Recently, I spoke to an immigrant from Brazil. He had a lot to say about moving and working in America. This bit touched a nerve and stuck with me:
“My first six months in this country were the worst six months in my entire career. I felt like a fraud. It feels like nobody wants you to succeed. They want to prove that just because you had success in other places, it doesn’t mean you will have success here. There is a pride here that America is a different game altogether. The way you talk and explain your ideas matters a lot. Unless we as an industry understand how to be more welcoming to foreigners, we will always lose six months to a year of their potential. The American market is so used to having people with good English and ready to work that they are not used to having to make a little effort to understand what people are trying to say. I tried to explain things in the first six months that people weren’t willing to try to understand. Partly, I couldn’t communicate [perfectly], but they didn’t listen, either.”
I have been in America for long enough to have been through the same and seen others go through the same. When I came here, I worked how I knew best but I understood long after, that in ways I had lost six months to a year of my potential while at school, trying to understand what works in America. I’m glad I had school to figure it all out, but it still makes me sad. My English was good to work, yet there was a lot I didn’t know and understand.
One of my professors probably didn’t appreciate me as a student in the class because I never asked for a meeting and I never updated about my assignments until they were done and submitted. The problem was that we were never expected to do that in India. We only always submitted assignments and that was the end of it. The fact that a different work relationship was expected of me was never communicated to me, and when I understood it, it was a bit late.
Another professor sat me down and explained to me why things I found astounding about people and society in this country were not uncommon at all. What I considered to be a “finding” wasn’t going to raise any eyebrows. What should and shouldn’t surprise me, where I should and shouldn’t waste my time asking questions was something that took me time to understand.
I can’t talk enough about the culture of networking here that remains a huge puzzle for me. The whole idea of meeting some stranger over coffee so that they would know of your existence and probably give you a job in the near future or some time down the lane sounded callous. The idea that I needed contacts in a newsroom and that my application was not good enough to stand on its own was something that I found humiliating because the Indian culture taught me it meant I was incompetent. I had to unlearn that and replace it with another lesson about America. The process of networking is based on an understanding that hiring someone through a recommendation or personal acquaintance means the new hire is more likely to be reliable and an asset to the team. It’s better than taking a chance on someone completely new, who nobody knows and you only guessed they’re good by interviewing them and looking at the work they curated for you.
The biggest hurdle is the visa issue. A lot of places which are right for you and which you’re right for won’t have you because of the paperwork you come with. Not going into why, how and the complexities, the bottom line is it is a setback. You may think you’re making real and concrete progress at work and in your career but you may be asked to look for a new job because of your visa status or you may be deprived of certain jobs because of it. It’s like starting from scratch every single time.
While I’m having a great time in this country and I’m happy it’s worked out, there have been big compromises. It’s also true that I felt like I had lost my step professionally. At times, I also felt like maybe I was wrong and I didn’t have what it takes to be a journalist. “You can’t do this here,” is something I heard many times. Maybe it’s also a New York thing but it’s true that America prides itself on being a different game altogether.
Honestly, it is.
What helps is going to school to soften the damage of the fall. It helps to talk to people. Don’t always go to them for work. If you’re anything like me, it’ll feel bad and you won’t get anything from it. The cold emails would feel weird but you’ll be surprised how open people are to listening how you’re doing at school, what projects you’re working on, the questions you’re struggling with. If you’re not at school, they would love to know about you, give you any advice or tips that they’ve found to be useful. If you think certain set of people can’t help you or understand where you’re coming from, then find the people who can. It might be a smaller set, but you know who to look at when you do.
Will it prevent you from losing that time to show potential? I don’t know. There are only ways I can imagine that I could have done differently. Maybe that’s the key. I’d like to be optimistic.