7am: Calming Nani
Nani has been awake for hours. She hasn’t slept all night, tossing in slow motion, in nervous anticipation of the big day. She’s like this for every big day. She can feel when someone in the house is stressed and takes it on as if it’s her own.
Tests are stressful, after all. My 10th grade exams, my SATs, my GREs, were all tests my family faced together. In an Indian family, life is a team sport whether you like it or not. Nani has been awake in one way or another since 1941, making people their favourite breakfast on big test days to calm them down.
Today is US visa interview day – the most important test of them all – and I am calming her. No, I do not need to shave, Nani. My beard is not that long. Yes, I have got everything I need. No, you do not need to iron my shirt. Yes, I WILL have that extra cheese dosa.
I quadruple-check that I’ve got all my papers: my cover letter, my parent’s bank statements, my income tax returns, my university acceptance letter, copies of my most recently published work and every other piece of bureaucratic application material that the land of freedom demands.
You’re not allowed to take any electronics into the US embassy so I order an Uber upstairs and leave my phone behind when I head downstairs to meet the driver. That’s it. Kisses goodbye from mum, dad, Nani and every courier delivery guy and domestic-help wonder-lady that’s currently scrambling around our little Mumbai flat. All of a sudden, after taking the Indian family for granted, you’re all on your own in a stranger’s car. The big day has come and it’s on you now. Adulthood sneaks up on you like that, in the lonely silence of an Uber ride to America.
8:15am: The Great Leveler
The line outside the US Embassy is one of the great equalizers of urban India. There are the affluent 20-somethings in sunglasses and flip-flops, slouching against the wall as they apply for the privilege to summer in Manhattan. There are the earnest engineering students, with glasses on their faces and flowers in their hair, ready to join the post-graduate fellowship program at Georgia Tech that they’ve worked diligently for. There are sprawling families, including of course a screaming baby and a Nani, proudly wearing a sari and white Nike sneakers. There are portly, balding, 30-year old IT workers, hoping for a business visa so they can help a Silicon Valley with their cloud-based architecture (or something?) – their struggle has been no less vigorous than anyone else's.
They were probably the smartest kid in their school, the hardest worker in their college and now a small fish in a faceless global tech outsourcing firm, earning the most anyone in their family has. A posting to America is the icing on a cake that’s been baking since they went to 6am math tuition and 6pm English tuition every day from 8th grade onward. Behind every placid face and every tech-park ID card that hangs from tired shoulders, is a story of academic pursuit – of forgone college sports and undanced high school proms.
The line outside the US embassy is a leveler not because everyone has to stand shoulder to shoulder. You get that on the local train and at the cricket stadium. It is a leveler because everyone is nervous. I’ve done this song and dance at so many embassies around the world and I’m still scared every time. Because in the eyes of the West you are not rich or poor or dark or fair – you are simply Indian. A person from the outside trying to get in.
Every Indian person in the US probably has a visa story. Queuing up in line in the 80s, back when things were different, back when India was a socialist quagmire that had to be escaped. India has changed, but that embassy queue hasn’t.
Only people with 8:30am appointments – the first of the day – are initially allowed to queue. There is no such thing as a formal appointment time at the US embassy since getting from the outside of the building to the glass interview window of destiny takes about 3 hours – and you’re only allowed to queue up 15 minutes in advance. The experienced among us calm the others in the line.
"Don’t worry – you haven’t missed your appointment," we tell them like jaded veterans consoling excitable infantrymen.
It is hot even at 9am and the handkerchiefs are out from the back-pockets of both those in line and the hundreds of onlookers. It’s quite a scene. Drivers of the rich look on in bemusement as their employers have to stand in the sun while they rest in the shade. Nervous fathers and their nervous moustaches pace up and down across the street from the stately building near their daughters, who confidently clutch their visa folders in the shadow of the barbed-wire fence.
Make no mistake, the sweaty queue outside the embassy is designed to make you feel small. It doesn't matter if you have lived a cushy life of privilege, like me, or a difficult one. You are paraded single-file before security forces with outrageously vintage rifles.
As you reach the front of the queue and an embassy employee asks you to take out your DS-160 and your appointment confirmation letter, you suddenly remember why you’re there. You enter the building and you enter America.
10:30am: Window to Another World
After another hour of queuing in the embassy’s outdoor courtyard, making sure the photocopy of your mother’s dental records is clear just in case they ask for it, you get to the inner sanctum. You scan your fingerprints and reach the air-conditioning once again, the room where you can see and hear visa interviews taking place just feet away.
