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Saturday, April 08, 2006

The America I Love

Even since I remember, I loved America. Growing up in India, at first America symbolized "cool stuff". When I was a little older, it symbolized "rich country". As I understood the cause of that wealth, it symbolized all the greatness that was possible to an individual if only he had the freedom to work hard without asking permission from petty bureaucrats. America symbolized more than just freedom; it was the place where people felt like human beings, not like a statistical cogs in a wheel; it was a place where there was hope, where one could dream the impossible dream... it was the land of the "uneaten alive".

When I was young, things had special value to me if they were from America, or even if they merely symbolized America. A torn pair of used Levi's, bought from a hippie who needed cash was more valuable than a nice suit. I could name most U.S. rock bands; even some I should have known were really bad. I tried never to miss the weekly program on Black & White government TV, where they showed new gadgets being prototyped "abroad". Abroad... that's where I wanted to be... I knew it young, and I would make it there... regardless.

I loved computers too. I'm self taught. Started in high-school. Those days, people in India didn't have home computers. A friend of my dad's had one in his office, and I taught myself to program it. Always a bit of a rebel, I've never had much patience for formal education, but I did graduate because I knew I needed the certificate. I also did a formal computer course, though I knew most of it already. While my classmates were using an editor, I was learning to create my own editor. It was fun. No complaints... and it would make it easier to go to America.

When I was working (1994), some of my friends left India and went to America. They told me it was a great place to be. There was only one tiny problem. "Don't expect to be doing any interesting work", they warned. The usual way an Indian went to America was on a "work-permit". After some time, one got a Green Card. Most American companies did not want to hire people on work-permits. It meant legal hassles and objections from native American employees who thought they had a better right to the job. So, companies used head hunters ("body-shoppers"). These body-shoppers knew that people only worked via them because they could not get a direct job. They usually would not allow someone on a work-permit to start applying for a Green card unless they'd worked with them at least a year. "Don't expect the body-shopper to be a great employer", my friends said, "and don't expect the body-shopper to find you a great job; that's not what they're good at." They also warned me to expect to work for a body-shopper for about 4 years before American law let me work anywhere I chose (1 year wait, then 3 years while waiting for the Green Card). Seemed like a no-brainer to me: even if I had to give up 4 years of my life -- so what, it would be worth it. And, working for a software body-shopper may be boring, but it pays pretty well... a far cry from indentured labor. I was ready to take the plunge.

America was everything I had dreamed... and more. It's difficult to explain the difference to people who have grown up in the U.S. and take it for granted. Dishwashers, cars, $3 coffee, 50 channels on TV, and lots more. But, more than anything else was.... choice. America is the land of choice. How do you want that cooked? What toppings do you want on that? More than 3 types of toothpaste. "Too much choice", one person complained. What was he talking about! Sure I've been embarrassed at times. When I ordered my first banana split and found that I had to choose flavors and toppings, and had no idea what my options were; or, when I was asked: "what dressing do you want with that"? Happily embarrassed. Yes, this is how it should be. I'll learn the details and live in this world: a world "made my way".

America also had Objectivists. As a long time Ayn Rand fan, that was great. In India I had a few close friends who were Objectivists, but here there were many, many more. (And, most of my Indian Objectivist pals were planning to come to America too.) Also, here we had email. Objectivists from across the country could discuss ideas on email groups. I joined an email study group. I joined a local group that met from time to time. I could afford to contribute to the ARI. I could go to Objectivist conferences from time to time. The best of all possible worlds.

It was now 1996, a year after I arrived. I had no regrets at all. Not one. I knew that immigration rules were complicated and often unfair, but they were definitely worth it. How were they unfair, you ask? Well, in small ways. Take the case of a senior programmer I worked with. He had been in the U.S. 2 years and had not yet applied for his Green Card. "Why are you waiting?", I asked him. He explained that he wanted to marry, but had not found a girl he liked yet. "If I apply for my Green Card and then find a girl who is not yet in America, she will not be allowed to come here", he explained, "If I marry a girl before I apply for my Green Card, then she can come here and we can apply for our Green Cards together." Seemed like a silly rule, unfair to some. It didn't bother me personally though. I wasn't the typical Indian guy whose parents were looking for a match back home.

There were other little annoyances though. A programmer told me he would get his Green Card in two years instead of three. "How?" I asked, knowing that I could do anything he could. "I have a master's degree, so I am in a different queue", he replied. I knew the client was less happy with his work than with mine, and I was pretty sure they were paying him less too. Yet, American law judged him to be better than me. I felt this was a little unfair to me. I shrugged it off though. The law has to be objective... so I can see why a degree can be part of the rules. As for fairness, the construction worker from Mexico probably thinks I have it good, with only a 4 year wait. Anyway, I reminded myself, once I start, it's three more years to freedom.

