“Keep your head down, and work hard. Don’t attract any attention. You should be grateful to be here.”
Why do we keep quiet? Being an immigrant is a constant battle. It’s time we celebrated our chequered journeys.
I grew up in India, and lived in England for seven years, before moving to California. I studied at Oxford and Cambridge and am now an MBA student at Stanford. I helped launch a $1 billion impact investing firm in London. I co-founded a startup that helps immigrants develop their English language skills, in order to better integrate into their community in Palo Alto. I spent the summer at a media incubator that aims to build a more empathetic, inclusive society in San Francisco. But I still might not be able to work in the United States.
Despite the increasingly toxic debate on ‘immigrants stealing jobs’, being allowed to enter the country, to legally work or study, no matter how qualified you are, is harder than you think.
Applying for a student visa is a long and expensive process. Your partner is not allowed to work for the duration of your degree, which forces couples into long-distance relationships. But once you get here, you can’t start your own company, even if you’re overqualified, or work for start-ups. Your only option is to apply to large companies. And yet, if you’re not an engineer, it’s hard for them to make the case to sponsor you. Shockingly, companies that provide lip-service to their belief in a global, connected world, like Facebook, won’t even let you apply for a role if you’re an international student, even if you have a degree from Stanford or Harvard.
To make the situation even more ridiculous, even if you do convince a company to hire and sponsor you, you might end up losing the visa ‘lottery’, that you’re forced to enter. There are countless instances of professionals being forced to leave the country, even if they work at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, relocate their families to London and Singapore for a year or two, and then move back when their application is successful.
And those are just the professional trade-offs. The personal costs are often so much higher. Adjusting to new cultures takes time and patience. It’s harder to build relationships when you’re shared experiences are limited. I clearly look and sound different. I haven’t watched the same TV shows, I don’t follow the same sports teams- or even the same sports; and I don’t always laugh at the same jokes (damn, I miss dry humor). I only see my family once a year. I’m starting to feel the need to have to justify my presence in this country, as intolerance and hate crimes towards immigrants and minorities continue to rise.
And yet, I’ve had it so easy. I can still go home, if I choose to. I’m not from a war-torn country. I haven’t had to sacrifice my life, or lost family members along the way, crossing borders and seas to be here. I’m not constantly lonely, trapped in a foreign country, where I don’t speak the language. I’m not being exploited, or working in minimum-wage jobs at low hours.
Living abroad comes at a cost. A lot of immigrants are not here by choice. But you should also know this: living in a country shapes your personality, interests and relationships. I’ve had to start over from scratch so many times, that I can barely remember who I used to be, before I left India.
I’m consistently seen as an outsider. I might not be American or English, but I’m not entirely Indian anymore either.
This is not my home, but it could be.