Anya* is an international student who graduated from her master’s program in fall 2019.
“So I am in College Park and everybody is home. So it’s kind of become a ghost town here. I just moved into a new place and I barely know my roommate…”
*Pseudonym provided by the interviewee. Content warning for brief mention of suicidal ideation.
Interviewer: Okay. So, I guess my first question is, where did you grow up? What was it like?
Anya: I— mostly, I grew up in India, but I’ve also lived in [a country in Africa] for six and a half years. That’s where my father works. I lived in Africa from the ages of 3 to 10 and then we moved to India. So, most of my teenage and young adult life was in India.
Interviewer: And when you were in India, where did you live?
Anya: I lived in Mumbai. It’s one of the biggest cities in India.
Interviewer: And what was it like? Like, what was it like living in those different cities? What was the reason for that?
Anya: My father works in an industry where it was hard for him to get a job in India at the time when I was really young. So he decided to move to Africa. He works in the textile industry and he got a better opportunity there. So we moved there. And we lived there. But eventually, like, my mom felt that she wanted her daughters to grow up in our home country. So we moved back. My dad still works there. He’s about to retire, though, but yeah.
Interviewer: Your mom wanting you to grow up in your home country—Why do you think that was?
Anya: I think my mom is a little traditional. She wanted her daughters to be close to the culture, be close to our relatives, our uncles, aunts, and cousins. And I think it was relatively safe to be back home because we couldn’t go out as much when we were living in Africa because we were young and it wasn’t very safe to go out for young girls. So my mom wanted to move anyway because she didn’t drive so she couldn’t go out. We would wait for our dad to come back and then take us somewhere. We couldn’t go out ourselves. So it sort of became frustrating. And my mom personally wanted to explore other things and wanted to be closer to her family. So we moved back.
Interviewer: So why did you decide to come to America?
Anya: I got my bachelors in computer engineering from India, and I always wanted to do a higher degree, a masters degree and—America is the hub of IT (information technology) and a lot of opportunities, a lot of jobs here. I wanted to move a little bit towards the business side of IT. So I talked to a lot of my relatives who do live in America. And there’s just much better opportunities and a good standard of living here. So, I moved.
Interviewer: And what was it like to be an international student?
Anya: It was…uh, difficult in the beginning. I think, for me, it was, it was an advantage because I did not have much of a language barrier, because a lot of my other Asian international students did face problems with that. And I did not. And I have always watched a lot of Hollywood movies and American TV shows. So I was very—I was aware of the culture here. So it wasn’t that hard to begin with, like culture-wise. But, um…like there were some small shocks here and there, which completely changed my perception of how I used to think about America and how it actually is.
Interviewer: Do you have an example? Anything that comes to mind at the moment?
Anya: I think the media does a very good job to paint a rosy picture of America. Usually movies— they would show like high rises, Manhattan or L.A.. And you think that America is all about that. But then coming to University of Maryland, it was— it was different in College Park. It wasn’t what I thought it was, but I think I was just young and stupid, so I should have known.
Interviewer: Oh no, say more. What did you expect Maryland to be like and how does that differ from what you see of Maryland?
Anya: I did not expect Maryland to be like New York City, but it [Maryland] is more….what can you say…? I thought everything would be high-tech in America, but it’s not. So that was the only difference. Like even the houses. The way I imagine— maybe it was not like that. And, I really thought of America as a homogenous country, but it is pretty much diverse. When I came here I realized that there’s the east coast, there’s the midwest, and, you know, the culture differs as you move west. And no, everything’s not the same everywhere.
Interviewer: Mm. And how do you feel—I mean, I guess, do you feel that maybe—I don’t know. What do you feel about the diversity as someone that has moved here to America?
Anya: I think…also, now I realize the lack of representation in American TV shows or Hollywood there was. I always imagined America as a white country with white people. Obviously, I knew that there were black people here and there, but I didn’t know that it was so much more diverse, especially on the east coast near Maryland, the DMV area. Now the trend is towards, you know, starting to be more inclusive. And I think that makes me feel good because I was actually nervous about how I will fit into society. But, looking at how unique everybody is and, you know, people are more willing to accept you because you’re different. So, that was, I think, a relief.
Interviewer: Yeah, and, speaking to the idea of inclusivity and representation: what does that mean to you personally as a queer person of color—or I guess—actually, I don’t want to put labels on you. Do you identify as a person of color, South Asian, Indian?
