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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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).

Age range of people on H4 visa

I’m trying to understand the age range of H4s, please vote so we can get a clear idea of this.

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…

H4s meet in San Francisco

Ever since I moved to the US I wondered where all the H4s were and how many we are. I googled it, but couldn’t find much information. I found some blogs, a book written by an H4 with tips for dealing with this situation, even a video on Youtube of a TV show talking about what’s it like to be an H4 (based on a documentary an H4 had done). There didn’t seem to be support groups or meetings though. I ended up meeting a few H4 wives through my husband’s colleagues, but not that many and we don’t all meet all the time.
Today though and thanks to Meetup (and the initiative of the organiser) 6 of us met in San Francisco and had a blast! Nothing crazy. We sat down for coffee and a chat, but it was great to be able to do just that with people who know exactly what it’s like to be the holder of an enslaving, ridiculous visa. I have met 4 amazing women, who just like all other H4s I have met before, are brilliant, well-educated professionals, who gave it all up so that the person they love could follow their dream. From our conversations I felt that, in a way, none of us are really prepared for the reality of being an H4, and it only really hits you in the face like a speed train once you get here and your husband goes to work, and you are all alone, with no family, no friend, nowhere to go and nothing to do. The first months are the worst. Normally you would pick yourself up and start getting a life, a purpose to get up in the morning, something to talk about when people ask you “how was your day?”. I also got the feeling that I wasn’t the only one being treated as a non-person just because I don’t have a job. For example, people wondering why you do certain things just because you don’t have a job. Why wouldn’t we though? It’s not like we’re dead. We had jobs before, we have degrees, and we will work in the future, hopefully. We still have dreams and ambitions and if we don’t work it’s because someone doesn’t let us, not because we don’t want to.

We all wonder how long this is going to take and deep down we hope it doesn’t take too long. We all fear the fact that we are suddenly not independent anymore, and we all feel irritated with the fact that this H4Visa demeans us and degrades us by not allowing us to work and have a Social Security # (without which you can’t do anything in this country). One thing none of us understands is why we can’t even work as a freelancer for companies in other countries? If anyone out there has an answer, please let me know, I would love to hear it.
Another thing we fail to understand is why waste so much talent and brains when we are already here. Might as well contribute positively for the economy.
Well at least now we have each other’s back. These Meetups are going to keep happening and all H4s are welcome to join!