Where did we leave off? Ah yes. There I stood, poised to take flight, to migrate across the ocean blue.
Mrs. BITA crosses an Ocean
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find any
you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course,
you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener there
in the wide open air.
– Oh The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss
How does one go about leaving the country of one’s birth? How do you decide to say goodbye to the people that you love? To everything that is known and familiar? It is easy to understand the why in the context of needing refuge or in situations of dire financial need. I had no such driving needs. I had a good, rich life in India. Why leave then?
I think perhaps that the answer lies in my genes. My grandfather was in the army and spent his whole life traveling the length and breadth of India. My mother’s family descended from Portuguese invaders who commingled freely with the natives. My father followed in the footsteps of his father and my childhood is thus imbued with a constant sense of motion. My father has four siblings. One moved to Dubai, another to Spain. The two remaining in India did not live in the same state until they were over 55 years old. My father moved to Botswana while I was in Bangalore, and my mother would follow him there once she had the house in order in India. A branch of my mother’s family moved to Peru, another to Singapore and a third to Abu Dhabi. My sister lives in Amsterdam. We are a family of roamers. We hear the siren song of the world in our souls and we respond. Contrast this with Mr. BITA’s family. Barring one grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland, the rest of the family have lived in the same state in the U.S. for as far back as they can remember, before it even was a state. The fact that Mr. BITA moved to California is a big deal for them.
The decision to leave was mine, and I was under no duress. Nevertheless, it was scary. I migrated under the best possible circumstances. I told George (as we have fondly been calling my employer) of my desire to move. George filed an L1 visa on my behalf and gave me a position at George’s Silicon Valley headquarters. I would continue to work on the same thing that I was already working on in India. My new colleagues would be somewhat familiar – I knew them via email, conference calls and a couple of business trips. George gave me a transfer allowance, paid for my ticket and would pay for one month of hotel stay and car rental once I got to the U.S. George would also pay for a professional to help me to file my taxes in the U.S. and in India for the year of my transfer. George would even hook me up with an agency that specialized in such transfers to help me get a credit card once I moved so that I could start building my credit history. I had all these many, many advantages, and despite all this I was scared. Excited too, of course, but my excitement was coated with a slick layer of good old fashioned fear. I salute all those migrants who make this journey with little to no certainty about their futures, under harsh conditions, with nothing but hope and determination to sustain them.
So, a few months shy of my 30th birthday, here I was. A non-resident alien in the United States. I’m not making that term up, by the way. All my official paperwork referred to me as an alien. It isn’t the best way to make someone feel welcome, I’ll tell you that.
Settling In and Getting Comfy
India was to me a pair of old pajamas. Faded pajamas, with a hole or two, but so very comfy. The U.S. felt like a pair of new heels. They look so good, but fuck, your feet want to divorce the rest of you by the end of the evening.
I had a job. I spoke the language. So why did settling in seem hard? It was all the little things.
I was used to having all the wheels and cogs of my life running like a well-oiled machine. Migrating transformed me from a functional adult into a mewling, helpless babe. Differences that seem amusing or cute or quaint when you are a visitor can make you rant and rave when they become a part of your day to day existence.
I had no bank account. To open a bank account I needed an SSN. Applying for an SSN was pretty much the first thing I did. It turns out that the SSN is a shy and retiring beast. It took over 6 weeks from the time I applied for it for it to shyly show up to make my acquaintance. I hadn’t planned on needing six weeks worth of day to day spending money. I had brought with me about enough to cover the cost of my rental deposit, my first month’s rent, and the cost of car rental (which would be reimbursed, but I had to pay for it). I then expected to be able to count on my salary. George kept giving me cheques that I had no place to cash. I had to borrow money from friends, and that just felt icky. I had never before in my life borrowed money.
India did not have the concept of a credit score. I had no credit history in the U.S. and that made everything difficult. Simple things like renting an apartment and getting a loan to buy a car became monstrous tasks when coupled with the credit score problem. Bank of America offered me a car loan at 16.8%! I was financially stupid, but I was not that stupid. Eventually I found a credit union that offered me a half decent rate if I agreed to direct deposit my salary with them (which of course I couldn’t do until I had my SSN).
I needed an SSN to get a driver’s license. I needed a license to buy a car. I needed to give a driving test to get my licence. I had to adapt to driving on the other side of the road and learn all the other stuff that I wasn’t used to (stop signs, I’m looking at you). Car insurance was crazy expensive because in this country I had no driving history. The insurance agent thought that he might be able to get me a discount for being a college graduate. He took one look at my degree certificate (written partly in Hindi) and withdrew that offer. Funnily enough, Mr. BITA later told me that his certificate was also rejected because it was in Latin. There is just no pleasing some people.
I had to learn to merge at high speed onto a highway. I drove in Bangalore, but it was a rare and special occasion (probably a road trip) when I got up to 70 kmph (43 mph), and that was only on a straight, open road. I never had to merge onto a highway moving at over 60 mph. I found the idea terrifying. For over a month I would set my GPS to the ‘avoid highways’ setting when I drove to work. One day I was talking to my manager and I mentioned this. He was aghast. At lunch that day he took me out to practice. All we did for nearly an hour was merge on and then exit the highway. It got easier after that.
I discovered that there was a magic passphrase involved if I wanted to take my food home with me: “I’d like that to go please”. Saying anything else (I’d like the leftovers please, can I please have that bagged) resulted in an extended negotiation or a complete breakdown in communication.
