27 January 2009

The Visa Odyssey

Before we went to India, I mentioned our issues with getting my MIL a visa interview appointment (getting one seemed like finding hens’ teeth!). Obviously, since she came back with us, everything worked out—but I thought I’d describe our experience since it may be of some use to someone. For myself, it was a fascinating experience, being put through the wringer of US government bureaucracy and seeing things from both sides: the American and the Indian perspective.

First of all, it’s not that easy to simply apply to sponsor a family member’s visitor visa. We spent many months preparing as thoroughly as we possibly could because we didn’t want anything to go wrong and for the application fee to be wasted. The absolute best resource for us as we prepared was a website called ImmiHelp. There are information pages, lists of what you might need, and forums where you can ask questions.

The scariest thing ahead of time was that everything that we read and heard indicated that it is next to impossible for a widow who owns very little property, has no job, and whose children are all married (and only son is in the US). That’s because the government considers that she would be more likely to come here and not go back at the end of her allowed stay.

We had to save up enough money in the bank to prove that we could support her; get letters from our employers proving that we actually have jobs; copies of tax returns for the past couple years; write invitation letters to her and letters to the consulate explaining the reason for her visit and why she would go back to India after her trip; get an invitation letter from the university for V’s PhD graduation; copies of our passports, birth certificates, etc. Mummy had to get proof of all her property and basically everything she owns; photos of her with her kids and grandkids in India (to prove that she has a reason to go back); and her own passport and other documents. All the materials we gathered together filled one big folder. We organized everything with tabs so that in the interview, Mummy would be able to turn to the correct item when the interview officer asked for it without making them impatient.

The process for getting a visa interview requires that you fill out a form at the embassy’s website and get an interview time online. Since we have faster and more available internet here, we took turns at all times of the day and night—for literally months—to get an interview time. Only a few interview slots are released at a time, and they go within seconds because there are so many other people who are trying to get appointments. It was even harder because we wanted a Hindi interview, not an English one, and those are in very high demand.

Finally it was coming close to the time when we were going to be going to India ourselves. We planned to bring Mummy back with us on our way back so that she wouldn’t have to fly alone to the US on her first trip here. We got more and more frantic about getting a Hindi interview, and finally I threw up my hands and started looking for English interviews instead. Mummy had been taking English tutoring anyway, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped that she’d be able to speak and understand it well enough to get through the interview. I was starting to lose hope of getting even an English interview when one day there was one available! My heart almost pounded out of my chest, I was so excited.

With Mummy’s interview appointment papers in hand, we were off to India! For many days before her appointment, we quizzed her with all the possible questions the interview officer might ask. We did drills in finding certain documents fast enough when we asked for them. We coached her to smile, be confident, and make sure to give our cover letter, the graduation invitation, and the email of support from our congressman’s office first thing before anything else. Still, we were very nervous about her chances of getting the visa.

The morning of the interview we all got up early and had breakfast and called a driver to take us to the embassy. Mummy dressed very carefully in a beautiful ecru sari with floral embroidery and her best pearl jewelry. We planned to take her to the gate and sit and wait for her until she was done. My husband told me to bring my US passport, just in case, so I did.

That was the best piece of luck of the whole day, I think. As Mummy was waiting in the very long line just to get inside the embassy, I decided to see if I’d be allowed to use the embassy ladies’ room. With my US passport, I was able to go right on in with no waiting and then come back out afterward. This was encouraging—we didn’t know that it would be that easy for me to go in too. So we asked at the window and it turned out that since I am a US citizen, I was allowed to accompany Mummy in to the embassy. Very sternly, the attendant at the window said, “yes, but you can’t go into her interview!” Well, then, that’s better than nothing, I thought.

So into the embassy Mummy and I went. It was extremely busy and crowded with very long lines. I decided that it would be better and less tiring for her if she could sit down while I stood in line for her. So first I stood in the line for fingerprinting for about an hour, calling her over when it was her turn. As we waited, I decided to ask if any Hindi translators were available—but no such luck. I kept giving Mummy little pep talks and trying to keep her from getting too nervous. Of course as the only white person standing in line, I attracted a certain amount of attention, but I’m pretty used to that by now so I made myself comfortable for the long wait.

Next we had to go stand in the incredibly long line to wait to be called to the interview window. This part was pretty fun for me: first of all, I was able to watch people as they went up for their interviews, and listen in to see how things went. There were only two windows open out of the 14 or so that were actually there. It looked like most people were getting their visas, which made me feel a little better. Another thing that was fun about the wait was the atmosphere: everyone was a bit nervous, but with a jolly sort of camaraderie too. Sort of like, “here we all are in this horribly long line, but we’ll make the best of it together and chat with each other and make it fun.” I met a few friendly people in line, some of whom had more experience with these interviews, and so I was able to talk about our situation with them and get their tips or advice. We also watched the people who went to the interview window and speculated about what they were doing right or wrong, or whether they’d get their visas or not. For entertainment, there was also a large screen TV next to the line showing the India-Australia cricket test match that was going on at that time. I probably saw the Saif Ali Khan / Shah Rukh Khan “I miss you so much it hurts” cell phone commercial 20 times (I love that commercial though, dork that I am). Every once in a while, Mummy would get up from her seat and see how things were coming along, and I’d tell her to go and rest because the wait would still be more than an hour.

