A Photo Anniversary Essay (December 4, 2010)

Three years ago today, on a sweaty late afternoon in the central region of India, a town called Raipur, I walked around the fire seven times with the man I had chosen as my life partner and soul mate:

I became a newly welcomed member of a family I had largely never met:


And he joined mine:

After getting through four days of alcohol-free Hindu ritual, we took off and married each other all over again in Vegas:

So to my husband Eddie, on the day of our third wedding anniversay, be it known you are the only man that could make me crazy enough to run around the world for three weeks, marrying you every place I landed.

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Obama in India (October 6, 2010)

Now that the media seems to have shot the appropriate holes in Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s outlandish claims that the President’s visit to the subcontinent will cost taxpayers $200 million a day, we can focus on what’s important about this journey. On a personal level, I will be paying close attention to the events of the next few days, because the diplomatic trip represents the collision of two vitally important worlds for me. On the one hand, I feel the need, like RIGHT NOW for Obama to pivot and change strategy, to regain the approval of the American public in order to avoid becoming a one-term President. As much as I may lament the public’s bad opinion of our Commander-in-Cheif, facts are facts and on Tuesday, we learned that independents and moderates have turned from “the One” in droves.

Secondly, India, the birth nation of my husband and home to my in-laws, is one of the two fastest growing economies on the planet, along with China. Given that, it is almost hard to believe that the landing of Air Force One in Mumbai will be the first of the President’s term. So much takes place in the region that is critical to America’s interests: the war in Afghanistan and security concerns in the larger Af-Pak region, oil, energy and climate change issues, outsourcing, education and more.

Finally understanding after Tuesday’s rebuke that Americans care about one thing and one thing only right now – jobs, jobs, jobs – Obama is using this instance of foreign outreach as an important opportunity to demonstrate his new focus on domestic problems. The Associated Press quotes the President as stating his mission thusly: “As we look to India today, the United States sees the opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest growing markets in the world. For America, this is a jobs strategy.”

However, this diplomatic exchange is far from one-sided, and on the other hand, we have the interests of India, a nation far less enthralled with our current leader, and nostalgic for the outsourcing/H-1 visa boom of his predecessor George W. Bush. Beyond that discussion, India remains concerned about our ties to its enemy and neighbor Pakistan. It wants acknowledgement and respect for what it has accomplished, in terms of economic and military growth.

According to certain factions within India’s political environment, the visit is off to a rough start. According to the Indian Express, “[political party] BJP on Saturday voiced disappointment over US President Barack Obama making no direct reference to terror emanating from Pakistan in his first speech on arrival in Mumbai, saying his words were not backed with action and intent.”

On a somewhat more humorous, though still serious note, AllVoices is reporting that in anticipation of Obama’s visit to the Gandhi museum, the coconuts from surrounding trees are being removed. This is to prevent angry, tempted locals from lobbing the fruit at the visiting President.

Clearly, it’s going to be an interesting and politically charged few days. Tense as our leader’s tour of India will be, I for one welcome the opportunity to shift the headlines away from Republican party gloating.

Immigration Frustration (October 22, 2010)

immigration

Three years of marriage, countless forms and $4,500 in legal fees later, my husband Eddie and I are still in the process of trying to secure his final, “unrestricted” green card. My husband immigrated from India in 2002, a 22 year-old man with an undergraduate degree in Information Systems earned on a satellite campus of the University of Hertfordshire, England at New Delhi.

When he deplaned at JFK airport in New York, with nothing more than two suitcases and a couple hundred bucks in his pocket, Eddie had already done the hard work of completing the TOEFL, the GRE and countless other acronym tests to gain acceptance to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. There he completed his Master’s in Information Systems while working two jobs: one as a weekend bus boy at a local Indian restaurant, and a second as a day laborer in a mattress warehouse. He came to this country honestly and legally, devoting every bit of his energy to survival and study. After his matriculation, he took a job from what he and his counterparts label a technology “body shop,” a company that pays immigrant workers low wages for long hours in exchange for helping them file a H1-B, a worker’s visa.

