When we were directed to the waiting room, I knew right away this wasn’t normal. There were mostly Indians there. Ma glanced over her shoulder at Baba and hesitated.
“A little faster, Mrs. Rao. We don’t have forever,” the CBP officer behind us said.
I didn’t like the way he talked to her. This was Officer Jones, according to his lapel, and he was a wisp of a man with a wisp of a voice. Fluorescent white light shone across his pate and the badge on his uniform. It declared him a US Customs and Border Patrol officer, a golden crest with a golden eagle I had been admiring five minutes ago. That was when we were in line at Customs. Now we were somewhere else.
We were at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Thirteen hours of air travel, a four-hour layover, and zero wifi had marked the halfway point of my family’s trip back to America. We were tired, and we were cranky, and we didn’t know things were about to get worse. Baba had grumbled about how long it took to unload the plane. He said he was feeling it in his back, whatever it was. Ma was wearing heels and they were hurting, so she made sharp comments about why they couldn’t just bring the planes to gates like normal airports. Instead, they rolled a flight of stairs to the plane like we were the president, then bused us from the tarmac to a place with conveyor belts and processing lines like we were luggage. As for me, I was unhappy about sharing my oxygen. There were too many people and they were breathing it up.
I followed my mother into the overfilled waiting room. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be sitting on chairs were either sitting on the ground or standing with their backs to the wall. Judging from the strained silence, no one was happy to be here. Baba steered the carryon carefully around hands and knees and backpacks. Once he parked our stuff at an empty section at the back wall, I dropped my backpack on top of the carryon and leaned an elbow on top of his shoulder, too tired to hold myself up.
“Ganga, thik kore darao,” Ma commanded. I stood upright again.
“Your identification, please!” the woman behind the desk demanded. She talked to us like she had asked for these three times already, even though we had just come in. She was the only white person in the room, now that Officer Jones had vanished.
“Taratari niye jao!” Ma said, glancing at the lady as she slapped my passport and our visa cards into my hands.
Why do I have to do this? I wanted to ask, though I knew it was faster to send me. I did as I was told, because I didn’t want to hear Desk Lady talking again.
When I got to her desk, I handed our identification to Officer Slater, also a CBP agent. She took the slim stack in her hands and gave them a cursory glance. Baba’s visa was on top. Surname: Rao. Given Name: Krishan. Visa Type / Class: H-1B. Nationality: BANG. BANG stood for Bangladesh, a Muslim country cradled by the long eastern arm of India, but we were Hindus with family on both sides of the border.
Officer Slater looked up from the square image on the visa to my father. It said my father was thirty-nine years old. What it didn’t say was that he was a software engineer, and that both his belly and his face were round, and that he loved to eat South Asian sweets that were round, and he liked to eat American barbecue—even beef—all year round—whenever Ma wasn’t looking. He wasn’t supposed to, though. He had high blood pressure.
Underneath Baba’s visa was Ma’s. Officer Slater flipped to it as my mother approached. My mother was skinny and tall. Baba didn’t like that she was taller than him, but arranged marriage was arranged marriage, and it was love at first sight. They shared a happiness that Baba said “beats the median” and “exceeds expectation” quite often.
Officer Slater compared Ma to her visa image. Ma’s visa declared her Padma Rao, thirty-seven, with visa type H-4. She was also of Bangladeshi origin, and like my father’s, her visa also said it expired in three weeks. Ma and Baba had been worried about traveling to India so late, but we didn’t have a choice. I wondered if that was why we were standing here, but that wouldn’t make sense; there were three weeks left.
Ma was the tough one in our lot. Ramrod straight. All the softness was in Baba. Ma had such fantastic posture, she made normal people look like they were slouching. Normal people like me, now that she was standing next to me. We watched Officer Slater turn to my American passport, and then look up at me. Ganga Rao. Fourteen. Female. Citizen. Trying not to sneeze. I was a confusing amount taller than my parents. While my mother’s bun had not one hair out of place, my hair came down all over to form a wall. Paired with my gigantic headphones, I could pretend not to notice people. Then I wouldn’t have to talk to them: I was allergic to strangers.
“Back to the wall,” Officer Slater dismissed us. She tossed our identification back into Ma’s hands. I put my headphones back on, trying not to showcase my annoyance, then remembered it was still out of batteries. If it weren’t for all the people lining the perimeter, I would have searched the room for an outlet. By the time Ma and I joined Baba again, the officer had called some other South Asian up.
“Your name is Rupalekha?” Officer Slater asked her.
Rupalekha. Silver Writing. What a beautiful name.
I put back on my dead headphones, but there was no escaping Officer Slater’s voice and her follow-up questions. She asked, “What will you do in the United States?” Rupalekha responded she was pursuing a master’s degree. “Which university?” Rupa Didi gave its name. “Why?” asked Officer Slater.
Here I exchanged glances with Baba. I felt like that was a dumb question, but Rupa Didi was polite about it. “To enhance my career,” she said. “Graduation is very much compulsory.”
“Where will you stay in the US?”
“Ma’am, in a dormitory.”
“Is someone waiting for you there?”
