“Am I here only for research?” I started questioning myself after just a couple of weeks in the other Cambridge. For some time, I enjoyed walking through the Great Court surrounded by very old buildings in Trinity, wondering why only fellows could walk on the grass. To break with routine, I even attempted to sit under the famous Newton’s apple tree (but they say it’s actually an offspring of the real one). Sadly, the security guards would not allow me to do so. I enjoyed crossing the River Cam full of a flock of geese that would chase me on the way to my office at the Centre of Mathematical Science. Even though I enjoyed exploring the campus every day, it had started to feel like eating potatoes cooked differently every day: they eat a lot of potatoes here. Sometimes garlic cheese mashed potatoes and sometimes plain mashed potatoes; sometimes French fries and sometimes differently fried fries; sometimes old potatoes and sometimes new potatoes. I wanted to take breaks from potatoes.
Meanwhile, I began to think about doing things other than just math research at Cambridge. I couldn’t play guitar or make sketches because I neither had a guitar nor drawing materials with me. “Why don’t you travel around Europe?” recommended one of my friends I made in Trinity’s dining hall. Later, I found that other students doing MISTI were also traveling around Europe. It gave me hope of taking a break from mathematics. I started googling. Paris. Rome. Athens.
Suddenly, I realized that I had to apply for a Schengen visa to travel to Europe. After surfing online websites for hours, I found that it would take me about 20 business days to get a visa and I would have to go to London for my visa interviews and biometrics. I got excited to apply for a visa and started sharing with my dad about my plans to go to Paris and, if possible, Rome and Athens.
After I dug a bit more, I had to face a bitter truth that I couldn’t apply for a Schengen Visa in the U.K. Can you imagine what the reason could be? I was shocked when I found that it was my nationality. Yeah, Nepalese nationality. I could have applied for the visa when I was in the states, but I only had about 15 days after I got my passport back from the embassy of the United Kingdom. In addition, I did not have a clear idea of where I wanted to visit during my MISTI internship. My plans got shattered with the impossibility of getting a Schengen visa in the U.K. and shared with my dad that I cancelled the trip.
I was much unhappier from not getting a chance to apply for a visa because I am Nepali than in shattering of my plans. It even made me feel alienated given the fact that people from other countries could apply for a visa in the U.K. I felt like I was being stereotyped as a person who is likely to cause harm if he hails from an underdeveloped country like Nepal. However, I could do nothing other than changing my plans to travel around.
It wasn’t the first time my national identity defined my way of living. In career fairs at MIT, I couldn’t apply to certain aerospace-companies merely because I was an international student. Similarly, I wasn’t eligible for an outreach program organized by MIT. In fact, one of the main reasons I chose MISTI, besides getting international exposure, was not having to deal with OPT (Optional Practical Training) for internships over the summer. It takes about five months–they say it used to take about three months a year ago–for the decision to come out for OPT. Holding a Nepali passport, I bear calmly with my handbags getting scrutinized thrice in airport customs even though I don’t have any illegal items. Nevertheless, every time I encounter such obstacles because of my nationality, it helps me realize that I am Nepali. In fact, being a Nepali, I accept that wherever I go, my national identity sets boundaries of my workspace and the special treatment I get. I don’t always blame my national identity for not getting certain privileges because other international students also don’t get the same opportunities and treatments. As an international student, I do things that I have in my radar and utilize each and every opportunity I get.
Instead of traveling to Europe, I decided to travel within the U.K. and experience differently cooked potatoes. Do you want to know where I went eventually? I biked alongside the River Cam to Grantchester and saw cows grazing in a pasture after a while. I climbed up the Wandlebury Hill. I don’t think that was actually a hill in Nepali standard but I enjoyed sleeping in the meadow looking at the blue sky. Stared at Ely Cathedral. The only stained glass museum in the U.K. After I went there, I got intrigued by how people could do art in glasses. And I biked to some random places in all four directions of Cambridge. Biking did not require a visa. After each trip, I enjoyed tasting different cuisines to get breaks from potatoes. French in Côte Brasserie. Italian in Zizi, and Greek in Gourmet Burger King. I enjoyed exploring places that I did not know existed before. The trips I did brought me closer to the beauty of nature and the arts.
Robert Koirala is a member of the class of 2022 studying math and physics. This summer, he is doing a math research at Trinity College in the “other Cambridge” (United Kingdom).