How May I Help You?: An Immigrant's Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage

How May I Help You?: An Immigrant's Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage

by Deepak Singh

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Overview

In this moving and insightful work, Deepak Singh chronicles his downward mobility as an immigrant to a small town in Virginia. Armed with an MBA from India, Singh can get only a minimum-wage job in an electronics store. Every day he confronts unfamiliar American mores, from strange idioms to deeply entrenched racism.
 
Telling stories through the unique lens of an initially credulous outsider who is “fresh off the plane,” Singh learns about the struggles of his colleagues: Ron, a middle-aged African-American man trying to keep his life intact despite health concerns; Jackie, a young African-American woman diligently attending school after work; and Cindy, whose matter-of-fact attitude helps Deepak adapt to his job and his new life.
  
How May I Help You? is an incisive take on life in the United States and a reminder that the stories of low-wage employees can bring candor and humanity to debates about work, race, and immigration.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293311
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/14/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 305
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Deepak Singh is a writer, radio producer, and journalist. He is a frequent contributor to PRI’s The World and has written for The New York Times, NPR, The Boston Globe and The Atlantic.

Read an Excerpt

How May I Help You?

An Immigrant's Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage


By Deepak Singh

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

Copyright © 2017 Deepak Singh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96647-5



CHAPTER 1

Answering Machine


Counting hundreds of dollar bills, rolls of quarters, dimes, nickels, and a fistful of loose change correctly was turning out to be a daunting task. As the clock ticked along, the store phone rang. I answered.

"Aye, listen, I'm comin' to Charlottesville right now. Could you tell me where you guys located at?" Someone spoke in a strangled tongue.

"Yes, sir. We are in the mall."

"I'll be there soon."

It was eight o'clock at night. ElectronicsHut was supposed to close at nine. The lights from the flatscreen TVs skipped on the walls and the grey carpet floor. Jazz played on the home theater system. I stood in the middle of the store, leaning on the counter under the bright fluorescent lights, and looked at everything that surrounded me — radios, antennas, cameras, cables, routers, scanners, printers, computers, speakers. I was the person in charge of everything in the store for the next hour. Cindy, my boss, a short-haired blonde with average build and big eyes, had left a few minutes ago, telling me, "I'm going home. You'll close today." She knew I was not comfortable with the idea.

"You need to learn to start closing the store on your own. You've been working here long enough," she had told me. "Have a good night. You'll be fine."

Tonight was my first closing shift on my own. I felt nervous. Nervous about not being able to answer a customer's question, not being able to find a product, not being able to handle an irate shopper. Also, I was not sure about counting the money in the cash register at the end of the day. Being responsible for someone else's money made me nervous in general, but being responsible for counting American money, matching the total in the cash register to the one on the computer, and taking thousands of dollars of cash to the bank at night made my misery a hundred times worse.

I had recently arrived in the United States from India, and was still learning American ways. People rolled their eyes when I stared at the coins in my hand, trying to tell a dime from a nickel in an effort to come up with the right change for a donut at a coffee shop. Embarrassed, I'd put the whole chunk of change on the counter and let the cashier pick.

A few minutes later a man wearing a checkered flannel shirt and a pair of light blue jeans walked in with a crumpled plastic bag in his hand. He set it on the counter and pulled out a telephone answering machine.

"It don't work no more. I want my money back," he said in a gruff tone. I knew from his voice that he was the one who had called a few minutes ago. The machine looked worn out. There was no box for it. I asked him if he had the receipt. He pulled out a slip. The print was barely readable. I checked to see the date of purchase. The machine had been bought seven months ago.

"Sir, I'm sorry, but I can't give you the money back. This is past the return period."

"Are you shittin' me? These are supposed to work for a long period of time, not just a few months. C'mon, man, give my money back," he barked.

I didn't know how to react. He reeked of alcohol. He was solidly built, with rough stubby knuckles. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties but had several teeth missing. Numerous thoughts flashed in my mind. In my last job in India, if someone wanted to see me at work, they first had to go through the security guard outside the building, then if the guard thought it was okay, he would let them into the receptionist, who would in turn let me know that there was a visitor. Someone who stank of alcohol and talked in an abusive manner would have never gotten past the burly guard.

