100 Days In The Bay Area

It’s been about 100 days since I landed in the Bay Area from Mumbai. In keeping with start-up parlance, I am what I like to call an early-stage migrant, perfectly placed to document the psychological drama and disquieting shock of moving from India to the United States. I have learned more about mental health and its determinants in the last three months than I did over two years at Mumbai University, where I earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology.

That such a life-defining, stressful move, undertaken by so many, is not more storied, is surprising.

So I wrote about my experience as an H4 spouse–the bearer of the ‘dependent’ visa, a term that has the power to upend one’s sense of self and world-view.

A man and woman kneeling on the beach (image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)
Ashwini and Abhishek at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco (image courtesy/ Ashwini Gangal)

H4 and the shock of migration–a personal account

A few days ago I tweeted,

“The DSM should have a separate classification for migration-related depressive states. At some level, you’re grieving for the life you left behind…”

It might seem a touch hyperbolic, but I truly believe the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ought to include nation-specific diagnostic criteria to describe the anxiety and self-doubt NRIs go through when they arrive in their adopted countries.

When I meet Indians who’ve been here for many years and tell them I’ve just arrived in the Bay Area, I get a knowing look, that sympathetic nod that says “We know what it’s like…”

If it’s a common reality shared by so many of us, why don’t we talk about it more openly?

Not an English Vinglish Mumbaikar

I’m no Sridevi from ‘English Vinglish.’ But my first few weeks in the Bay felt like having my wings clipped. Overnight I lost all sense of agency over my immediate environment.

The first problem I encountered was the absence of public transport. Indians in general and Mumbaikars, in particular, take their incredible BEST bus and local train service for granted.

Back home, all I had to do was step onto the street and raise my arm–and a ‘kaali-peeli’ taxi would stop for me.  

But here in the Bay Area, knowing how to drive is a prerequisite for simple tasks like going to the grocery store or to a salon to get my eyebrows done.

In my first few weeks, I spent a disproportionate amount of time learning to drive the American roadways. People who’ve driven in India have to unlearn the basics (everything is on the opposite side here!).

Those who’ve never driven in India have to learn a scary new skill from scratch. Either way, it’s an uphill battle.

A woman sitting on the floor (image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)
Ashwini Gangal in her Sunnyvale apartment before she got furniture (image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)

Growing new wings feather by feather

My first new feather was passing my behind-the-wheel test and sticking my driver’s license in my wallet. It nestles cozily between my new Costco shopping card and my husband’s credit card.

The second shock was the lack of domestic help which most Indians are accustomed to in their home country. I gather that to hire a cook or a cleaner in the Bay Area, one needs to cross a certain threshold of affluence. In India, even my house help has her own house help!

I would say “Forget about knowing my way around the kitchen, I don’t even know my way to the kitchen While I swallowed my words here, I knew I did not have to swallow morsels of my below-average aloo gobi for too long. 

Why would I, when neighborhood food trucks, kitchen hacks shared by friends, YouTubers, and the occasional $30 meal packs sold by enterprising ‘aunties’ saw a business opportunity in people like me?

Finding friends

My third challenge was the lack of companions outside my romantic universe of two. I put oceans between my friends and myself, and now I’m facing the consequences of that choice.

Making new friends is the only salve for the isolation a new migrant feels. After moving to the Bay Area, I don’t want my social circle to be limited to my husband’s friends. They’re already a close-knit unit with their own history, shared memories, and special bonds. It’s like the feeling you get when you see a group of friends playing cards, loud and animated, enjoying inside jokes they will recount and recall whenever this group gets together in the future. The feeling is worse when you don’t know the game they’re playing; it makes the possibility of inclusion that much slimmer.

I felt like I really needed my own group. So I hung around in the clubhouse area of my apartment complex and started conversations with my neighbors. Being an extrovert really helped me sprout this feather!

Big fish in a small pond to fish out of water

Back in Mumbai, I was the managing editor of a business daily that covers the Indian advertising and marketing space. I joined this publication as a rookie reporter and it was here that found my professional voice over 12 glorious years.

Quitting my job to move to California seemed like a relief after the pandemic burnout and work-from-home mania that drove me nuts between 2020 and 2022.

But a few days after arriving on U.S. soil, I began to miss the buzz of work, the pressure of deadlines, and the chatter of colleagues. I went from being a time-strapped journalist, recognized by every advertising executive in India, to a former media journalist in Silicon Valley, during an economic slowdown.

Reinventing my identity

Though I moved to America for love, reinventing my professional identity is my new mission. As Salman Rushdie said-the only ground an immigrant has to stand on is the one he builds for himself.  

At an ideological level, I struggle with the gender dynamics of my reality–I have unplugged my life of 36 years and moved to a new country to be here with my husband. Would he have uprooted his career and bid goodbye to his friends and family to join me in, say, France, if I were based there?

Why don’t I see more men doing this sort of life-altering cross-continental trapeze? Why is the H4 Visa the unofficial preserve of women? And why am I, a hardcore feminist, part of the problem?

Anyway, finding answers to these questions is for a later day. For now, I want to focus on finding my America.

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Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.