I'd been in the U.S. a whole year before I realized that there were "country-quotas". American law did not want too many Indians coming to America. So, they had imposed limits on how many could get Green Cards from a single country. A Greek programmer I worked with got his Green card a year after he applied for it. He was a nice guy. I didn't grudge him his success...but I did think it was a bit unfair. Still, I prefer the guy who comes illegally -- at least he doesn't cut into my quota. Who was making these laws, I wondered? Was it Americans? Are Americans not as fair as I thought? The ones I met were fair and did not seem to care that I was Indian. Obviously, they just did not know about their own laws.

I finished a year with my employer and asked about starting my Green Card application. He made excuses. He said I'd have to wait 3 months. He said there was a backlog of other employees, and he was instituting a queue within the company. I suspected that he just wanted an extra three months of billing out of us. He knew we'd committed a year and wouldn't want to switch employers and have to start from scratch. What could I do? There are no formal agreements and contracts about when an employer will start the process... that's not how it works. Some pals advised me to quit. They said that this employer would make me wait just like this --- a few months at a time -- at each stage of the process. Having been in the U.S. for a year now, I understood "the system" better and judged that they were probably right. Should I quit and start with a better "body shopper"? Other friends told me: "they're all the same". If only I could find a company that was not of the body-shopper type. I had searched quite a bit; I had sent resumes to various firms that were not in the "contract programming" business, but did take people on work-permits "transfers". There weren't many, but that didn't stop me trying.

Then it happened: I was called for an interview. The company had revenues of a couple of billions -- not the place where a single owner would try to squeeze you. The type of work was a dream assignment for me: really complex stuff that I could do only because I spent a lot of my spare time "playing" with stuff like that... complex virtual reality stuff that had me salivating! The interview was excellent. They offered me the job and said that according to company policy I would have to wait for 6 months before they start my Green Card application. It was a no brainer: great job, better pay, hardly any extra wait. I couldn't have been happier. That July, we had an Objectivist get-together for Independence day. I felt I was celebrating my own independence. Feeling rich, I even doubled my ARI contributions.

It was a busy time. Great fun at the job. A new instrument to learn. A new robotics hobby. Why did the day just have 24 hours? Bother! Then, one day, my CEOs name was in the headlines. He was accused of cooking up revenue figures, showing next year's sales as this year's. The stock had plummeted. Nothing changed at work, however. It happened a month later. The CEO left and a new guy came in. He said he was going to restructure. There were going to be layoffs. I'm not the type to worry about layoffs. I have never had a problem getting a job and impressing people with my work. I was worried that I might have to restart my Green Card application, though. I spoke with my boss. He did not know how the layoffs were to be decided, but he said that of the eight people who worked for him, I was definitely one he'd like to keep. Two months later, I was laid off. My boss apologized. "I'm sorry", he said, "I asked them to make an exception for you. I could have made an exception for your lack of time with the company, but I just could not get past the fact that you are on a work-permit. We just cannot keep too many people on work-permits when we are laying off American citizens. I'm sure you understand." (I later learned my boss had fought hard to keep on one programmer who had applied for his Green card 2 years ago. He didn't want him to have to lose so much time. I guess he had to choose which one of us to hurt less. I might have decided the same way.)

It would be nice to look for a good job again. I had enough saved to look for some months if I needed to -- I don't spend much. But America didn't see it that way. It did not matter what I had saved. I had to find a job in 30 days or leave. Being generous, the American government did not really enforce the law until people were here for more than 60 days. With that deadline looming, I ended up opting for a safe job at a company where I knew the work was boring, but where they were used to dealing with work-permits. Also, it was a company that did not seem to grow or shrink, but just sort of stayed in a "steady state". It was what I needed: stability and certainty. Yes, I could do with a little boredom in my life: less twists and turns. Almost two years had passed. It did not seem fair that the two years I had worked should count for nothing in my application for a Green Card. Why did Americans set that rule? No matter. I would ride it out. After all, I guess I had had fun along the way. All was not lost. It wasn't a complete waste. Stiff upper lip and all that... Just a delay of four more years... I suppose I could wait.

Around that time, I met an immigrant at a party. We got talking about immigration. I was surprised to learn that he had only a high-school education, no family in the U.S. to sponsor him and no skills that Americans considered "special". What was his secret? He explained that he came here on a special Green Card called the "Diversity Quota". "There are thousands given out every year", he explained. He was from an African country. "I'm lucky I'm not from Kenya", he explained, "Americans want diversity, so they have a special quota for some countries where there aren't too many college graduates. Not too many programmers where I am from", he laughed. "Americans want more people from poorer countries, but not from Kenya... too many
Kenyans qualify the normal way." I should have felt happy at his good fortune... but, somehow I could not feel happy. I felt I was in a bizarre other dimension where strange rules applied for no reason at all. Who was making these rules? I don't blame that guy, Of course not! He did what was best for him." Was someone to blame though? Should I blame "American rules" and "American law"? Who made them? and why? why?