“Then why are you going?”
Rupa Didi opened her mouth and closed it. Judging from the looks on everyone else’s face, no one else could figure out what Officer Slater hadn’t heard already. The officer didn’t wait for her anyway.
“How much money do you have in the bank?”
I took my headphones off. Rupalekha stiffened. There were so many people watching this event. Finally, she answered, “Fifteen lakhs.”
“Sobar samne erokom kotha hobe?” Ma muttered, and I wondered the same. Why did the officer need this information in the first place? We soon realized privacy would be the least of our concerns.
“Show me,” Officer Slater said.
“Show me your bank account.”
“Sorry, Ma’am, I did not bring. I was not told to bring a bank invoice with me. If I had known—”
“That’s fine, just—show me on the phone.”
Rupa Didi hesitated, and then said, “Okay, Ma’am.” She did that little Indian head tilt, a clockwise thirty-degree nod that always accompanied the English word okay.
Ma exchanged a glance with Baba, who was sitting on my other side. The expression on her face wasn’t irritation anymore. It was fear. To my right, Baba took out his cell phone and started downloading the app for Bank of America. But the wifi was terrible. Nothing was happening. Everyone else in the room came alert. Backs straightened. Every glance was a frown. One man had his iPhone in his lap, recording. He might have been Rupalekha’s boyfriend; she kept looking back at him. Every time she did, he nodded back solemnly.
“That’s not enough money,” Officer Slater said.
“That’s not enough money to pay for the year.”
Rupa Didi looked again at her boyfriend. He frowned this time. Rupalekha said, “Ma’am, my father will transfer the money. As soon as we get invoice, my father will transfer the money, I promise.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Please, just check on me. Ma’am, in one week, you check on me. I have no issues,” Rupa Didi responded. It was a declaration of one with nothing to hide.
“I can’t do that,” the officer snapped, her blonde bun wagging behind her head like a stubby bulldog’s tail. “Give me your visa and I-20.”
Ma’s hand took a hold of my wrist.
“Ma’am?” Something in Rupalekha’s voice plugged the air in my throat.
“Visa and I-20, please,” Officer Slater said again.
Rupa Didi looked back at her boyfriend. I looked at Ma. Ma looked at Baba. What did this mean? I wanted to ask. What did it mean to hand over her I-20?
“Miss, I will not be asking again,” said Officer Slater.
Rupa Didi got into motion. She reached into the backpack at her feet, pulled out a binder from within the backpack, pulled out a folder from within the binder, pulled out some paper from within the folder, and then she set her wallet down onto the wooden table to pull out her visa card. The card in her hands was shaking. Ma’s hand was tight upon my wrist, down to the bone.
Officer Slater pushed her metal chair back with a screeching grind. Rupalekha stood up as well.
“Ma’am, when I will be getting it back?” she asked, as Officer Slater walked her visa and I-20 out of the room. She got no answer, as if she hadn’t even asked.
I turned to my parents to ask what was happening. The room erupted in a commotion of languages: Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, Bangla. All the sounds ended sharp like the slice of a knife, however, when Officer Jones had returned again. He itched his nose, and then he itched his mustache, then took Officer Slater’s seat in front of Rupa Didi. He indicated the seat again, motioning her to sit. And then, to our collective astonishment, he spent the next twenty minutes asking Rupalekha the exact questions over again.
“Ki holo? Why don’t they just give us a tablet to fill out some online form?” I whispered to my parents in Bangla. “Then they can all refer to it, instead of asking the same stupid questions.”
“Be quiet,” my father said. “Chup koro.”
“Thiki bolche to,” my mother agreed. “Do they really have this much time on their hands? Is this what they get paid to do?” she asked in Bangla. “This? This is the United States?”
Again, Baba said, “Chup koro.”
“Please, Sir,” Rupa Didi was saying to Officer Jones, “my plane will be leaving in forty- five minutes.”
“You won’t need to worry about that,” Officer Jones said right as Officer Slater re-entered the waiting room.
Rupalekha stood back up upon seeing her. “Please, can I get my visa back?”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Officer Jones said. Officer Slater handed him Rupa Didi’s visa and I-20. Then Officer Jones handed them both to her.
Rupalekha cried out. “Canceled? Sir, why is it canceled? Please!”
I could see it on her card from over her shoulder. The black words said CANCELED WITHOUT PREJUDICE, in a black box.
“Please, Ma’am! You can’t do this! This was so much of my time! My energy! Please!”
“We’ve booked your flight back,” Officer Slater said.
“Please! Ma’am! Sir!” Rupa Didi said. She turned from one to the other, as if expecting one of them to change their mind. Her face was swimming with tears and pleading. She held that visa card, a thing as small as a license and big as a life, between her thumbs and forefingers. Like it was something precious, still. Behind her, her boyfriend held his phone tight-knuckled, and was glued to his chair.
This was how I came to understand my situation—the situation of my parents. Our being in this room meant only bad things.
Officer Jones turned to the rest of us, and he said, “Pad-ma and Krish-Anne?”
We were next.
