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American Mirage

January 2003
American Mirage

'Life ban jayegi' is the word on the street in India about coming to America. That?s the general consensus ? coming to America means life will change for the better, ever after. Indeed, this land of opportunity promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that has seduced people from the Indian subcontinent, just as many others around the world. And so they come, by the thousands, each with sparkling eyes and big dreams.

While most fulfill their American dreams, there are those few that slip through the cracks; for them, the American dream remains just that ? a pipe dream?a mirage. They are desolate, distraught, and down in an alien land.

What compounds their problems is that they are amongst a community that has exemplified immigrant success: we love to tout often and loud the U.S. Census Bureau statistics that place Indian Americans as the highest income earners amongst all Americans. Under the prevailing conditions it is hard, if not impossible, for most Indian immigrants to empathize with the plight of their fellow migrants who are living substandard and even miserable lives in the same land that has meant abundance for them.

Aparna Bhattacharya, Director of Raksha, a premier social service organization helping South Asians in the area, agrees that this is indeed a more widespread problem than most of us are willing to acknowledge. The 'model minority' label that has been informally but pervasively tacked upon us can be a hurdle, according to Bhattacharya. She cites an incident where Raksha was denied funding by a mainstream charity because according to the charity 'the need was not evident or pronounced' in the community.

Yet, judging by the number of cases they handle each month ? about 40 to 50 ? its evident that there are many of us who came here in search of the American dream and find it to be a mirage. Moreover, it is widely recognized that South Asians are not prone to seek formal help. It means that if about 50 cases show up, many more are surely hurting.

For reasons as unique as the individuals themselves, America to them has not symbolized 'making it' or 'arriving' or 'the pursuit of happiness'. From a simple cultural dissonance to financial hardships and even domestic violence, there are those of us for whom coming to America has meant misfortunate and struggle. For them, far from betterment, America meant nothing but heartaches and suffering.

There are a few distinct groups that have come to be susceptible to this phenomenon.

The strangle of the blue collar

The under-qualified blue color workers, who end up driving taxis or working midnight shifts at factories, can?t exactly vouch for the blessings of their new homeland. Hemant was a clerk at the Ahmedabad municipal office. The first chance he got he came here with his wife Sadhna and his daughter Champa. Not having much in terms of marketable qualifications, he has been to all the corners of the country, trying to settle down. He has been a bhomio (drifter) doing odd jobs for 22 years! His story sounds like a Bohemian rap song: Chicago, Houston, New York, Miami, Orlando, Dallas, Detroit and now Atlanta. He is still not settled! 'If my wife and daughter would have worked back home, the way they did here, we would have been well off and happy,' says a sad Hemant.

Worse off still are those who are not only stuck in blue collar work, but are also handicapped with poor English and social skills. Varun, a cab driver who wished to be identified by first name only, recently moved to Atlanta from New York hoping for a break in his bad luck. He had landed in America about two years back. Ever since he moved to this land of ?opportunity?, his life had gone from bad to worse. 'Back home I ran a two-taxi operation, and my only persistent problem was poor finances. While it did cause some pain, in other ways, I was happy and content and amongst family and friends.' Here, Varun says, his financial situation is only marginally better, while the rest of his life has gone down the pits. Driving a cab in New York on cold nights under the constant threat to life has had its toll on his health. Even the move to Atlanta has been less than satisfactory. While he did escape the rough weather and clientele of New York, the cab business here is just not big in volume.

Describing his plight, Varun says, 'I feel like I don?t belong here. I am a social person but hardly know many people here. In India, when finances were down, I could at least hang out with friends and feel better. The worst part is being away from my wife and kids. There are times when I can?t help but feel sorry for myself. I stay up at nights thinking of my situation. Thoughts of going back depress me; thoughts of staying here depress me. While I see that a lot of Indians have done well here and are happy, to me, coming to America has not been a happy decision at all? so far. My only hope is that maybe this place will grow on me and things will get better, if and when my family can come here.'

The professionally under qualified are also the ones least prone to get their American citizenship. This does not help their already bleak situation if finances go for the worse, as they do not qualify for welfare. Socially and culturally too, they often remain at best, on the fringe of society, and at worst, as outcasts. Standard aspects of acculturation such as PTA meetings and girl scout/boy scout outreach for their children remain distant proposition, even as other Indian Americans get adept at these.

Unlike New York or New Jersey, Atlanta does not, at least physically, have any area in that can be identified as a South Asian ghetto. Nevertheless, there are many in the community who live under similar circumstances ? poor finances and prospects, as well as disenfranchisement from both, the mainstream and the South Asian communities.

Out of status? Out of luck!