I'm not one to give up. I began to cringe when I heard someone tell me: "America is great." Oh yes, I knew it was true. Relatively speaking and philosophically speaking, America is great. Speaking of averages, it is unsurpassed. I just got unlucky and was experiencing some of its downside. I think America was better once upon a time. I think it has changed. It is not the America I imagined.. not Roark's America, more like Toohey's. Yet, I knew the America I wanted to bring back. I was damned if I was not part of the fight. I fought the Objectivist fight. Some of my letters to the editor were published. I began organizing my club and getting speakers to talk about issues. I increased my contributions to the ARI. I even stood with banners in a street protest, with other Objectivist friends. "Those who fight for the future", Ayn Rand said, "live in it today." Work was not too great, but I was busy with other stuff. Eight hours a day was the price I paid. Fine with me. I had all my papers ready. When my company lawyer said a year had passed and they could start my process, I had nothing left to do. I handed over my documentation and celebrated that evening!

Two years later, much closer to my goal, I got a call from the company HR department. There was a mix-up after one employee suddenly went on emergency leave and her papers were not scrutinized for a while. To make a long story short, my work-permit ought to have been renewed and it was not. "Was I supposed to monitor it?", I asked. "No, it we normally renew it automatically, but this was an exception. I'm so sorry. We'll have to meet a lawyer and get an opinion. The lawyer said that the company could apply for a renewal since it was a "good faith" mistake. However, since it had been over a month late, I should leave the country and wait in India. I should stay there until my renewal was approved, but at least for 120 days before returning. That was how it was done. fortunately for me, the company had a subsidiary in India and they would do the best they could to have me work there for about 4 months.

That was not all, though. "There's a catch," the lawyer explained. "The work permit is a non-immigrant work permit". In essence, the American government give this to you as a non-immigrant, who does not intend to immigrate. So, as long as your Green Card process is active, you will not get a new work-permit. You will have to withdraw your Green Card application." I could not understand this. The government knew I intended to immigrate. Surely they were smart enough to know that when I was back I would start anew by applying for a Green Card. The lawyer explained that while that was true, that's just how 'the system' works. "I don't make the rules", he said. I wondered who did, because if I met him in a dark alley one night, there's no telling ...

Back in India, things had improved. Software export was starting to be a thriving business. Some of my friends advised me to forget the whole American dream. "Look at me", one said, "I've started this company and we're doing well. I have a house, a car, the kids go to a good school, the work isn't too bad... what do you see in America?" He wanted me to join him. He'd make me a partner. I refused. I guess I'm stubborn. he said I was stupid.

A little before I returned to the U.S., the attack of 9/11 took place. There had been warning signs for years. There was a huge attack in Lebanon, there was a an attack against a US embassy in Africa, there even was a bomb in the World Trade Center in New York. Finally, the evil scum of the world managed the savage attack of 9/11. I think America -- in its benevolence -- never thought it would happen. It makes me bitter to think of it though: of American benevolence... Though I see it in my day to day life, I had not seen it manifest itself in the area that was most important to me: my attempt to live and work here. And now, what good did that benevolence do for the people who had died. Was I mistaking blindness and evasion for benevolence?

Bin Laden is from the dark ages. He wages war against reason and enlightenment. That is what America symbolizes to him. It is the most powerful living demonstration of the greatness of freedom and of the human mind. Compared to the rest of the world, America is the shining city on the hill. The last outpost of freedom. Yet, even knowing all this, I still don't feel the same emotion that I once did when I hear someone mention America. I wish I could really feel (not just know) that America was a beacon of reason. Sometimes I wondered if I was living in the past. Was I confusing the times of Jefferson with modern day America. No, America still is the best place. I'm sad to say, this is mostly because other places are so much worse.

Shortly after my return, I was assigned to a team with a really idiotic boss at this company. (We've all had one of them: people who do not know what they're doing, who have bluffed their way up the career ladder.) I'd have loved to tell him off. I didn't dare. It has changed me. I don't care any more. I'll do what my manager says. If the product blows up... it blows up. If it has bugs... it has bugs... I'm a slave. I don't care. As long as I cover my back. As long as I don't get the lashes.

It is a crazy world. I know a person from India who joined the Scientologists. Someone from the "community" in the U.S. owned a business. This person applied for a work-permit and brought this Indian here. He also immediately applied for his green card. He put him in a special category ... "person of great importance to the corporation, special skills... blah, blah..." (his real special skill was his Scientology) -- there are so many visa categories it makes your head spin. Knowing the right people helps too. My employer would not do that for me. Sometimes I lose context and think: I wish I could stoop so low... I wish I could be a scientologist too.

