How I Learned the Risks and Rewards of Entrepreneurship and Made Millions
By Gurbaksh Chahal
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Gurbaksh Chahal
All rights reserved.
An Immigrant Family
I was born in Tarn Taran, near Amritsar, in Punjab, India, on July 17, 1982, the youngest of four children, into a traditional Sikh family. My father studied hard and went to college, hoping to become an engineer, but when he graduated he couldn't find a satisfying job and joined the police academy. He and my mother met in 1971, a match arranged by their families, and were married that same year. She was a nurse and enjoyed a modicum of independence, but in most ways she was a traditional Indian woman. She had been taught that life revolves around the head of the household, the man, and she believed this to her core. When my father made a decision, she followed it without question. I would later find myself struck by this because her own family had actually pushed her to become independent, which in India—for people of a certain class—can only mean one of two careers: medicine or engineering. My mother wasn't interested in engineering, and she didn't think she had the patience or the stamina to become a doctor, so she settled for nursing, and she continued to work after she was married. In reality, though, after marriage her life was no longer her own. From that day forth, she did as she was told.
"It is the way it is," my mother often said.
In 1973, a year after they were married, my parents had their first child, a daughter, Kamal. Two years later, they had another daughter, Nirmal. This was a blow. In India, families want sons. A son is a potential breadwinner. And a son carries the family name and legacy into the future.
At this point, my parents decided to put their future in God's hands, and they both became exceedingly spiritual. They made frequent trips to the gurdwara, a Sikh temple, asking for a son, and they even prayed together at home.
Finally, late in 1978, my mother became pregnant again, and the following year they had a son, my brother, Taj. This was one of the greatest moments of their lives. God had listened to their prayers. They had a son! They were ecstatic.
Then they decided to try again. They thought the family would feel more balanced with two girls and two boys. They knew that perhaps they were being a little greedy, but the heart wants what it wants.
Again they went off to various gurdwaras to pray, and again they prayed at home. Again they gave God time to consider their request, and again their prayers were answered. When I came along in 1982, they named me Gurbaksh, which in Punjabi means "a gift from God."
Gift or not, those were unstable times in India. On June 3, 1984, two years after I came along, a group of separatists, looking to create an autonomous Sikh state within India's borders, demonstrated at the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, ordered the army to clear the site, and there were many casualties—most of them Sikhs. To this day, the action is considered an unprecendented political disaster in modern Indian history.
My father had often talked about leaving India, and this incident convinced him that he should double his efforts. Like many Indians, he had his sights set on America, and he began to talk incessantly about leaving. There is no future for a Sikh in India, he would tell anyone who would listen. The country is corrupt. Opportunities are dwindling by the day. He wanted a better life, if not for himself then for his four children, and he believed that that life existed in America.
In 1984, my father applied for a visa through a U.S.- sponsored lottery system and received good news within months: The family's papers had been reviewed, and they could emigrate to the United States as soon as they wished. (This was partly because my mother was a nurse; then and now, there was a shortage of nurses in the United States.) My parents were thrilled, of course. They would move to California, where they had a few friends, and they would send for us within a year. My grandmother would stay behind with my two sisters, my brother, and me.
After fifteen hours in the air, the plane landed in San Francisco and my parents were met by a friend at the airport. He drove them to his home in Yuba City, a farming community about 125 miles to the north. They could have taken jobs picking peaches, but since they were both educated people they held out for something more.
Not long after, they moved to San Jose, a bustling, melting pot of a city, and for the next few weeks, as they looked for an apartment of their own, they traveled from the home of one acquaintance to the next. They had arrived with only $25 dollars to their names, having left the bulk of their savings behind with my grandmother—to feed and care for us kids—so things were more than a little tight.
It turned into an especially difficult first year for my parents. My father had a tough time finding a job. As a Sikh, he wore a turban and a full beard, and—despite his flawless English—many westerners were put off by his appearance. Eventually, though, he found work as a security guard, for $3.35 an hour—the minimum wage at the time—and my mother found a job as a nurse's aide (a step down from the work she had done in India, where she'd been director of nursing at a major city hospital). In due course they saved enough to make the deposit on a one-bedroom apartment on the gang-ridden east side of San Jose: first month, last month, and a security deposit.
In June 1986, my mother finally flew back to India to fetch us, and within days we were on our way to America: Kamal, Nirmal, Taj, my paternal grandmother, my mother, and me. I was a month shy of four at the time, so I don't remember much about the trip or about that first year, but before long I began to adapt to life in the New World.
On weekday mornings, when my parents went off to work and the older kids left for school, I stayed behind with my grandmother, Surjit Kaur. Having spent much of her lifetime in the field, picking red peppers and chilies to support herself and her only son, a one-bedroom apartment in America was nothing to complain about—despite the fact that she was afraid to venture beyond the front door.
