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As he graduated with a double major in computer science and cognitive science a few weeks ago, our son made it clear to us that unlike his father and some of his own ingenious classmates at Berkeley, he was not the typical techwallah. He enjoyed programming and problem solving, he said, but for reasons both personal and philosophical he didn’t quite see himself joining the tech industry. Furthermore, he worried that he was not one of those Silicon Valleywallahs at his core. I, too, realized that none of the meanings given to the Hindi affix “wallah,” as described in the Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary, would apply to my son, especially as the word related to the high tech industry: “agent, doer, keeper, man, inhabitant, master, lord, possessor, owner.”
In the days leading to his graduation, I was barraged by questions about where he would be working after college. I shrugged them off: “He’s still figuring it out,” I said. Our son had made up his mind to not interview for a job in the industry, much to his father’s chagrin. He had pursued lucrative internships during the previous summers. Those had made him question his goals.
He sent me a recent column in The Daily Californian by one Jason Chen, a Berkeley graduating senior, as further explanation to his mode of thinking. “All the people in my life—my parents, my teachers, my peers—are just workers on an assembly line, which is supposed to slowly sculpt me into a finished product: ready for nine-to-fives, board meetings and dreadful commutes.” I saw how Chen was feeling the pressure that my son felt of becoming, say, a drone akin to Mumbai’s “dubbawallahs” who were supremely efficient cogs in the wheel of the gritty city’s meal delivery system.
My son said that Chen’s column reflected his own struggles to discover his calling. He realized also how—unlike many classmates with financial constraints—he was fortunate. He had the luxury of being able to take a break to ponder. What people didn’t often see, he explained, was how easy it was to be strung along by “the system,” first by parents and then by college, and then later by the demands of work and then, further along, by one’s family and then, even later, by the comfort and reassurance of a particular kind of lifestyle promised by a specific career. Sooner or later, my son observed, people found themselves at a crossroads where they were unhappy. Therefore, instead of letting himself be sucked into the system right upon graduation, he simply wished to apply the brakes and reflect a little, while working on projects that interested him.
“As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had eleven days left?” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, asked of students gathered at Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium on the day of commencement. A cavalry of parents listened to her from the bleachers. Behind the stage, the fir-lined hills poked into the dull bleak skies. Sandberg talked, between sniffles, about the special moments of life that often tended to slip through the crevices of an ordinary day.
One year and thirteen days after the sudden death of her husband, Sandberg had been learning to show gratitude for the things that were going right. She urged the graduates to be thankful. “My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.”
As the graduation ceremony wound to a close, my husband received a note from an acquaintance at a reputed valley company. Would our son consider an interview with his team, he asked.
My husband has not been able to understand why his son thought so long and hard about pursuing a job in the technology industry. The path was clear. A degree in computer science from an institution like Berkeley was a ticket to a cushy job in the Silicon Valley. What on earth was there to think about beyond that, he wondered.
Later, during lunch, my husband showed the note about a potential job interview to our boy.
“But in the summer I’ll be busy with my last two courses.”
His dad persisted. “But what about fall? What about after that?”
Outside, the swags of fog had unfurled to reveal an azure blue sky. The California sun splashed the pavement. Inside the cafe, our new graduate dipped his corn chip into the guacamole, then dunked it into the salsa and crunched it all between his teeth. He looked squarely at his father. “Dad, we’ll see.”
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.