Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Finally, a Green Card Arrives After an Eight Year Wait

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(This blog post is written by Sarat Pratapchandran, who did his Masters in Mass Communication from Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication, Arizona State University. Sarat is a writer specializing in education, environment and healthcare and now settled in Phoenix, Arizona with his family.  He blogs at Lettersnatcher)
It was just like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Except that, instead of Godot, it was the Green Card, for me.
I should honestly say, the “real” wait was four USCIS years thanks to a mess up that occurred in July 2007. I devoted the other four years of my life trying to find out how I could survive the paper maze to get a Green Card. I managed to get ahead of the queue slightly faster as I was in the EB2 category.
It has been an agonizing eight-year wait but so many Americans helped me out. Like my professor at Arizona State University who recommended me for an internship, a non-profit CEO who convinced her board that there was some value in hiring me. And, a former boss who was generous enough to offset some costs of my journey towards permanent residence.
Along the way, I had the opportunity to work with almost half-a-dozen immigration lawyers. One bluntly told me that it was better for me to pack up and return to India, another filed my papers eventhough I never had the opportunity to see the lawyer, while yet another closed her office. A couple of them were really helpful and understood the meaning of empathy. I survived the bureaucracy, the legalese and the wait.
Over the last eight years, the infamous USCIS “receipt notices,” began in paper and ended in email. However, the processing times remained the same. Along the way, Web sites like Murthy, Immigration Voice, and Trackitt assembled paranoid Indians at one central place.
In the race to the final days of getting my Green Card, my paranoia got me on an hourly basis. Finally, when I got it, honestly, I didn’t feel like celebrating. The wait, the tension, the paranoia had worn me over. During the last few years, preparing for my green card papers had already made me a few years older!
The greatest relief? I do not need to carry around a cupboard full of immigration documents. Nor do I need to pay the government any more money to “parole” me back into the U.S.
My advice for those waiting? Your time will come and I’d urge you to purchase Waiting for Godot, right now, on Amazon. By the way, Amazon never existed when I began my journey!
Keep an eye out for my upcoming book aptly titled “Green Card: Survival Tips 101
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Relocating to India from US – More about “Mindset”

After I wrote “Read This if You Have Plans to Relocate to India from US Ever” I came across two articles – one written by Sumedh Mungee in New York Times and a reply to that by famous Indian writer Chetan Bhagat - that underlines what I wrote in my blog about "mindset" that is essential for those who are relocating to India. In the first article, Sumedh narrates why he could not adjust his life in India after his return from US and his reasons to return back to US in less than 3 years. Chetan Bhagat in this article recounts his experiences once he relocated to India and how he made India a better place to live for him and his family. 
Here are few excerpts from the article of Sumedh Mungee 
…after being away for eleven years (I grew up in Mumbai), I was prepared for India to feel less like home and more like the  flight’s “Indian vegetarian meal”: visually familiar but viscerally alien.
Our daughter attended a preschool in Bangalore whose quality matched any in the Bay Area. Our three-bedroom flat in Defence Colony, Indiranagar, was so comfortable and so American-friendly that my friends called it the Green Zone.
Three months after our return, after a friend told me that his two children were sick with amoebiasis — he thought they got it from their maid — my wife and I designated a separate set of dinnerware for our maids. It’s more hygienic.
Within six months, I’d brusquely refused my driver an emergency loan of 500 rupees ($10) to attend his grandmother’s funeral. I’d learned my lesson after our previous driver scammed me into paying for his son’s broken leg (as it turned out, he had no son). It only encourages them to ask for more; besides, they’re all liars.
What does this tells you after reading all these? The author had the “mindset” of an American and is not ready to give up that “mindset” even after relocating to India. His mindset wanted everything American in India and failed miserably and has to go back to US.
Now some excerpts from Chetan Bhagat’s article
We had another set of two maids. One of them is another young girl, around 20 years old from a village in Ratnagiri. I told her she has to learn something. She chose English and found a set of classes near the house. Everyone opposed me again. I told her to go ahead anyway. She has joined classes. She has not run away. This morning she said to me in slow but perfect English “Bhaiya, would you like your breakfast”, smiled and I felt it was worth it.
In my house, nobody is allowed to call the maids servants. We call them helpers, the kids call them ‘didis’. There is no question of separate cutlery. They eat what we eat, and are paid enough that they can afford good clothes, soap and shampoo that the hygiene standards are at par with us.
My elder maid has kids in Bangalore. Every summer, we call them to our house to live with us. They play with my kids, with their toys. When we go to Bangalore, my kids spend a day in her house. They haven’t fallen sick because of it.  Whenever she wants leave, if it is reasonable, we send her home. Every week, both maids have a day off. Every Diwali, we give them a bonus and a raise, given the high inflation rates. This year, I had a new book which did well, hence the bonus will be bigger.
Now Chetan Bhagat came back to India from Hong Kong with the “mindset” to live like an Indian in India and also to put into practice some good things he learned abroad. One needs to have a “mindset” like Chetan Bhagat if you have to successfully relocate to India. Otherwise you will be like Sumedh Mungee and in no time will be in an Indian airport to catch a flight back to US.
So what are your thoughts after reading both the articles?
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Videos Our Daughter Like to Watch Again and Again

