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.

Happy New Year!

2014 was the year that brought immigration reform to the table again and thousands of people have been actively trying to make this reform happen, for different reasons.
H-4 visa holders are just some of the people looking forward to the reform, but because it’s a hot issue, and one that brings so much debate, it doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

There is some hope for H-4 visa holders though, as a rule has been proposed by the DHS (http://www.dhs.gov/news/2014/05/06/dhs-announces-proposals-attract-and-retain-highly-skilled-immigrants) that would allow certain H4s to work. We just need a date now. Please President Obama, make this happen!

There is no better way then to start a New Year with hope, so here’s to hoping that the rule will happen early this year and therefore give some of us the opportunity to become self-reliant and independent again!

Happy New Year!

The better and invisible half of Silicon Valley?

It’s not uncommon to hear business professionals say that their spouse was or is often a big part of the decision making process in closing a big deal, or even that without their spouse’s support they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did.
In Silicon Valley this takes a whole different dimension. By it’s own entrepreneurial nature, SV is packed with creative, innovative people and thousands of engineers, designers and managers are attracted to this place as moths are attracted to light.
Yet, I wonder if SV would be what it is today if thousands of spouses were not willing to leave everything behind (career, family, friends) to join and support their loved ones.
Every year in October SV gets new blood. Companies bring brilliant people from all over the world to work for them on a Visa called H1-B. With many, if not most, of these brains come their families, who get a dependent visa called H-4. This H-4 visa does not allow the families to work. I have met quite a few of the spouses who decided to move with their H1-B spouse and they are consistently also brilliant minds in their own right. Dentists, medical doctors, lawyers, designers, software engineers, teachers, managers, scientists. Mostly women.
I often wonder what would these companies do if the spouses had said “No, I’m not willing to leave everything behind, you have to decline the job offer to work in the US” (and as most of you know, whatever the lady says goes, right? ;p)
The H1-B is a temporary non-immigrant visa, which means you can only stay here (the US) for a certain period of time. Usually it expires after 3 years and it can be renewed for another 3. After that workers need to go back home. So, worst-case scenario H-4s would be jobless for 6 years. 6 years without a job is a loooong time.
Sure there are all sorts of things you can do during this time to boost and use your skills. Study, volunteer, start or look after your family, travel, meet people, whatever. But not having a job can be quite baffling. Most people start a conversation by asking you what you do. They usually mean what’s your job or field of expertise. What is one to say when one doesn’t have a job, specially when it’s not by choice? I still struggle to answer that question and to be perfectly honest I don’t like being jobless, so I feel a bit angry when I have to answer that question. I really don’t know what to say, because I want to make it short, but I find that a short answer doesn’t usually do. So I have to explain that I am not allowed to work because my husband got this visa, and I got a dependent visa, bla bla bla. People seem confused with the “I’m not allowed to work” part and ask “why?” and then again I don’t know what to say, because I can’t give the answer I really want to give (I try not to be rude and show my frustration; not always successful though), so I explain that it’s because of the immigration laws. They look even more perplexed. I don’t think anyone even ever thought that someone could be forbidden to provide for themselves and their family. I didn’t know this existed until my husband told me he had a job offer and he told me the “but” part of it. I was dumbfounded! The first thing that came to my mind was “I’m not going”. I told him to go, but I would stay in Europe.
Life is filled with twists and turns and I ended up joining my husband when he moved to SV. I could see that this was a unique opportunity and that it meant the world to him. I studied translation, and I can work from anywhere. Yet, in his case, SV is the place to be. The big jobs and companies are here and therefore so must you if you want to do something significant if your degree and skills. My husband is really good at what he does and he loves it. He is hardworking, intelligent and he thrives in challenging projects. I had to back him up on this.
It has been difficult at times to adjust to the new life and it feels unfair that H-4s are not allowed to work, but I don’t regret my decision. I hope the immigration laws change someday and that in the future H1-B spouses can also contribute with their skills in the job market. We already do contribute for the success of the Valley, we just do it in a sort of invisible way – by supporting our spouse’s career and being there for them. The best way we, on H-4 visa, can do this is by being willing “to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us” (Joseph Campbell).

2 years and counting

Yep, it’s been two years since we moved to Silicon Valley and still no sign of a Green Card or a sponsor for a working visa so I can get out of this ridiculous H4 situation.

