Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The idea of "fitting in" and maintaining necessary cultural balance

It's almost  75 days since I arrived in the states, and something which I wanted ever since was not to be an alien to the culture here. What do I do?There were  some opportunities on campus,  for which I signed up .

The first one was the active cultural exchange program. This gathering of 8 people has been a blessing in disguise for a person like me. Who was right there ,trying not to be a "foreigner" . I had to move with the flow . But it wouldn't mean that I could compromise  on the cultural and ethical values on which I grew up back in India. The ACE program has been very helpful in sharing what cultural barriers we have , the  social customs and religious beliefs. I was amazed to see the  way in which there are so many similarities  and some not so similar customs in  the diverse group. Folks from India,China,Nigeria,Indonesia, Hungary and Taiwan have been participating in the program since week 1.

Another program which I've been actively participating is the "Lion's cousins" group. Here, each international student who signed up for the program is assigned an american cousin , we are allowed to meet and exchange our  way of life and invite each other for festivals or occasions . When I first met my cousin, we never expected that we would chat for a long time . But curiosity about each other's countries got us talking for 3 hours. Oh and I did have the opportunity to taste cheese macroni and learn the game of Texas hold 'em poker. So it was fun!

While every opportunity which seemed interesting and knowledgeable were signed up by me, I was making sure that my Indian  roots. I listen to devotional songs every day in the morning, I make sure that I pray on every Saturday as I used to, only now there are no temples here in commerce. My spiritual sojourn has always there with me and will continue to do so. My family is not with me to celebrate our festivals. Luckily, we have a close knit and a vibrant Indian community at the college who organize various events and make sure that our cultural ethos are in place.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Life of a Indian Graduate Student -- My first month in Commerce,Texas

The Jet-lag was gone. The enjoyment in the weekends watching Prison break was over. Before I realised, the final orientation for the college had finished and everyone was taking the 3 days gap in between to decide on what subjects to take up. Before that, there were also other things which needed priority

I never imagined living with strangers before, but after coming here, I had to search for 3 other like minded people like me who are vegetarians, yes sounds crazy but what to do! I thought It is better to stay with vegans, as we all can cook in cycles. ( Yea cooking , my mum still can't believe that I cook).  

Apart from cooking which would only happen once we took an apartment, we had to search for one. Not having a car meant that, we four had to split up, go around places, get the best reasonable prices and decide to move in. There were more than a hundred students coming in this fall, so we had to make some quick decisions (What if all the apartments were booked! Where were we gonna stay? ) Thoughts like these gave us some tense moments. Commerce is not a big place after all, so empty spaces could fill out quickly. 

This guy actually stopped his truck  even while I was on the pavement.  

Corporate america and the clauses in between

The whole economic system in the United States is a complete reverse of India. While India follows a mix of both Socialistic and Corporate , the US is completely corporate. Want to take a new bank account? There are tons of clauses for everything. It will take some digging to figure out what kind of a bank account you would require. The apartment which we rented did not come with an electricity provider, so guess what? Search for the best reasonable rates in terms of KwH and reviews and sign a contract for one year. (What the heck! Welcome to corporate America ;D  ) 

One of the many power tarrif plans. It's so vast and confusing actually 

So I kept  skimming through this site called "power to choose". Hundreds of offers on board, lot of combinations between "Offers" and "Price" . Finally zeroed in on TXU power (They provide Free nights from 9 PM to 6 AM) .

Maintaining the monthly Budget :

Getting together was one thing , discussing and buying, sharing the rentals and groceries was new to me . I realised this  during my visit to Walmart. It is such a mammoth!  . At first, you would feel like buying what you wanted.But once you go there, careful fellas! The "Low Price" gimmick of their's kicks into action. You will end up buying more than what you wanted. Meanwhile, I was also searching for an efficient way to share the budget of the house. After two days, I found "Splitwise". The UI is clean and I find it to be an easy way to share the apartment expenses amongst my friends. 

