An Immigrant’s View of “Amrika”

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Deepak Singh. 2017. How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage. Oakland: University of California Press. 305 pages.

I am in an electronics store in the shopping mall near my house. While staring perplexedly at a display of cell phone accessories, I am approached by a store employee, a young man with brown skin and a thick foreign accent. He is dressed in an ironed, button-down shirt; clean-shaven and with hair neatly trimmed, his appearance and speech automatically set me wondering where he is from.

It turns out I am not the only one wondering. His presence in this small, mostly white U.S. town often prompts questions about where he hails from, and whether he has come to the U.S. illegally. Of course, there is no simple connection between a person’s place of origin and citizenship status. And yet such questions arise readily and insistently in the minds of many Americans.

Indeed, his is the face of many heated debates over race, immigration and citizenship that have become especially bitter and divisive since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Are immigrants like this young man taking jobs that might have gone to native-born citizens? Do immigrants play a role in lowering wages? Do they exploit government services, siphoning value from the U.S. economy? Or do they contribute to the economy by their hard work (“immigrants, we get the job done”) as well as their taxes, spending and entrepreneurship? [1] Are immigrants a threat to be feared, a source of disorder to be contained? Or do they continue America’s heritage, partial and fraught though it may be, as a haven for refugees, a land of immigrant generations?

Behind such debates lay powerful and stubborn stereotypes, competing images of who immigrants are and who they ought to be. Americans often speak confidently about immigrant issues on the basis of one or another stereotype. But the fact is that immigrants are diverse, and the realities of their lives defy simple generalization. In debating immigrant issues, it is not enough to address misconceptions at the level of abstract categories, metrics, statistics. There is special value in stories told by immigrant individuals that convey their own point of view.

One such story is told by Deepak Singh, an immigrant to the U.S. from India, in his memoir How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage. From a bureaucratic point of view, Singh’s immigration is perfectly legal, and so his story is not overshadowed by the frequently tragic complications of not having papers, where the lack of legal recourse increases undocumented migrants’ vulnerability to exploitation by employers and scammers, and administrative detention and deportation. Even so, Singh experiences considerable humiliation and hardship, though his book has a lighter side, too, and resolves into a story of struggle, smarts and success, with a happy ending.

Like many immigrants, Singh initially struggles to find a job and must take one that is far below the occupational level he had previously enjoyed back at home. In India, he earned a master of business administration degree and worked in radio production for the BBC. But in the U.S. his MBA is not recognized, and he is unable to get work in his field. After many failed attempts, he finally lands a job working minimum wage as a salesman in that same electronics store near my home. To hold such a retail job would be a disgrace in the eyes of his parents in India, but needing money, he takes it, and he continues to work in the store for more than a year—the period documented in his memoir. I did in fact come to meet Singh, not at the store but through his American wife, who was a graduate student in my department.

The issues that come to the fore in Singh’s story are identity, culture, and work. He vividly describes a disquieting difficulty that is faced by immigrants of all kinds: The person in a new place is not recognized as the person he or she is at home [2]. By upbringing, Singh is Indian, Hindu, high caste and relatively well off. He likes certain foods and certain genres of Indian (Bollywood) films. He grew up in a major metropolis, Lucknow, the capital of a large and prosperous north Indian state, Uttar Pradesh. But many of these things are unfamiliar or esoteric to most Americans, and so in the electronics store they become unrecognized aspects of Singh’s identity. Instead, most of the people who encounter him in the store assume from his appearance that he is from the “Middle East” and is a Muslim. They are unable to guess, as a fellow Indian would, from his name and habits, that he is Hindu. And even when explicitly told that he is Hindu, after they ask his religion, some Americans he meets have no framework for grasping what that might mean. Similarly, they have not heard of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, or Indian films. The very categories of identity that Singh had taken for granted in his past life in India have, in the U.S., become meaningless.

An interesting example of such failure of recognition occurs with Singh’s language. His co-workers and customers in the store hear his speech as foreign and hard to understand. One of his American co-workers, after working alongside him for some time, advises him to learn English, telling him earnestly that he will have to learn to speak English to succeed. This is shocking to Singh, whose mother tongue is English. English was the first language of his grandfather. But it is a different variety of English from standard American. As a young man, Singh had trained himself to sound “like an Englishman,” not an American. So his speech differs from American English in pronunciation, intonation, idiom, gesture and syntax. All of these differences are minute, but in listening to others’ speech, people are exquisitely sensitive to such subtleties and perceive unfamiliar features as salient.

Linguistic differences also contribute to misrecognition of the immigrant’s name. Immigrants commonly find their names require adjustment in the American context. This may be because the naming conventions in their home society differ from the American standard, like Chinese names, in which the surname comes first, or Arab names that take the form of a genealogical chain. But sometimes it is because Americans find their names unfamiliar or hard to pronounce. For example, I know a Chinese woman named Xinyan who, in the U.S., calls herself Sunny to accommodate her American interlocutors. Those immigrants who do not adopt nicknames accept that the pronunciation of their name will be Americanized. Singh’s given name is Deepak, which in India is pronounced like “Thee-puck,” but U.S. speakers assimilate it to an American phonetic pattern and say it as “Dee-pack.” Such a change may seem trivial, but a person’s name is an important symbol of identity, and the experience of having it altered by perfect strangers should not be belittled. Singh, like many immigrants, has no choice but to get used to it. In a wonderful anecdote, he tells how an African American co-worker further assimilated the sound of his name to “Tupac” — as in the name of the rapper Tupac Shakur — a gesture of racial inclusion.