I had to painstakingly acquire the very basic necessities of day to day life – a mattress, sheets, pillows, towels etc. It is hard to come up with an entire list of mundane everyday objects that you take for granted. You don’t realize that you no longer own an iron until you are staring at yourself in the mirror and observing that your clothes look like a herd of cows went to town chewing on them and spitting them back out. When I was cooking I caught myself searching my kitchen cupboards for a utensil or a tool that I had owned in India.
I had to learn to adjust to people not understanding what I was saying even though I was speaking English, the language I have spoken my whole life, either because my accent was not what they were used to or because I used phrases and words that are not in use in American English (e.g. boot of a car instead of trunk, biscuit instead of cookie). For a while there I tried my damndest to just avoid speaking to strangers. I’d try to have whoever I was with order at a restaurant. I’d pretend to be busy on the phone when checking out at a grocery store.
I had to get used to the eerie quiet. I never realized how accustomed I was to the noise of millions of people going about their lives in close proximity until I moved here.
I had to get used to the sameness of suburbia. In India, in small towns or in big cities, nothing ever has a cookie cutter feel about it. Every place has its own unique nature. Not so in U.S. suburbia. I found suburbia soul-sapping (I solved this problem by moving to San Francisco about a year after I moved to the U.S., and I stayed there until Mr. BITA and I decided to become homeowners. We’re back in suburbia now but I don’t have time for my soul to be sapped anymore, what with the toddler and the dog and the full time job).
I missed my friends an enormous amount. More than my family, because I was already used to not seeing my diaspora-family nearly every day.
The feeling of being alien, of not quite fitting in is driven home by so very many teeny differences every day. The light switches are different (in India down is on and up is off). When you order cold coffee at a coffee shop in India you get a cold latte. Here you get black unsweetened coffee that you silently weep into.
I missed the thundering of the Indian monsoon. I missed looking forward to the rains after much heat. I missed the feel of the warm heavy rain and the smell of the earth after.
I missed my maid. For INR 800 a month she came to my house for between one to two hours every day. She cleaned, and washed dishes, and washed clothes, and cut the vegetables (essentially taking the heavy lifting out of my cooking experience). I had to learn to use a washer and a dryer and to scrub my own toilet. I had never owned a vacuum cleaner before (in India my maid, and I, on rare occasions, used a broom and a mop).
We don’t use toilet paper in India. We use water. I was thirty fucking years old and had to adjust to a new way of getting my butt clean. I had to adjust to the weird public restrooms with all those fucking gaps. Loos in the U.S. have gaps all around the door, and the walls don’t go to the floor, nor up to the ceiling. This is just straight up weird. I was terribly self-conscious about using a public restroom when I first moved here.
I had never filled my own car with gas before nor my tires with air. In India there are people at the gas station whose job it is to do these things. You don’t exit your car at a gas station (and we call it a petrol bunk, not a gas station).
From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere. – Dr. Seuss
There was no magic moment when everything became ok. I had to give it time. I got used to doing things differently. I learnt new phrases. I built new muscle memory. Months went by and before I knew it I was having fun again. I laughed more often than I was frustrated. The high heels were transformed into cushy slippers. Just like that, I belonged.
As a bonus, visits to my sister in Amsterdam were suddenly so much more affordable (USD to EUR as opposed to INR to EUR). Over several trips to see her I added France and Belgium to my list of countries, and revisited Spain.
Acquiring a Husband, a Dog and a Child
Mr. BITA and I met when I was asked to interview him. I was extremely annoyed about this interview. Mr. BITA had interned with George before I moved to the U.S. He had then gone back to college, graduated, tried his own startup, decided that the startup was done and that he was ready to move out West. There were a couple of senior developers in my team who had worked with him when he was an intern and they strongly endorsed him. As a result my manager said to me, “Interview this guy Mrs. BITA. This interview is mostly a formality. He is very strongly recommended and we are probably going to make him an offer”. What a fucking waste of my time! So I did my best to try and get Mr. BITA to bomb my interview (he did not. I think he did okay. He claims he aced it). Mr. BITA started working for George and some months later asked me out. We moved in together about a year after we started dating.
I remember the first time Mr. BITA introduced me to his parents. This was before we had moved in together. They had flown out to California to visit him. He brought them over to my place and then we all walked to dinner at a restaurant nearby. On the way there, we ended up walking in pairs, Mr. BITA and I in front of his parents. Mr. BITA held my hand. I immediately went stiff and shrugged him off. He did it again a little while later, and I subtly rejected him once more. In my culture we don’t display physical affection towards our significant others in front of our parents. Touching each other in any non-platonic way is just not done. Mr. BITA realized what was happening and he whispered to me that just as it would be weird for him to hold my hand or kiss me in front of my parents it would be weird for him not to in front of his! Even now, after all these years, I get all weird and self-conscious if Mr. BITA displays affection for me when my parents are visiting.
Three years after we started dating we got married in India. It was a big fat Indian wedding on a beach in Goa. It was a huge adventure for Mr. BITA’s family – most of whom had never traveled abroad and applied for their passports only after we got engaged. Our ‘honeymoon’ was with a group of twenty-something people, sightseeing in Kerala. So many of our friends and Mr. BITA’s family had traveled from the U.S. to India for the first time for our wedding, so we decided to travel as a big group and show them around afterwards.
We added a Siberian husky to our family a couple of months after we got married, and Progeny BITA made her appearance in 2014.
In 2016 I discovered FIRE, got our financial house in order, started down the path to early retirement, started this blog and met you.
And there you have it, Constant Reader, the entirety of my backstory. I was nervous when I started writing this series, but I received much encouragement and interest from you, and I have ended up having so much fun telling this story. Thank you for your enthusiasm and patience as I have indulged in this trip down memory lane. I hope you’ve enjoyed walking this virtual mile in my shoes.