vrijdag 14 maart 2008

“Going abroad also means crossing the boundaries in your own mind”

"Going abroad also means crossing the boundaries in your own mind"
13 maart 2008 -
'Enterprising' is a label that fits Chattarbir Singh to a T. The 26-year-old Indian PhD candidate (at the department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry) followed his Master training in Eindhoven, plays cricket at PSV Tegenbosch and introduced this sport at the Students Sports Center. And he is an executive member of a platform set up recently for newcomers from India. In the first few months after his arrival in the Netherlands, in 2004, things did not look that bright, though. "Then, for the first time, I really felt the meaning of 'being alone'."

Make no mistake: the story of Chattarbir Singh is not a tear-jerker. If you ask this positive-minded Indian now what exactly was wrong with everything when he came to the Netherlands, he is having trouble dishing out the details. He does remember that it was a dark period. "I'm an outgoing person", says the Indian, "I don't want to lock myself up into a room. And yet that was precisely what I had to do here in the beginning."

For how do you get in touch with people, if you have got your hands full with everything that you need to take care of, if you do not know where to find companions in adversity, and you have no idea how to make contacts in another culture? "It was very difficult to approach anyone initially. I look very different. And I did not know how to behave in order to avoid offending people. So what is your safest option then? Sit still, do nothing."

The Dutch are different from the Indians. And yet it was precisely this fact that put him on the track towards the Netherlands, during his Bachelor internship at a DSM factory in India. Singh: "That's how I got into contact with Dutch people. I was quite happy with the freedom I had doing my research there. And they were quite supportive about pursuing my own ideas. So I thought: why not the Netherlands?"

It was very hard to actually take the decision to go and follow a Master program in the Netherlands. Singh takes off his spectacles to explain this. "In India, traditionally you live together with your family. At supper in particular, which is the most important moment of the day. And I was the first one of the family to go abroad for a longer period of time." Moreover, at that time Europe was turning its back on 'foreigners' more and more. In France people wanted to prohibit turbans - what if they should do so in the Netherlands as well? "Maybe they'll kick me out of university", he thought.

Still, he went. "Going abroad, is also like crossing the boundaries in your own mind", is how he looks back on his choice. It seems as if by doing so he has paved the way for others: some of Singh's nephews have meanwhile taken up studies outside India also.

For that matter, Singh suspects that far greater number of foreign students would come to the Netherlands if it was easier to obtain a work permit here. In that case students would be able to pay for their studies themselves, instead of - like Singh - being forced to take out loans. Now many Indians decide to go to the USA, for instance, where they are allowed to work and only need to bridge the initial period with a loan, says the PhD candidate.

Singh's loneliness did not last for years. "I had a steep learning curve", he explains, when talking about his first few months in the Netherlands. Especially by the time when the cricket season begins again early in 2005, and he makes contact with more people at PSV Tegenbosch - where he plays in a team starring seven students and employees from TU/e - his social life starts picking up again.

Cricket is the sport in India, and Singh has played it for as long as he can remember. Also, he wants to get Eindhoven students to take up cricket too. Indeed, he has found out that there are plenty of Dutch cricket clubs, for instance in Haarlem, The Hague and Amsterdam, but not in the southern part of the country. "We have everything at the Sports Center. Cricket was the only thing missing." That is why during the summer of last year he took the initiative to introduce cricket on campus. He is not hopefully daydreaming about a student club yet, but there is a big smile on his face when he admits "that would be fantastic".

Singh has found his feet in the Netherlands. It is no longer a matter of course to return to India straight away after having obtained his PhD. "I will return eventually, but first I want to gather relevant work experience here."./.

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