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Melting Pot Blues

The jobs are drying up. The greenbacks are running out. Life without a green card is tougher than ever. Nikhila Natarajan reports from the heart of the meltdown.

business Updated: Oct 19, 2008 00:19 IST
Nikhila Natarajan

March to September is usually the time when Indians in America with an appetite for adventure jump jobs. It’s a time of plenty, when firms are flush with cash, budgets have been approved, and the goras are looking for hardworking People Like Us to slave on new projects and take it to the finish line while they pick up their bags and walk when the clock strikes five. All this happens in a hurry before the leaves turn red. Not this time.

Fall is here, it’s beginning to get nippy, and 1,60,000 Americans have lost their jobs in September alone. As you read this, many Indians’ H1B visas will be clocking out, many of them may have been within kissing distance of a green card when their company went bust. No amount of learning or wisdom from the past can prepare you for surprises in a foreign land. You cannot look over your shoulder and apply old formulae to deal with a job loss and an empty wallet. At least the locals have options — they can work in a bookstore, they can find odd jobs in McDonald’s. They can babysit. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve interviewed babysitters so I can get back to writing for a couple of hours without being interrupted by baby’s poop cycle or some similar crisis, and more than a couple of them told me they’ve lost their previous babysitting jobs because their employers lost theirs to the economic bust.

The Indian techie cannot do odd jobs like that. His visa does not allow it. It’s the reason why Indians who begin to love the American life obsess about a green card. It gives them freedom of choice in bad times, it does not tie them down to one job and one industry.

For Indians who’ve crossed that hurdle, there are other headaches. Sreej Menon, a young Wall Streeter who still has his job and his studio in Manhattan, owns two homes in America. “My house values have turned to dust, so I’ve decided to spend all my money on food. I eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t know what else to do with my money,” he says. He was last seen handing out a $100 dollar bill for lunch at a Turkish joint on Park Avenue.