Content warning: Alienation, trauma, suicidal ideation
Every visitor’s or expat’s culture shock is different. For me, once a graduate student from Russia, now an American permanent resident and immigrant, it’s the dreaded and inevitable question: “Where are you from?” Such unintentional, seemingly benign, casual, yet annoying moments can, and do, provoke a deep feeling of alienation. followed by a fearful thought that I will always be an alien here, no matter the circumstances..
The truth is, I cannot in good conscience answer that question. In my experience, the intention behind it is small talk, pseudo-connection, a shortcut to shared experiences and therefore relatability. Putting aside the fact that (in my experience) it is invasive, too personal, and most of the times completely unwarranted, it is also highly triggering and utterly empty.
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If you don’t know me, it’s easy to read my academic biography and see a career of highlights. You’ll see a long list of awards starting from my undergraduate career, fully funded scholarships for graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship positions at MIT and Harvard. I began my independent research career at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, then moved to the University of Windsor to take up a faculty position and am now a full professor with a thriving research group in wearable electronics. On paper, it seems like I had everything figured out, but the real story is far more complex. In academia, we idealize success and hide challenges – particularly mental health challenges. These “hidden” stories are closely intertwined with professional biographies but rarely told together. In the full story, the biography of an academic becomes more relatable and, well, more human.
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