Anya: I identify as queer but I think a “person of color” is a very Western perception of looking at things. I think, technically, I’m a person of color, but I think a person of color is somebody who has grown up in America, and has been oppressed for being of color.I have not grown up here. I grew up in a country where everyone’s brown, so I do not identify with the struggles of a person of color. So you could technically call me a person of color, but maybe my experiences are not the same as an Indian who has grown up in America. I think it would be unfair to call me a person of color. You know, it has some sort of oppression attached to it—being of color.
Interviewer: I guess what I’m hearing you say is sort of, like, the fact that you’ve grown up in the place where you’ve seen a lot of people from your culture. Then, you see that as sort of different from being in America where there’s so many different identities. So that, um, that sort of amplifies the label. I don’t know if that—I don’t know. I’m just trying—I’m not sure if that resonates with you or not.
Anya: I don’t think that label means anything to me as much as it means for a person of color who has grown up in the United States, maybe has faced some sort of discrimination because of their color. Because I have not until now. Maybe in the future I will if I continue living in the U.S. So maybe I can answer that better after a few years. [laughs]
Interviewer: But I guess that still, though, going back to the idea of inclusivity and representation: what does that mean to you in any way or form?
Anya: I think, again, growing up in a culture where being queer wasn’t accepted, and I think it’s a universal experience for queer people: it’s not—not feeling like you are going to be accepted. Feeling different all the time. And I think during my teenage years when I was figuring out, and figuring it out myself, I felt very different from what my friends were. And I did not feel as if I fit in. And I was desperate to fit in. Which led to, you know, other mental health issues and depression.
So I think,coming here and seeing that it’s okay to be this way felt good. It makes you happy and it doesn’t, you know, make you anxious or depressed because you are some way which is not in your control. So I think…that is, inclusivity for me, just being accepted by the people around you who might not have the same experiences. And again, representation is so important, especially in the past few years, there’s more queer representation in the media. And it makes me feel seen, somewhere.
Interviewer: Speaking more to the idea of mental health, do you feel that the isolation caused by the pandemic has affected you?
Anya: Yeah, I think it has. And this has happened at a time when I was in a transition in my life. I just graduated in December and I was looking for a job. And I did get a job around February. And most of the friends I had made during my masters, my college—they’ve moved all around the U.S. for their jobs. So, right now, I’m still in College Park because, before I moved, the lockdown came in and we had to quarantine.
So I am in College Park and everybody is home. So it’s kind of become a ghost town here. I just moved into a new place and I barely know my roommate. I mean, she’s really good and tries to include me with her friends. But I feel like I have no friends here. And you know, no matter how much you call them or you text them or talk to them on video, it’s just not the same as actual human contact. So that has made me feel a little bit isolated here right now. But I try to keep myself busy and hope for the best. I feel I’m still in a very good position compared to what people are going through in this pandemic.
Interviewer: How have you been keeping yourself busy?
Anya: I work from home Monday to Friday. I read a little. I like reading fantasy. So I’ve started reading Game of Thrones—it was my favorite show. And on the weekend, I go out for a walk or I’d cook food. I’ve been cooking a lot. That has actually always been therapeutic for me, cooking, because I love eating and watching Netflix. I mean, that’s what everyone does. But nothing else. I think now it’s starting to wear me down a little. But, you know, things are not in our control right now, so you just have to wait it out.
Interviewer: What do you—how does that sense of feeling like things aren’t in control…what does that mean to you?
Anya: I think…Like I said, about my mental health issues: I think I suffer from depression. I’m not sure; it’s not like a doctor has diagnosed me. But I thought that once I get a job and I’m financially dependent, I would start therapy because there are some things that I need to sort out for myself and, before I used to rely a lot of my friends. But I’ve realized that that’s maybe not the right way to go, because sometimes it feels never-ending.
So, I’d planned to start therapy, but because of the quarantine and the pandemic, I have put it on hold. So it’s literally like my mental health is on hold, which is…not ideal.
Interviewer: Yeah, I can imagine maybe that feels…I don’t know. Yeah. Just the idea of things being on hold.
Anya: And it’s not like anyone can do anything about it. Like, maybe there are people out there who want to help. But, everyone’s just tied down because of this. And I was looking for therapy, but I don’t think that would help me personally. I think I really need an in-person one . And then…it’s like, exactly when I wanted to start that, this happened. So, I don’t know what’s next.
Interviewer: Could you say more of your thoughts about in-person versus teletherapy?