As you inch closer to the windows, you stop rehearsing your spiel and instinctively start listening to the interviews roaring away through tense plexiglass. Some interviews are over in a matter of seconds. BANG. Rejected. White people telling brown people they’re not welcome – the optics are not good. You can see people who have tried really hard, get rejected in real time. Where else do you see that these days? My heart starts beating faster. For every successful application, there is a rejection at the next window. Lives are changed in this room and I can’t stress this enough. It is terrifying.
At window 14, a young woman is applying for an F-1 student visa. I think it’s because she has a new passport but I couldn’t hear her clearly. You can pretty much only hear the consular officers because their voices are projected from microphones. The consular officer behind the glass is not in a good mood. She’s the kind of lady Nani prayed you don’t get.
“Why did you think you had to give me both passports?” the officer said sarcastically. The young woman cowered and spluttered as I would have done. I could feel the silent indignation in every person stood in line watching.
“Why would you think I need this,” the officer barked again, holding up the woman’s old passport. The young lady mumbled something which seemed to tranquillize the officer for a moment.
“Wait, where’s your I-20?” asked the officer again, a scowl slowly appearing on her freckled face. She examined the flimsy 3-page document the kurti-clad woman handed her.
“I think you’re in violation of your I-20,” spat the officer. The young lady now pleaded her case. It was hopeless. “You have been denied a visa at this time. Please look carefully at this document for further instructions. Have a nice day,” muttered the officer nonchalantly as she printed out a generic rejection letter and slipped it to the young woman through the gap under the glass.
Maybe the young woman was in violation of her I-20. Maybe the consular officer had had a terrible day. It was scant consolation to us, shuddering in the line.
“Next in line to Window 14,” said an Indian embassy employee, indifferent to the drama she must witness every day.
Behind another window, a stately, emotionless American man questioned an equally stately Indian man about the temporary business visa he was applying for. The confidence of the Indian business owner assured everyone else in line. He answered every question with technical knowledge.
“So, your business makes hydraulic pistons?” probed the officer, “Why do you need to go to Tucson to meet American customers? Why can’t you just call them?”
“Sir, we manufacture highly specialized automotive components for use in heavy industrial vehicles,” said the 50-year old man, suddenly channeling his inner salesman from 20 years ago, “We operate in the B2B space and this conference in Arizona is the largest meeting of suppliers and procurers of the year. We have bought a stall and I have to oversee it.”
He was approved. He looked around as if to say, "Are you not entertained?"
All of us in line, craning our necks to hear the exchange, high-fived each other (spiritually).
There are so many stories I could tell you. Stories of quiet triumph and loud failure. Half the officers need “Goo-ja-raati” translators to help explain why a family’s outward flight is to D.C. while their return flight is from Toronto. You see confident young men with slick answers, turned away inexplicably. You see single, young, lower-middle class women being rejected because the officer thinks her American holiday is just a ruse to meet a young man and completed her arranged marriage. Maybe it is?
I guess for most people in the developed world, getting a visa for another country is a rarity and when it's required, a done-deal - an irritating formality. For those of us from the developing world, even the lucky few like me who have had the extraordinary privilege of growing up in the first world, the visa interview is the rich world sizing you up. Flights have been booked, plans – years in the making – have been laid, and here you stand in front of St Peter at the pearly gates.
The plexiglass is power. On the other side are humans who have been trained to act like robots, to process visa applications like emotionless machines. Sometimes their humanity shows through and I feel for them.
“Sir, you need to show me that you have the means to fund your stay for 3 months! Do you have any bank statements with you? Do you have a letter of sponsorship? I’m really sorry but I can’t help you at this time.”
I feel sorry for the consular staff sometimes. What must they think, doing such a thankless job? What must they feel, being posted to the acrid air of Mumbai? This was probably not what they signed up for when they took their first steps to being a diplomat. Lots of future Madeline Albright’s will have probably cut their teeth on those plexiglass windows, trying to help promising would-be immigrants realize their American dream. Nani prayed I get one such officer.
11:13am: Your Time Has Come
Suddenly, the moment has arrived. I don’t want to be dramatic here, but I will.
The walk towards the window takes a life-time. I can feel my stammer rearing its head. It so often strikes at the worst moments – when there is no room for weakness. All the long nights studying for my GRE, all the long days writing job applications, all the essays I wrote at university and the articles I wrote at the office, every achievement I had every put any effort into was for this. They would be null and void if my work visa application was rejected. We had a plan, since high school, that I would one day live and work outside India just like my parents had done. I told you that life in an Indian family is a team sport and we had come a long away. This was the final hurdle.