Another interview window opened up during this time. It was window number 13. My line mates and I saw that the woman giving interviews at that window wasn’t as friendly, and seemed to be rejecting more people than at the other windows. As I got closer to the front, I prayed that I would not have to go to window 13. There were two other interview officers, and we saw that they could speak Hindi pretty well, so that was an encouraging thing to see in case Mummy got too nervous. One guy in line with me told me that I should just go up to the window with Mummy, even though I’d been told that I couldn’t do that, just to see what would happen. “What’s the worst they can do, tell you no?” So I decided to do that when it was our turn. We got to the front, and my line mates and I wished each other good luck. The best thing was that window 13 closed before it was our turn—whew, unlucky 13 was not our number!

Our turn came. I walked confidently up to the window with Mummy, where a girl about my age was to conduct the interview. She smiled at me and asked “are you here to translate, or are you just here for moral support?” My heart raced—I’d be allowed to stay during the interview!! I told her that I was just there for moral support, and showed her my passport and told her how I was related to Mummy. Then we got down to business.

Mummy slid her application form and passport through the slot in the window, and then she showed the officer the cover letter we’d written, the graduation invitation, and our congressman’s email of support. The first thing the officer said when she saw the invitation was “oh, Virginia Tech—Go Hokies!!” The last thing I expected to find all the way around the world was another Hokie!! But it turned out that she had actually been born and raised in a county not far from Virginia Tech and also not far from where I was born and raised. What luck—it was an immediate rapport-builder.

Then she got down to asking the questions to Mummy. At first I tried to just stay quiet and give moral support, but Mummy was starting to get flustered. She accidentally answered the question about “do you have any other kids” by saying “no” when in fact she has three other kids. I decided to jump in and help. I reminded Mummy of the answers when she was flustered, and then I started to answer some of the questions myself when it seemed like that would make things easier. The interview officer started to ask me questions too, such as where I work, what I do, what my husband does, etc.

The questions she asked (that I can remember) were:

1. Where will you be staying in the US?
2. How long do you plan to stay there?
3. How will you pay for your trip?
4. How many other children do you have besides your son?
5. Where do they live?
6. What do they do?
7. What is your marital status?
8. How long has it been since your husband died?
9. What does your son do? Does he work anywhere else besides being a student?
10. What does your daughter in law do?

Once or twice the interview officer left the window with the documents and then came back. On the last time she did this, she came back and said, “Congratulations, your passport with the visa will be delivered to your home address.” Just like that! We got our papers back, and I started to jump up and down and squeal and hug Mummy! Everyone else in the waiting area probably thought I was pagal (nuts). We were so happy! We went outside in a daze, and I ran down the sidewalk to my husband and didi, whooping that we did it! We did it! I was so happy that I gave all the change and smaller bills in my purse to some small children on the sidewalk.

When the visa came, it was for a 10-year multiple entry visa. How thrilling! It’s definitely true that much of our success was pure luck, but we were also so well-prepared that it made things much easier. It’s been so nice having Mummy here for a long visit, and it’s great to know that she’ll also be able to come back any time she wants in the next 10 years.

15 January 2009

A Delhi Must-Eat

I've been to India twice now, and one must-visit place tops my list of must-eat foods while in India: Paranthawali Gali, in Chandni Chowk, for hot and fresh paranthas! Chandni Chowk is the bustling and crowded old part of the city, with winding maze-like lanes and galis. The shopping can't be missed--my favorite are the jewelry and sari shops.

On this past trip, we went to Chandni Chowk on a mission to find a piece of jewelry for me and a sari for Mummy. Then we went for dinner to Paranthawali Gali to a famous parantha stall where you can get one of the most incredible meals for only about .50 USD!

Here is the menu:

My former Hindi teacher, Raag, will be so proud of me, because I can read the whole thing. Just a few, starting from the top, include paranthas stuffed with aloo (potato), dal (lentil), methi (fenugreek), gobi (cauliflower), mooli (radish), matter (pea), etc. I love the mooli and gobi ones best, but the chilli ones were a pleasant new discovery on this trip. V likes the paneer and the chilli ones best.

When you sit down in the tiny dining area you tell them what kind you want, and then you get a plate of accompaniments (included in the price). You can get fresh lassi brought from a stall in the same gali. Here's what came on the plate:

There's cilantro chutney, aloo subjee, banana chutney, and pumpkin subjee. Meanwhile, out in front of the shop, the hot hot paranthas are made to order. They are stuffed and rolled out:

and then cooked with plenty of ghee:

and then brought piping-hot to your table. Wah! So good, you can't imagine until you go there.

08 January 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Yesterday was the second anniversary of our Indian wedding! Time sure flies when you're having fun. Since Mummy is with us, the first thing we did in the morning was to touch her feet and take her blessings. The day felt extra-special because we had her with us!

To celebrate, we made pakoras and had champagne that night (Mummy even had a tiny glass!). Making pakoras is a cooperative effort for V and me. I prepare the veggies and batter, and he does the frying (I am skittish of hot oil, so he's the designated fryer in our family). It's so fun to hang out in the kitchen together making them that that's what I requested that we do for our anniversary.

Making pakoras is easy! I prefer the kind with individual veggies, rather than chopped veggies in blobs as you see at restaurants. My favorite kinds are mushroom and onion, but you can use your imagination and whatever veggies take your fancy.


2 cups besan
1 cup water
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp red chile or to taste
2 tsp salt or to taste
1/4 tsp khatai
1-2 tsp chaat masala
1 minced green chile
vegetables of your choice:
sliced onions
pieces of potato
pieces of green bell pepper
jalapeno chiles, halved lengthwise
small mushrooms, halved if desired
squares of bread

Whisk the dry ingredients together and add the chile. Add the water a little at a time and stir to make a batter that is of the right thickness. It should be thick enough to coat the veggies, and not too runny. Put vegetables into the batter and fry over medium heat until golden brown and crispy. Serve with ketchup or spicy ketchup (like Maggi brand).