Anya: I think I’m just—very wary about the Internet in general, especially talking about my very, very personal issues, and I think I’m much more comfortable with talking to someone it gives a human touch to it, when you’re talking to somebody in person, and especially when I’m going to just begin therapy and maybe I don’t know my therapist that well. So I would be nervous and it wouldn’t help at all. For me, it takes some time to be comfortable with people. If I was already in therapy, then I would have continued online once I was comfortable with that particular person.
Interviewer: Yeah, I can imagine that when you’re already feeling a lack of intimacy with friends when communicating through technology, then it’d be difficult trying to start a therapeutic relationship with someone that you haven’t gotten the chance to know yet.
Anya: Because for me, therapy is something that has to be completely confidential and I just don’t feel comfortable doing it online.
Interviewer: Mm. So, I guess, speaking more to the pandemic at large, how do you feel that the constant awareness of death has affected you?
Anya: So because of the quarantine and because there’s not a lot to do, I’ve been thinking a lot about death, I’ve been tracking how many people are dying and I started thinking about death myself.
When I think about death, I feel like it is inevitable and there’s nothing after that. I am an atheist and I don’t believe there is God, and I don’t believe there’s any inherent meaning to life. And if there is no meaning, then there is no point in being sad about things. Just do things that make you happy because, the more I think about it, the more I feel I want to live more—like, live happy. And every moment I am spending being sad, I feel that’s a waste of the one life you’ve got.
Being a person of science and not believing in heaven or hell, I just believe that, there’s just nothing after death. And you know what we are is right now.
You never know what can happen to you. We never knew that this pandemic was coming.You just don’t want to regret not living. You could die tomorrow but some things are in your control. I mean, a lot of things are not in your control, but whatever it is in your control. I just believe you can try to maximize your happiness with that right now.
Interviewer: Yeah, it seems that the pandemic is definitely shifting people’s perspective on what exactly is important and what exactly isn’t important in life—for those that do have the privilege to be able to consider that. So what sort of things do you feel have been more…I guess, amplified, and that you’ve been seeing as more important, if at all?
Anya:, I think, my personal happiness like—I used to spend a lot of time thinking abou how much I miss my parents, or how much I miss my friends and keep complaining about what I don’t have, you know, while ignoring that I have a roof over my head, I have enough money, I have enough food.
And right now, I’m trying to be happy in that and that’s the reason I said I’ve sort of put my other issues on hold, not thinking about that much because, you know, there are people who have it worse and I recognize my privilege. So. For me, it’s just that as long as right now—like anything that keeps me from, you know, maybe killing myself. [laughs] Then I’m in a good position right now. I think that’s what the end goal is. I mean, whenever I have any suicidal thoughts, I’m like, “What could be the worst case?” And if I can handle that, then I don’t need to be killing myself…that’s what I think.
Interviewer: Yeah, I’ve heard that in therapeutic situations that it’s sort of way to be able—I think that that could be a way of survival, a survival tactic, of being able to imagine the worst scenario, worst case scenario and see how you actually interact with that—when you do imagine the worst case scenario.
Anya: [softly] Yeah. [at conversational volume] I don’t speak for everybody, but I think that we as humans can handle more than we think we can handle because our basic instinct is to survive. So.
Personally, I would always…Whenever I get sad about something and I start thinking about it, I’m like, what’s the worst that can happen? For example, I couldn’t find a job. And I was like, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I don’t get a job. I go back to my home, to my country. But I still have my parents who are gonna pay for me. And I can make a life there. I can find a job there. I can…do it. Worst case scenario, I can do it. Doesn’t mean that, you know—it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get a job here.
So I think that’s what helped me cope with things. And that’s what cleared my mind for interviews. And, you know, I got better because I kept going in the loop that if I don’t get a job, then I don’t know what I’ll do. Then my life is over. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So it’s like—slowly and steadily, I’m just trying to improve my resilience to situations.
Interviewer: And there are some things that you mentioned that you missed—and you were kind of downplaying it—but I would like to hear more about the things that you miss right now.
Anya: Sorry? I don’t get it.
Interviewer: I was wondering, what are the things that you miss right now? I know that you sort of mentioned them before or you were kind of like, “Oh, that isn’t really that important,” but I’d like to hear about them.
Anya: I think…I miss my parents mainly because I’ve lived with them. Maybe I didn’t have a very good relationship with them, but then in the end, you realize that sometimes, what they say is for your good. They’re—they’re afraid for you. And, you know, sometimes you cannot expect them to understand everything you think is right.
