Of course, I was no new bride, not fresh off the plane, and my husband no immigrant, but the scene we played out was striking in its approximation of the one Lahiri and others have described. I’d read enough immigrant narratives to know how harrowing, how enigmatic, how lonely, how thrilling, how confusing those first days can be-just take a look at the South Asian American Digital Archive’s “First Days Project”-but, as a second-generation Indian-American, I’d never before experienced “the shock of arrival” that novelists, poets, and academics describe as attending the journey of immigrants to this country. The plane lands; the landscape shifts; suddenly you are in some foreign place in which your only real tie is the institution or person you’ve come to join.
I was born in the United States and thus, by accident of birth, have always had a (legal, material, psychic) right to be here. Moreover, my specific statuses as student and employee have always guaranteed my passage through libraries and university halls, my access to online archives and databases, and my right to relevant discounts and admissions. My identifying cards and email addresses have reflected my own professional and academic worth. I was born here. I work here. I belong here.
Now, for the first time in my life, I am only where I am, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, because my husband is a “member” (the Institute’s curious term for visiting fellows). My Institute ID says “family.” I have no particular affiliation to any school or organization here. I am still a doctoral candidate at Berkeley but now remotely so. I don’t know anyone at the Institute; I don’t even know how to get to the grocery store. Simply put, I am here because my husband is a member, and I am a member’s wife. In that, I have started feeling something like an imposter or an interloper, and I am newly sympathetic to the predicament of “dependents,” especially women on the H-4.
An H-4 visa holder is the spouse or child of someone on a nonimmigrant worker’s visa, an H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, or H-3 visa. H-4s, in other words, are granted entry into the United States not because of their particular promise, but rather because of what their partners or parents have done, are doing, and will do while in residence here. Officially, the H-4 is a “dependent nonimmigrant.” She (in the Indian context, the stereotypical H-4 used to be the female spouse of an engineer on an H-1B) can come to the United States; she can live with her husband; she can breathe the air and drink the water. Importantly, however, the H-4 visa holder cannot legally work. In practice, this doesn’t mean that she does no work, but rather that the work she does is the unremunerated, domestic kind, since she can’t seek employment regardless of her own qualifications. Oh, but she can open a bank account and obtain a driver’s license … all the better to drop those kids to school, I suppose, to pick up dry cleaning, and make a run to the Indian store.
“Women who have children and follow their husbands rarely finish their Ph.D.s.” The (childless) professor who sourly offered this prediction strung the two parts of the sentence together with considered emphasis, as if having a child was one thing and following your husband another, but the combination a perfect storm, the natural guarantor of a terminated doctorate and academic dreams deferred. In the months leading up to my move across the country, I heard similar comments from friends and in-laws, aunties and uncles. How exactly, some asked, do you intend to finish your doctorate? I suppose you are giving it up. I suppose, one aunty mused, this is a good time to have had a child, since you aren’t really doing anything.
I laughed off the detractors, unsurprised by the skepticism and determined to buckle down on research and writing as soon as baby and I got to the Institute. Now, having settled in, I’m happy to report that my work is ongoing, if slow. There is nothing like a baby to curb an appetite for indulgence, put an end to pointless internet surfing, and drive home the imperative of just plain getting things done.
What has surprised me, however, is this nagging feeling of being out of place just because my placement here is contingent on someone else’s belonging. My struggle, it increasingly seems, is not really going to be finishing the Ph.D., but maintaining a robust sense of self. My struggle is to come to terms with being a woman who had a baby and followed her husband across the country for his job. On the face of it, the description is alien to me, and consequently alienating.
But perhaps it need not be. Perhaps, the problem is not with being a wife and a mother, but with all the ways we professional, intellectual men and women have been conditioned to think about the statuses of spouses and parents and about the failures and concessions the decisions to marry and have children are supposed to represent.
Perhaps my current struggle is just one of life’s blessings. For don’t we all have to reconcile why we are where we are with who we are? To figure out how we might consciously give form to the lives we have chosen?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.