After my husband’s bicycling accident on Claremont Avenue, our lives turned topsy-turvy. I spent six months at home taking care of him, but to pay our bills, I had to go back to work. Five years later, after his health stabilized and the stock market went gangbusters, I quit my job and set out to make our house more wheelchair accessible.
Then the economy took a nose dive. I needed to return to work, or I needed a really good excuse for why I couldn’t.
“Why don’t you go to school?” suggested my friend Corrie. “I’m applying to San Francisco State. We can go together.”
It sounded like a good idea.
Corrie was applying because she couldn’t return to work after recuperating from a back injury. I didn’t want to look for employment because I didn’t think I could find an employer who wanted me. But most of all we both wanted to write.
We applied to the MFA Program in Creative Writing at SF State. It’s reasonably priced; a semester there doesn’t mean we have to mortgage our homes.
Applying was easy. It was the waiting to find out if we were admitted that was terrifying.
But, lo and behold we got in without ever having set foot on campus.
It was a far cry from 32 years ago when I was looking at colleges. With my parents in tow, I visited universities up and down the East Coast. I read brochures, corresponded with students already enrolled on campus, and had personal interviews. This time around I didn’t have time to look at brochures. I didn’t even know it was a three-year program until after I was accepted.
“No way,” I said to Corrie. “We gotta finish this degree in two years.”
“Suzy,” said Corrie, “you can’t do it in two years. It’s not set up that way. It’s so hard to get the required classes, we’ll be lucky if we finish in seven.”
She was right. Registration, which took place on my home computer at the assigned time of 6:40 p.m. two weeks ago, proved to be more difficult than actually getting into school. I was able to enroll in two of the five classes I wanted. I reconfigured my schedule and got another class. After an hour of frantically punching in numbers and looking for courses that I had a slim glimmer of interest in, I finally had four confirmations. I was waitlisted for a fifth.
“During the drop/add session we have to beg the profs to let us in the classes we really want,” advised Corrie.
“Beg?” I asked. “Back in ‘72 I got into everything I wanted. Even when I transferred, forgot to register, and showed up a week late, I was able to enroll in Pottery 101, Ballet 101 and Fairy Tales and the Meaning of Life, my all-time favorite class.”
“Suzy, times have changed.”
Yes they have. When I tell people I’m going back to school at the age of fifty-one, most are excited for me. My neighbors, some who have yet to get their GEDs, yell “You go girl. We’re proud of you.” I get hugs, pats on the back and encouragement from almost everyone.
A friend who finished up an MFA degree not long ago at Yale said that graduate school was difficult. “It’s a lot of hard work,” she advised. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
“A lot of work?” I asked. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be any work at all. After what’s been going on in my life for the past nine years, I can’t imagine that graduate school will be anything but fun.
My friend Jernae was also less than encouraging. “Why can’t you wait six years so we can go together?” she asked. “I’ll be finished with high school by then and I’ll need a ride to class.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “There’s a good chance I’ll still be there when you arrive on campus. It’ll be a lot of hard work, but it will also be
As the Silicon Valley economy sputters, the ubiquitous H1-B engineers who came to the United States on temporary work visas have become a vanishing breed. Their impact on the cultural landscape, however, is here to stay.
Not so long ago, industry titans lobbied Congress to raise the cap on H1-B engineers every year, to meet the software industry’s ravenous appetite. Young, eager engineers streamed into the Valley, particularly from India, which in 2001 alone gobbled up 77,000 visas.
Those H1-Bs were easy to spot, particularly for us blasé, cosmopolitan types who had lived in the United States for a few years and learned not to call erasers “rubbers.” They moved in packs, drove only Honda Accords or Toyota Corollas and did all their “India shopping” at Walmart. The dead giveaway: shiny-white Reeboks or Nike sneakers, often worn with formal black trousers.
How quickly things change. Last year, for the first time, more than half of 195,000 possible H1-B visas remained unclaimed. This year, with little fanfare, the H1-B visa cap will slip back to 65,000—the number it had been before the onset of dot-com fever.
But the H1-Bs have left a cultural legacy that will likely endure in California and nationwide.
By the crest of the dot-com wave, Bay Area cities like Sunnyvale and Fremont had turned from a string of strip malls baking in the California sun into Little Indias. Enterprising Indian housewives started catering services that dished up home-cooked food for the lonely engineers, mostly men with rudimentary cooking skills. Failing movie theaters showing Hollywood films switched over to the latest Hindi film hits, with samosas and chai during intermission.
Suddenly, instead of complaining that Indian food was just too spicy, everyone could name their favorite lunch buffet. The Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco, better known for massage parlors and drug deals, became a hub for tandoori, as over half a dozen restaurants sprang up within a block of each other. On weekends they would be buzzing with twenty- and thirty-something Indians tearing into naan and chicken tikka before they hit the freeway back to the suburbs.
Now “For Rent” signs hang on the sprawling cookie cutter apartment complexes that dot cities like Milpitas and Mountainview. But the restaurants are still there. “The engineers might have gone back to India, but the taste of India remains,” says one of the owners. “They introduced their co-workers to this food before they left.”
In many ways, the H1-Bs were able to introduce Indian culture to America more successfully than the Indian surgeons and high-flying software entrepreneurs who had come before them. All of us had starry-eyed dreams of being the next Sabeer Bhatia and founding a little upstart company called Hotmail. But while Sabeer Bhatia might best represent the American dream, it was the nondescript H1-B engineer worker bees dotting the Valley who put Indian Americans on the cultural map.
Their appetite for the food they were used to made restaurants veer from old faithfuls like tandoori to offer up regional delicacies, like the giant rice crepes of South India or the lentil stews from Gujarat. Their need to stock their kitchens made Indian shopping bazaars pop up in old drugstores and pawnshops. Their hunger for entertainment made Indian soaps and comedies show up on satellite television. Fox Searchlight pictures just decided to expand Gurinder Chadha’s hit comedy “Bend It Like Beckham” to 1,200 screens after a 19-week limited release, taking the Indian experience into the American heartland.
Now those engineering jobs are gone, often outsourced back to the mothership. Some 40,000 H1-B visa holders returned to India in the past two years, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Companies like Oracle and Intel are opening mega-research facilities back in India. There is no need to ship the H1-B engineers over here anymore. They can do the work back in India, often for a third of the cost.
Not many people remember the Ranganathans and Reddys who shared cubicles next to them. But when they turn on their television in the fall and tune into NBC’s hospital drama ER, they will see for the first time a regular Indian character on national TV. Parminder Nagra, of “Bend it Like Beckham” fame, joins the cast as an intern. And though Rajiv Ranganathan, formerly H1-B programmer, may not realize it as he eats his mutton Maharaja Mac back at the McDonalds in Bangalore, India, he helped engineer that revolution.