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Our daughter, Gayathri has turned two this month. These days whenever one of us start using the laptop she comes running and want to see her favorite videos. She has quite a few favorable ones but here are her most favorable videos. I have lost count of how many times she has seen each video but each time she sees as if she is seeing it for the first time. 
Kiya Kiya Kuruvi
Thappo Thapoo Thapani
Kake Kake Kodevide
Kalathu Nerathe Enikkenam
Vodofone Zoozoo
Ha ha ha Ennu Nalla Lakka
Daddy my Daddy
Dup Dup Janaki
Vodofone Parrot
Recently she started enjoying some film songs and here are her most favorite songs
Adada Mazhaida
Chimi Chimi
Do you have any suggestions for Gayathri?

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Read This if You Have Plans to Relocate to India from US Ever

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“We plan to work for another X years, save some money and plan to go back to India”. If you are an Indian in US, you may have yourself told this to someone at least once or heard many of your friends tell that. This has come to be known as Y=X+1 Syndrome among desi population in US, where Y is the year of return to India and X is always the current year.
Majority of Indians in US relate to coming back to India with savings but forget the most important aspect I feel they should have to come back “mindset”. I have been in the US for close to 10 years and now over one year in India. Yes of course savings and other considerations are very important but “mindset” is the most important. Let me explain this “mindset” thing to you. 
Let us assume you have come back for good to India with family, got a great job, nice house and bought a nice car. For argument let us say you bought a BMW. When you buy it, you should have the “mindset” to accept that you are going to drive it in the most congested of the roads with lot of potholes, with traffic moving in snail pace. You will surely see someone driving an 80 cc motor cycle overtaking you and reaching the destination faster. When you see such a thing you should not be thinking sitting inside the car “I cannot drive a two wheeler through these congested roads and that too with such heavy air pollution around” even though you may have driven a two wheeler in India before you went to US. If that is going to be your “mindset” then you are going to have a tough time coming back. 
There are a lot of people who say India has changed with economic liberalization and stuff like that. It is true when you go to buy a car. In late eighties when my father was buying a car he had only three options – Maruthi, Ambassador or Fiat. Now if he wants he has hundreds of options. That way India has changed. The people who argue that India has changed point to the new express highway and things like that to prove that India has changed. Yes we have express ways that got constructed in the last decade with well laid out roads – but go for a drive on them especially during nights – majority do not obey traffic rules that defeats the purpose of the world class roads. It took me six visits to the LPG gas agency to get my gas connection to my house. Customer support for your services (that is excellent in US) is very bad (compared to US) in India. Only customer support I called in the last one year is Airtel and every time they made my blood pressure raise that I never had to encounter in US. The point I am trying to make – once you decide to come back you need to have the “mindset” to live like any other Indian and don’t even think that with “money” you can live an American life here in India
I know of some families who came back to India who never travel in trains nor go to the local markets because they think those places are not neat. They are the same people who did all these fifteen years back. Their “mindset” has not changed after coming back to India and they are in a state of suffocation. Talk to these people for 30 minutes and they will remind you of “US way” at least once. I feel such people should never be coming back. 
Hope I was able to make my point clear. If you are planning to come back to India then nothing is more important than “mindset”. You may find a job in India that pays you 5, 00,000 Indian rupees per month but if you are not ready to change yourself to an Indian in every sense of the word, life is not going to be smooth and you are better off staying back. 
Would like to know your views on this, especially from those who returned back to India from US for good.
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Thursday, October 06, 2011

My First Day at School – Day of Shocks!