For example, take me being queer. I told my dad and he is not okay with it. And the thing is that he might never be okay with it, but I have to accept that he might never be okay with it.I think it’s futile trying to make him understand. And it just makes my mental health worse and worse. And it just—if I put a lot of energy in it, then I don’t see a point in that. I want to live my life how I want to live. And if he doesn’t accept it, then it’s on him. And I am not out to my mother, but I don’t think she gets the concept, either.
Again, I don’t speak for everyone, but I think that you cannot make people understand—especially a little bit older people—they sort of have a rigid mentality and you can’t make them change, because even we are not 100 percent comfortable with ourselves being queer. And, you know, it’s hard to make them…and I don’t want to spend energy to try to make them understand something that they will probably never understand. And spend my life being sad because they don’t understand. I think it’s just letting go of that attachment, which makes you feel bad about your parents not understanding you. Why do you feel like they should understand you? Like, that’s what my opinion is.
Interviewer: Why do you feel like your parents should understand you?
Anya: No, exactly. In society, we’re taught that your parents should understand you no matter what. I don’t think that’s true. A lot of times, they will never understand you and you should be okay. People get upset that their parents don’t understand them. But I have just accepted the fact that they won’t. They will not understand me no matter what I do. So I may as well just spend my energy in something else that makes me happy. Because trying to—and always thinking about why my parents don’t understand me makes me sad. I think everything is just about accepting stuff. Do what is in your control. You cannot—you can’t control what your parents think. You can control what you think.
So. Maybe it’s going a little bit towards spirituality: you know, cut off all those attachments and don’t feel bad. It’s a long way for me to go, but I feel that is some path I want to take.
Interviewer: Why do you feel that being able to cut off attachments is something that will benefit you?
Anya: So, again, it brings me back to the death part. It’s like, if I am going to die one day, may as well—I look at life as something we, which—like, suffering is inevitable.
What we are doing is we’re trying to maximize our happiness. So, if an attachment, which is not making you happy, you can cut that off. I’ve got an awful lot of friends who do not agree with me on a lot of things. Instead of, going back and, trying to explain things it’s better for your mental health to cut them off.
I think that’s why even my friends circle has grown smaller and smaller. I don’t regret that. It’s, you know, it’s better than affecting your mental health. You know, having 10 friends doesn’t matter if they do not make you happy in the end.
Interviewer: Finally, I’m just wondering what sort of things you look forward to, in general, in any sort of way you wish to answer this.
Anya: Right now, I’m at the beginning of my career and I really want to do something in healthcare. I want to give back to people, indirectly or directly, somehow. And, you know, I kind of…I think that would be my short term goal for now because I don’t like—I’m kind of trying to stop myself from thinking long term, and rather just think short term and, you know, take things as they come.
So I want to try to advance myself in my career, but not of the mindset that I just want to make money and I want to be rich. I don’t want to do that. Even if I make money, I want to put it somewhere that would help other people. I was not like that before, but now I’ve realized that wanting more money—it’s a never ending cycle: you would earn more and then you would want more, and you would want more, and you’d want more.
Again, you have to draw a line, like, right now what I make makes me happy. I don’t want to be very goal-oriented in life because people get caught up in that so much that, you know, it destroys the other aspects of their lives. I don’t want to do that. As long as I am happy…I’m good.
We all know this all humans are selfish. I’m not a saint; I will always look out for my happiness first, and once I know that I’m happy, I’ll go out and help other people as much as I can. I want to do that throughout my career.
So if being in a field where I can help people, and also work, and also get happiness out of that job, it’s a win-win situation. I want to do that. And again, you never know how long you’re going to be here. So, you know, try to be happy and enjoy as much as you can. That is my…That is what I want to try to be. Obviously, I’m not there. I keep going back into the rabbit hole of thinking, thinking about stuff. But once I start doing that, I bring myself back and, you know, just reassure myself that I am in a much better position than most of the people in the world. [long pause].
I try to be happy in that.
Interviewer: That is the end of the interview. Is there anything else you think you would like to say?
Anya: I would like to say, mental health, depression are very serious topics. And I would just like to say that whatever I’ve said is just my opinion. It might not be the same for others. And —I am not saying that, you know, “be happy in what you have, you have better than others.” Like, people are really suffering and they should get the help they need, it’s very important But, like, what I have said are just my opinions and what I want to try to do in my life. So I just want to clarify that.
Interviewer: Thank you so much.
Anya: Thank you too.