Getting over the Cultural Shock : 

It took me a couple of days to get stock of things. Why? Because I was surrounded by people from the same country as I. The college did not start at that time, and I was with my seniors, going there quite often, enquiring about things, getting used to the dry Texas heat. Enjoying the outdoor walks where there would be no dust/smoke , or honking noises like India. The time spent at the library during the first ten days was also quite significant. I was loving my frequent visits to taco bell where I would munch upon bean burritos and  potato tacos. All was well until I shifted to the new apartment. We were only 4 now instead of the many seniors with whom I've lived.  It brought a sense of loneliness sometimes . Meanwhile, I thought it would be prudent to attend some/many of the on campus events for all the Fall students. This was my way of assimilating and adapting the good points in the american culture. 

Luckily, the counselling centre in the college sent an email regarding a cultural exchange program.Seats  were very limited to just 10 students, so what better opportunity than this to move along with the flow? My inner self advised me to do this because, I wouldn't want to stay as an alien in a far distant land. I wonder what will happen to me when my India visit happens next year. Dunno... 

Studying after a gap of 5 years : 

While I was still thinking to take about the subjects, people were already discussing about OPT'S and CPT'S and what not! . No worries, taking a deep breadth and staying calm was my way of reaching the "goal" . My short term target is to score good grades in the first semester. Travel to the east coast in December, come back and begin my second semester. 

Apart from all of these, some other things which I've realised till now : -

* No Chapatis to eat? Forget it, either get frozen one's or adjust with Tortillas
* No Vegan/ Limited options outside? thinking of going subway? that won't happen everyday ya know! Or better prepare your own food. 
* When will I learn the Texan accent? Is it really needed?  Ya gotta be kiddin me fella! 
*Crossing a road? Pedestrians are given more priority than cars. They actually stop their vehicles for us to cross over. Imagine what happens in India when you try to cross roads, lol 

* First day at college, went to USPS, the lady over the counter said "watcha want?" I was like huh?
*If you don't have a car, walking outside is quite dangerous. Sunscreen lotion,Shades,Cap are a must. Otherwise burn baby burn - literally! 
*Coke is more cheaper and free sometimes once you buy a glass of it. heck,what about water? 

The journey for me has just begun. I wait to see what's up next. Or should I say wassup man! :D  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

My first week in America - There is still a long way to gooo

The decision to go back to school after a gap of 5 years was not easy. And having faced a lot of hurdles, I finally got my visa and landed in the US about 10 days ago. After travelling for 31 hours, which was equally divided between day and night, I felt as if I was a dream once the plane landed in Dallas . First impression? No people on the roads! Like Seriously? Where the people? There are mostly cars everywhere! Once in the apartment in commerce, I noticed that it was 7.30 in the evening, but, why was the sun still rise and shine? Well, this was another world so it was just the beginning.

Yea 8.30 in the "night" 

So I just dozed of that day, the Jet lag had overpowered me. I slept for  36 hours while getting up in between for an hour or two . By the time I got adjusted to the new time zone, it was Friday . There was an  air of TGIF!! around me. So it was a  weekend well spent with the seniors watching Prison break for 8 hours straight! That happened for two days lol. So what was the next thing to do? Explore the places around me? Nada  -  Texas is damn hot. 

It was my belief that, the heat here  would be peanuts  when compared to the tropical temperatures of India. Yes, I am used to 46C of heat, have walked around during those soaring temperatures. But what I didn't know was that, Texas has a kind of dry heat. When I landed in Dallas at 2 in the afternoon, I was happy that the temperature was around 34C, but surprise surprise the heat was almost unbearable. The AC in the car seemed to be of no use at all. <sigh>

Wish people in India were allowed to show their patriotism like this 

People here love to eat meat,which means that I have limited options for food. Best thing for me to do was to get the groceries from Dallas and start preparing my own food. It wouldn't happen so well all the time, but hey, everyday is a learning process. Mum trained me a bit during the last 20 days of my stay. And yea I did make some curries and chapatis successfully. It would probably take a while for me to prepare everything perfectly but I do have the time now so that should be fine. For making any kind of curry,the funda remains the same.This ten day free period would also be the perfect time to hone my culinary skills

