H4 Visa and the Shock of Migration – a personal account by Ashwini Gangal

Ashwini Gangal
Ashwini Gangal
Image Title
Ashiwini with her husband | Photo Credit: Kunal Sakpal
Ashwini Gangal
Ashwini Gangal

“The DSM should have a separate classification for migration related depressive states. At some level, you’re grieving for the life you left behind…”

That was something I tweeted a few days ago. It might seem a touch hyperbolic, but I truly believe the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ought to include nation-specific diagnostic criteria for the anxiety and self-doubt NRIs go through when they land in their adopted countries. I have learnt more about mental health and its determinants in the last three months than I did over two years at Mumbai University, where I earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology.

It’s been about 100 days since I landed in the Bay Area from Mumbai. In keeping with startup parlance, I am what I like to call an early-stage migrant, perfectly placed to document the psychological drama and disquieting shock of moving from India to the United States. That such a life-defining, stressful move, undertaken by so many, is not more storied is surprising. Which is why I decided to write about my experience of being an H4 spouse – bearer of the ‘dependent’ visa, nomenclature that has the power to do a number on your sense of self and world-view.

Ashwini in Bay Area

When I meet Indians who’ve been here for many years and tell them I’ve just moved, I get that knowing look, that sympathetic nod. “We know what it’s like…” they say with everything but words. If it’s a common reality shared by so many of us, why don’t we talk about it more openly? Let me try and change this by sharing my story.

Sure, I’m no Sridevi from ‘English Vinglish’, but nonetheless, I’d go so far as to liken my first few weeks in the bay to having my wings clipped; overnight I lost all sense of agency over my immediate environment. Feather by feather, I am growing new wings. 

The first problem I encountered is the absence of public transport, something Indians in general and Mumbaikars in particular take for granted. Back home, all I had to do was step onto the street and raise my arm – and a ‘kaali-peeli’ taxi stopped for me, to say nothing of the incredible BEST bus and local train service. Here, the prerequisite for simple things like going to the grocery store to pick up fruits or stopping by the beauty parlour to get my eyebrows done is knowing how to drive. In my first few weeks here, I spent a disproportionate amount of time learning how to do so. Those who’ve driven in India have to unlearn the basics (everything is on the opposite side here!) and those who’ve never driven in India have to learn a scary new skill from scratch. Either way, it’s an uphill battle. Passing my behind-the-wheel test and sticking my driver’s license in my wallet, cozily nestled between my new Costco shopping card and my husband’s credit card, was the first new feather.

The second shock was the lack of domestic help, another thing we’re very used to in India. Here, I gather, one needs to cross a certain threshold of affluence to hire a cook or a cleaner. Back home, it’s normal; I mean, even my house help has her own house help. I used to haughtily say “Forget about knowing my way around the kitchen, I don’t even know my way to the kitchen!” Before I could swallow morsels of my below average aloo gobi, I had to swallow my words. This feather was aided by neighbourhood food trucks, kitchen hacks shared by friends, YouTubers, and the occasional 30-dollars-a-meal pack sold by enterprising ‘aunties’ who see a business opportunity in people like me. 

The third challenge is the absence of companions outside my romantic universe of two. Of my own volition I put oceans between my friends and myself, and now I’m facing the consequences of that choice. Making new friends is the only salve for the isolation a new migrant feels. And I don’t want my social circle to be limited to my husband’s friends; they’re already a close-knit unit with their own history, shared memories and special bonds. It’s like the feeling you get when you see a group of friends playing cards, loud and animated, enjoying their inside jokes and jokes-of-the-moment birthed during the game, jokes that will be recounted and recalled whenever this group gets together in the future. The feeling is worse when you don’t know the game they’re playing; it makes the possibility of inclusion that much slimmer. I felt like I really needed my own group. To this end, I made it a point to hang around in the clubhouse area of my apartment complex and start conversations with my neighbours. Being an extrovert really helped me sprout this feather.

Bay Area vs Mumbai

Back in Mumbai, I worked as managing editor of a business daily that covers the Indian advertising and marketing space; I joined this publication as a rookie reporter and it’s here that I found my professional voice over 12 glorious years. Quitting my job to move to California seemed like a relief after all that pandemic burnout and work-from-home mania that drove most of us crazy between 2020 and 2022, but just a few days after landing I started missing the buzz of work, the pressure of deadlines and the chatter of colleagues. I went from being a time-strapped journalist, recognised by every advertising executive in India, to a former media journalist in Silicon Valley, during an economic slowdown… from being a big fish in a small pond to a fish out of water. Though I moved to America for love, reinventing my professional identity has become my new mission. Like Salman Rushdie once said, the only ground an immigrant has to stand on is the one he builds for himself. 

At an ideological level, I struggle with the gender dynamics of my reality – I have unplugged my life of 36 years and moved to a new country to be with my husband here. Would he have uprooted his career and bid goodbye to his friends and family to join me in, say, France, if I were based there? Why don’t I see more men doing this sort of life-altering cross-continental trapeze? Why is the H4 visa the unofficial preserve of women? And why am I, a hardcore feminist, part of the problem? 

Anyway, finding answers to these questions is for a later day. For now, I want to focus on finding my America.

This article “100 Days In The Bay Area Shocks A Newcomer From Mumbai!” was first published on India Currents.



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