During this period I have had the pleasure of meeting other women on the H4 visa. I have created a support group on Meetup and it has been amazing having these women to share my time and frustrations with (I’m sure my husband appreciates not having to hear me complain about it all the time :p). When you are in this situation (uprooted, alone, and with nothing to do all day) it counts even more to have someone who understands what you are going through.

It is great to know some women are happy for getting a break from work, but I guess that this is a feeling that eventually fades away, depending on how long you have to wait for a Green Card. I have met others though who are unhappy and uncomfortable with the idea of not knowing when they’ll get back to work and what this downtime period will do to their careers. Some look desperately for jobs and occupations that can eventually get them a working visa, and some try to stay busy with volunteer work, studying, and whatever helps them stay sane and, well happy. The Meetups help a lot with the last one. We have become friends, family even, and I think it’s very healthy to have someone else besides your husband, when you need someone to talk to. It’s healthy to have someone else to go out with and avoid clinging to that one person/relationship.

It’s true, there are many cool aspects about not having a job and having all the free time in the world, but not being *allowed* to work is being denied your dignity and uh… oh, yes a Human Right! Don’t believe me? Here, check it out, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a23

But hey everyday, somewhere, basic Human Rights are disrespected and no one cares right? So why should anyone care about this one?  Well, although not a lot of attention is given to the H4 issue, it has been getting some spotlight lately. Marie Claire wrote an article about it recently, where along with a couple of stories from H4 spouses,  it said: “Both the Senate and House (of Representatives) versions of the immigration legislation currently under debate include a provision that would allow H4 visa holders to work. According to the Migration Policy Institute, legislators of both parties are mostly in favor of the provision, but as a piece of the larger, divisive reform package, it’s unlikely anything will change for these women anytime soon.”

I for one have already gotten used to the idea that I won’t be working anytime soon. Neither the idea of getting a Green Card, nor some law will make me jump and get all excited, because I am well aware these things take time, because no-freaking-body cares about some immigrant ladies who are not allowed to work. Plain and simple.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article, in case any of you are interested in reading it: http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/h4-visa-debate-beyond-borders?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1449_28277884

Enjoy!

Tea time

I love tea. It’s a wonderful, warm drink (I prefer hot tea) and I just can´t get enough of it. Some teas are better than others, but in general they are comforting. Today my tea comforted me in more than just one way – the tag had a sentence saying: “You will feel fulfilled when you do the impossible for someone else”. And that pretty much sums up what makes people agree to move here on an H4 Visa. When you love someone, who will do the impossible to make him/her happy.

H4 is a form of enslavement

Sometimes I get the feeling people think H4s should be grateful for this “eternal holiday” kind of life we are put in. Well, news flash: when you don’t choose it (doesn’t matter what it is), you are not going to be happy about it for very long. You may try to like it, you may even like it some days, but in general being forced to be financially supported by someone is humiliating and degrading. Most H4s I know feel pretty much the same way. Most H4s were working, independent ladies/men who gave it all up to join their husbands. Most of the time with hopes H4 wouldn’t really be that bad or that somehow they could get a working/student Visa soon. From what I gather, some people have to wait for 5, 6 even more years.
It is a stressful and unnecessary situation that puts a lot of pressure in marriages and the individuals that have to go through it. It’s about time someone realizes this is absurd!
And please don’t expect us to go about this as if it is business as usual because it isn’t. Most husbands don’t understand why we’re so pissed off about it because they have their normal life, they go to work, they do what they love, they work with amazing, fun people, so for them it is life as usual. Try to put yourself in our shoes though and imagine what it would be like if all of that was taken away from you and overnight you have to re-invented yourself, in a strange country, with no friends, no family and in some cases without speaking the language. Try to imagine having to stop being a creative, useful person to being a … leisure person (as some people call it). It’s not that we don’t try to like and enjoy it. We do. But it’s not the same thing trying to be busy and actually being busy. Of all people H1Bs should know how important having a job and doing what you like is. Heck, you moved all the way across the freaking globe to do yours! Why on earth would you think that being forced to not doing it should be taken lightly and gladly?
I very often wonder if President Obama and the First lady have heard of this and if they would care. When I read about their immigration plans it seems there is only one issue: the Mexican border. It’s a big country, I know, there are tons of problems to be solved. H4 is also one of them and I never even heard one relevant person mention it. And how does that makes us feel? Even more invisible…

