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Wives on H4 Visa effectively lose all right to financial independence, and that can lead to psychological problems. How do you deal with these troubles?
The American dream is still alive in the hearts of many. Recession, debt and heavy taxes in the USA don’t seem to deter people from believing in it. People, the world over, are attracted to the USA, an innovator’s haven, home for the truly talented. But what happens when only your husband can pursue the American dream, not you? Boredom, depression, insomnia, dejection, disinterest in life are just some of the consequences faced by the wives of the coveted H1B visas in the USA.
The US Government offers conditional visas, wherein the spouse of the H1B worker cannot work, something that many in India do not know much about, even when they set out to marry the ‘America-settled groom.’ The spouses, majority of them women, who, often are highly qualified and in diverse professions, end up at home doing household chores. If they have an IT background, they may work after procuring an American education and a work visa, years later. But, for numerous others, no dreams, American or otherwise!
Having resigned from high-paying jobs in India, but committed to their marriages, these women face terrible dilemmas that their husbands and families may or may not understand. A sweet ‘hubby’ could fund your education, which costs at least $40,000 today. A not-so-sweet one will ask your parents to fund it. Remember, the scholarships in the US have dried out; the crises in higher education happened in the US first. For an engineer in his early career, $40,000 is big money or the savings hitherto.
The psychological effects of the H4 visa or dependent visa on women range from a sense of entrapment to helplessness to self-doubt to self-hatred. A number of them realize that they had greater freedom in India. SA who dreamt of a place where people didn’t ask personal questions or intruded her personal life ended up thinking how much India was a better alternative, compared to the actual place where nobody cared.
The loneliness is often the hardest problem. It is not easy to make friends when you are depressed. “I decided I shouldn’t talk to anybody because all I could talk about was my joblessness,” says a woman in her 30s. The battles women face in India, the protest, the politics, the making of a point, a joke, everything had changed in the USA; everything was different. There were no ‘eve-teasers’, yes, but without a full-fledged life of activity, KS asks, “Where is the need to get out of the house?” The pain in this question is obvious only when one knows how to listen. “The only time I got out was with my husband during the weekend, to buy groceries or visit places.” What did you do the rest of the time? “Binge-watched Netflix.”
A common mistake many women make is not learning driving for the first few years. In many parts of the USA, one cannot go anywhere without a car, public transport is nominal. This runs counter to our idea of a developed country, but that’s how it is. Typically, it takes one and half years for a person who has not driven before, to master it. In addition, right-side driving is alien to the Indian eye. “For the first two years, Indian roads occupied my headspace. I was always attempting to enter the car from the driver’s side leading to comical situations” says Ratna.
Typically, the first few years are usually spent in making applications you never hear back from, registering on job websites and thinking ‘there is a job out there for me; I just need to find it.’ Only a few years later do many women realize that without a work permit, a job is indeed out of reach. Denial as a state of mind persists for many years unless a deadline is drawn for the job search and professional psychological help is sought.
How come many Indian women who want to work, end up marrying USA-grooms? Well, they are hopeful. Never had optimism played such a misleading role, one might think. Almost always, women are indeed informed that they may not be able to work immediately, but what they do not know is that there is a general air of suspicion revolving around their educational degrees and that almost everything is done differently in the USA. “They are hopeful that a green card will come through,” says psychologist Reena Mittal who treated several women suffering the H4 visa ‘curse‘ but it actually takes an average of 10-12 years or more while most assume much less time.
Mittal records that the women on the H4 visa felt powerless, inadequate, bored and lethargic. Since the work culture is different and more substantive in the USA, to appear employable, you have to look and talk like an American in most places. This is counter-intuitive to many Indians because they are taught to expect equality despite cultural differences. Being modern, a number of Indians think they can thrive anywhere, or that they are as modern as anyone can get! But in the USA, one has to be modern exactly like how one can be there.
If you threw a battle-cry at your family in India and asserted your independence or saw enough hardship to think—if I survived this, I can survive anything—no, you are wrong. This is a different soup you are in. In fact, the American accent is one of your biggest problems for the first x years. Solve this problem by actually watching YouTube videos that train you in it.
Recently, the work permit given out by the Obama administration benefited numerous women. But the Trump administration could reverse this, which means years of petitioning gone waste. The resultant power imbalance between the spouses makes the H4 visa troubles an issue for feminism, especially since many families perpetuate the inequalities of the Indian family though residing in the USA and stereotypes of the unscrupulous wife persist.