Then there are those who, for various reasons, are undocumented or out-of-status residents ? and are now subject to the vagaries of their slave-driver bosses. Even though relatively a smaller number compared to the Hispanic illegal aliens, the number, according to Aparna Bhattacharya, is much larger than most are aware of.

The plight of South Asian illegal aliens is considerably worse than those of Hispanics, who have managed to not only find work, but have also carved a niche for themselves in the labor pool of America. The amount of resources, and those too, in their native language, that they enjoy, would be the stuff of envy for most of their counterparts in our community. While they enjoy advocacy from various Hispanic consulates and organizations, the South Asian aliens are mostly shunned. While the Hispanics work openly at factories, farms, and construction sites, the South Asians are condemned to underground existence, sub-par pay, and abuses from the employers. It?s truly a no-win situation for many of them who are further restricted by their so-called employer from talking to others about their plight. The threat of being notified to the authorities or loosing even their meager pay keeps many of them condemned to their miserable fate.

Sheila (name changed) epitomizes the worst of those who have been similarly abused. Marriage to a distant family acquaintance brought her to North Carolina from a small town in Maharashtra. Her?s is a story of what happens when your only support system in a new country - your husband - turns out to be your worst enemy. Sheila prefers to leave out the sordid details of the physical and mental abuse she suffered in the one-and-a-half years of her marriage, but says only, 'for me, coming to America was like going to hell. The scars will remain with me for the rest of my life.' She is of course conscientious to add that it is not America, the country, that was responsible for her situation, but rather the circumstances and a husband who turned out to be quite the villain.

As with most in Sheila?s condition, there was not anyone that she could truly confide in. The very fact that they don?t have many contacts, resources or know-how in a country that is new and different to them is what makes them susceptible. As Sheila says, 'Worse than the abuse is the isolation and utter feelings of helplessness. In the early days, my only contacts were those through my ex-husband ? I wasn?t sure of how they would react to my confiding in them. My ex had even blocked long distance calling on our phone. Getting cash in hand was out of question. Over the years I have learnt, and am much more competent now, but during those days when overcome with grief, I would think of writing to my parents back home about my situation; but then would decide against it. Why transfer my pain to them, when I knew they couldn?t do much about it? With the stigma attached to a broken marriage, especially in small town India, going back was equally unthinkable.'

The worst part of such situations is that the perpetrators often abuse the victim?s dependency on them for legal status in the country. Sheila?s situation could have been diffused and her suffering shortened if the key to her independence ? her legal status ? were not held by the spouse. There are legal avenues around such a situation, but they are not something readily thought of by those abused as they are usually new in the country.

This phenomenon of being at the mercy of a legal status has afflicted not only the unsophisticated and the downtrodden, but also the H1-B workers from the highly dynamic IT industry - once the grand savior of this the latest crop of Indian immigrants. H1-B is an employment specific visa that was abundantly utilized by Indian technology professionals as a means not only to come to America, but also to the good life promised by a high demand industry.

The downturn in the American economy and particularly in the tech sector has therefore widely affected these professionals. According to Mani Krishnaswamy of Synergy America, Inc., a Georgia based placement company for the IT industry, 'H1-B workers got the biggest jolt due to the downturn.' 'Whereas once the industry was pushing for higher quotas of these visas, now it can?t even fulfill the ones allotted.'

Far from fulfilling the allotted quotas, the industry has taken such a turn that those who were already here have lost, and continue to loose jobs in this fast receding industry. According to Krishnaswamy, the high profile abuses at companies such as World Com, Enron, and Anderson Consulting further defiled an already weak industry, making the plight of H1-B workers particularly miserable.

Only about two years back, it was the H1-B professionals who were the envy of the old-timer immigrants. Whereas these old-timers had to struggle hard over many years to get a piece of their American dream, these professionals would come in to custom-tailored success from day one: lucrative salaries, new cars and the respect and control of being highly sought in a dot-com driven economy.

Now, the ugly turn of events has been so dramatic that those same new cars of many returning H1-B workers are known to be found abandoned at airports around the nation, particularly in the silicon valley. Many of these disillusioned professionals dropped their American dreams like they would burning coal, and returned home, leaving behind a trail of unpaid car loans and unrealized dreams. Maha Mahadevan of Boss, Inc., another local placement company estimates that about 10% or more have returned to India.

It is those who have stayed for whom the struggle to maintain a legal status has been particularly daunting. For all their professional qualifications and acumen, they have found themselves at the mercy of the unique circumstances that drew them to this land of opportunity with the promise of making it big, only to be profoundly let down by the rapid reversal. If cutback in salaries and longer hours were all that they had to encounter, it wouldn?t be all that bad; but many of them are reduced to menial work, or worse, no work at all. If this continues, many more will be going back home, where too, the tech industry is not faring much better.

