Diet And The Graduate Student

In my recent post on my vexed relationship with food I made brief note of my changed dietary habits after migration from India to the US. My brief response does not do justice to the full complexity of that change over the past twenty-eight years. One important component was the change induced by my altered financial situation upon arrival in the US (and my work and study schedule as a graduate student.)

There’s no getting around it: my financial circumstances, as an international graduate student, were dire, and I was busy with a full schedule of classes and working in the cafeteria as a dishwasher. No glamorous graduate student research or teaching assistantship for me, not even a library gig.  So I buckled down and cut back on expenses. (I made a little over $300 a month, and $157.50 of that went to rent.) Unfortunately, good food–come to think of it, just food, period–was one area where I chose to economize.  I drank coffee–terrible crap, brown water most of it–and smoked cigarettes all day; those two classic appetite suppressants obviated the need to spend precious dollars in the school cafeteria. On the days I worked there, I was given a free meal at night. Once I went home at night I ate a big meal; more often than not, this amounted to a heaping plate of rice and beans (or lentils.) Once in a while I would make myself a white-bread sandwich or two with mayonnaise, American cheese slices, and bologna. On the weekends, because I worked again at the cafeteria deli and pizzeria, making sandwiches and baking pizza, I would indulge in those two food items. Alcohol, obviously, ameliorated some of the misery of this state of affairs, and I would gulp down bad beer and cheap wine by the liter whenever I had the opportunity.

This dietary regime was, to say the least, an unmitigated disaster.  There wasn’t one culinary catastrophe that I had forsworn. I snacked on candy, soda, and orange juice at the cafeteria; a deluge of sugar. I ate refined carbohydrates by the boatload; I ate processed meats; I smoked; I drank acidity-inducing coffee; I starved myself and then feasted; I drank calorie-rich alcohol excessively.

My weight ballooned. My face grew puffy. My belly initiated a policy of rapid, aggressive expansion. I began a rather pathetic exercise routine after my first year in the US–by which time I had secured a graduate fellowship–but could not keep it up. And despite my financial circumstances improving, thus rendering unnecessary my coffee-n-cigarette diet during the day, I did not eat any better.

Bizarrely enough, when I was able to make my first visit back to India–two and a half years after my arrival in the US–my changed appearance was greeted rather cheerfully: “Well, look at you; you look rather healthy. A rather nice change from your former skinny self, don’t you think?” (Or something like that; the translation isn’t precise, but it captures the spirit of what was often said to me.)

It took a very long time for me to become educated about the right way to eat; I haven’t mastered that art yet. (More on that transformation anon.) Meanwhile, I remain convinced those early years in the US did incalculable damage to my long-term health.

3 comments on “Diet And The Graduate Student

  1. Dmitri Helios says:

    I’m a Computer Science Graduate student from India (i.e., a Desi Born Desi) in the USA now. What struck me reading this was how little the situation for an average Indian grad student has changed in the nearly 30 years since you first got here. Most of the desi folks I know still work in student dining services, the minimum wage in this Red state has barely moved (to a little over $7…a mere $3 increase from what you were making 30 years ago! ), still stuff themselves with sugar because proper food is inordinately expensive here. Food options still come down to either a heap of rice with some passable dal or it’s binging on sugar outside. The health-conscious, “organic” food lifestyle is too expensive for most of us to maintain. Most of us are too busy with work and maintaining meager savings that our life here is best described by http://www.samosapedia.com/e/adviser_budweiser_apartment_department .

    My guess is that the unpleasantness/discomfort/depression that a lot of FOB students initially face in USA is due to a drastic fall in social status…many of us come from relatively well-to-do upper middle class families back home (though there are many exceptions too), where driving a modest family sedan meant you were better off than 95% of society. To move from that to being a poor graduate student waiting for buses in the cold, eating the cheapest microwavable crap you can find and walking long distances while cars whizz past you…it can be a demoralizing experience. Of course, this is also what makes one determined to “make it”…usually getting us to work our ass off to land a job with a salary at least twice the median U.S. income. Interestingly – and I’d love to know how it was with Chinese students in the U.S. in the 80’s – but mainland Chinese students who study here are typically quite wealthy compared to us Desis. A majority of them have cars or two-wheelers, wear fashionable brand clothes and look way more polished than the typical Desi, even though they usually speak poor English.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Dmitri,

      Thanks for that informative and insightful comment. The international graduate student is always up against it. Perhaps those with families could do better if their spouses were allowed to work off-campus.

    • Pranav Prakash says:

      So you are saying you don’t get half an hour to an hour during the day to work out? Financials aside, the least you could do is take a 30 minute jog or use that unexplored territory on your school campus that some people prefer to call the gym. Excuses ain’t gonna help. If you want to eat right, stop spending insane amounts of money on rice, daal, frozen rotis (yup, the number of frozen rotis Indians buy is insane). Get leaves and some salad dressing and eat that. You don’t need to eat “organic” food to get healthy. Even regular veggies can do the trick.
      In the 2 years I have lived in the US, I see Indians spending money on Domino’s, Indian groceries (as much as I love Indian food, let’s be honest, you can’t have it everyday as healthy food) and anything but a bowl of salad. And there’s no human being in the world who is so busy that he/she can’t take 30-60 minutes off the day to work out🙂

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