So, what does one do to cope with the H4 visa situation?
“I suffered from all-or-nothing thinking and didn’t even know it until I visited a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT)” says AD. Many women will have silently pledged to feel nothing until they get a job. Everything else is put on hold. The so-called plan they have for getting a job is not based on facts but on a stubborn insistence that they are entitled to one.
Seeing a psychologist alerts them to their rigidities and helps them make a plan. “One of the best things that came from seeing a psychologist was keeping a timetable. I realized how much time I had and how I was wasting it, while I did have things I wanted to do, other than preparing for the future job,” adds AD. Most engineers are in jobs with good insurance that allows their dependents, mental health care. It has an expense of just tens of dollars, so make sure you take professional help.
This is the time to make the master-list of the ‘10 things that make me happy.’ And see it executed. It is easy to say that ‘one must accept what one cannot change’ or that one should not place conditions on happiness. But the real test of this is the H4 visa. So shift your attention from what you cannot do to what you can. Of course, by now you will have sent off an email or petition to your senator, voting for work rights on Facebook and Causes.com. “I would scoff at home-makers who were very accepting of their circumstances,” says SM. “But now I understand better, people are only making the best of their circumstances.”
Accepting that you may not be able to work for a number of years and working towards happiness is the best gift you can give to yourself; be realistic. “I would be happy for a bit and then my mind would go—you don’t have a job!—and I would become unhappy again. It was like my mind reminded my unemployed status every sixty seconds,” says SM. Keeping a tab on moods through CBT helped conquer the constant depression, she says.
Having a plan and making a commitment to happiness sets you up to actually go get the education you need. Research what universities have on offer, what you want to do, the cost, the job opportunities and everything related. Give yourself 3 months to get the data. Once on a course, you will be completely engaged for its duration. If taking a course is not an option, you can continue to update yourself by taking online courses on Coursera, Khan Academy etc. An active professional profile and online presence are crucial, unlike in India. Close the gap years in your CV through coursework and freelance work for India. Read up how-to books, magazines, and journals from the public library in your field by the dozen. A book a fortnight is a good plan.
Sound professional advice has always instructed you to not alienate your mentors, ever. Find mentors in the USA and keep in touch with the ones in India. You need them all always. Freelance work could still be available in India. Keep all options open. Continue to build good professional relationships with your mentors; they could actually help. Be willing to trust their advice. “Early on when I came here, I was unwilling to trust anyone who had a job, no one could be my mentor because no one understood what I was going through,” says Tara. “I was full of conspiracy theories of professional jealousy and couldn’t tell genuine advice from fake reassurance.”
Cooking in India is a battleground in the marriage because men do not do enough household work. In the USA, the approach is far more broad-minded. If both spouses are working, men usually cook and take on chores. So when one spouse is not working, cooking becomes their job. There is an indirect form of equality in the situation, although one may not accept cooking every day as enjoyable. Given this, cooking simply becomes yet another life-skill. Often, the husbands cook better since they would have been in the USA alone for some time before their marriages. The wives may not know cooking, thanks to their mothers. So, taking up cooking, discovering some hacks, exploring new recipes are helpful.
Judgments aside, the quicker this work is done and put aside, the more easily enjoyable work can be done. Restaurants tend to dole out bland food that is never satisfying, so you will end up experimenting. Plus, by age 30, you need to able to invite people home and throw parties—mastering a few items to authenticity rather than an entire cuisine is advantageous. Do not shy away from kitty parties. Embrace their value. At every step, you will be challenged into finding feminism again, redefining it, tweaking your previous understanding of it and so on.
“I thought dancing was cheap,” says Dolly. “It was a waste of time and I swore I would never do it.” Over the years, Dolly has changed her opinion, given up the morality drama and, embraced that dancing is a fun way to spend time, be alert and active. She performed to Bollywood music with her group at events and even enjoyed Zumba at the Public Library.
For others who want to remain physically active, yoga is a good choice—again something that is often free at the Public Library. Since money is a big consideration when living abroad and spending a few thousand dollars on every air ticket to India is an expensive must, learning to make use of freebies are important. From scoffing at the stinginess, one progresses to understand the economics of the choices of NRIs.
