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).

Advertisements

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!

Meetup group for H4s in the South Bay area

Heads up to all H4s in the Bay Area! There’s a support group on Meetup for us. The first meeting will be on the 19th of April. Join us!

South Bay H4 visa spouses support group

Sunnyvale, CA
255 H4s

This is a group for H4 Visa spouses living in Silicon Valley who want to get together and create a support network for those in the same situation. Let’s share experiences and…

Check out this Meetup Group →

Quick update: There is also a Meetup group for H4’s in San Francisco. First meeting tomorrow!!! http://www.meetup.com/H4-SF-FTW/

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.