An H4 in Silicon Valley

I am happily married to a geek. Ever since he finished university he has been moving from country to country following new and more interesting jobs. I have been trying to follow him and since October last year we have been living in Sunnyvale, California. The other times we were living in Europe, and as an european I could work and move from place to place with no problems except maybe the language. In the USA though things are different. Although I have a degree and was working in Europe, when we moved here I had to stay at home. My husband came here with a H-1B visa and I have a H4 which is issued to immediate family members (spouse and children under 21 years of age) of the H-1B visa holders. With the H4 visa I am not allowed to work, although I am allowed to study and do volunteer work.
I know other bright and educated women who are in the same position and it seems to be consensual that this H4 visa, puts women/men holding it in a difficult place. I have done some research (as I wondered how many people were forced to stay in a country depending exclusively on their spouses) and there seems to be quite a few. I even found this video on Youtube of a Tv show called To the contrary, where this issue was discussed some years ago, mainly because one spouse made a video about what it’s like to be a H4. Having just arrived I had no idea how seriously wrong things could go – from people trying to commit suicide to women entrapped in violent marriages, I have read and heard more than I expected to.
For those who think and say “Well it was your decision to come here, you knew what you were getting into”, I can say Yes, it was a decision we had to make and we knew what it implied to be a H4. But, nothing prepares you to the reality of living in a different and totally alien country, where you have no family or friends, where you may not be able to speak the language, and where you can’t even help others because the immigration may think you are being paid unlawfully. If you want to do volunteer work you need to be very careful where you do it. It may not be a volunteer work that is a job for others, as in, if someone is being paid for the same job in the same place, you can’t do it as a volunteer.
Being a H4 has its pros and cons. You can certainly use that time to catch up your reading, enjoy the free time, get lots of rest, meet people, workout, take care of the house and children if you have them, learn something new, you know, whatever you please!
Still, there is only so much you can do with your free time and after years waiting for a working visa or a greencard you can go nuts just trying to figure out what to do next!
It is true that if you can get a company that can apply for a H1B, you can change from H4 to the working visa. I would like to know if that ever happened. Since I arrived I have had people offering me jobs but after I explained my situation and mentioned that I would need them to apply for a H-1B for me and although they clearly said they desperately need people like me for this job, things didn’t go through. If you were employed and an active member of society before you came here, the chances are you may end up feeling useless, trapped and humiliated in a way. If you were making your own money and being free to do as you pleased before you moved here, after you move, and with a H4 you may feel sometimes like a child again, having to ask for money and depend on your spouse for everything. If you are lucky enough, as I am, you won’t need to, but from what I have read in some blogs, other women are not that lucky and even get physically and psychologically abused by their husbands.
H4, some people think, is an absurd visa. Why not allow these spouses to apply for a job, specially when in some cases (like mine) no american person could do what they can? In my case in particular, the jobs I was offered could never be done by any american because they were looking for native portuguese (I translate from English to Portuguese). So, here I am in the middle of Silicon Valley, where I could be happily working, feeling fulfilled and accomplished, but instead I’m being forced to stay at home.
The option to not coming here? Living miles and miles away from your husband and putting your marriage on hold for who knows how long. I don’t have children, but many couples do. How do those people who say “you knew what it would be like, moving here was your choice” even dare to say that? How dare they suggest that families have to live apart or move here together and just try to cope with the limitations imposed by immigration laws? These specialised jobs bring us here for the great opportunity they represent, but we also make a profit for the country. We pay taxes and spend our money here. This is a win-win situation, but what I mean is, everybody could benefit even more if the spouses, most of them with very unique skills, could contribute too.
The companies bringing in skilled workers go through a lot to make it happen. It’s a long and painful process for everybody. And they do it because they don’t have these skills in the USA and that is the truth. It’s not because it’s cheap labour as some people like to believe. Or not true in lots of cases. Why not benefit from the other skilled people living here too? Because we are here. Might as well be doing something useful.
I don’t know what is the case with the rest of the H4s, but I sometimes feel like our talents are being wasted for no reason.
I feel the vibe in this place, where people work somewhere that influences everybody’s lives, and I see them busy and happy and worried and stressed, and I wonder if they know how lucky they are to have a job and being able to make big things happen. Well, I’m sure they do.