Work, which gives their spouses a sense of purpose and accomplishment, as well as colleagues and a social network, is not available to the women.
AT A WELCOME coffee for new, international families in the Bellevue School District earlier this year, the contrast between the men and women was striking. The foreign fathers, with their high-tech credentials, excellent English and new jobs with companies such as Microsoft and Amazon.com, were confident, outgoing and clearly up for the challenges of a new country.
The wives, who like their husbands had arrived only recently from India, China, Japan and Korea, stood timidly amid the school officials and PTA greeters, trying to take in the friendly explanations of school schedules, attendance policies and language assistance for them and their children. Translators were working the meeting, but the immigrant women seemed painfully self-conscious, paralyzed almost, as if they’d found themselves on stage in a play for which they didn’t know their lines or the role in which they’d been cast.
Generations of immigrants to America have left behind family and homeland for a chance at a better life. But these new arrivals are not fleeing war or famine or grinding poverty. Most of the high-tech immigrant wives have college degrees and had careers of their own in their native countries.
And while their husbands are recruited on H1B visas — the highly skilled worker permits — wives most often come on H4 visas that don’t allow them to work. About 75 percent of the work visas go to men. Almost half a century after American women rejected narrow gender roles that prescribed lives of housekeeping and child care, these immigrant women are being consigned to the same limited roles.
They are often isolated during their first months in America, completely dependent on their husbands for money, transportation and their social lives. In interviews, they talk about the loss of their families back home, of everything familiar and, because many of their spouses are on short-term contracts, their uncertainty about the future. Work, which gives their spouses a sense of purpose and accomplishment, as well as colleagues and a social network, is not available to the women.
Although most high-tech immigrant wives have college degrees, about 75% of work visas go to men.
Over time, these women make friends and establish a sense of community. They volunteer at their children’s schools or for local organizations. The region is full of vibrant, active immigrant women who have found renewed purpose. But the transition is often difficult and the initial sense of loss profound.
“It’s very challenging for many of the women who come here as spouses,” says Amy Bhatt, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who did her Ph.D. research at the University of Washington on high-tech immigrant communities in the Seattle area. “They are a highly educated group of women, trained in fields like engineering and computer science, coming to what they think is the land of opportunity and equality. They come here and they’re relegated to the status of being a housewife. For some, there’s real anxiety and depression.”
RAINE ZHU, 28, grew up in a city of 800,000 in northeast China, the only child of educated parents who both worked for government agencies. Zhu says her mother encouraged her to pursue a career so she would always have a way to support herself.
She earned a master’s degree in psychology and counseling at Beijing University. She interned at a hospital, providing counseling to mental-health patients. She had two offers for internships in China when she and her husband decided to accept his job offer from Microsoft and move to the Seattle area in October 2013.
The company provides a “welcome package” for new employees and their families that includes two months free rent in an apartment and a tour of the area with a local guide. But the apartment was in Kirkland, with the nearest bus about a 15-minute walk away. The guide spoke no Chinese.
“She showed us the mall, the ATMs, how to apply for a credit card,” Zhu says. “She showed us a city I cannot remember.”
Although she’d studied English for many years and was an excellent student, she says the classroom dialogues didn’t prepare her for actual conversation.
She tried to communicate, with the FedEx delivery man and the clerk at the grocery store, but in return got only apologetic shakes of the head. The TV talk shows she tried to watch moved too fast, and the only show she could understand was “SpongeBob SquarePants,” so she spent her days watching the cartoon, repeating English phrases (“Absorbent and yellow and porous is he!”) and walking around an apartment complex that was largely deserted during the day.
“There was no one except a flock of Canada geese, and they were free to fly away,” she says.
Zhu says she knew her visa would not allow her to work, but she still thought she could get a Ph.D. and then a counseling job or run her own practice. She realizes now that getting a green card will be a matter of years, not months.
“I was so disappointed,” she says. “I had no idea what can I do in the future. Maybe I can stay home all the time?”
Her husband is loving and supportive, she says, but he was her only connection in the new world, and he left every morning for work. That first October gave way to December and January.
“It was winter, dark and rainy,” she says. “I missed my family very much.”
Over the next year, Zhu’s life improved. She and her husband moved to an apartment complex near downtown Bellevue. She enrolled in an English class at the nonprofit social-service agency Hopelink and through the class learned about a volunteer opportunity in Crossroads Mini City Hall at Crossroads Shopping Mall, a gathering place for many immigrant families.
Now she answers questions and refers newcomers and other residents to community services. She was invited to speak at Cultural Conversations, a monthly gathering for women, both native and immigrant, run by the city of Bellevue that explores common issues in their lives. The subject of her talk was the H4 visas and the prohibition for women on work.
What made the most difference though, Zhu says, was making a friend. She and her husband met two other Chinese couples who have been in the United States longer and could help them interpret American culture, speak their language and provide a link to home.
Still, she says, daily life remains difficult. “I want other people to know: Me and the other women, we love this country, but we are struggling.”
IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS around Crossroads Shopping Center in east Bellevue, young immigrant families fill dozens of apartment buildings. In one of them, on Friday afternoons, about a dozen Indian women gather for prayers and chanting in Sanskrit. Young children run through the circle of women, chasing each other in and out of doorways and down the hall.
In this and several other of the women’s apartments, the furnishings are sparse — a couch, a chair, a dining-room table. The husbands are mostly on short-term contracts, several months to three years. As a result, the wives say, they live as visitors, speaking Telugu or Hindi or Kannada, cooking their traditional food, wearing traditional Indian clothes.
But having so many women and children at home in the same circumstances also gives these newcomers a sense of community. Many of the women are in their early 30s, and though most had careers in India, they also see this as an opportunity to start families and be with their husbands and children. The families celebrate the kids’ birthdays together. The children ride scooters through the halls and play games in each others’ apartments. Still, the foreign culture and isolation from their families back at home is a hardship.
Sarita Gotur, 32, who has an engineering degree and worked in human resources for four years in India, says when she arrived a year ago she was lonely and homesick. She set off the fire alarm cooking roti in the kitchen of the hotel room that was their first home.
When her husband accepted a software engineering job with CenturyLink, the couple thought it would be an opportunity to save money for when they returned to India. But she says everything is expensive here.
She had been told that American education was free, but didn’t realize they would have to pay for preschool for their 4-year-old daughter, Pavani. A visit to the emergency room, when Pavani lodged a piece of crayon in her nose, cost $500. At the grocery store with her husband, she says, they make the conversion between dollars and rupees in their heads.
Gotur doesn’t go outside of the building on her own, although buses nearby run between Crossroads and downtown Bellevue. She says she’s not afraid, but that the time has not yet come. Still, she considers herself fortunate to be surrounded by other Indian women who are also raising their children in a foreign land. She says she enjoys her days with her daughter and doing crafts.
“I am very comfortable now,” she says. “It’s nice to be part of this building. Having so many friends.”
One of the Indian women who has been in the building the longest, Diya Emani, arrived in 2005 to get her master’s degree in information systems and management. She is permitted to work, but chooses to raise her two young sons who are growing up as enthusiastic Americans. By her choice, she says, she works at home, designing clothes and working on art projects.
She also speaks several languages and, in the apartment building, translates for her neighbors when they struggle with English or American ways. She counsels optimism and activity — pursuing interests, getting out of the house, taking a class or learning to drive.
She sees the uncertainty in the women’s lives and the extent to which they accept their constrained circumstances. She urges them to observe people on the streets and on TV.
“See who is achieving things, who is leading a good life,” she counsels. She wants them to fight for their own goals and ambitions. “Whatever they have they just take it.”
MARIANE JACOBS MACCARINI, 26, moved to Redmond in 2013 with her husband, who had worked 15 years for Microsoft in Brazil. Crime was rife in São Paulo, she says, with armed robberies and abductions every day. Maccarini, who holds a law degree and worked for a firm representing corporate clients, also faced a five-hour commute — two hours to get to work, three to get home.
“It wasn’t a life,” she says.
Her husband had visited Redmond several times over the years. He was excited about the chance to move. And Microsoft agreed to sponsor her for a green card so she could continue to work.
“If my husband had said, ‘Let’s go, but you can’t work,’ I think we would have stayed in Brazil,” she says.
But Maccarini’s plan to find a job as a paralegal after they arrived in October 2013 were dashed after her first interview. Her English wasn’t good enough to be understood, and she knew nothing about the American legal system. Her husband was working long hours to prove himself in a new job. She was on her own.
She ordered movies from Netflix, English films with English subtitles. She watched the local news. She Skyped her mom in Brazil every day, often crying because she was so homesick. By December, it was dark outside by 4 in the afternoon.
But Maccarini and her husband planned to live here for the rest of their lives. She was determined to get the skills she’d need to succeed. She signed up for English classes at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and in Bellevue with the English Language Learners Alliance that included a Tuesday talk session with other immigrant women.
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She took a job with an online travel company and spent two months talking Portuguese on the phone to what she describes as “impatient Brazilians.”
“I hated it,” she says. She remembered the satisfaction she had felt when she completed a project at her former law firm. “I wanted my career back.”
She says she did not suffer silently, but told her husband when she was unhappy. “I don’t stay quiet. I say, ‘I’m feeling alone. I need to talk to someone. Take me out to meet people,’ ” she recalls telling him.
Maccarini enrolled in an online paralegal course through the University of Washington. It will take a year to complete. She’s also been accepted into a Master of Law program that starts next fall. When she finishes that program, she says, she can take a state bar exam to qualify as a Washington lawyer.
Microsoft and dozens of other companies have fought to ease the restrictions on work for the spouses of high-tech workers. President Obama’s order on immigration earlier this year will allow those wives whose husbands have been approved for a green card to get a work permit. But even that approval can be a decades-long wait, and for the women who have already been out of the job force for several years, their chances of resuming their careers, without additional education or training, are slight.
Maccarini, with her work authorization, can see a future for herself. But she speaks for hundreds of other immigrant women who come here and struggle with isolation, depression and precarious new lives.
“I lost my identity,” she says. “I’m trying to get it back.”