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Finding strength in vulnerability

Visas, first-jobs and the American dream

Photograph by Naina Chhiber

Life in the 20s after graduating from college is a time of immense turmoil. While college marks the first step in independence and character-building, entering the workforce after college is actually the time where independence and character are tested. Having gone to boarding school, college was an extension of what I was used to in terms of independence. While my boarding school in India was very different from my Midwestern liberal arts school, the concepts of living alone, managing time and responsibility had already been introduced.

After graduating from college, I knew I had to leave the small-town bubble of Midwest America. Visas, bags and a History and French B.A. in hand, I left the Midwest on a 27-hour Amtrak train to the East coast. College was the one root I had planted in America. My friends had become my family and my college had become a little home. While the excitement was real, as is when you are embarking on any new adventure, I knew very little of what I was getting into.

A few months into my adventure, I was living and working in New York City. The honeymoon period at my first job was short-lived. After a few months of being there, the work culture was clearly toxic for me. Not only was I more anxious and on-edge than I had ever been before, I was constantly scared. Not only was I working in a company that I was hoping would sponsor my visa after 10 months of me starting, I was also desperate for the income to sustain me in New York. Hours were long, recognition was rare and the pay just let me live from one paycheck to the next. Speaking to my other recently graduated friends, this wasn’t uncommon especially in a city like New York. So like many of us are, I was a slave to the job, the bosses and the routine. Like modern-day imperialism, the power dynamics meant that all of us in junior levels knew just how harmful the environment was for us and our lives, yet, couldn’t break free.

There is no doubt that there many people who thrived in this environment. The pace, the pressure, the constant stimulation was what helped them excel. Unfortunately for me, it was not an environment in which I thrived. It was not for me and I was always careful in distinguishing between an experience which specifically didn’t suit ME and not seek empathy for something others experienced differently. Despite this conscious effort, it was difficult not see myself as a failure when I saw others excel, grow and advance at a pace I couldn’t. I reminded myself that a company didn’t have to be a nurturing influence in my life, it was just a job. My mantra every day was to draw a thick line between my job and my life. But given my circumstances, my entire life in the US was dependent on this job.

Just quitting wasn’t an option for me like it was for some of my coworkers. I was dependent on my company to sponsor my employment-visa but also to then see how my luck fared in the visa lottery. Would my combination on randomly-generated numbers get selected and would I be able to stay in America? The alternative was to leave the country and start afresh. After spending 6 years in the US, I was hesitant to leave so soon. I was torn knowing that I could go home where comfort, stability and a safety net were waiting for me. Our 20s are spent being adventurous and enjoying the freedom of being selfish one last time, so why would I give up the ultimate dream of a life in New York City? I knew I couldn’t just leave behind my new American friends and the life I had built from scratch. I walked on eggshells until I finally found out that my visa had come through. Now I could explore other working environments, other roles that I was passionate it and were in an environment that was a better fit for me. But I knew visa-related obstacles were not over. I would still have to convince another company to take a chance on a visa-requiring recent graduate. Balancing the fear of underperforming at my current job with the fear of blowing an interview at a potential new job meant I was constantly on edge. The stress was more than I could manage but I had no choice but to keep trying to make things work out. I convinced myself that the good days at my current job were more important than the bad ones and that if nothing else happened, at least a part of my dream was being fulfilled. I got to stay and work in the US.

Fast forward 3 years and I was still there. Burning the midnight oil, with new colleagues and feeling less and less like myself. Every weekday was spent on autopilot and every weekend was a scramble of cramming in all the things I couldn’t do over the past 5 days. I spent most of my weekends trying to rekindle my relationships with both near and far friends and maintain long-distance relationships with my family in another country. I told myself I was building a shield of iron. I was becoming an Iron-lady and if I could handle the emotional manipulation of corporate America, I could handle anything. My closest friends saw through it but all they could say was that I wasn’t myself. I knew I wasn’t but I didn’t have a choice. My body had started to retaliate with stomach ulcers resulting from poor eating habits and high stress as well as zig-zagging between weight gain and weight loss. Taking time out for a doctor’s appointment was also guilt-inducing so I saved the big check-up’s for my once-a-year trip home. People would keep asking me what I’m doing to make a change in my life, emphasizing that I wasn’t actually as powerless as I described. I was using all my powers to switch jobs, to stay positive, to adapt to an environment I was not thriving in. I was doing all I could to stay strong.