But I was not in India. I was standing in front of a drunken man in America, and he was being rude and asking for his money back for something well past its return date. Seven months ago, when he'd purchased the machine, I had no idea that I'd be dealing with an asinine man in Virginia over a product that I didn't know existed.

A part of me wanted to toss his answering machine out the door, rip the sales receipt into pieces and shove it into his stinking mouth. But my job was to treat this guy with respect, talk to him in a professional manner — and, at the same time, not agree to return his money. If I tried to raise my voice, there was a good chance that the customer could hurt me, even pull a gun. If I gave his money back, it was likely that I could lose my job.

I took a deep breath and said, "Sir, I am very sorry, but I can't return your money."

He gave me a cold stare with his hazel eyes and said, "How many gas wells do you own?"

"Excuse me?"

"Tell me, how many gas wells do you own?"

This was the first time someone had ever asked me whether I owned gas wells. I didn't even know what that meant. What did the answering machine have to do with gas wells? I didn't have the faintest clue. I saw saliva frothing around the corner of his quivering lips. He didn't seem like he was going to leave the store without giving me a hard time.

"Let me talk to your manager," he cried.

"She's gone for the night, but she'll be here tomorrow."

He turned around and stomped his feet and let out a few expletives. Then he grabbed a pen from the counter, looked at my nametag and wrote my first name down.

"What's your full name?"

"Deepak Singh."

"I'll be back tomorrow," he pointed at me with the pen.

"Sure."

He put the machine back in the plastic bag and left.

A little after nine, I locked the door to make sure the day was over.

By the time I got home, it was almost ten. My wife and I ate dinner in silence. I could tell she knew I was upset about something and that I didn't feel like talking.

Just when I lay on my bed and closed my eyes, my house phone rang. It was about eleven. No one called me at that time of night except my parents, from India. I answered the phone. To my surprise, it was Cindy. "Deepak, sorry to bother you at this time of the night, but do you know anything about Fallujah?"

At first, I couldn't decide if I was dreaming about work, or if it was really Cindy on the phone.

She had called my home a few times to ask me to come in earlier or to work on my day off because some other employee hadn't shown up, or to ask me where I kept a certain product, or a document that she needed.

It took me a few seconds for her question to register. I said, "What are you looking for, Cindy?"

"Fallujah — do you know where it is?

"Fallujah? No, I don't know, Cindy. But sounds like it could be somewhere in the Middle East."

She cackled and said, "I knew you would know."

"Okay, but why do you ask?"

"Oh, I'm sittin' here watchin' Fox News, and they're talkin' about a suicide bomber who blew himself up in a busy market there." I kept silent. "Hello, you there?"

"Yes."

"Anyway, I'll let you sleep. Oh, by the way, how did last hour go at the store?"

"Do you mind if we talk tomorrow, Cindy? I am very tired."

I laid back in bed and closed my eyes again. I tried to imagine what it might be like for average Americans to work in a retail store in a foreign land without a good grasp of the local language or accent. I tried to picture an educated American working in a corner store in small-town India, selling turmeric, cardamom, cloves, aniseed, peppercorn, cinnamon, fenugreek, mustard, coriander, saffron. And what if this was the only job he could get, even if he had no experience or desire for it, but couldn't quit and return home? How would he fare? How would people treat him?

Then I thought of the time back in Lucknow, when a white American friend of mine asked a cycle rickshaw puller to let him pedal it for a short while. He did that because it was exotic and fun. People stopped to gape at the tourist, a tall man with long hair, pedaling a cycle rickshaw in the place of a scrawny, dark-skinned Indian man. For my friend, it was an adventure of sorts, but the poor Indian man carried people around town, rain or shine, to make sure his family could eat.

I wished working in retail in America were fun and exotic and only lasted for a few minutes — and that I didn't have to depend on it for a living.

