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REDEFINING SUCCESS

With an emergency move, I’m working to find happiness outside of America

REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
The itinerant life looks different now.
  • Nayantara Dutta
By Nayantara Dutta

Founder, Unapologetically Muslim and Defining Desi

For years, strangers have told me to “go back to my country.” Now, I finally have.

Since April, I have put everything on pause to call immigration attorneys, pack my life into two suitcases, and explore what countries might take me in. After seven years of living in the US, my H-1B work visa application was rejected, leaving me with two months to reimagine my future before my current visa expired.

I’m not alone—coronavirus has kept internationals around the world in limbo. For many of us, the risk of losing our jobs has always put us at risk of being deported, but the prospect of both seems even more likely in a time of mass layoffs. It’s frightening when being employed is your lifeline and you know how much is at stake.

I spent the last month living on edge, ready to get on a flight with just a few hours notice. My bags were packed and I was living on canned food, waiting for the anticipation to end. I never thought I would leave this way.

As an Indian citizen, I was eligible for one of the repatriation flights the Indian government has been offering to bring stranded nationals like me back to India. But there are thousands of people on these waitlists and your application is prioritized if you are in an emergency situation, which creates the uncomfortable feeling that you have to sell your trauma to be able to leave.

Although US Citizenship and Immigration Services has provided some relief for stranded visa holders, if you don’t get an extension and overstay your visa or grace period, you receive the penalty of being denied entry into the US for the next five to ten years. The rules are strict, and with the current immigration climate, I knew it would be best to leave as early as possible.

This week’s visa ban has made hundreds of thousands of foreign workers trying to get to America pause their dreams for the rest of the year. Having made the opposite journey, I feel privileged in many ways to escape the anxiety and dehumanization of being an immigrant in the US.

Even though the system doesn’t favor internationals, I was taught to believe that America is the only place we can be free. I want to unlearn this for myself. Growing up in Asia, I was surrounded by the colonial idea that success is defined by your proximity to the West. My classmates and I internalized the message that developed countries are our ticket to happiness, even if we’re not welcomed there.

I grew up moving countries every few years, as a third culture kid who has always belonged everywhere and nowhere. I’m the first generation in my family to have grown up this way, so I’ve known from a young age that I have to be the architect of my own life. It’s brought me so many blessings but definitely made me grow up fast. It has also made me unable to settle down, hoping that one day I’ll find a place rather than a state of mind to call home.

Through all the moves, I was still raised to believe that America would give me a better life, even though it’s not the life I had in mind. After getting my degree, I had three years left on my visa. I recognized this was a privilege and felt like I had to take advantage of it. But since I moved to America, I’ve felt a pressure to stay, even though I’ve always wanted this chapter to be temporary. For years, I’ve been balancing the global life I want for myself with the responsibility I feel to the community that raised me.

Now that I’ve left, it feels freeing. My visa expired last week and I was lucky to get a flight from New York to Kolkata, my hometown. After an 18-hour journey and a 9-hour check in process, I’m under institutional quarantine until I’m allowed to stay with my grandma. I haven’t lived in India since I was five and don’t know how long I’ll be here or what happens next. My family is scattered across countries and I hope I can see them soon, but I’m grateful to at least finally live somewhere where I can stay for as long as I need.

I’m excited for a new chapter, but it’s been hard to celebrate when, to many people, I’m backsliding. I’ve received unsolicited pity, outrage, and even an intervention in which my friends warned me that my life in New York was the best I would ever get. When I called AT&T to cancel my account, the Filipina customer service rep inquired about my personal situation, interrogated whether I had pursued all my options, and then commented on how good my English is for someone from India, even though it’s my mother tongue (and a first language for many Indians).

Although these conversations have been well-meaning, they feel degrading. It hurts to hear that friends and strangers feel sorry for me and think I’m making a bad decision, even if this is their way of showing that they care. People keep asking me when I’m coming back, without understanding that it’s not so easy to get a visa and that returning isn’t my priority during a pandemic. For people who have never moved abroad, my situation seems terrifying, but I’m no stranger to these transitions.

My act of resistance is working to find happiness outside of America. Once you’ve left the orbit, it’s easy to feel disconnected, in a different time zone and without familiar comforts. But I’m focusing on what I’m grateful for: incredible food, time with my extended family, and the chance to learn more about where I come from. I’m realizing that my life may seem unusual to many people, but I don’t need others to understand me as long as I understand myself. I know that my path will be different, but I owe it to myself to explore what’s out there.

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