Ramu Srinivasan who was recruited by an Atlanta agency in early 2001 and who is now back in his hometown in Hyderabad, said in a phone interview that his first couple months in the US were indeed a dream come true. Fresh out of college, he had landed the job with the agency, and was soon contracted to work at the prestigious Cisco Systems. The day before catching the plane to America, Ramu remembers converting his $60,000 annual salary into Indian rupees and being flabbergasted at the amount. It was considerably more than what his father had ever made in a year as a senior bank official with 26 years in the industry!

Not surprisingly, Ramu?s early days in the US were elating. For those times when he was sent out-of-station for assignments, his daily expense allowance was $45. 'Most days I would end up with at least $30 in surplus ? that was more than half of my monthly allowance during my college days. So within months I went from being a near-broke college student to a splendidly paid professional. I considered myself truly blessed.'

It is precisely such a high that made the fall worse. Ramu?s stint at Cisco lasted only about 4 months. As soon as the fortunes had come, the bad news came even faster. Before he could comprehend what was happening, he was laid off from the Cisco contract. The gravity of the situation still had not struck him. Even though times were not as hot in the industry as before, he thought such hiring and firing was the norm here; and so it would be just a matter of time before he would get another job. It took him a month-and-a-half being on 'the bench' ? the industry lingo for being between contracts, before he realized that his American ?honeymoon? was over! Right in front of him the IT revolution had made an about face.

The options for Ramu and many others in his situation were not quite palatable. After touting his hot-shot status for four months amongst friends and family back home, he would have to go back to bleak prospects. Some in his shoes had been known to go 'underground' by loosing their legal status to continue staying here. But Ramu didn?t want such second-class citizenship where he would have to work around the system, not to mention be stuck in menial jobs with slave-driver bosses who would tend to take undue advantage of his status. After returning home, he had a very tough year in search of jobs in his field. Now, he is looking to borrow money from his dad to open up a pre-press and computer rental business in Hyderabad. For Ramu and many others like him, the American dream almost materialized before it turned into a mirage.

Those who have stayed on have had an equally rough time gaining a legal footing and reestablishment of career. Priyanka Sinha came to the states in 1992 on a F1 student visa. Upon completing her graduate work in 1999, she was hired as a content developer for a company in Boston. The company sponsored her H1-B. Then, things started coming apart in March 2000, the company experienced severe losses. 'In April, my brother was getting married in Delhi. I went home, and came back to nothing! The company I worked for had joined the hundreds of market casualties in the software industry. I was left struggling financially and terribly scared of deportation. If I didn?t find a job soon, I would have to give up the life I had built in this country.' Even now, speaking of it brings on anxiety for Priyanka as she tries to take stock of the situation.

'Fortunately, I made it through with the goodwill of others and my own goals. Disappointed and disillusioned, but determined to chase my dreams I began the job search again. I sent out more than 50 resumes, always aware that the days were running out. Every time I called to check on my visa status with the company?s lawyer, I couldn?t get the information I needed due to headquarter rearrangements and the Boston office closure. Already, dotcoms were becoming extinct. Along with these companies my stability crumbled. I was facing a strange paradox -- I was fighting so hard to stay in a country that I felt didn?t need me anymore.'

Priyanka managed to get a job in a completely different industry in a company that sponsored her. 'It wasn?t anything I felt too passionate about, but it helped me get back on my feet. Of course, I worry about my visa, it is a struggle, but I have the support I need.'

The latecomer?s loss

Even old time professionals such as physicians, engineers, and bankers have known to be the victims of the American mirage. There are many who have enjoyed rewarding professional careers back home, but for some reason or the other, have been enticed by the promise of America, only to come late in their careers ? past age 40 or even 50. At that juncture in their career, they are usually too set in their ways after having enjoyed success in their native place.

Azhar Khan came to this country in 1984 as a visitor, when he was already past 50. Back home, he was a practicing lawyer and also had a few rental properties. The intent of the trip was just to visit with their children and see the grandchildren. Once here, though, he was enticed by the land and prodded by his daughter to make a move for the good.

Though, Khan soon realized that practicing law here was a whole different ball game. A formal practice would mean he would have to re-qualify and even re-educate himself in law ? which was too cumbersome to him at his stage where he had already proven himself in his field back home. In the tradeoff, he eventually settled for a non-professional career for his remaining years of working. Thus he has worked in accounting as well as managing an electronics shop.