CHAPTER 2

Lucknow


I was born and raised in a Hindu household in Lucknow — a city of four million people in northern India. My hometown is famous for poetry and politeness, and its historical buildings — built by both British and Mughal rulers. I grew up right in the middle of the city and lived in small apartments in compact neighborhoods. Most of my friends lived within a few hundred meters of my home. There were few home phones and no cell phones. If I wanted to see any of my friends, I had to go to their house. They did the same when they wanted to meet me. There was always something going on. A beggar knocking on the door. A vendor hawking a cartful of potatoes. A neighbor asking for sugar. Loud devotional music playing from giant loudspeakers in Shiva's temple across the street. Privacy was something I got only when I was in bed with a sheet over my face. Every once in a while, looking for some peace, I walked or rode my bicycle to the old city and sat for hours on the steps of one of the centuries-old mausoleums.

My father came from a poor family, but he had worked hard to get a college education. His mother had never gone to school and his father was a small-time farmer.

My mother's family was rich. Her father, my Nana, was born in 1926. He was a wealthy landowner who administered several villages under the British rule in India. He spent his growing-up years in a British boarding school in a hill resort town in North India, and came home to his family only during summer vacations. Living in an English environment, he acquired a lot of English mannerisms and tastes, and an English accent. He liked to hunt with his entourage of servants and often drove to the country for hunting expeditions.

My mother often told me this story:

It was a balmy June afternoon in 1955. Your Nana was out with his entourage to hunt for geese. Two men walked behind him carrying birds that he had already shot with his .22, and a couple of people walked ahead of him. They walked for miles in the jungle and kept hunting until it got dark. He took position one more time to get his last kill of the day. He hid behind the bushes and aimed at the geese. The gun went off, but he didn't get the bird. The flutter of the wings and the sound of a loud bang scared a wild bull, which was hiding in the pond. He charged out in a state of panic, keeping his head low, pointing his long horns straight ahead. Your Nana, who wasn't expecting it, and was still kneeling on the ground behind the bush, couldn't get up fast enough to escape, and came in the direct line of the bull's rampage. The bull trampled over his body, injuring his throat badly, and left him in a pool of blood.

His men, who had scampered away in an effort to avoid the bull, returned to see him lying on the ground, unconscious. They carried him to his car and drove him to a hospital, about thirty miles away. Doctors got to work. After an eight- hour surgery, your Nana came out of the emergency room. Doctors said that he was lucky to be alive since most of his throat was cut open, and he had lost a lot of blood. They told his men to take special care of him and only give him liquid foods for the first week.

After four weeks or so, he went to the doctor for his checkup, and got the stitches removed. He looked at himself in the mirror, and felt the scar that ran down his jaw, all the way to the base of his throat. He was ready to hunt again. His people set off with him to find the animal. This time he carried bigger rifles, the ones that he used to kill alligators with. They arrived at the pond and saw the bull submerged, with his hump sticking out. Your Nana gave half a smile and extended his arm towards the man who held the guns, asking for the rifle, one with a double barrel. He loaded it, aimed at the animal, which had no clue what was about to happen, and waited to see its reaction. It raised its head lazily to look at the people staring at him, but didn't move.

Your Nana shot a couple of feet away from the bull, in the middle of the pond. The sound and the sudden ripple in the water caused the animal to run for shelter. As soon as it got out, he fired again. This time he didn't shoot to scare the animal, but to kill it. The bullet hit it in the neck, pretty much in the same spot where it had struck him. The large bull was pushed backward by the force of the bullet. It staggered and tumbled back into the pond. The water turned red. A smile full of content swam across your Nana's face as he handed the gun back to the man standing next to him. The revenge was over.

My mother, who grew up in Faizabad, a smaller city eighty miles from Lucknow, often showed me black-and-white photos from her childhood, including her father's cars. I tried to imagine her life when she was a seven-year-old kid wearing a knee-length dress, playing hopscotch, skipping rope, running around her yard. When she was around twenty-four years old, my Nana put out an advert for his daughter's marriage in the Times of India. He was looking for a suitable boy for her — someone educated and employed. My father had taken out an ad for himself in the same newspaper. He was looking for an educated and beautiful girl.

