Inside out

Last week I watched “Inside out” with some of my friends who are also on an H-4 visa. Never a movie hit home quite like this one has. The movie isn’t about immigrants moving to the US but the plot is so similar to what most of us have to go through that I could totally relate to Riley. Moving to a new place (another country or another state) is definitely scary and emotionally draining. There’s just so much newness it is overwhelming.

While on an H4 visa there were so many other things I’ve had to get used to though. As if leaving everything behind and the cultural shock weren’t enough, not being able to work made everything worse. Feeling lonely and like I had no purpose came soon after. I also kind of felt like a fraud and that I had betrayed myself by becoming a dependent housewife that I think I was mostly angry at myself but at some point directed those feelings toward my husband. Not good! If you are considering moving to the US on an H4 here are some things you need to have in mind.

Your spouse got a new, awesome career opportunity and you’ve decided to accept this challenge together because chances like this don’t happen every day. Maybe you are happy and excited about this change or maybe you aren’t quite as happy to leave everything (family, friends, your own career) behind. This is probably the first big difference between a peaceful, happy life or marriage problems. If you are in the latter mode, chances are you are not going to have a good time. Frustration and anger can quickly crawl into your life and poison your relationship. Deal with these feelings and discuss them with your spouse. You are in this together, you can solve these problems together.

Once you arrive lots of things will be happening. Depending on where you come from, you’re tired and recovering from jetlag. Your life is upside down, packed in boxes which are either on their way or already arrived. If the company hiring your partner helps you out, the first month or two you’ll probably be staying at temporary housing and you’ll soon have to look for a new place to live. So, you just moved and you’ll have to move again. Forget stability for the first months, but accept the changes and play along. Everything will be better soon.

When moving to a new country you’re back to square one – everything you knew and took for granted is gone. Your favourite places, the nearest supermarket, the gym, the library, schools, etc – gone. You’ll have to relearn everything: the language (if you don’t speak it), where to shop, what to shop, where the good and bad areas are, where to volunteer and/or study, places to have coffee, how things work in general, traffic rules, cultural rules, where to buy/rent a place, where are the good schools/kindergartens, and so on. Things you did or learned gradually back home, you’ll have to learn in just a matter of months.

You won’t be able to work which means you won’t immediately meet new people. You won’t have your friends and family to support you. Even trying to see and talk to them via video conference can be a challenge due to time differences. You’ll have to make new friends if you don’t want to spend your days alone. There may not be a lot of places where you can look for friends, but there is Meetup and you can look for something you like to do and find a meetup near you and this way you might get to know people and even make friends. I couldn’t find any groups related to H-4 in the South Bay so I created my own. Which you can also do! The only problem might be that it is not free to organize a Meetup, so there is that to consider.

You’ll have to be ready to spend a lot of time on your own. Your spouse/partner will be working all day, maybe even for long hours. Loneliness and depression does sometimes set in. If you have children this can either be a good thing (at least you’re busy) or extremely tiring because you have to do it on your own. Finding daycare and a good school can be tough, and getting a place in those institutions even tougher. Go online and look for local groups of other moms. They might be able to help you out with this as well as other things.

In order to have some independence, especially in the suburbs, you’ll need to get a driver’s licence and a car. Buying a car from a dealership was the worst experience we’ve ever had. I don’t recommend it at all, but it needs to be done. They simply don’t seem to understand the concept of looking for cars and prices and then make a decision. Obviously they want to sell, so they shove a car down your throat (not literally, but it kind of feels that way) and won’t let you leave until you sign a contract. The DMV is also famous for not being the greatest experience ever, so good luck! It’s common for foreigners to fail the “behind the wheel” test, so don’t worry if this happens to you too.

H-4s can open a bank account, but since you won’t have a SSN (Social Security Number), your spouse will probably have to do that. Not that you really need a SSN to open a bank account but they do ask for it. Most banks allow you to have a joint account with your spouse and have your own debit card. It’s hard to get a credit card at first because if you have never lived in the US you won’t have a credit history here, therefore no credit. I know a few H-4 spouses who weren’t allowed to get their own card (with their name on it) and had to use a card with their husband’s name on it . I’m not sure if this can become an awkward situation when you have to sign and/or show your ID and the names don’t match.

You’ll go through the normal culture shock. The most basic and simple things – like ordering food, putting gas in your car, riding a bus – can become quite funny or just plain irritating. It depends on your attitude. If you come from a place where public transportation is good, prepare to be disappointed. The suburbs in particular are bad! New York might be the only place in the US where you can get away with using the subway. In SF things don’t work quite as well, I hear. We have BART, bus, trams etc but I keep hearing people complain how bad it is and how long it take to get anywhere. Living in the South Bay of SF though, makes it look like it works wonderfully. Things are so bad in the South Bay that most of the big tech companies have their own private bus/shuttle fleet system going on for their employees.

The cherry on top of the cake is the tipping culture.  I would say it is probably the thing foreigners dread the most and it takes some time to get used to (well, maybe the healthcare system takes the trophy). Most (if not all) the foreigners come from places where there is no tipping system. People get payed by their *employers* not the customers and they make enough money (usually) that they don’t have to rely on tips. When we arrived, someone drove us from the airport to our temporary apartment. When he dropped us off and we got our bags out of the car we could see he was expecting something. He was expecting a tip. We didn’t even have dollars yet, and we didn’t know we were supposed to tip. We thanked him so very much and that was all we could do. Giving him Euros would probably not be of any help to him anyway. After that I looked it up online and I read somewhere you are supposed to tip almost *everywhere*! I thought you only had to tip in restaurants, but no. You tip your hairdresser, the taxi driver, the manicure/pedicure, the waitress, the cleaning crew at hotels, the bell boys, the person who cleans your car, etc and so on. What the heck, I thought! I won’t have any money left for myself! Also, you are supposed to tip at least 10%, but that’s only if you are not happy with the service. So 15 or 20% is better, according to some people. (Insane, isn’t it!)

The good news though is you will be able to volunteer and study. Volunteering can be tricky because you can only volunteer with an NGO and a position that is posted as volunteer, so keep that in mind. Often times people send applications but don’t hear back from the organizations. You can either insist and call them to see if they received it or look for another place. There are very many organizations looking for volunteers so just keep looking and keep trying until you find something. This will not only give you a chance to feel useful but it will also help you meet people and stay busy.

Lots of people go back to school too. There are lots of state universities and places where you can improve and update your skills. It will certainly be useful in the future and you will be busy.

Getting back to the movie, there is a moment when Riley opens up to her parents about how she really feels about the move. They in turn let her know that they are also missing home and it’s scary for them too. The most important thing you can do if you are having a bad time getting used to your new life is talk to your spouse and children and deal with those feelings. Understand why you made the decision to quit your job to support him or her and accept that it is temporary and that you will be able to work again. Realize that you are not your job title. You have lots of other interests and can definitely do a lot more than what you were doing before. Value yourself, your whole self, and find something to do you identify with while you aren’t allowed to have a job. Learn new things! I’ve learned so many things I never thought I could do in these past years and learned to love new things I didn’t even know existed. This is one situation that can hardly be solved by getting upset, so just enjoy it and use it to your benefit and the benefit of your family.

You can always go back home if it really doesn’t work, anyway. Lots of people do. That’s another thing you need to get used to: losing friends. It takes a while to make them, and they leave (or you’ll leave). Everything about this Visa seems and sort of is temporary. Accept it. Live it. Enjoy it.

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