I still remember that day vividly. That was my first day of class for my Masters, Civil Engineering, in the US. On that day I was scared, nervous, excited, anxious and tense, all at the same time. I know I was there to pursue my Masters but the path I needed to take was so very unclear to me. I knew from the day I had registered for the courses that the path I need to take is so different and a difficult one. I as a student in India for my bachelors in civil engineering was used to classes that started at 8:00 AM and got over by 4:00 PM with one hour break for lunch. Here for my Masters I had to take only 9 hours of class in a week and the rest of the time I had for myself. 
As I was not used to the directions on the campus, on the day of the first class, I left my apartment early and reached the class 20 minutes before the start of the class. I was the first person to reach the class. I was eagerly waiting for other class mates for the next 2 years to come. To my surprise a middle aged man in his early forties with a back pack on his shoulders and a small cover from McDonalds in one hand and Pepsi in the other walked in and greeted me as if he knew me, took a seat and started eating while reading a book. I got really confused. Only 10 minutes was left for the class to start and here is a middle aged guy walking into the room and eating. “Am I in the correct room” – my mind kept on asking me. I went near this gentle man and asked him if he was there to attend this class and he nodded his head in positive. I went back to my seat. 
Just 5 minutes before the start of the class, a guy wearing T-shirt and shorts with a laptop bag came to the class. He took out the laptop, connected it and checked if it is working properly. I was thinking that he may be some helper, like we have in India who came to connect the laptop for the professor. Around that time 10 students came into the class with most of them having a food packet in their hands. 
Sharp 12:40 PM and the person whom I thought to be a helper – introduced himself; he was the professor who was going to teach us this course. That was a shocker for me. So many thoughts went through my mind – most important was that I never got up when he came to the class and wished him as we do in India – will he take that as an offence from my part? What is he going to tell those students who took food packets inside the class even after he started the class? 
As he was introducing himself another student came to the class. She did not wait to get permission to enter the class rather just walked into the class and took an empty seat. The total strength of the class was twelve by then. The professor was telling that a total of thirteen had registered that course and that is a big number for a graduate course! What? After sitting in classes of over 50 students, I was feeling like a class of thirteen was too small and the professor was just telling the opposite. 
The professor then asked each of us to introduce ourselves. Listening to others I realized one thing – I am the youngest and the least experienced. There was a 62 year old student who just retired from an airline company and joined for this Masters program. There were students from South America, Europe and China. Also I realized another important thing – each one of us were taking different subjects that semester and there is no concept of taking same subjects for the same degree program unlike in India if you are in the same degree program and joined the college in the same year you will be taking the same courses almost till the end of your course work. 
All of them had a lot to talk about while introducing them and when my turn came I had hardly anything to say. Moreover I was getting worried that there was no Indian in the class. As I was finishing my introduction, as if God had heard my prayer an Indian student appeared in the class room and asked “Can I come in Sir?” I could understand that the Professor was not happy seeing a student 10 minutes late and also for interrupting the class by asking permission to get into the class. 
This Indian guy came and sat near me to my happiness. He also did not have much to talk about himself as he also had no previous work experience and had come directly after finishing his bachelor’s degree in engineering. 
After the introductions were over, the professor gave a two page hand out to everyone in the class that had his name, email id and his office phone number to start with. Then it was mentioned “Office Hours”. I had no clue what that was. He told in the class that he had set up “Office Hours” on so and so time on so and so date and asked if any one had any issues with those timings. I had no clue what he was talking about and asked the Indian who was sitting near me. He had blank look on his face too that made me realize that both of us were in the same boat and hearing that for the first time. I did not have the guts to ask the professor what it meant by “office hours” as by the time after listening to the vast work experiences my other classmates had, an inferiority complex had already crept into me. 
Now the next shocker – it was written in the hand out “No need to buy a text book”. Professor told in the class that he would be referring to multiple books and peer reviewed journal papers and he will give hand-out where ever necessary. At that time I did not know what this “peer reviewed journal papers” were and to make things worst I heard “peer” as “beer”! 
Next in that hand out was the grading policy – coming from a system that has only exams and exams it looked so different. One-fourth of the total marks were for the seven home works we needed to submit, 25% for one mid term, forty percent for the open book conceptual final and 10% for class participation. Both of us could digest the home work part and mid term but open book conceptual final and marks for class participation was new and novel. 
Professor explained about the open book conceptual final for this course – one can bring any number of books, notes and even your laptop and there is no time limit. I was thinking – if I can bring my class notes and text books then copy from there, then it should be a very easy exam to write. (Three months down the line when I wrote that open book conceptual exam I realized how wrong I was – it still remains one of the toughest exams I have ever written in my life. Exam started around 5:00 PM and by the time I gave the paper back it was close to 11:00 PM and by the time the entire class finished the exam it was well past mid night. I carried more than 10 books with me and I must admit that I could not get an answer to even a single question from those books. That day I understood the meaning of “conceptual open book exam”). 
Just when both of us were digesting the concept of open book exam, here comes another googly. Ten percent of the marks were given based on class participation – more you participate in discussions and ask good questions to the professors the chances are that you get more marks. With the negative vibes that was building around me I told myself “I am going to get zero marks in class participation”. 
Now the professor gave another handout. It had five fundamental questions regarding the subject. Professor told in the class that he wants to know where each of us stood in the class so that he can design the course work accordingly. Couple of questions I could not even understand and I could hardly write answers to other questions. I looked at the Indian student sitting near me and he was looking at me. Other students in the class were busy solving the questions and we were looking at each other. 
By the time we finished the answers it was 1:55 PM and time to end 75 minutes of shocking moments of my life. Professor and all the students left the room but the other Indian student and I did not feel like leaving the room. Even though we had not met or talked before, last 75 minutes in class made us realize that we had so many things in common and needed to work together if we had to survive. Before I could ask anything, he asked me the question I wanted to ask him “Did we make the right decision to come to the US for Masters” for which I replied with not much optimism “I hope so”. The first day of the class had scared both of us to death. 
Looking back now, both of us went to the first class a decade ago, without any idea of how the education system in US worked. All we knew was the Indian system of education and the very first class made us realize how different the US system of education was. 
Move few years forward, the other Indian guy became my very close friend and he went on to complete Masters and is now working in the US for the last eight years. I did my PhD after completing my Masters. Even now both of us can never forget the first day – a day when we thought we will never be able to get a degree from an US university.