Made something 

I've been going to the college everyday, to know about the place. Everything is sinking in slowly, but it will still take some time for me to get used to things here. Commerce is also the home of the Lions. I don't play Rugby, but really look forward to watching a sporting event here. Sports and I don't go well, but who knows anything might happen once the classes begin! 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Asphalt 8 on Lenovo Horizon -- A Super thrilling experience

Yea Yea I know that  playing Asphalt 8 would be like peanuts to hardcore gamers  out there. But,for me, someone who is not into full time gaming, its a bliss. I've always has some casual gaming in the past. Like Dirt3 or Prototype, or touch based games on my Lenovo Horizon. But what made me to start playing Asphalt? Well, for starters I haven't played a game since I gave away my Ideapad Y560 which I had. So when I got the horizon in this year, I had wanted to push this baby to its limits and what other better game than the free Asphalt which is available on the windows store? 

And I'll tell you one thing. You might feel good while you play this game on a regular laptop,but wait until you see this run on the Horizon. It is an  amazing  spectacle to watch. Have one of the surround sound speakers with ya? Then you are good to go! The best experience comes out when you have the complete package. I had brought a creative set during my student years and I still use it some times. So for playing this game, I thought it would be great if I could use the dusty old speakers.

What makes me like this game you ask? Many -  the first one is playing on the horizon itself. The second is the variety of racing options it provides Playing offline/online and tournaments which are conducted at frequent intervals. I've used Microsoft's Live Gaming network in the past to play Dirt3 . This time though, having a faster internet connection meant, I could continue playing multi-player games with players popping in around the world. There are also, I observe a number of locales where the races take place - From London to China and from the Ariana Launch center in French Guinea to deserts of Nevada.And new localities keep coming up! 

I also found that, apart from the regular racing schedules, there are other racing activities which one can indulge in. The first one called " infection". This one is quite funny because which ever car is in the last is automatically infected with a virus.Then starts the high speed octane race -where infected cars turn out to be more powerful in terms of agility and speed. They do however, overload during the course of the race and get back to the original state .Infection might be an easy way of getting a fast paced car,which I would definitely not prefer. Slow or last, regular racing is what I like the most. 

Lastly, the most fun part of the game are these knockout matches between two opponents, where we get an opportunity to just go around the track while hitting other's cars. They seem to act like moving targets but it's quite easy to hit 'em hard once you get used to the track and the game itself. The more you hit the merrier and you win in the end. Isn't this great? having destruction in the race also helps us at times :). 

I also, for the first time took a video of the experience. It's not so professional looking - that's the reason we call them home made video's don't we? . End of the day, I am happy to have played this game on an awesome machine like the Lenovo Horizon!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Incredible Kerala -- Spirituality at its best

So my first week in Kerala went very well and I got adjusted to the new lifestyle here, as it would be a long hiatus of 21 days. In the end of the first week, procedures like purgation made me weak . But it was not long before I  was told about the rejuvenation techniques  which would help me restore the  lost  energy due to the treatment.

My diet for the first one week Rice soup in the afternoons. 

To compensate this physical weakness in the body, I decided to have some spiritual sojourn in the evenings everyday. There are many options which were available to me at the rehab center . So I took a choice of Indian philosophy, Yoga and meditation, Ayurvedic History and Cookery classes, yes cookery classes finally! I've been learning to prepare some dishes from my mum while at home sooo this time period was definitely a plus point for me.

I was staying at a place called Kalady, which is very close to the Cochin international airport. My mother told me that this was the birth place of one the greatest Indian saints of all times - Aadi Sankaracharya. Being in such a blessed place, I wasted no time and went around places in an thuk thuk. The first place I visited was the Shakaracharya Stupa
Shankaracharya Stupa at Kalady

The tower is almost 8 stories tall, and as one starts to take the staircase, the sidewalls showcase the birth of the great saint with the blessings of lord shiva, and one who at a very young age left this holy place and started a pan India yatra  on his foot. I've heard of these stories via films and books - but visiting such a place is seriously surreal. There were some other places which I visited, on that rainy evening. trying to collect information about the advaita philosophy ( Discovering our true self) of this great saint.