He had a stable job, and my mother was the prettiest woman he had seen. The marriage was quickly arranged. Except for the fact that both my parents were high-caste Hindus, there was not much in common between them. My mother was a devout woman, and my father didn't believe in idol worshipping. My mother followed cricket with a passion, and my father didn't understand the game. My father saw his first Bollywood film at age eighteen. My mother knew the actors like the back of her hand. She grew up in a large bungalow in a city, and my father in a mud house in a dirt-poor village. She went to school in a Vauxhall car. My father walked miles, often barefoot, to an open-air school. She played with her pet Alsatian dogs; my father milked and herded goats. Her father had imported, in 1950s, an Electrolux refrigerator from Sweden so the family could drink cold water during hot months. My father had used a metal bucket to pull water out of a well.

The biggest conflict between my parents was that my father wanted my mother to live in his village to take care of his aging parents. Most of their quarrels went like this:

"I want to send our kids to English-medium, private schools."

"I know you want to turn them into snobs like your own father."

"I just want them to do well and have a good future."

"I didn't even have chairs in my school." My father thought anything better than an open-air school where you didn't have to sit on the floor was a good thing. My parents ended up staying in the city.

Because my mother had gone through so much resistance and criticism from my father and her in-laws for educating us in the city schools, she was extra harsh with her kids. She had a point to prove and she didn't accept any excuse from us for not doing well.

One time, when I was in grade seven or maybe eight, my mother came to the parent-teacher meeting to discuss my performance with many of my teachers. She wasn't impressed with what my teachers had to say about my grades. She listened to all of them, but didn't say anything to me there. When we walked out of the school, she said to me, with fury in her eyes, "If you don't end up fixing punctured tires by the side of the road, I'll change my name."

I looked down.

"You'll be like Ramu, the puncturewallah, who didn't graduate from high school. If you get lucky you might become a newspaper delivery man like Sunil." Although she yelled at all three of her kids, she seemed to be most invested in my future.

As years went by, my father also became interested in my education. At some point he realized that I could provide him support — financial, emotional, and physical. I turned twenty-two around the same time that I finished my bachelor's degree. It was an important age. My parents, aunts, and uncles often asked whether I was going to get a job. If I wanted to get a job, then what job? If I wanted to continue studying, another degree must come with the promise of a job, a career. For the first time in my life, I felt I was under pressure. Everyone looked at me as if they were expecting something from me. Even my neighbors asked me, as I walked by, what my plans were.

I, on the other hand, didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. If anything, I wanted to travel. I wanted to get on a train and explore India. India is huge and diverse, and I knew that there was a lot to see. So far, I could count the number of places I had traveled on my two hands. I wanted to travel to the southern parts of India, which are quite different from where I grew up. I wanted to learn another Indian language, immerse myself in a different culture, and eat different kinds of foods. I had once casually presented this idea to my folks and they had looked at me as if I were out of my mind. They had in their minds something very different for me. Two things were required for me to be able to do what I wanted to do: money and my parents' consent. Not obeying your parents was a surefire way of earning a bad reputation among friends and family. I had very little money and no approval from them.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from How May I Help You? by Deepak Singh. Copyright © 2017 Deepak Singh. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Holly Donahue Singh xi

Acknowledgments xvii

1 Answering Machine 1

2 Lucknow 7

3 Transit 24

4 My American Wife 36

5 Job Application 42

6 Hired 49

7 First Day 59

8 One Month's Notice 67

9 English 78

10 Colleagues 83

11 Olive Skin 99

12 Camera King 110

13 Don't Buy It 117

14 Foreigner 121

15 My Name Is Deepak 131

16 I'm Straight Today 135

17 Holly and I 146

18 All Hands on Deck 150

19 Long Two Years 162

20 The Golden Quarter 173

21 Two Americas 190

22 Paula 198

23 Cameron 208

24 Don't Sue Me! 215

25 Post-Christmas Blues 228

26 A Handful of Dimes 242

27 India Visit 248

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