Prabhanjan Balakrishnan, a.k.a. PB, a.k.a. Balu, is a sophomore studying finance and marketing at the Whitman School of Management. He also goes by PB, the initials of his name, and he gave himself the nickname “Balu” in the 12th grade when he performed rap in a talent show. He said he and his cousins always called his grandfather “Balu Thatha,” and so he took on the name “Young Balu.”
Balakrishnan spent four months of his life in his birthplace Bengaluru (Bangalore), India before moving to Jacksonville, Florida. His mother spoke only English to him for the first five years of his life so as not to confuse him with Kannada, the Dravidian language spoken in Karnataka, a southern India state where Bengaluru is the capital.
Though his mother sent him to Hindi language classes every Sunday during the 12 years that he lived in Florida, he still considers Kannada his first language. His family then moved to Holmdel, New Jersey for the next two years following a change in Balakrishnan’s father’s job, which led them next back across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Despite the multiple moves, Balakrishnan doesn’t completely discriminate when it comes to the idea of home.
“I always say I’m from Bangalore ‘cuz every time I go there, I feel the most home,” Balakrishnan said, “but I always feel home in Jacksonville, [Florida and] New Jersey as well. I feel home everywhere that I’ve lived.”
Balakrishnan spent his next five years at The International School of Amsterdam. He said even though they lived in the suburb, there were metros and buses near his home, which made him feel like he still lived in a city.
The only big culture shock he experienced was, of course, the biking culture. “In New Jersey, there wasn’t anyone who biked to school ‘cuz everyone took the bus, no matter how close they lived. Even if it was right next to the school, they’d have a bus,” said Balakrishnan.
He started biking to school every day in Amsterdam. Biking was the easiest way to get around in the small city, and there were few cars because the narrow roads made it hard to drive. He said there was more bike traffic than car traffic.
“In Amsterdam, it was like more, you can choose how to get home,” he said, adding that there isn’t necessarily the strict categorization of people who walk home, by bike, bus, or get picked up by their parents.
Being in an international school with only about 60 students in his graduating class, Balakrishnan said it helped him cultivate a kind of “international open-mindedness.” Most of the students were not Dutch and moved to Amsterdam following a change in their parents’ jobs.
“When everyone’s in the same boat, everyone’s welcome in a way,” Balakrishnan said, “It’s not like you’re the odd kid out, ‘cuz everyone’s the odd kid out.”
The fact that everyone came from elsewhere also meant that they were going to different places after graduation. Balakrishnan said that his friends are scattered across universities in Spain, Japan and the U.K. Meeting up with them is hard to plan now, if not expensive, since it means paying for flights and hotels.
He and his parents visited the States during the summer of his 11th grade to tour colleges. They visited Syracuse University on a whim, and he told his dad that if he got in he would be going —and if he did not, he would apply to schools in the U.K.
He applied early decision for SU the fall of his senior year of high school. “I was about to apply for U.K. schools the next morning, but I went to bed and I got my acceptance letter to Syracuse [that night],” Balakrishnan recalled.
He said a lot of people asked him why he chose Syracuse University when he could have stayed in Amsterdam. “I know I’ve said I feel like home there, but when I go to the college there it’s like a different thing. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much,” he said. The language barrier of not being able to speak Dutch and the relatively expensive tuition for international students led him to look to the U.S. as a more feasible option.
A reverse culture shock for Balakrishnan as he moved back to the States was the driving culture. “I don’t have a driver’s license here because when I was living in Amsterdam, barely anyone used to drive,” he said. It was “neat,” “pretty sick,” even, when his friends back in Amsterdam got their license, the others would be quizzical about it. “‘I don’t know when you’re gonna use it,’” he remembers thinking.
“Here, you need a driver’s license for everything,” he said.
Balakrishnan said that he introduces himself on the Syracuse campus as Indian even though he’s technically Indian-American and has US citizenship. And he has observed that international students here tend to stick more to their own groups.
“I think one thing international kids need to realize, especially the soft-spoken ones, there’s nothing that they need to hide,” he said, “If you just tell them [domestic students] your story, people would definitely be interested to hear, I know that for a fact.”
“Once you start opening up and realizing that you’re never the odd one out, it gets a lot easier,” said Balakrishnan.
As the vice president of the South Asian Student Association (SASA), he aims to get more Indian undergraduate students involved. He said that most of the Indian undergrads he knows are Indian-Americans or are not as close to their Indian roots as he is. From Jacksonville to Holmdel to Amsterdam, Balakrishnan never had a huge group of Indian friends to hang out with. He’s glad to have found it at Syracuse.
“When I think of home, I think of going somewhere and like knowing where to go, all the ins and outs of the place, without having to use Google Maps or anything,” said Balakrishnan. That was the case for all three places he’s lived in, and perhaps, that is the case for Syracuse too.
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.