The grave of the holy mother - Circa 8 A.D

 I also had an opportunity to visit the grave of his holy mother within kalady. Rama krishna Ashram was an un-expected destination in our route, but the thuk thuk driver took me there as it was a place where people from any faith could come and meditate or pray. The driver was a roman catholic but was spiritually inclined towards the teaching of the great saint. So I payed a visit to the Ashram at the bank of the Periyar river.

Rama krishna ashram - A place for people from all faiths to pray

With so much spiritual places around a tiny town, my daily dosage of yoga classes in the evenings were making me more calm and relaxed. The hymns  and the asans combined were very effective in making me sane. I also lost some weight during this stay at Kalady around 6 kgs. Not bad huh . My yoga guru was kind enough to teach me breathing exercises for my specific health issue. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Week 1 in Kerala --- My fight with Psoriasis has begun

After having an extensive 9 months treatment with a regular skin specialist, I took a detour and stopped taking the conventional treatment all together in this January. I was not happy since there was no visible improvement from my end. Later after a gap of 4 months, I zeroed in on a more traditional approach to fight my skin condition. That meant, I had to travel all the way to  Kochi, a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. This traditional method ,also known to Indians as "Ayurveda" has been in to practice since thousands of years. My aunt suggested that I follow this path because it was a natural way to get past things and it has it's own proven track record. So with lot of hope and anxiety, I made up my mind and came here last week .

I planned to stay here for three weeks to see if this would give me enough time to make me sane and also a better person. After having an initial consultation with the doctor, I called it a day as the long distance travel had taken the toll. It was bedtime for me by 8 in the night.  

The first day started at 6 o clock with 50ml of medicated ghee (yuk). I just closed my nose and took it in mouthfuls to avoid a vomiting. The medication within the ghee was so overpowering, that  I had to use the smell of a  lemon to counter a possible vomit lol.

Medicated ghee kept outside my room 

Taking the ghee was a major hurdle for me to go through this ayurvedic process of "Panchakarma" .  The medicine inside the ghee is supposed to saturate my whole body which will, at a later stage help in remove the unwanted toxins away. Since the first day, I was also going through a treatment process of Lengthy oil massage for an hour in the morning and short timed facial massage in the afternoon in addition to a process called "Nasyam" . And I must say, after four continuous days of Nasyam, my headache problem with which I was suffering from has gone away completely. I've been told that the oil massages in the morning would help to remove the scaling and reddish lesions by the end of my treatment. I see a ray of hope, because they have diminished by 90% in some areas and there are still 2 weeks to go. 

Another therapy which was started very recently was "Takradhara" . In this treatment, medicated buttermilk is allowed to flow over the forehead through a narrow stream from the vessel above. This therapy has been one my best experiences so far. It is so relaxing,that  I've been able to sleep for longer hours now (8 hours straight) . I also notice that this process has inhibited my headache problem to a large extent. 

Takra dhara - Photo courtesy of Keralatourism.com

The place where I am staying  is a heavenly world. Located on the bank of the Periyar river, it is  a self sufficient campus,far away from the bustling city of Kochi. The Buildings which include the Treatment rooms, the office and the rooms for the patients are located in the midst of a a large herbal garden. The whole area is dense with green everywhere,with a large variety of flowers and gigantic trees overlooking the entire campus. I fell in love in this place the moment I arrived and have been trying to enjoy my every moment here. 

I've been going around for a short walk in the morning and evening around the place, and the best thing is that the monsoon season has arrived here . Both the rain and the green have brought a sense of serenity within me. I can feel a lot of change within myself and I am hopeful that by the end of all this, I will leave this face with a happy mind. I am beaming with positiveness everyday. Above all, I hope that god will also me to move ahead of this condition in the near future.  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Custom ROM installation on Xperia ZR

I've always been intrigued by Android. The sheer scale at which it commands the smart phone arena is fascinating . ( I know there is iOS on the other end by it is completely oblivious to me ) . My first smart phone was an android which I brought in 2011. It was a Sony Xperia X10minipro which I brought  after an impromptu decision. I loved my new phone  and was very much attached . It had best of both the worlds, Great OS and of course a sliding keyboard. Two years on, my second phone also happens  to be a Sony, this time with a bigger screen . I have also always admired Sony's tremendous support to the developer community, and was quite happy with their android upgrade cycle for the model which I use. Kit Kat OTA is right around the corner, but I did not want to wait any long . So I took the plunge once again in XDA, and after a lot of reading and careful precautions, was able to install a custom rom successfully . I wanted to share this article because I did not see anyone doing so for the ZR models. So here goes....