'It?s never easy to do any other work, that too in a new country, once you have enjoyed the success and status that comes from being a doctor in rural India,' says Dr. Rajni Desai who also moved here when he was in his fifties, from Kheda district in Gujarat. Most of his immediate family including two brothers, his two sons and a daughter had made America home. So the family tug was strong to join them rather than live an isolated life in India in his later years. 'But I still had a good 15 to 20 years of career left in me which were never realized. My family thought it would be best for me and my wife to move while I was still in my fifties rather than after retirement, because they thought it would be harder to acclimate here at that age. Looking back, however, I would have been much happier if I had served as a doctor for the rest of my working life back in India. While it has been good to be with family, professionally I have been very miserable. Going to libraries and working odd jobs has not been the ideal way to spend my good working years. Many days I feel a strong urge to go back to my practice there, but now its too late. My advice to others in my situation is ?don?t come here if you have to sacrifice an already established career ? unless you are very young?. I did, and for that reason, my American life has and will always remain second rate compared to my life in India.'

A senior concern

Perhaps no other group is as susceptible to this phenomenon of American mirage than our senior citizens, the ones that have moved here after retirement to join their children. To many of them America has truly been an anticlimax. Purshottambhai Thakkar, a volunteer coordinator at a senior center in New Jersey puts it this way, 'Imagine studying commerce all through your college ? and then being put up at an engineering or science job. You?d be totally lost wouldn?t you? It?s the same with our seniors. All their lives they grow up being Indian, set in their Indian ways and Eastern culture. Now, as soon as they come here they are expected to thrive in a totally alien environment. Everything is different: language, culture, mobility, physical settings and all!'

According to Thakkar, even in wholesome families where the children are taking good care of their aging parents, the potential for dissatisfaction and depression exists, simply because of the dramatic change of lifestyles and loss of independence. What makes it worse for some is the family discord that often arises. In a few instances, where they have to contend with insensitive children or the abusive daughter-in-law, life in America becomes like a prison sentence. To make matters worse, most of them have no options left back home either.

Different strokes

Besides the above categories of folks, the phenomenon of American mirage is known to strike randomly as well. It often has to do with unfulfilled expectations and different worlds. Like Hrundi Bakshi, the goofball Peter Sellers character from the 1960s movie, The Party, some of us have a harder time getting acclimated here. In the sophisticated 90s, we may not be bungling fools like Bakshi in the movie; but nevertheless many of us do feel like the proverbial fish out of water.

Something as basic as cultural dissonance can make life miserable for some. There are those who feel socially or psychologically out of place in the western culture which emphasis individuality and materialism, in contrast to the family and spiritual values of back home. According to psychiatrist, Dr Dilip Patel, there are those, a small minority, who have not been able to make a successful transition. Theirs is a particularly no-win situation, since they are precisely the people who are not attuned to psychological counseling either. 'Due to cultural taboo, most Indians do not seek psychiatric help,' says Dr. Patel. Describing the issues pertaining to problems of ?acculturation? as he defines it, he adds, 'The major difference in the emphasis on individual achievement in American culture as opposed to emphasis on family, leads to feelings of not being helped by, cared for, or of being put down by others in family.' This, along with basic differences in ground realities such as doing household chores by self as opposed to relying on servants, has had many unhappy in America.

There are those who vouch for unfulfilled expectations. The myths of America have sometimes far exaggerated the realities. Ritesh Desai was only 12 years old when his family migrated to USA. His dad was a recruiter for exporting labor overseas. This was one of the reasons the family dreamt of distant lands, more than most. He also remembers an aunt who had visited from the West and had brought them special fancy gifts that were amazing to him. So when the family began preparation to come to America, he was full of dreams. He imagined fancy toys, fluffy beds, futuristic electronics, bikes and cars, and all the great goodies he had been seeing in the Hollywood movies.

Then came the reality of America. Their first home was in a small town called Hickory in North Carolina. 'What a shock and dismay!' exclaims Ritesh. The very first months Ritesh shared a sleeping bag with his brother. No cars, not even a bike. Mom and dad were never home. To make it worse there were girls in his school!

This went on for a few months. Their first break came when the family bought their first car. But the $1500 car ended up costing them over $4000 over the months in repair. Thus, Ritesh?s initiation to the country was not a pleasant one. Fortunately for him, his family?s motto has always been, 'If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.'

And therein lies the message for turning around the American mirage and claiming what we really came for - the great American dream. Why else come this far? We leave you with the wise perspective of Shahin Chaudhary who has endured the American mirage, but has resolved to carry on: 'If coming to America was a mistake then going back is even a bigger mistake. I have made that mistake, so I know. I came back as fast as I had gone. I realized once you begin to chase a dream there is no turning back. You got to find a way to keep moving forward.'

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