* * *
In 2018, over 309,000 Indians applied to get an H-1B visa—or renew it, after already living in America.
My father was up for renewal.
During the first time he was acquiring one, it was a multi-step process requiring dozens of forms, many interviews, months of waiting anxiously, $2300 filing fees for the company giving my father his job, $1800 to the lawyer, and approximately $1225 in other fees to the USCIS. Getting actually approved was called “winning the lottery,” except if you lose your job, you have to leave the country, and if you don’t win the lottery the next time when you are renewing, you have to leave the country, and if they make a mistake on your paperwork, you get deported.
Officer Jones looked like he was about to do that to us. He took us into another adjacent room and started asking about my parents’ medical history.
“How is your health? Do you need medication? What do you take?” After finding out about Baba’s migraines and high blood pressure, he asked, “Do you consume alcohol? What are your parents’ names?” Then he asked why my father had shaved his head.
“This is for funeral rites,” Baba explained, “for my father. It is Hindu custom for the firstborn son to perform certain funeral rites.”
Officer Jones must have had a father he didn’t miss, because the news didn’t affect him.
He said, “It says you work for a consultancy.”
“No consultancy, sir. I work directly for IBM.”
“No, it says you work for a consultancy. Which one?”
Now Baba was getting mad. “Where? Show me, which consultancy? Show me which consultancy you say I am in. Where does it say?”
Ma put a hand on Baba’s arm. It was a warning to be calm. The officer didn’t feel the need to answer our questions. Instead, he asked my father for his phone.
“What would you like me to show you?” Baba asked. He saw what happened when this officer walked out with a visa card. He wasn’t about to lose his phone. Five minutes later, the officer had scrolled through my father’s Facebook, Gmail, and cooking Instagram. He scrolled through Baba’s emails for work in Lotus Notes. I decided I should put a hand on Baba’s arm too. That Rupa Didi lady had been polite and kind. Baba was less so. From the way Ma kept looking at his face, he was very close to saying something that could be very bad.
“Exactly where are you going?” the officer asked.
“From here to Chicago, that’s where we land,” Baba said. “But we live in Rochester.”
“In New York?” the officer asked.
“Minnesota. Officer, excuse me,” Ma interjected.
The officer looked up. It was the first time Ma had spoken to him.
“The Etihad flight is in less than forty minutes. I need to drop off my daughter.”
“Haaah?” I started. Baba looked at Ma.
“Asana’s there,” Ma told him. “I messaged her to come.” To me she said, “Ganga, Baba and I are delayed, but you will go.”
“What? Why? I can wait,” I told her. “I don’t have school yet.”
“Asana will take care of you, beta.”
“But what about all the luggage? I can help.”
“This flight is $1400, Ganga. That is too much money we might have to book.”
“But…” I gave Baba a pleading look. “Baba…tell Ma…”
Baba’s shoulders came down tentatively. “Padma…”
Ma gave Baba that scolding look. “Look, you just get on the plane and get off of it. You don’t have to be scared.”
“You even have your Zelda. Just sleep and play video games and you’ll be right there.”
She said don’t be scared again and I drew in a breath. I wasn’t scared of a plane.
“Amra next plane-ay ashbo, Ganga,” she said. “Tumi jao.”
“But how do you know you’re coming on the next plane?”
Officer Jones cleared his throat behind us. “Officer Slater can accompany your daughter,” he said. “I’m afraid you will have to stay right here.” He told us to wait until he brought Officer Slater back.
I looked at Ma. “Ma, don’t do this.” I tugged her hand, my voice breaking. “Ma, I don’t wa-ant to go.”
“Ki korcho? Cry korcho?”
“Ma, you always do this!”
“Okay, cry. Let’s make a scene here, Ganga.”
“Padma,” Baba tried interfering.
“Just right. Cry and cry.”
“Do you even love me?” I asked.
Instant slap. I knew it was coming: I said the words. And I said them anyway. Ma looked behind me to check for officers at the door. Her eyes were so big. We all turned to look. They weren’t there. We let go of our breath.
I looked down at the floor. When she next started to say something, the officers had returned.
“This way, Ganga,” Officer Slater said as Officer Jones resumed his seat.
My mother’s Bata shoes blurred into her feet as I bent down and hoisted my backpack.
“Wait, Ganga!” Baba said, as he gave me my passport and a hug. Then the officer led me away.
I looked back once, at the doorway, and stopped, but the officer prodded me and told me to move along. And so I did as I was told, taking with me the fear in my mother’s eyes.
Snigdha Roy is an award-winning essayist, novelist, poet, rapper, speaker, software developer and social advocate. Her works have appeared in tech blogs and literary magazines including Dossier, Big Straw, Imprint, Unchaste Anthologies, Nike Engineering Blog, and lead-featured in the We Are The Powerful Project. She has won multiple Engaged Artist Awards, multiple Adamson’s Student Writing Awards, back-to-back That Writing Contest Awards, and the 2011 Humanitarian Award.
Snigdha holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and is a former editor of The Pitkin Review. She is currently focused on writing literary fantasy and science fiction. Learn more about her at https://snigdharoywrites.com/.