words are not enough to describe the city. You must visit to feel it.

Meeting fellow Indians in Vienna was a lovely experience, too. Unsurprisingly, in one of the desi parties, a few people asked me if I was from Nepal. A Nepali store owner tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to speak to me in Nepali. An Indian family invited me over during Christmas and fed me rice and fish. They even offered me chocolates. I do not know what I did to deserve that kindness, but that was one of the most memorable moments of the double-degree experience.

Everywhere I went, people were kind to me, except for a singular incident when a really drunk man came up to me and started posing weirdly, and started mumbling “Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan” – probably trying to say I look Chinese or something. Apart from that minor hiccup, everyone treated me fairly and with genuine warmth. I spoke English everywhere I went – a lady bus driver went out of her way to tell me the best spots to visit while in Annecy, a train conductor helped me figure out the bus connection to Barcelona when the train dropped me in the middle of nowhere due to the strikes in France. This gentleman at the booking counter helped me get a ticket for the high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid. 3 Sure, they were just doing their jobs, but they seemed radiant and kind.

One of the more memorable incidents happened on the train between Budapest and Vienna. The Hungarian Border Police lady who came to check my documents just looked at my residence permit and assumed I had my passport in my backpack (I actually did) without asking further questions or asking me to produce the passport. Smiling generally helps.

Sadly, on some nights, these dreamy European train rides and walks make way for feelings more steeped in reality. I’ve been feeling these for quite some time, but their frequency has increased lately. I wonder if that is good or bad. Truth be told, studying abroad in an unfamiliar city is an incredibly lonely endeavor. I don’t know how Indian students who go abroad to pursue a PhD do it – away from everyone they held dear for years. And just as I was starting to feel like I could call Vienna home, it was time to leave.

IIMA friends had their convocation last year. I have my IIMA convocation this year. I look forward to it, but I also know that the familiar faces with whom I had lunches almost every day – friends who shared the same plate, garlic naans, chocolate-coated paans, and for whom I took fish bones out won’t be around. Conversely, it also means I can do my own thing, not bothered by what my friends would think about me.

My older friends tell me that’s how life is supposed to be and that I’m making progress. If that means moving cities, states, and countries and leaving some friends behind, so be it. I wonder if there is a better way. Maybe there isn’t, and perhaps this is how you make progress. I don’t really know. This is my first time doing life, and things only make sense in retrospect. All these sad realities aside, if you ask me whether the double-degree experience was worth it, I would say yes. I went to the IIMA campus around midnight the first time I went there, during a raging pandemic, trying to convince the guards that I was a legitimate student. As I said, this is my first time doing “Life,” but things make sense retrospectively. Looking back at previous essays here and here, I think things played out alright. When I left the IIMA campus for the final time, my friends were about to graduate, go out into the world, and do their IIMA magic while I started serious work on my master’s thesis at WU.

“Dear Mr Debashish Reang,
The result of the following thesis is available for you:…”

with those words, my studies came to an end. 4 I felt a massive sense of relief – a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. It is hard to explain in words, but I hope this essay did some justice to what I felt, what I’m feeling, and how I learned to see the world. Yes, I have thought about writing a double-degree review for quite some time now. Then again, the past year’s lived experience reminds me of this lovely song by Christina Perri called Human.

In it, she sings, “But I’m only human; And I bleed when I fall down…” The lived experience of the past year felt something similar – I’m only human. I felt things, wrote things, deleted them, lost my journal, recovered it, and rewrote parts of this essay. Heck, I even had to burn some pages. My university life ended abruptly one Sunday night, and that was it. At least it ended with a beautifully rolled diploma, so I think it is okay.

WU diploma
Going to tell my grandchildren about this one, to be honest. February 2024.

In the same song, Christina Perri also sings, “I can fake a smile; I can force a laugh…” Perhaps that’s what I’m going to do if need be. Smiling slightly when people ask me if I’m not from here, forcing a laugh when I miss my friends, occasionally catching up with a few when possible, and perhaps sharing a naan or two. The double-degree experience taught me things and showed me things more than I had dreamt of previously. I won’t wish to exchange that for anything else. The so-called character development that happened makes me optimistic and hopeful. I wrote the lines below for myself, which sums up the double-degree experience.

Stay hopeful – about life, about the future, about humankind. You might feel hollow, your judgment clouded. Sit down with a friend, talk to them, cry to them – ask them to draw on a board and show things to you, if need be. You will gradually start to feel things again and see things in a different light, and it will occur to you that there is so much you can do.

You will find yourself dancing alone in a hotel room, saying, “I can’t believe how good I feel right now. I’ll do it all over again, I swear to God.”

Thanks for reading till this point. What next? I don’t really know. I have a day job to go to in a few hours, so I’ll probably try to get some sleep. Please buy me a coffee – you can click the cup on your screen or follow this link.

Notes

  1. In retrospect, it was a bit too spontaneous. I should have picked a better topic or analyzed the data I collected better. I scored a 3 (on a scale of 5). Austrian universities use a 1-5 grading scale, 1 being “excellent” and 5 meaning “fail.” 

  2. Most notably, the United Nations has one (out of four) of its major office sites in Vienna. The others are located in New York City, Geneva, and Nairobi. 

  3. That train journey was by far the best train journey I had taken in this short lifetime. The train casually cruised at over 300 km/h. They even had a live screen flexing the speed, lol. 

  4. Pending official documentation and formalities. 


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