New York Times financial columnist Paul Krugman, and a number of other economic experts now argue that Eddie, and so many skilled immigrant workers like him, should have received a permanent green card as a graduation gift upon exiting the doors of NJIT. After all, what is the point of U.S. educational institutions training people like my husband, only to send them away afterward? That is no way to make America a stronger global competitor. In a period of mass unemployment, we find ourselves in the curious position of not having enough skilled technical workers. Wouldn’t it make sense to try to hold onto the ones already living and working within our borders?

But you know what else doesn’t make sense? Making that same person and their U.S. citizen spouse jump through years of legal hoops and costs to prove that their love match is in fact, real. Because you see, although his company at the time was more than willing, it was I, who had apparently watched the Gerard Depardieu/Andie McDowell cinema classicGreen Card a few times too many, that convinced him that filing for permanent legal residence via our marriage would be more expedient.

We sought the advice of a reputable immigration attorney before we walked down the aisle (or around the fire seven times, but you know what I mean). So ok, there was a lot to compile: marriage license, our first joint tax return, bills, transcripts of letters written in our dating life, photos, mementos – a bevy of personal treasure that demonstrated our ties together. But again, I had seen the movie and was ready for the paperwork, the invasive hearing, the whole shebang. It always felt ironic that I was, in effect, “sponsoring” someone with more accomplishments and three times more earning power than I would ever know, but procedures must be followed. We’d be laughing about all of it in six months right?

Wrong. Despite having impeccable documentation, and notwithstanding Eddie’s easy pass of his immigration physical and biometrics appointment (fingerprinting and retina scan), it took a full year to be granted our interview. Alright, we told ourselves, a number of marriages today begin and end within a year’s time. It was just another way to weed out fraud. Good thinking America! Across the globe, the prospect of a U.S. green card is still an attractive enticement, and as such, malfeasance abounds. We knew our marriage was a love match, so why fret?

Our hearing was held in a downtown Chicago office in January of 2009. Shortly thereafter, we were informed by letter that Eddie had been approved….but with “restrictions,” a new initiative that neither of us had heard of before. At the time we were told by our lawyer that this was “routine, no big deal.” In two years we would fill out a simple form verifying that our marriage hadn’t disintegrated, and the restrictions would be removed.

So last month, the time came to complete the petition to have the restrictions removed. And guess what? This process is anything but regular. Instead it feels like time wasting deja vu. Eddie was running around like a chicken with his head cut off for a full week gathering (you guessed it) pay stubs, utilities, tax returns, more photos, etc. The “routine” form was in fact a thick stack of paperwork that cost us another $1200 to file (on top of the $3300 we spent in 2007).

What’s more, though Immigration already has Eddie’s medical records, fingerprints and retina scan, he has been told that another set will be required. Any day now, he will receive a notice for an unchangeable appointment to report once more for guinea pig duty. In big, bold print, this notification will declare that failure to make oneself available for the call could result in a “change” to immigration status. Not at all ominous, right?

It is very fortunate for my husband and I that we have the necessary resources to get through this drawn out process, but what about the newly married couples that don’t? To Eddie’s credit, it is he who is keeping his cool and going through each step like a champ. I on the other hand, am starting to get angry. I am a U.S. citizen and have the entitlement to marry anyone non-criminal I choose. It’s written right there in the Constitution within my right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Why doesn’t the government make it any easier and more cost effective, for me to be with the person I wed?

I found myself wondering yesterday, and not for the first time, why anyone bothers to come to this country anymore. Is it worth it? What do these people get in return for running the hamster wheel, not to mention the lost years and thousands of dollars? Repeated invasion of privacy and insinuations that you are your spouse are out to scam the government in exchange for what? A 10% unemployment rate and no voting privileges? I’m over the arrogance.

India’s Double Standard (May 29, 2010)

Instead of jumping right in to make my argument, allow me to relay a personal anecdote which I believe crystallizes the issue.