Every morning, after the house emptied out, she would park me in front of the TV, where I watched Barney and other similarly hypnotic shows. Then I'd wander into the kitchen to watch her cook—she prepared Indian food every day since it was all she knew—and before long my siblings would drift home from school, often in tears. My oldest sister, Kamal, had just turned thirteen, an awkward age under any circumstances, but particularly difficult for a recent immigrant. To the other kids, she and Nirmal were Fobs or Fobbies —Fresh Off the Boat—and they were ridiculed endlessly. My brother, Taj, was subjected to much of the same. A quiet, unobtrusive boy, he was not fond of attention, but it was hard to hide under the patka he'd been wearing since age five. "The other children call me towel-head," he complained to my father.
"Don't listen," came the reply.
By the time I was sent to kindergarten, I had a vague idea of what I could expect, and I was terrified. Unfortunately, my fears were immediately confirmed. The class was full of Latinos, blacks, Asians, and a scattering of whites, but no Indians, so I was the one, true outsider. Turban-head! Conehead! Papa Smurf! And that was only the beginning.
"They call me Gandhi!" I told my father, wailing.
"So what? Gandhi was a great man. You should be proud."
"Nobody wants to be my friend!"
"Why would you want to be friends with children who call you names? You don't need such friends. You have your family."
"I don't want to go to school!"
"What? Not go to school! You are here to study, boy, and that's what you will do! And I expect good grades from you—the best!"
"That's it! There will be no more talk on the subject."
Two or three times a week, I'd come home with my turban in my hand, and my hair, uncut since birth, spilling onto my shoulders. My father told me to ignore the other kids, assuring me that it would stop, but he was wrong. The kids in my class were relentless.
My grandmother was never less than sympathetic, though. "Everything is going to be okay," she would tell me. "Maybe things are a little bad now, but in my heart I know they will get better, especially for a smart boy like you." That was enough for me. I believed her, and that gave me strength.
My father had no time for petty annoyances. On the contrary, he never tired of reminding us that we were a most fortunate family. Sometimes he went a little overboard. If it was a particularly nice day, for example, he might point it out. "How about this great weather?" he'd say. "In India, you go through nine months of heat and then two months of monsoons. But look at us. We live in California."
And more: "Look how quickly things change in America! When I first got here, I was working as a security guard, but now I have a job with a company that manufactures hard drives for computers. People in this country are willing to take a chance on people like us."
We shopped at the local Goodwill store, McFrugal's, and at the Dollar Store, which was my favorite. Everything was a dollar. You could get shirts for a dollar. Shoes for a dollar. Three pairs of socks for a dollar. I actually looked forward to shopping there, because it was such a bargain. To this day, I like a good bargain. I learned at an early age that most people are very unwise about the way they spend their money, and I was determined not to be one of them.
I loved grocery shopping, too, because the stores were so colorful, and mostly because Mom always splurged on Twinkies. Shopping, for me, was almost a form of entertainment. I was out in the world, looking at stuff, seeing people, and I got a real kick out of using coupons to get good deals. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, helping clip coupons. We loved coupons, and I especially loved the ones for Little Caesars pizza. They would come with the mail every week or two, and I would look for them as if they were the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. For $5, you could get an extra-large pizza with two toppings, but the deal was only good on Mondays. So guess what we usually ate on Mondays? Two large pepperoni pizzas. That was some deal! Monday night became Family Pizza Night at the Chahals, and everyone loved it—even my grandmother.
"See how lucky you are?" my father would say. "Ordering in is a luxury."
We were poor, and my parents were struggling, but everything about America was already a dream come true.
Not for me though: On the first day of fourth grade, for example, I arrived at school in bright yellow slacks, a bright yellow shirt, and a matching yellow turban that my mother had made with her own hands. The children couldn't stop staring, and even the teacher was curious. "Is it a special day for you people?" she asked.
I tried to bite my tongue, but I couldn't manage it. "No! It is not a special day! It is a regular day!"
"Well, thank you for clearing that up for us, Gurbaksh," she said with a harsh edge.
Since both my parents worked double shifts, Kamal became a second mother to me. She helped me with my homework and went to PTA meetings on my parents' behalf, sharing what she'd learned from my teachers as soon as Mom and Dad got home from work. "He's doing well. He's getting mostly Bs. But he's smart and he could get As if he applied himself."
"So you're not applying yourself?" my father would say.
Kamal went on: "He doesn't speak up in class. And he mumbles when he speaks and won't look people in the eye."
"I'm shy," I protested.
"And he's not very social," Kamal went on. "He should make more of an effort to make friends."
"Everybody hates me," I said.
"Stop whining," my father would say, and then he would launch into one of his regular tirades. "You children are such ingrates! Do you have any idea how much your mother and I have sacrificed to give you this opportunity? Not another word out of you! Now sit down and do your homework!"
