Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The East-West experience

An assistant vice president of California State University, Geetha Mary Thomas, compares life here and in the United States, where she has lived for 36 years

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a summer day in New York in 1971, Geetha Mary Thomas stepped out and, like she did in Kochi, she opened an umbrella to avoid the sunlight. “Soon, I could sense that everybody was snickering and passing comments,” says Geetha, 56. “I could not understand why, till my husband said, ‘They are asking why you are using an umbrella on a sunny day.’ Americans use an umbrella only when it rains. They embrace the sun, while we run away from it, because it is so hot here.”

At that time, her face had flushed red with embarrassment but now, talking about it in a 9th floor apartment in Kochi, she laughs at the memory. She had gone to America because of her marriage to Dr. George Thomas, a polymer chemical engineer. They settled down in Ohio and had three children: Priya, George and Premi. After the children grew up, Geetha, who had a degree in physics, switched streams and completed a MBA and chartered accountancy and started working. Today, she is an assistant vice president for resource management at California State University.

When asked to compare educational systems in the US and India, Geetha, who did her Class Ten from St Teresa’s, Ernakulam, her pre-degree at St. Joseph’s, Irinjalakuda, and her B.Sc. from Presidency College, Chennai, says, “College was very regimented. For example, if I took the first group -- maths and physics -- I could not change course and go into medicine or some other stream.” The biggest advantage in America was that you had choices, she says. “For example, if you are studying engineering and if you did not like it, you could go into medicine.”

However, it is not all gloom and doom for the Indian educational system. “Children coming from India are very strong in maths and sciences,” she says. “American students are not so good, because the teachers do not emphasise the fundamentals. Even today, if somebody has passed out from IIT, he will be as good, or better than a Harvard graduate.”

Yet, despite these advantages, how is that America produces so many more Nobel Laureates, especially in the sciences, while we have just a handful? “America has a system which encourages creative thinking, talent and merit,” she says. “In India, there is too much of hierarchy and that stifles talent.”

Geetha’s husband, George, who is an alumni of IIT, Kharagpur, has retired as a senior research scientist from Goodyear Tyres, and so, the couple come once in two years to Kerala. So what are the changes she sees now?

“Women in Kerala have equal power as the men, and careers are encouraged,” she says.
“I see more and more women working now. This was not the case when I was growing up. My father [the late Dr. Antony Panikulam] did not want me to have a career.”

And even though she lived in America, where individuality is emphasised, she had to postpone having a career because of the children. But now when she looks back, she is glad she stayed at home and became a hands-on mother. “This is a big issue for women in the United States, and it will be an issue here: motherhood vs. career,” she says. “In America, women, who are keen to have careers, are getting pregnant only in their thirties and forties. My daughter, Priya, who is 35, has just had her first child. And she is wondering whether she should stay at home or continue in her career in medical insurance.”

Geetha says one of her younger colleagues, Anu Parekh (name changed), who graduated from the Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, gave birth to a son. “For quite a while, Anu felt very frustrated,” says Geetha. “She could not travel or do many things. I told her she had to choose between career or motherhood. It is difficult to do both.” After a lot of soul-searching, Anu has plumped for motherhood, because she wanted to bring her son up in a loving atmosphere.

Geetha, like most successful first immigrant Malayali marriages, has also lived in a loving atmosphere, although the divorce rate in the USA is an astonishing 50 per cent.

“But divorce is increasing in Kerala also,” says Geetha. “The stigma is disappearing. Even my mother, who is 87, was telling me the other day about a couple who were having marital problems and she felt it was time for them to annul the marriage.”

Geetha is elegantly dressed, and speaks with a marked American accent. Even though she has grey hair, she looks younger. But now, as the couple head towards the sunset years, Geetha experiences a heartache. “We miss the family,” she says. “Earlier, we were busy raising the children, but now that they have gone, we are suffering from the ‘empty nest syndrome’. I am sure we would not have experienced the same emptiness if we lived in Kerala.”

She says the family is one of the strong points of Kerala society. With a wistful look on her face, she says, “I miss the food, the culture, the language and the people.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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