On Thursday evening, my sister, a connected member of Chicago’s local media, called me as I made my way home from the gym, to relay the first reports of the bomb exploding beneath a packed passenger train in northeast India. The coach was headed for Mumbai, where my in-laws reside, and my thoughtful sister figured I might like to check up on them. As it was 5:00 AM local Mumbai time, I assured my sister that there was no danger of my family being on that train, but the moment I finished that thought, I had another, and it went something like this: “Crap, I am going to have to listen to a three hour diatribe against jihadists this evening.”

Because rightly or wrongly, my initial assumption was that the act of terrorism was the work of Muslim extremists. My husband, an Indian national who has very strong feelings on the long running India/Pakistan conflict, and isn’t shy about sharing them, was likely to be set off anew with this latest crime against humanity. Though he has friends of the Islamic faith, and our beloved brother-in-law, a devotee, is the embodiment of all that is pure and good, Eddie has a tendency to paint the world in broad strokes when incensed.

When he reached home later in the evening, my husband made the inevitable beeline to the computer to get the scoop from his favorite newspaper, The Hindustan Times. I puttered around the house in order to give him a few minutes of breathing room as I braced myself for the verbal onslaught. So imagine my surprise as he emerged from our office, relatively calmly, and headed for the porch to have a cigarette.

Naturally I asked Eddie what was up, and he relayed to me in a composed fashion more or less, that there was nothing to worry about. Because it hadn’t been jihadists who blew up the train after all. No this time, it was the work of the Adivasi National Liberation Army, a fringe, right wing group of Hindus. He relayed this news in a nonchalant fashion, as if reporting that our naughty, but beloved cat had just broken a precious vase. Because you can’t stay angry with your own pet right?

As I felt righteous indignation welling up inside me, I took a moment to gather my thoughts. I then posed one question to Eddie: so it’s OK to ready your war cries against Pakistan when under the impression that they are responsible for the murder of innocent Indians. However, upon learning that the destruction is the work of the majority Hindu population, you feel comfortable shrugging your shoulders and adopting a “kids will be kids” attitude? That was wrong on so many levels I hardly knew where to start.

Eddie is a highly educated man who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. He comes from an upper middle class family that travels the world and could hardly be considered sheltered. My husband follows global headlines, has an inclusive group of friends, and is a fairly forward thinking guy. Yet in the blink of an eye, he downshifted to the tried and true double standard that runs rampant in the highly populous third world nation. Hindus call the shots and Muslims are second class citizens.

And herein might lie the reason, beside the overpopulated cities, unfortified infrastructure and first world economic aspirations, that India is such a frequent target of violence by Muslim extremist groups. The message since long before Gandhi’s time, has been clear. Though there are more Muslims living inside India’s borders than there are in the rest of the Arab world (between 165 and 220 million), Muslims who have lived and died fighting for the nation and its progress, they are, by and large, treated as outsiders by the dominant Hindu majority. This thinking is so ingrained, so institutionalized that a man like Eddie, who has been exposed to much, can’t resist the stereotype.

But even more insufferable to my mind is the idea that, had Thursday’s bombing been the work of anyone else, there would have been a loud baying for the heads of those responsible. Instead, upon discovering that the destruction came at the hands of the Maoist Adivasi National Liberation Army, Eddie launched into a lengthy justification of their behavior, on the grounds of their extreme poverty and frustration with the government. Say what? Pardon me, but we have tons of disenfranchised poor right here in the U.S. These folks do not go about wantonly destroying, and if they did, I hardly think Americans would excuse them on the grounds of their poverty.

But such is India. On the one hand, the nation is growing, economically and socially, at the fastest pace in the world (China gets demerits for atrocious human rights). Yet on the other hand, there is a damaging laissez faire tolerance to the work of backward thinking Hindu groups that sends absolutely the wrong message to minority enclaves. I told Eddie that it was now more than clear to me why Muslims chose to secede and found Pakistan in 1947.

My point is this. My husband is quite representative of the thoughts of Indian citizens, and if anything, he leans farther to the left than most due to his education, experience and residency within a major Western City. Though newspaper reports have described the Adivasi as a “little known militant group,” Eddie tells me that, in fact, these people have been allowed to run lawless, murdering innocent citizens at will for quite some time. Why? Because it is considered politically unpopular to put down a movement, no matter how violent, of the “true” Indians, i.e. Hindus. Why is that thinking acceptable?