Unfortunately, it all caught up with me. One fateful day, I was laid off. I was told it wasn’t personal, told it wouldn’t harm any of my chances for future employment. It was purely a business transaction. It could be a little secret, please remember this is nothing personal at all. On that day, my strength crumbled and I bawled on the subway and then continued to cry for days. All my attempts at being a strong, independent woman had come crashing down in an instance and I was helpless.

My first thought was how could they do this to me – given I was on a visa. I was special – in a bad way, yes – but I was a special case! My body went into panic mode thinking of how my entire life in America was suddenly being taken away from me. My friends, my independence, my new family. I had fallen in love with the life I had built for myself. But my job was what allowed me to stay here. I went into overdrive, afraid to reveal what happened to anyone but my closest friends. It was obviously my fault, I had somehow jeopardized my chances of living a successful life in America. The company I worked for was not to blame – this was business as usual. I wasn’t immune from business decisions. Others were clearly thriving in that environment and if they weren’t, they solved that situation for themselves and found new jobs. The more rare my situation felt, the more I only blamed myself for being the only common denominator, the main problem. For a few days, I couldn’t tell my parents. It felt like a nightmare and I kept trying to convince myself I would wake up from it soon enough. Too much was at stake and this had to be a cruel joke.

Lay offs harm everyone in the same ways but the personal impacts are more unique. For those of us on visas, the fear we live with everyday of living in a country that’s not ours is compounded when we realize that everything is conditional here. It’s scary to wake up and realize that we are voluntarily choosing instability and the carpet could be pulled right from under us at any point. For many of us, there is the added pressure of having family far-away who risked many things for us to benefit from these privileges today and an event like this, makes us feel like it is our fault. While the rhetoric against visa-holding employees is negative these days, as one of those visa-holding employees, I can say for sure that our priority and loyalty is always toward the country who granted us a visa and a chance to build a new life. Many of us break hearts back home by choosing to live better lives abroad, but the actuality is much less selfish. No one back home understands the reality on the ground here and few over here can empathize with what we are giving up to be upright non-resident aliens in the US.

My parents always praised me for being strong. According to them, I may not look like someone who is but they’ve seen me step out of my shy shell whenever the situation needed me to. For the past 7 years in America, afraid Naina had been locked up. There was no time to crumble, no adult to catch me if I fell, no options to fall-back on and no room for a meltdown. Being strong in the face of any adversity is how it should always be, especially as women, we can’t choose to collapse. But the day I was laid off, it was as if the flood-gates had been suddenly opened. Not only was my vulnerability exposed but I was also facing the backlash of the past 7 years where I had put strength ahead of who I really was. While being strong eventually helped me pull myself out of the darkness, it had also lead me to believe I was invincible. But I wasn’t. Accepting my weakness, my imperfections and my humane mistakes was something I had to learn the hard way.

I told myself that taking a step back to think of my well-being was a sign of weakness. I told myself that sharing any anxiety with my loved ones would make them feel disappointed. I told myself that I could be a different Naina, one that wasn’t shy at all, one that was really an Iron Lady. In retrospect, I am glad that I fought with myself to be strong because giving up is never the answer to tackling challenges. But more than that, I am glad that when my armor was forced off, I accepted my vulnerability and used it to show everyone that I could be successful with or without my iron exterior.

As society propels faster than ever toward efficiency and perfection, let’s keep reminding ourselves that we aren’t robots, we weren’t made to run on auto-pilot and our humanity is what eventually makes us succeed. 2 years later every time I feel overwhelmed and the voice in my head tells me to just pull up my socks and push on, I make a note that I am allowed to go home, let out my frustration, cry if needed, be vulnerable, drink a cup of tea and take my armor off.

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