First and foremost, don't even think of installing one if you have no idea about any of the technical jargons in Android/XDA community, just forget it. You will void your warranty and may even permanently brick your device for good. For hobbyists though, a good place to begin would be the ZR board at the XDA forums .

Before thinking to start the process ,there are some essential downloads which are MUST if you ever want to come back to stock rom.

1) Sony flash tool             By Androxyde
2)Pre-rooted Sony Rom.  This is the easiest way than to flash older Roms and try rooting.
3) Backup TA tool .         Very important that you use this before unlocking your boot loader
4)Doomlord's root kit       For people who are still on 4.1.2 where perf_event exploit has not been patched
5)Android sdk tools          From Google
6)Flash tool driver pack    From DoomLord
6)Lastly, a strong heart which should be ready to face any eventuality, be it a bricked device or a buggy custom Rom

1) This is what I did. Downloaded an older android version for my phone with build number  10.1.1.A.1.310 . It is available for download from this website. Mind you this is only for Indian model, there are other versions available. Please check this link for the same

2) The second thing to do, is to flash the older or pre-rooted Rom using the flash tool which we downloaded earlier. Make sure that you copy the ftf file to firmwares  folder of the tool. The default directory path would be C:\Flashtool\firmwares .  For instructions refer to this link

3) Now that you have an older Rom, you need to root it and the best way to do so is to use doom lord's easy rooting toolkit. Make sure that usb debugging and "unknown" sources are enables in developer options. Detailed instructions are being  by doomlord in the following link

4) After rooting the device, you may have to unlock your boot loader to install a custom Rom. The requirements vary sometimes, and some stock based Roms may work on a locked bootloader too. But, if you want to try something completely different like Cyanogenmod, Carbon or Free Xperia which are based on AOSP, the only option is to unlock your bootloader. Please make sure that you backup your TA partition not once but n several times - to be on the safer side before starting the procedure. There is a video tutorial here which will guide you through the process. Also, there are a number of FAQ's which I would suggest you go through before proceeding with the process.

5) After finishing with the unlock - the last thing to do is to flash a custom Rom, there are a couple of them on the ZR board which you can go through. Make sure you read all the bugs which are present in the current Rom before trying to install it.

I selected Carbon Rom from the lot, as I've been a fan of them since last year. My nexus 7 has a carbon rom too --  so after going through all the features, it was the best option for me. The interface is very close and resembles stock version of Kit Kat. However, being a custom rom, there are many additions thrown in . I am sharing some of the screenshots here for a better understanding
The first one is a stock Kit Kat experience which includes the translucent menu bar. I also notice that the capacitive buttons are also transparent when opening up a book or a video allowing to enjoy a full screen - immersive experience

The second is the presence of a privacy guard which allows us to control the data which is being shared with 3rd party apps. (This is not possible with the system apps though)

The third is an extensive set of customisation settings in the Rom. I've not seen so many in Cyanogenmod .

There might be many more, but I've not tinkered with them as of now. Happy with what I have finally. There are also certain measures which I took to prevent anything going wrong during this process. They were

1)Disabling blue stacks service while performing rooting mechanism or TA backup method. If you don't do this you will get a message saying that there is more than one emulator installed on the system. Not good eh?

2)Disable Antivirus protection. Recommended

3) If you are using windows 8,you will have to disable driver enforcement

4) Backup the TA partition its a must. Also, make a nandroid backup - just in case

5) Make sure your battery is charged to at least 80% 

I hope my article helps other customers of Xperia ZR who are planning to go through this process. It was a big headache for me and was not so easy to achieve. All the credits go to the respective developers at XDA forums. I have only tried to bring together all the tools and practises for the benefit of others.