As an immigrant, Singh meets not only suspicion and misrecognition but also generosity. We see this especially when he writes of his co-workers, who time after time extend themselves to teach him the ropes and help him deal with unfamiliar cultural situations that arise in the store. The same co-worker who advises him to learn English becomes his closest ally and friend in the store. A middle-aged African American man who is married to a white woman, he helps Deepak learn to navigate the complex terrain of U.S racism, recognizing the racial slurs he hears (and at one point begins using) and the discrimination that is a fact of life for everyone.

Part of what is so interesting about this book is the sympathetic portrait it gives of the retail workers Singh meets and befriends through their shared work in the store. We learn how difficult it is for them to make ends meet, with some needing to work two jobs. And we glimpse the hardships of their personal lives: exploitative relationships, divorces and break-ups, serious medical problems, and many sorts of financial pressure (including high medical bills and being caught in predatory loans) that are impossible to relieve when one works for a low wage.

Of course, their employer, a corporate electronics chain, wants to get the most value out of the employees, so the job is demanding. But the rest of life is also demanding. Some workers are young single mothers, and the simple task of arranging for child care to get to the store for their shifts is heroic. But even once this is done, it can become impossible to stay at work because children get sick. And when a day’s work is complete, Singh’s co-workers rarely get to go home and simply relax so they can return the next day replenished. Instead, most of them hold down second jobs or care for others at home, frequently arriving at their next shift already exhausted.

This book is a memoir based on recollection, written without Singh’s co-workers’ knowledge, so it is not a true anthropological ethnography. Still, the picture it paints of the workers’ lives conveys genuine insight. Singh’s outsider’s perspective allows him to notice what cultural insiders normally take for granted, and since he is foreign, his new American friends recognize that he lacks cultural knowledge, allowing him to ask naïve but important questions about charged topics like racism. At the same time, Singh gains people’s trust by being helpful, reliable and attentive. He is a good listener and a quick study, so people confide in him.

The most important skill on the sales floor is selling merchandise. And so this memoir, in addition to teaching the reader about the lives of workers and the experience of an immigrant, is a story about Singh’s education in sales. The lessons Singh had to learn, and that he teaches his readers, are not strictly new: you need to turn on the charm and connect with customers personally; you need to find your own “selling style” since each customer is different. But they are valuable, perhaps indispensable, lessons for a novice salesperson, and in these pages, Singh makes them memorable through vivid stories of characters and scenarios.

For me as an anthropologist, one of the most interesting parts of the book is how Singh applies the insight from his U.S. experience to his former life in India: he begins to understand his own upbringing through the foreign reference points of his new life. In the U.S., he sees that his wife’s university friends have little acquaintance with the social world of his co-workers, though they may interact briefly over a purchase. This leads him to reconsider his own identity and class position in India, where he, too, rarely gave much thought to the life situations of the working-class poor, even those he interacted with closely and frequently, like the domestic servant who worked in his parents’ middle-class home throughout his childhood. In bridging divides of culture and class simultaneously, Singh gains insight into their interrelationship.

At one point, Singh returns to India with his wife to visit his family. There he tells people about the hardships faced by ordinary Americans, but nothing he can say weakens their conviction that “Amrika” is a land of riches and opportunity. The immigrant to Amrika is expected to return wealthy — and if he does not, then it must be because he is a failure. This is a predicament known to many immigrants, who are caught between the stereotypes held by people in two lands. In India, mass media images present an alluring myth of racy, rich America, giving everyone all they could want. But in the U.S., media images portray immigrants as threats: they are people out of their proper places, disorderly, possibly violent, possibly terrorists, stealing jobs, if not worse. In both societies, lurid images pander to the preconceptions of a mass audience. But caught in the middle are real people like Singh who live workaday lives that defy both sets of stereotypes.

Immigrants are far too diverse for their situations to be summed up by any one story. But a story like this one does help us see beyond the stereotypes that frame so many debates. This story also teaches one particularly important lesson. As Singh informs us, it was rare that native-born Americans asked him about his previous life in the country where he was raised. Yet how welcome it was when someone did because it allowed him to share something of who he really was. One lesson, then, is that it is good to ask questions — not just “What was your family like?” and “Where were you born?” but also about the work they used to do, the work they do now, their experience of racism and U.S. politics, or how the U.S. (“Amrika”!) is viewed in their home country, now and in times past. There is no end to what people can learn from one another in the spirit of connecting across different worlds, that is, in the humanistic spirit of anthropology.

Notes

1. The quote is from the musical Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda. A brilliant exploration of the impact of immigrants on the economy and life of a single, small U.S. town is This American Life, “Our Town – Part One” and “Our Town – Part Two,” originally broadcast December 8 and 15, 2017, available online at https://thisamericanlife.org/632/our-town-part-one and https://thisamericanlife.org/633/our-town-part-two.

2. See Alfred Schuetz’s classic 1944 essay “The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology,” The American Journal of Sociology 49, no. 6: 499–507.

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Ira Bashkow is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. His award-winning book The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World explores how white people and whiteness are viewed in the postcolonial Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. His essays have been published in American Anthropologist, Histories of Anthropology Annual, History of Anthropology Newsletter, SAPIENS, TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. He is currently writing a book tentatively titled The Corporate Form: History, Culture, Capital.

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