Meet the Parents (May 27, 2009)

(Cue shark attack music from Jaws)….

They’re coming! And they bite. I am of course, referring to my in-laws, aka, Eddie’s parents. They will descend upon Chicago from Mumbai, India on Thursday, June 11th. Eddie’s father will be with us until the 27th, while his mother will remain for a full month, flying home on July 8th. While talks of this visit had been in the works for awhile, it was only last weekend that Eddie’s folks firmed up the dates and purchased tickets. Notice that I purposely left out any role my husband and I had in the decision making process.

As many of my regular readers know, this planned meeting leaves me in a state of agitated conflict. I love my in-laws. They invited me into their family, when by any Eastern standards, I was a dubious choice of partner for their son. I am 2.5 years older than him for starters, which I did not know until after we became engaged, is a serious trangression in Indian culture. I came to the marriage without a family name, money, nor was I, shall we say, unsoiled (read: Boop was no virgin). Now to us Westerners, these points against me might sound like standard fare, but I don’t have space enough on this blog to convey the crap Eddie’s parents had to endure socially by blessing our union. They threw us a swanky, lavish 4 day affair in Raipur, India, 30 years to the day after their own marriage, and have always treated me with a love and respect I never had from my own folks.

All that being said, it was made clear to me when I married Eddie that the bar was set high. He is the only competent son of a highly respected, wealthy and accomplished family. My husband descends from the Marastian “caste,” and although that classification system has long since been officially abolished in India, the social stigmas and privileges often carry over into present day. How do I know this? Because my mother-in-law has been all too happy to educate me about these facts ad nauseum. I am oft reminded that there have been 17 consecutive generations of happy and solid Sar**** marriages, and I had better not be the one to break tradition.

I have discussed the particular tug of war over if and when I will bear fruit on the pages of this blog in the past. This issue, above all others, has been the explosive divide. Although my in-laws and I get on very well, my reluctance to rent out my 30 year old womb to the next generation of Sar****’s has been met with decided disappointment. Nevermind that Eddie ain’t ready to be no Daddy either. I am the woman and it is my job, nee, my life’s work, to reproduce. Daughters are good, sons better still. The fact that I have entered my fourth decade without clamoring for a baby is a source of endless confusion to my new parents, though I am the first to admit they find me rather amusing and capable on the whole.

So for one month, I will be right in the line of fire. Eddie will still continue to travel four days a week for the entire length of their stay. That is non-negotiable. So for four weeks of my summer, I must balance my freelance writing and job hunting with a full-time position as chauffeur, tour guide, babysitter, chef and maid to my in-laws. This, in large degree, I am happily willing to do. Eddie’s parents have seen very little of the City and I look forward to the opprtunity to meld our two separate families into one. There will be gatherings with Jen and extended family.

But there will be times, oh so many moments, where I will be naked, without the shielding support of my husband, where my life as it is here will be dissected, held up for scrutiny. My housekeeping, cooking (or lack thereof), gym and social schedules, drinking and habits (or lack thereof) as a “traditional” wife will be evaluated and judged against the backdrop of my mother-in-law’s own perfection. She was an accomplished woman in her own right prior to marriage and child bearing: a Master’s degree holding nutritionist and college lecturer. She rarely tires of telling me that it was the easiest thing in the world to let it all go for the sake of her family life. Read between the lines and you can almost see the judgement against me as I stubbornly cling to my selfhood. She is my mother-in-law and this is her job.

I am almost, without fail, a believer in shades of gray. So while I tremble in fear of a month alone with my in-laws in the confined space of my apartment, I recognize this as an opportunity to educate them as well. Perhaps I am arrogrant or naive in my hopes that my own brand of Boop uniqueness will win them over to my side, change their minds that mine and Eddie’s marriage doesn’t fulfill its destiny until we are parents? I have reserved an extra session with my shrink each week for the duration of their visit. I joked with Dr. Trotter that my regular slot will be for discussion, and the second will be devoted to my breathing into a paper bag.