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My Article in Careers360 Magazine

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An article I wrote got published in October edition of Careers360 magazine. It narrates my first day of school in US. This article is not available online yet. Here is the scanned copy of the article I wrote. This is the abbreviated version of an article  that I wrote about the differences in the education system of US and India as seen through the eyes of a student attending the first day of class in US. The full version can be read here

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Trivandrum’ites - Let us do Vermicomposting

The Trivandrum Corporation, with its main solid waste plant non-operational due to protests by local people, has decided to decentralize the waste management in the city. Corporation of Trivandrum is requesting its residents to use vermicomposting and other novel ideas to manage the waste generated in each house. It is a great step if implemented will do wonders. For example vermicomposting is a proven technology that can be used in each house to biodegrade the organic waste produced by each family.
It is sad to note that some people have opposed this move by Corporation. I think it is due to the ignorance of these concepts that people are opposing it. Take for example vermicomposting – it can be done in your kitchen or in your backyard. Majority of the waste that gets generated in each house can be converted to good quality manure in your house itself.
Here we are trying to explain how easily we can do vermicomposting in your house or in your yard (if you have a yard) through these videos.
Couple of videos on how to make vermicomposting bins.
An Indian example of vermicomposting
Not that tough, right? A small effort by each family will go long way in solving the solid waste disposal issues that has plunged the capital of Kerala. All we need is a strong will to implement what we have just seen. Does Trivandrum’ites have that strong will? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile Kerala government on Gandhi Jayanthi has started a scheme – Suchitotsavam, a year long program aims at making state garbage free. Let us see what results this Suchitotsavam will yield?
(Written with inputs from Dr Pranveer S Satvat, Professor in School of Mechanical and Building Sciences, VIT University.)
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