Watching fresh high school graduates from small towns taking their first giant leap into a large city reminded me of my own big step 12 years ago…
Small town white boys
The fall 2009 term at the University is set to begin next week and the campus is already buzzing with 17-19 year old’s who, after recently finishing high school, are ready to begin their undergraduate studies at the University. September is usually a strange month for older students, you feel really old seeing younger students walk around the campus with their eyes wide open, scanning everything in sight, almost looking delirious, lost, and definitely looking overwhelmed. Many of these students have never been in such a settingbefore: the caring and confined environment of their neighborhood high school is a past. There are fifty-thousand other students at the university now, all strangers, from diverse groups, and nobody will care if you start crying.
Among the different kinds of students starting university, I find that the most fascinating ones are the students coming from small Ontarian towns scattered around Toronto. They come to the big city from a pretty homogeneous society that’s predominantly Caucasian and Christian (I am still learning the denominations – Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, etc. so pardon me for painting everything in one brush). Their towns are small, everyone-knows-everyone type, sparsely populated, relaxed and have similar kind of food and cultural habits. Toronto on the other hand is a big city, extremely multicultural, mixed, noisy, crowded, pretty ruthless and fast paced.
Consequently, these small town students are bewildered and you can easily sense some strange mix of panic and excitement on their faces. Often parents will accompany them as they go around various offices for registration, and the kids will marvel at the number of food options they have, while struggling to understand people’s accents and double checking if what they are seeing is real.
Wait. That sounds familiar!
Let me exaggerate my story a bit. I grew up in a little suburb north of Mumbai, and until the age of 16 I was pretty much a local boy, going to primary school (grades 1-7) and secondary school (grades 8-10) close to my home. Most people were middle class Hindus, spoke Marathi and were vegetarians, and those awful things they show in movies were seldom heard of. Once in a while my parents or my school took us to Mumbai, to “see the big city”, and I thought - ‘wow… how busy, how crowded, and look at that building… it has a lift (elevator)! and 10 floors!… oh god… I can never live here…’
For grade 11 & 12, I went to, what we call, a Junior College that was in the city – a 90 minute commute. I was thrilled to be there but the diversity and variety shocked and confused me. There were people practising five religions, speaking ten different languages, eating god knows what kind of food and speaking in strange accents that took a while to understand. At times I wondered if I could really take all that change.
So now, whenever I talk to these fresh puppies from small towns (and I have to deal with a lot of them), it reminds me of my own time back when I took the leap out of the shell. It’s interesting how remarkable and essentially similar our stories are.
There is a Marathi saying that comes to my mind: “घरोघरी मातीच्या चूली”1 which roughly means: “Things work the same way, regardless where you go.” Indeed.