Wednesday, September 28, 2011

5 Years !

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.



Badri said...

Even if you become a CEO, I guess he/she will still feel that alienation. The only option is to ignore and move on like your advisor says. But it should not be at a cost of one's honor. After all a person with talent can do well in a growing economy like India.

I would like to think that such stuff (blaming foreigners) come from folks who are immature. If you come to think of it, it was the US which started this globalizing trend.

I guess it is a cost for other benefits which you get here, but still it is weird to have the feeling that you are a stranger.

US is becoming more like a person who bitches about his rich neighbour not realizing that he should get his stuff straightened out.

But I do wish people get treated for what they are and not for where they are from......

Sorry for the incoherent rant....just wanted to spill my thoughts.. said...

I have mixed feeling on this post. But it reminds me of an incident at my workplace when I was new there. A colleague openly asked, why don't the foreign students leave the country after finishing their studies ? why do they also start working here ? !!

sunshine said...

Badri, your rant is not a rant, and is fully justified. Like you rightly said, its a price we sometimes pay for trying to fit in., why would you have mixed feelings?

Padmanabhan said...

You are right where you belong.

This blog.


Kunal said...

Though, I have not felt any alienation as such..but yes...that feeling comes from within sometimes...that you are only 'working' in this country and your heart is still in India. I have not worked in US..but I am currently working in Switzerland..and there were a few questions asked (from the general public rather than the authorities..) as to why the Swiss govt is spending so much money to outsource their project in India and why the project is not being done in Swiss itself by Swiss resources..Though Informally...but I heard people talking that even if they want...the project can not be done by swiss they can not find 200 java developers..not just in Zurich, but in the whole of Switzerland. So, I comes down to the needs of a particular some extent..In your case..I would say..that you can only answer their apprehension by your quality work in the field.

Good Luck..

Rajarshi said...

Well Sunshine, Your academic daddy is probably right. US has always been projected as a country where the only things that matter are your hard work and talents - Whether it be one entire generation of asylum seekers from war-ravaged Europe or darlings-of-Indian-media silicon valley IITians. I have never been to The US so my viewpoint may be limited. But this post just shows the faultlines which have already begun to appear as globalization becomes all-encompassing. Thankfully, xenophobia is not an Indian monopoly :)

And at these times, my utopian self envisages a world order without the barriers of nationalities, religion, class, caste, creed a la Lennon's 'Imagine'. said...

The reason for the mixed feelings is that I can understand what they mean when I think from their perspective. The world we live in is far from perfect. If equality was such great virtue we would never have the world divided into G-8, G-20 counties. Why not a G-world summit ? Regarding visa and all, I would say we as students applied only for a student visa so “ideally” we should be back to our home countries after our studies. But we try hard and compete for a job due to various reasons. At the same time the local people do not understand that we did not got such jobs and visa like apples falling from a tree. We had to go through a process which takes far more efforts and patience. And the end result is that “their” country also reap the benefits in many forms due to our hard work. In the end, here is a link which I saw some weeks back which might make more sense than my jibber jabber …

Ishmeet Kaur Mehta said...

Hi Sunshine,

I have been reading your blogs from a long time now.And feel the need to say something , when i saw this one in particular.
Not only in US, but if you see in India also there have been issues when people from smaller parts of the country move to bigger cities like Delhi or Mumbai for better paying jobs , there is lot of hue and cry..
This is some strange nature of human beings that we always like to distinct one from another on some or other stupid basis , whenever we feel the need too.Even , if we don't believe we are in a survival race .
I would say stay strong and just ignore comments like this.

Sachinky said...

I too would echo Orchestra's sentiments. While I can understand why this particular instance was painful for you, I always try to approach issues like this from the other or a third-party perspective.

I'm not sure how welcoming and embracing Calcuttans would be if Nigerians suddenly flooded the city and our average Bangali babus had to compete with them for jobs, especially in a volatile economic climate, where jobs are not dime a dozen.

Furthermore, as a F-1 visa seeker, you have to convince the Consulate Officer that you have every intention of moving back to your home country upon the completion of your degree. Yet how many international students go back readily without at least trying to secure a job/H1B sponsorship?

I have been in this country for six years now and not once have I felt alienated or discriminated against. Sure, I miss India and this will probably never feel the same in the way that India is mine and the US is not. But this is now my adopted country and I am proud to belong to it -- and as a wife of a born and bred American man, I feel I have every right to call it my home.