Hobbies take up a major space in one’s routine. These are things that one always wanted to do but had no time for when working. Making use of the dollar store for simple crafts can be quite a thrill in itself. Apart from this, dedicated craft stores and classes can give anyone a taste of a life of leisure. At times, there are Continuing Education classes that offer free classes and, courses in Community Colleges that are not expensive. Otherwise, craft classes cost $ 8 an hour on an average, which is not too much money if you are invested in it.
In the US, women could start classical music or dance at age 30—this is where the freedom lies. There are more youngsters seriously invested in Indian dance and music forms there than in India, where the current pulls one towards western dance or music. Using the freedom to the fullest is the way to keep active.
Use Pinterest to also find Bucket Lists for travel, happiness goals, dressing goals. Reading challenges are easily done on Goodreads or by enrolling in the tens of book clubs in any city. The thing about surviving the H4 visa in the USA is to take the initiative. If there is no book club for Indian Literature, you start one. A number of people develop an interest in Indian texts and traditions because travelling has offered them a perspective on India. Don’t worry if someone calls you an ‘internet Hindu’. Read up; this is the time to do it. Follow Indian news too. If there are no activity partners for a hike, you start the club, invite your friends. Make use of Facebook to be informed of the hundreds of events in your city, choose some—this is an absolute must.
Volunteer here and elsewhere. The volunteer certificate could be a stepping stone to a job. Charity causes are often your group volunteering a dance performance and your friends buying tickets to watch it. But it is not as silly it sounds; the money does help out those in need. From how to garden in your city to World Literature and TV shows, the library has almost everything you need to know. They are connected to universities and can get you specialized books.
Read American history and fiction, watch the news. A city is its news, so you will feel more at home and ready for casual conversation. Diaspora fiction will show you that you are not the only one feeling homesick or lost. Free meditation classes and talks add to build a routine; hop to libraries close to you for more activities.
Check out citizenship classes and seminars on how to buy a home. Buying a home could add a wide array of activities, from gardening to décor. But find out if the city you live in is not suffering from a real estate boom, which often makes things hard. A good amount of research helps you choose better. You are the one who will do it, not your working husband.
Accompanying the husband everywhere and being accompanied by him everywhere is not the best way to experience a new place. While the perspective of another is needed initially, it bars individual experience in the long run. Spousal relationships in the US can be harmonious, with little interference from in-laws and relatives. This is one reason why many women choose never to return to India; Poornima says her domineering mother-in-law would definitely ruin the peace she has in the US; she “will never ever ever go back!”
Some marriages still have the remote-control (MIL) in India, though. And patriarchal societies are convenient for men, so your hubby would love to return, wouldn’t he? Anticipate these issues and explore independence by travelling alone. Visit friends and relatives across the country; take a train if you can. Make a bucket list of what to places to cover with friends and with family. Travel to India for an extended stay, this is when some freelance work can be accomplished too. Get friends and relatives home. This chips away at the loneliness.
“When someone advised me to have children, I was offended. A couple of years later, I am now trying hard and regret not starting earlier,” says Anu. The job search and its disappointments preoccupied her completely, leaving no time for other important plans. When women with jobs are quitting in order to take care of children, in India and the US, having children during the H4 visa phase is a smart choice. The inequality of the care-giving situation though mind-boggling at times, Indian men in the US are actually better parents and share baby-duties. Says Ragini, “only when my daughter was born did I regain the happiness I had lost and healed from the trauma I had suffered from the H4 visa; it helped me focus on my job search with a proper mindset.”
Like in most places, couples buy a home and then plan for a baby. If you are in a reasonable marriage, your husband will register the home in both your names (a common thing here) providing some equality. Child care is way too expensive, so keep avenues open to return to India for a time or get parents’ and in-laws’ help. You need to have your relationships in order so as to seek help at this stage. A visit from parents prior to delivery will help them learn how things work in the US.
You need friends too. Don’t rest until you have made 50 friends and acquaintances. Friendships don’t happen on buses and walks, like in India. It’s more organized. You need to seek out people, who will not bother with you unless you explicitly express interest. Do this by joining associations (temple, music, dance, yoga) and support groups. In time, the sense of loss and alienation dissipates.
If you have suffered and survived the H4 visa, it is because you are a feminist.
(Names changed to protect identity)
Image source: YouTube
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