Eventually I did stop whining, mostly because it didn't do any good. My parents were too busy making their way in the New World to worry about my little problems. And they did have problems of their own: One Saturday I heard a scream, and I rushed into the living room to find my father flat on his back on the floor, with my mother, still screaming, on her knees next to him, still screaming, and my sister on the phone, calling for help. I was only nine at the time, but I noticed the way my father's eyes kept darting around the room without really seeing us, and I remember thinking, He is looking at Death. He is fighting with Death.
By this time we were all crying, and by the time the ambulance arrived we were near despair. But they stabilized him on the way to the hospital, where he spent the next three days hooked to all manner of pinging, bleating monitoring equipment. He had had a pretty serious heart attack, and the doctors told my mother that he was lucky to be alive.
When my father finally came home, we tiptoed around him, as if he were fragile, and at every opportunity we told him how glad we were to have him back. None of us had ever had a warm, fuzzy relationship with Dad, but we certainly loved him, and for a long time afterward I loved him more ferociously than ever.
Months later, when he was finally beginning to feel somewhat recovered, the technology sector took a dive and he was laid off. "I will find something," he said. "Not to worry. One must always have a positive attitude."
A few weeks later, my father got a job with the postal service. The money wasn't particularly good, but they had excellent health benefits, along with a solid retirement plan, and he began thinking about moving the family into a nicer neighborhood. He announced his intentions one Sunday afternoon, just before we went to the video store for Bollywood Movie Night. "We are going to be extra careful with our money from now on," he said. "We need to save up for our new home." We all cheered, as if the new home were already ours, then we piled into the car for the drive to the video store.
Sunday night was my favorite night of the week. My father would walk into the store. He always said the same thing to the clerk. "We are looking for a family movie. Do you understand me? A family movie."
"Yes sir, I understand precisely."
We would then go home and take our regular seats in front of the TV, and within minutes we would be glued to the unfolding stories. The movies were always very chaste, because Bollywood actors aren't even permitted to kiss. Sometimes they would look at each other with intense longing, however, and you knew that at any moment they would leap into each other's arms, but the director always cut away at that point. The next scene was usually some kind of frenzied dance number that took the place of the kissing and whatever followed.
My father would get very worked up about those scenes. When the actors began to look at each other with longing, he'd hunt around for the remote. "Where's the remote? Give me the remote! I told that silly clerk I wanted a family movie, and he gives me this immoral trash!"
Invariably, we'd arrive at the song-and-dance number before Dad found the remote, and he'd sit back and relax a little, but he was never less than vigilant. And we could expect to see him tense up at least two or three more times in the course of the film. "Where's the remote? Who is hiding the remote?"
Poor Kamal always got a little nervous at these junctures. Some years earlier, my father had attempted to fast-forward through a racy scene, and the remote had gone dead in his hands. He had become quite upset, and had turned to look at Kamal. "You are the eldest child," he said, unable to hide his displeasure. "You will make sure that nothing like this ever happens again."
Every Sunday, we would go back to the store to return the video, and to find another one, less racy, perhaps, and my father always let the poor clerk have it. "I said I was looking for a family movie! What is wrong with you! They almost kissed!"
In 1992, the years of frugality finally paid off. My parents felt secure enough to take their savings and buy a small house on Gridley Street, on the east side of San Jose. We were still in the heart of the projects, but this was an actual home, and it even had a small yard.
It was almost directly across the street from the McCollam Elementary School, and one afternoon—thinking I should try to start losing some of that Twinkie-fueled weight—I went over to the school's rundown basketball courts, empty at that hour, and started shooting hoops. Before long, I noticed a pair of Hispanic teenagers watching me. I tried to ignore them.
"Hey!" one of them said.
I kept shooting.
"Hey! Towel-head! I'm talking to you! What the hell are you doing, man?"
"Excuse me?" I said.
"You heard me," he said.
"I'm shooting baskets," I said.
They came closer. "Take that thing off your head," the guy said. The other one said nothing, and for a moment I wondered whether he was mute.
"I can't," I said. "It's part of my religion."
"You don't listen too good, do you?" he said, and he took a knife out of his pocket. "Take that shit off right now!"
I dropped the basketball and began the slow, laborious process of removing the many hooks that were holding my turban together. I was on the verge of tears, but I forced myself not to cry. When I was done, I handed him the turban, hardly breathing, and he and his friend called me an ugly name and walked away. As soon as they were out of sight, I picked up the basketball and ran home, and I was sobbing by the time I came through the front door. My grandmother hurried out to see what was wrong and was shocked to find me standing there in tears, without my turban. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Dream by Gurbaksh Chahal. Copyright © 2008 Gurbaksh Chahal. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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