The uncertainty principle: Scramble for J visas

I just made up a new uncertainty principle that applies to postdocs. It states that if you have secured a postdoc, you have to worry about getting your J visa. And, if you do have your J visa, you have to worry about getting a new postdoc position or securing the old one. You can never be certain about both for long.

I was talking to a friend today and apparently it has been 2 months since she applied for her J visa. She is really worried. And, there is no one who can be contacted in this matter. The helpline is practically worthless as the person at the other end is some employee of a call center and he won’t have any more information than what is available online. And, God forbid, if you are one of those unlucky souls who faces a problem, whose email id and documents have been misplaced (which is the case for my friend) or who has an error in his/her visa (something that I had the misfortune of having). You then have to write an email to their support, to which they say they will respond in 2 days. Then after 2 days you have to either send in some more documents or just wait around, the waiting part of which can last anywhere between 2 days to 2 months.

International postdocs like me already have it tough, what with most of us moving across countries and continents. And then, to top it, we have to worry about our J visas, which have so many hidden rules that every time you meet another international postdoc, one of the topics of discussion is always the visa they’re on. For some countries and some fields -the list for which is completely arbitrary- there is a 2 year home return rule, which means that at the end of 2 years of your stay in the US, you have to return to your home country for 2 years before you can again apply for a J visa. Then, there is a 5 year rule, which means that you cannot extend your J visa beyond 5 years unless you obtain a waiver from your home country, which is an arduous process that takes many months. Of course, these rules and waivers are more relaxed for some countries and much less for others, which means that we are basically at the mercy of the foreign policies and relations of our home countries with our host. Postdocs from India for example, can get waivers on both the 2 years and 5 years rules, and get multiple entry visas, although sometimes just obtaining one might take anywhere between 2 days to 6 months. But, I heard from an Iranian postdoc once that her J1 visa was a single entry visa and therefore, she hadn’t gone home in like 5 years. Can you even imagine what it’s like to not see your family for 5 years? So, the irony is that earlier you were trapped in your home country and now you’re trapped in your host country. It is ridiculous.

Another ridiculous rule for J1 visa is that once your DS2019 (the form on which your J1 visas are based on) expires before you extend it, you cannot apply for a new one just like that. There should be no gap between the expiration and extension of your DS2019. Also, if you have been on a dependent (J2) visa, your visa also ends along with your spouse’s and you can’t even transfer it to an independent J1 anymore. Anyone reading this must have already got bored and confused by now. Imagine if you actually had to know all of this at the tip of your fingers just so you know for sure that you won’t be evicted from the country.

As it stands now, my own J1 visa is valid only until November 2015. So, I either have to get a new postdoc position or extend my current one before that. And, of course, everything depends on funding! So, as you can guess, I have started my worry yet again. Here’s to hoping I manage to secure a new postdoc position soon enough.


Friendships in a foreign land: Part II

This is a continuation of a post I made earlier. In this post I am going to give you some tips to make friends when moving to a new city or a new country. Some of you might think this is pretty lame coz you have to just go with the flow to make friends. But sometimes, it is not that simple, especially when you’re new to a place. Just like good relationships, building friendships take time. So here go some dos and don’ts and some tips to become comfortable in your new city.

  1. Be friendly with your new colleagues, even if they seem cold and distant. Be persistent in acknowledging them when they come in to work every day, even if, actually especially if they don’t acknowledge you.
  2. Sign up and participate in group activities in your office/department.
  3. Go to after-work or weekend social gatherings organized in your work place.
  4. Join clubs or meetups that match your interest and go to at least a few of them consistently.
  5. If you are okay with living with roommates, then do so, as there is nothing worse than coming back to an empty house after a long and tiring day at work.
  6. Put in time and effort to make friends with your roommate. Suggest places to hangout, to eat out or sometimes just chill at movie with a bottle of wine/a cup of coffee, whichever you prefer.
  7. Keep yourself busy in your weekends. If you have no social event planned in your itinerary, just go sight seeing in your new city. Explore new shops, cafes and parks on your own. There’s nothing like spending time with yourself and soaking in the atmosphere.
  8. Take up at least one new activity, something you had not tried earlier. This is something you can do without inhibition or the fear of being judged, as no one knows you here.
  9. Also, while you’re still new to the city is the quiet time when you can actually pursue your hobbies that you might have neglected for a while. Go paint if you like to paint or read novels and write blog articles if you are like me.
  10. This is also the time to catch up with your family and old friends via phone, text, skype.
  11. And lastly, be patient. Remember friendships take time whenever you feel sad and lonely.

Here’s hoping you have a happy stay in your new city!


Friendships in a foreign land

I moved to a city on the east coast of USA around 1 and a half years ago. The first question people asked me during my initial months, as soon as they realized that  I was not from here, was whether I liked it here. In response, I would always say it’s okay or it’s nice or that it’s growing on me. In reality I hated it here. I was new, did not know anybody, was new to the whole culture that is America and was plain homesick. But, how could I say that to anyone. I had to put up a brave face and say that it’s growing on me, that I’m starting to enjoy or get comfortable here.

It’s not easy to make friendships in a new place and especially so in the US. In the US, there are new people coming in every month and sometimes every week. In such a scenario, people don’t like to talk to the new person a lot. In fact, during my initial months, only a Srilankan in my office even bothered to ask me how I was doing. The Americans pretty much restricted themselves to saying “Hi”, that too only when you said that to them first. So then, of course, I felt lonely. My officemates never went for coffee or lunch together, in fact, every one of them pretty much had lunch at their desks, not saying much. It is only after a few months that I started to get acknowledged by a “Hi”.

In such a scenario, I started to look for friendships outside of my office. I went to postdoc meetings, hanging out with them at every social event. I made friends with one postdoc and we hung out for quite a bit, but that turned sour quickly for reasons I still don’t know. I signed up for plenty of meetups. I lived with roommates and started hanging out with them more often. My roommate and I eventually became very good friends. I went to play badminton and started learning volleyball. In the meantime, my officemates became friendlier, and we started having some good times. I also met another postdoc from India during a departmental conference and we started having some weekend fun together.

So, it is only after 6 to 8 months of my stay here that I could truly say that the city was in fact growing on me. And recently, during a potluck at my officemate’s place, when someone asked me again if I liked it here, this time I confidently replied that yes, I do like it here, but only because I now have friends and that the place matters less compared to the people. And, I also added that I hated this place during my initial months precisely because I didn’t have any friends. After all, it is the people who make a place worth living in.