Let’s be clear: I was not applying for an immigrant visa. I don’t want to settle in America. My company was sponsoring me for a 5-year work visa. If I was rejected, I would probably leave my job and make a life for myself in India. But I wanted to live in New York for a few years. I had worked very hard for this. This was it.
My St Peter was a kind-eyed, red-headed 30-something man who had made an attempt at a goatee. I had my speech prepared but his first question threw me.
“How did you lose your old passport?” There was emotion in his voice.
“Oh, FedEx lost my old passport in the mail, when they couriered to the wrong apartment. I’m sure as hell using UPS next time,” I said, trying to use humour to hide my insecurities as I’ve always done.
No real reaction from him.
“So, you’re already working on your F-1 visa?”
“Yes, I’m currently on my OPT,” I said before spilling my prepared speech with minimal stammering – Thank God.
“How long do you plan to stay in the US?” This is a purposely tricky question: they know you want to stay in America as long as possible but if you sound too enthusiastic – like you want to stay permanently – it’s an instant and unwavering rejection. For some reason, I decided to make a “joke”.
“I’ll stay until my company realizes I’m an idiot and fires me!”
Miraculously, he laughed at my horrendous attempt at inappropriate humour. I added quickly, “No but seriously, we’ve applied for a 5-year visa, I think? So, it won’t be longer than that.”
Now there was a lot thinking behind this response. I said “we” to highlight my company wanted me there. I said “I think?” to make it seem like this was a formality that I wasn’t too bothered about. Of course I knew we had applied for a 5-year visa. Do you know how many months have been spent agonizing over this damn visa?
“Hmm. And what’s your highest level of education?”
Now, I am usually a bit embarrassed to tell people that I went to Yale. Some people will laugh, others will scoff. “You went to Yale? Well la-dee-da. You think you’re so smart?” If you went to a ‘good’ university, this comes with the territory. But today, I decided to own it. I went to Yale so I could get a good job that would give me a chance to live and work internationally. I stood up straight and looked him in the eye and decided that pride be damned.
“I have a Masters in Global Affairs from Yale University, focusing on renewable energy finance.”
“Wow, that’s a good school,” he said as he looked back at his computer, “OK, your application has been approved. You can go. Thank you and have a nice day.”
That was it.
All that build up and it was over in 90 seconds – like the first time you have sex.
“Um, don’t you want to see my application materials?” I asked, half-pulling my pile of documents out of my folder.
“Nope, you’re good.”
He didn’t look at a single piece of paper. Even for my student visa appointments, which were also usually a minute long, they had at least demanded to see a piece of paper. This was ivy-league privilege at its starkest. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis had anyone been more grateful for an anti-climax.
I walked outside the embassy in euphoric disbelief. There was no one to celebrate with except the bemused taxi driver who took me home.
“Mila kya?” he asked me.
“Haan yaar, mil gaya! Mil gaya!” I said as I high-fived him. This was an actual high-five, not a spiritual one. I wanted to hug him and jump with him. He wanted me to give him American money because it was supposedly his daughter’s birthday. I explained I didn’t have any American money and I was too happy to be annoyed by his nonsense.
I just smiled to myself in the taxi home as he tried to get American money out of me. I would have given him a $100 bill if I had one.
A visa is a big deal and it was done. A visa is a constraint you usually don’t have control over – you either get one or you don’t. It’s not like a job where if you get rejected, you can apply for another. With a visa you usually get one shot. Now it was done. It was finally over.
There’s nothing I hate more than uncertainty and not having control of things in my own hands. This visa issue had been hanging over my head ever since I got to grad school. Who would sponsor me? Would the visa be granted? Would everything go to plan?
There is no way to call your family when you’re done so you just sit quietly in a taxi and braise in silent joy. I rang the doorbell and returned home to hugs and tears. My relatives in Delhi called us to hear about the news. Life is a team sport, remember?
I went the next day to collect my passport. There were so many of them piled up behind the window. Mine was just another life-story in that leaning tower of visas.
Maybe I had made this visa thing a bigger deal than it was? Maybe my family had fed off that?
Nope. A work-visa is a big deal. My family has already been blessed with prosperity. But this visa has meant I’ve become financially independent for the first time in my life. So many things have had to fall into place. So many months of job rejections and uncertainty. The final hurdle had been crossed. “The plan” has come together.
Beyond the finish-line is the pristine unknown. For an Indian family, it is the sweetest victory.