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Archive for Monday, March 13, 2006

No stranger in a strange land

Novel reflects Indian student-turned-KU prof’s integration into America

March 13, 2006

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Swapan Chakrabarti traded Sunday dinners for lessons in driving his American roommate's Cadillac.

That was typical of the kind of relationship the Indian graduate student had with his roommate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln starting in 1979.

"Not many people get that now," Chakrabarti says. "They don't stay in the dorm with an American student. More and more I see it as a problem. Indian students get here and find three or four other Indian students to live with. They eat Indian food, and basically they live in India, for all intents and purposes."

So Chakrabarti, an engineering professor at Kansas University, decided to write a fiction novel based on his experiences - and the experiences of other international students - that explores the cultural integration of foreign students at American colleges.

His book, "My American Brother," is available through the Web site of the self-publishing company Xlibris (www.xlibris.com), and should be available in April at Oread Books in the Kansas Union.

It chronicles the experience of a student from India who enrolls at KU, in part, because his ex-girlfriend moved to Kansas City 10 years earlier. The student is hoping to renew his love with the woman.

In the meantime, the student forges a close relationship with his American roommate to learn American customs.


Swapan Chakrabarti, an engineering professor at Kansas University, has written "My American Brother," a novel about the experiences of a fictionalized student from India who comes to KU. Chakrabarti drew on his own experiences and those of other Indian students in writing the book.

Swapan Chakrabarti, an engineering professor at Kansas University, has written "My American Brother," a novel about the experiences of a fictionalized student from India who comes to KU. Chakrabarti drew on his own experiences and those of other Indian students in writing the book.

Chakrabarti learned to forge friendships with American roommates while at Nebraska, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees. He lived in the dorms there with several Americans before moving to an apartment with one of them.

"It's sort of a guide to newcomers," he says. "These steps will happen, and it will be easier if you're prepared for it."

He says language difficulties are among the biggest challenges he faced when arriving as an international student. He was used to speaking quickly - as was the custom in India - and wasn't prepared for American phrases such as "hit the sack."

The University of Nebraska required international students to live in dorms with American roommates, a policy KU does not have. He says foreign students should live with American roommates, in part, because foreign students return to their home countries to spread information about the U.S. democracy and educational system.

'American Brother'

KU professor Swapan Chakrabarti's novel, "American Brother," is available at www.xlibris.com in paperback ($19) and hardcover ($29).

"If somebody is trying to stay here and work here, in that case, my recommendation is they have an American roommate to know the culture," Chakrabarti says.

Vinya Sankaran Vasu, a KU graduate student and president of the Cultural India Club, says meeting students from other cultures is vital for international students.

"I think it's important to meet other international students and American students," she says. "Generally, what I see happens is they tend to cluster in the same groups - Indians to Indians, Arabs to Arabs."

She says the biggest challenges she faced coming to KU were learning to call professors by their first name in graduate courses and learning the Lawrence Transit System.

Giorgi Burduli, a member of the KU International Student Assn. board of directors, says those issues face all international students at KU.

Burduli, a sophomore from the Republic of Georgia, says he learned to be forward when meeting American students when he first came to the United States as a high school exchange student.

"It is very important," he says. "I will tell you from my personal experience: In the high school where I graduated, there were 15 exchange students that year, and most of the exchange students didn't get around American (students). They didn't make friends, and they always studied and didn't get out of the house. But the culture here is very different.

"I would always talk to (American students), introduce myself to them. American teenagers are different. You have to make the first move. Nobody makes the first move around here."

Chakrabarti hopes the book can be an aid to international students coming to American universities, to learn some of the cultural differences he didn't know before he came to the United States.

"I'm writing from the perspective of international students," he says. "That, I think, has not been done by many authors."

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