Monthly Interview: Neel

Author name
Masha Stoertz

Neel Shah

Can you briefly introduce yourself?

I am a graduate student from the western part of India, and I moved to the US in January 2017. I am here as a Mechanical Engineer, and I will stay here for another two years at least. Before coming to the US, I worked as a mechanical design engineer for a German company back home for a year and a half.

What made you want to come to Duke?

Because I couldn’t get into MIT or Stanford! Well, Duke has one of the top ten best Mechanical Engineering schools in the world.

Is this your first time living in America? Since you just moved here, everything must be so new to you!

Yes, in fact, this is my first time in the States. Everything is very new to me, beginning from culture and ending with traffic discipline and food. I didn’t get any culture shock, but there definitely are differences between the cultures. Take traffic discipline, for example. Back in my hometown, it’s non-existent. Once you’ve driven in India, driving here is a piece of cake.

So you drive here?

Yes. I live thirty minutes away from Duke’s campus, so I need to drive to commute back and forth to Duke. It’s a comfortable distance.

Could you tell me a bit more about the cultural differences you experienced after moving to America?

The first thing I noticed is the difference in population density, which in the US is much less than back in India. In India, there are crowds everywhere, while here it is very quiet, calm and peaceful. From family oriented Indians to individual oriented Americans, from the land of hundreds of native languages to the land of a global language, from voluntary tipping to mandatory tipping at restaurants, everything’s so different and unique in its own way. The way of looking at religions, value of time & life, competitiveness, dignity of labor – these things lie on completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

What else do you do apart from studying?

As I mentioned, I play soccer, but I play it at NC State, not here. We have a team there that consists of several of my Indian friends, some Duke students, and NC State students. That’s all I can do besides research, unfortunately.

Have you noticed any changes in the way you speak, behave, or think since you came to America? Or has your identity pretty much stayed the same?

I haven’t changed at all since I came here. I even eat the same food because I cook on my own and don’t eat out often. The reason why is because I’m a vegetarian. There are not many good options here that can accommodate my diet. So I started cooking on my own. The first month was horrible – I used to hate my own food. But now I started loving it. To be frank, it’s not that my cooking skills have improved, I just grew accustomed to my food. There’s an Indian store ten minutes away from where I live, and this allows me to get authentic Indian groceries so I can cook home food.

That’s great that you try to cook Indian food! Do you miss your parents’ cooking though?

Oh yes, definitely. Their food was really good, which I realize only now.

Are there any things you wish you knew before coming to America?

To be honest, not really. We are quite familiar with the US because of all the news that keep pouring into India through news channels, Facebook, through all kinds of media. So I wasn’t surprised when I came to America – I knew what to expect. I think my transition was quite gradual and smooth.  

What do you miss the most about your hometown?

I think it’s freedom. Back in India, you could go out alone at 2 am and nothing would happen to you. You can write anything you want on Facebook, including criticisms of your current government, and you won’t be censored. We have true freedom of expression, which you technically have in the US, but based on the experiences some of people here in the States, it is sometimes better to go with the flow. People can protest even against the government itself for how long they want, and they have that right. Nothing will happen to them, and this is what is so great about India. But most importantly, I miss the street food.

What would be one piece of advice you would give to international students who are coming to study in America for the first time?

I would advise them to try to stay with people not from your own country for at least the first semester. It is great experience.