The Pre-Departure Orientation
The program was held not at USEFI's building but at the American Center on Kasturva Gandhi Marg. The first thing that hit me when I reached the building at eight-thirty in the morning was the long line. See, these guys have got to show they're an American establishment and that they're really tight on security. So outside the main boundary wall, you wait in a line, till a guy scans you with a hand held metal detector. Then you are allowed to enter the outer gate, where you wait in another line to enter the building. When you enter the building door, first a guard has you deposit your cell-phone; then you pass through one of those standing metal detectors and again, a guy runs over you with a hand-held metal detector. Meanwhile, if you have a bag or a purse, you are made to pass that through one of those X-Ray baggage checkers like you see at the airports. Gee, no wonder the line was so long. [All those who've read my previous post on 'Getting the American Visa' will sense a sense of deja-vu (you can read that incident HERE).] You might be wondering by now whether the American Center is like some second high-security home of the US Ambassador. No, it's actually more like a library and some auditoriums.
Once we were in, everyone was handed (A) A sheet containing the day's schedule; (B) The list of all the participants for the program (about 150), along with the university they were going to and their e-mail ids; (C) A thin booklet, 'The Student's Guide to Traveling Overseas' by American Express; and (D) a 120 page book titled ' USEFI - Pre Departure Orientation Booklet containing useful information on Educational, Social and Cultural Life in the USA'.
The book was very very detailed and definitely contained useful info covering everything from airport formalities, VISA, course credits and TAs to local slang, amount to tip waiters, personal hygiene, dating and sex. An example of one of the less (or more, depending on perspective) useful tips (page 62):
Patting a woman on her rear end is not appropriate, and will likely get your face slapped.
Never show your fist with the middle finger extended. This is an insult.
In the auditorium, I, Prerna Sekri (Yale) and two other dipsites, going to Drexel, took seats together. Once everyone had settled down, the first session began. On the stage sat the panel: a group of four Indians who are currently studying in America and two American girls who are doing their intern at USEFI. During the first half hour they talked about what to take, airport check-ins, what to do on the plane, port of entry, why not to carry pirated CDs, and so on. Then we had tea break outside the audi. The sponsors of the program (American Express, Centurion Bank of Punjab, two international cell phone companies, and ISE Cards) had counters, where the counter-people were giving the students critical information like why American Express Travelers Cheques are the best travelers cheques out there. They would hand out brochures, request you to fill your contact info, and hand you a free pen or bag marked Centurion Bank of Punjab or something like that.
After Tea, the same panel returned, this time discussing academic topics like Honor Code and Plagiarism in the US, course registration and syllabuses. However at the start of the session, Luna Das (one of the familiar faces from USEFI), announced that there was going to be a favorite recipe competition. Everybody was handed a sheet and was told to write down their favorite recipe and hand them in to her. After the academic-discussion session, she would announce the best recipes which would get prizes. The whole point of the exercise, according to her, was to emphasize that in the US, we students may need to cook sometimes. Unfortunately, since Ms. Das had specifically mentioned that no recipes for Maggi or omelets would be accepted (the two things I can cook really well), I did not really give an entry. Maybe I should listen to Mom more often, who has been frequently telling me for the past month to learn how to cook. First prize went to 'Baigan ka Bharta'. The recipe went something like this:
1. Baigan (according to number of people) 2. oil (a few tsp) 3. Onions (no mention of quantity) 4. salt (to taste) and some more things I don't remember, followed by equally abstruse instructions. And so, one by one, 5 people came on stage and read their artistic recipes out loud.
After 'My favorite Recipe', each sponsor was given ten minutes to make a presentation. So somebody from American Express came and showed us Powerpoint slides on how to use travelers' cheques (a useful presentation, I must say), a guy from Centurion Bank came and talked about different methods of transferring/carrying money internationally (another useful presentation) and another person came from Matrix mobile services and boasted about how Matrix mobile services were the cheapest (a not so useful presentation). Then we had lunch. I had assumed lunch meant buffet. I was wrong. It meant Nathu's packed packets - one nan, a tiny tiny bowl of rice, dal, and curry (missing sabzi if you ask me). When everybody was seated again in the audi, we were handed out a quiz: 4-page printouts of MCQs on USA and India. Luna Das announced not to cheat by discussing questions with the ones next to you. I don't know how many people heard her though, for when the prizes were announced, all three went to three kids sitting next to each other in the fourth row.
There was another session, where the panelists spoke on the culture life in the USA (dating, racism, etc) followed by the Grand Finale, a short play enacted by the same panelists about adjusting to life in America.
The whole program lasted a little less then seven hours and though it was 3:40 in the afternoon by the time I stepped out, the program proved to be very informative (and humorous).