Sometime earlier this month, I celebrated the completion of my 5 years of stay in the U.S. It meant a lot to me, since I have always considered moving to the U.S. as the biggest “good decision” I have made for personal reasons. It hasn’t been a smooth joy ride, I assure you, and it still isn’t. Things went wrong during the first few years, and I was never hopeful that I would be able to make it. I had to give up a lot, especially the security of a sheltered life, of a secure job, of the prospects of being gainfully married and raising a family. I was singly driven by my desire to pursue graduate school, and to establish myself as an academician. It became challenging and increasingly hard for me to keep myself rooted here (opting out of the PhD program in 2008, job layoff in 2009, resuming PhD in 2010, etc.). However, here I am, and here I was celebrating my 5 years of stay by taking a journey down the memory lane and remembering all the happy and not-so-happy moments that defined the latter half of my twenties.
Incidentally, I was out of town the day I completed 5 years. I was attending a conference, not presenting though. Academic daddy was invited to be there, and since he was traveling, he sent me instead. This was a huge privilege, much bigger than presenting at a conference, because in this case, someone revered in the field gave up his chance so that I could replace him temporarily and do the same kind of work that he was expected to do. I was expected to listen to the talks, evaluate the kind of research that was being done in the field, and prepare a synthesis report. This would not only give me a chance to network and meet the people in the field, but also train me in synthesizing information and making sense of them.
A quick scanning around the room revealed that as expected, I was perhaps the only “Indian-from-India” in the room, if you know what I meant. The conference started, people began to present their work, mostly in the field of developing education and bettering the school educational systems for scientific workforce development so that more students were motivated to continue into college. There was one spokesperson who got up on stage to present. I don’t remember the affiliation, but I remember listening to an impressive talk. The person had some great ideas, and was very enthusiastic about it. The person breezed through the presentation slides, and there was this last bullet point on the last slide that seemed somewhat odd, but did not register anything right away. I am not sure if I had read that point, or perhaps I was beginning to, but before I did, the person repeated what was written in the last slide.
“And hopefully this way, we will be able to stop the foreigners taking up our jobs.”
The crowd clapped and applauded. However, I sat there stone faced. You see, I had never once fooled myself into believing that this country is mine, and has embraced me lovingly. I was always reminded of the fact that I am here as long as I had my visa validated, for which, I had to struggle, compete, learn, and produce superior quality work. I had already faced the consequences of losing a job and thereby ending up without a visa (you get deported, what else?). Although I live here, I always knew I never belonged here, not only for the color of my skin or my Indian accented English, but because of the fact that I am a foreigner, and will always be one. But to be a foreigner sitting amidst a group of natives animatedly discussing strategies about how to keep the foreigners at bay was not necessarily the best conversation to hear. This country has given me a lot, taught me a lot of values. However, I believe that I have given this country at least a little bit in return, and I am not just referring to the taxes. I have given this country my hard work, my ideas, my skills, and my expertise. Look at the irony, on one hand, I was sitting there as the representative of my advisor, trying to become an expert in my field, trying to become “one of them” to help their children continue into college. On the other hand, I was also a foreigner and although this person never realized there was at least one foreigner in the room listening to the conversation, I was listening. I did not know then which side of the argument I was in.
That single incident, ironically on the 5th anniversary of my entry into the US, changed the way I perceive things. It’s been a month almost, and memories of that initial awkwardness still remains fresh. Academic daddy, who is best known for his honesty and bluntness, listened to me recount this in pain, and told me somewhat impassively, “You get established for your skills, the value you bring into a group, and not because of who you are or what country you belong to. If you become a good researcher and have all the combined skills that most people in this field do not have, if you are the best in statistics and can analyze any large scale data set, America will value you. You can either sit and lament about what happened, or fiercely try to establish yourself in the field.”
Advice taken with respect daddy, but not without knowing that perhaps I would never be able to estrange myself from the things I felt at that point, being referred to as an outcast “who is taking our jobs away”.
On a different note, I had to fill out an expense sheet and a tax form by the end of it, listing my expenses. The lady at the conference counter looked at me and said harmlessly, “Oh, I am sure you do not need a tax form.”
Having known her for the last 3 days of the conference, I smiled and almost nodded a yes, assuming she knows best, but decided to confirm again. “You sure?”
“Uh, do international employees pay taxes?”
“Sure ma’am, I do pay my full share of taxes, I assure you”, I said as I helped myself to a form. “Surely us foreigners might be a potential threat who take up the jobs that your children rightly deserved, but we at least pay our taxes”, I thought with bitterness as I grabbed my form and left the conference venue.