I had lost my will to fight the philosophical fight. Since 2001, discussions with Objectivist friends often lead to the topic of America. They once used to talk about what we should do to change America, and some still do. A few, however, talk of America as if it were a place of great freedom. I suppose it is all relative. In that sense, they are right. I am just tired. I am taking a short break from celebration. My life centers around counting the passing months. Each month,
the American government issues a bulletin saying what applications are being processed, in each sub-category of visa. The new numbers usually come out on the web-site around the 12th of each month. I start checking on the 10th, just in case. I still have a long way to go. An acquaintance say: "For all its faults, you've got to agree that America still has the most liberal immigration system. You had some bad luck. The rules simply aren't designed for the exceptional cases." I know he is right. Why do I feel like screaming in pain? Is it just me?

Happy days are here again! My application date is May 2002. The bulletin now says that they are processing applications for all who applied before Nov 2001. Six months! A smile returns to my face. I am happy. There's another reason I am happy. I am going to marry a girl I love. She's in India. We've known each other for a while. Close friendship grew to letters, to email. We reconnected when I went back. I don't like the phrase "fall in love". One does not fall. Okay, fine, one swoons... but love fills one... admiration is such a value. We have had a long-distance relationship. She would have found it difficult to get work here. She's not a computer programmer. She had a job back in India. I ask her to marry me, she says "yes". Better still, the rules have changed. She can join me in the U.S. even though I have started my Green Card application. The law allows her to come, but does not permit her to work. I know she hates being idle; and house-work is not "her thing". So, I suggest that she should remain in India until I get my Green Card. Six months could take a year, one never knows! She says "no", she's not waiting and she's coming back with me after we're married.

I'm too busy changing my life now...I have little enthusiasm to change the world. I just want to change my own life. I can do it. I have a wife whom I love and I have a small group of close friends. I know I can get interesting work, if only I was freed from the legal requirement to continue with the same employer. Only six month more. I love America. The next month's bulletin is even better, the date is now Jan 2002! It jumped 2 months in just a month's time. Hey! find me a statue of Christopher Columbus I can kiss!

My wife has tried various options, but its always the same. There are a lot of people who are willing to give you a chance, but not apply for your work permit. Anyhow, it's just a little over 4 more months to go. Then, she too can start her new life. The Founding Fathers were the best. I love America. It's September of 2005. I think 2006 will be a year of rebirth! A bottle of Dom Perignon for this New year's eve? Yes, I think so.

October 10th -- no bulletin. None the next day. There it is on October 12th. I scroll eagerly to my sub-section. The "date being processed" is in 1998. How can that be! It must be a typo. The bulletin contains no explanation. I check the forums. People are asking the same question. I call a friend. He tells me it has happened before: the date goes backward. The American government calls it "date retrogression". Nobody is quite sure why it happens. It just does. It is like a fact of nature. A week later our company lawyer gives us a briefing. It is true; the date has retrogressed. There's no clear reason why. It could be that the previous estimate was wrong, it could be that this one is wrong. There's nothing one can do, but wait.

I've waited enough. I cannot take it any more. I cannot live my life at the end of a Yo-yo. I cannot ask my bride to do so either. If this new date is correct what does it mean for her? Even if it speeds up again, what if she cannot work for another year? What if it is two years? What if it is only a month? WTF! Can someone just tell me what is going on?

I've thought it over and decided that I must cut my losses. I paraphrase Ayn Rand and ask a friend: "How long will I throw pearls to swine". He's gracious; he says nothing. He does not remind me that there are humans, great brave worthy humans among these swine. He does not remind me, because he knows I know it too. I hope they win their fight, these humans among the swine. I know they are my friends, but I cannot fight this fight. I am leaving. I will wind up my work diligently. I will bring in the New Year, with some sense of regret.. I would rather have stayed... but not on these terms. I'm sorry it didn't work out.

Then I will look forward. Things have changed so much in India. I don't feel the same qualms I once did about going back. I think I could be happy there. No, I'm not shrugging. It's just that I have a life to live and I'm tired of letting it hang on your whim, America. I loved you... once.

I blame myself for not taking a more cynical approach to the bureaucratic rules. I know others who did. Mostly though, I blame Americans. Not the ones who are fighting to change things, but the silent majority who reap the harvest that was sown by great men in the past, without understanding it. I blame the silent majority of Americans who are better than the silent majority of Indians or the silent majority of Africans, but only because they grew up in a better pool of ideas. I blame them because they did not create that pool or contribute to it. As individuals, they showed a skill for osmosis that other silent majorities show, the world over.

Perhaps I'm just bitter. I know... I know... America is still the land of the free. Only, the right kind of laws just don't apply to niggers like me.