When Deepak Singh bought into the American Dream, he didn't expect to be selling electronics at a chain retail store. But so it goes in the rough and tumble world of the upwardly mobile migrant worker. He arrived from India as a young man, freshly minted business degree in hand, to find a career and join that vaunted circle of South Asian diaspora elites who have achieved professional success abroad. But when he couldn't find a job and resorted to working as a store clerk at an electronics outlet, he ended up doing less with his MBA than with Triple-A batteries. Unfortunately, there are no returns for a defective immigrant aspiration--just exchanges.
In his new book, How May I Help You?, Singh reflects on the years he spent grappling with bad luck and deflated hopes as an immigrant striver, as well as the shift in perspective he experiened as he realized another side of the immigrant experience. He stumbles upon strange parallels with the mass cultures of America and India; when Black Friday's mob starts to resemble the writhing crowds of worshippers at the River Ganges, or the fear and shame of failure that haunts young workers pressed by their families to live better, faster, longer than the last generation. Gravity catches up to soaring aspirations sooner or later, whichever hemisphere you happen to dwell in.
So in the end, Singh doesn't achieve the gleaming vision of material success that he had dreamt of back in Lucknow, but the enlightened realism he grows into is priceless: he comes to understand that America's greatness doesn't come from its consumer culture's pleasures or the promises of quick riches; it's a bittersweet blend of sweet and sharp notes drawn from the hard work of learning to coexist with people who think, look, and live differently. His original dream might have short circuited, but the connections he develops over time as a storyteller, a community member, and a worker turn out to be strangely empowering, even if some assembly is required.
--Michelle Chen, March 24, 2017
Excerpts from How May I Help You?
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?”
“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?”
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he pointed at me with the pen.
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?”
“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.
I had been on the sales floor for only a few minutes when I saw a middle-aged Indian couple walking in. My heart jumped. I took off my nametag, out of impulse, and slipped it into my shirt pocket. I tried to not be the first one to talk to them, and I pretended to look like a shopper myself. I was embarrassed to be talking to another Indian as a salesman.
I saw my parents in the bespectacled, grey-haired man and the fifty-year-old woman. I couldn’t look in their eyes when they looked at me. I went to hide in the backroom.
Then Cindy came into the backroom and said, “Deepak, we have some Indian shoppers who want to buy a DVD player and they want to know if it would work in India. I told them one of our team members is from India. He can answer your question better than anyone else,” she said, with a grin on her face.
I had to come out.
The man smiled at me, and said, “Are you from India?”
“Yes, I am,” I said and smiled back.
“North. I am from Lucknow.”
“Okay. We are from Mumbai.”
“You have a question?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. My son is in medical school here. We were visiting him, but now we are going back,” the lady said and scanned me top to bottom.
“Okay, what can I help you with?” I said, trying to avoid the next question. Back in India, mothers of my friends often volunteered their son’s salary and then quickly asked mine. It was their way of judging their son’s success.
“We are trying to buy a DVD player, but we want to make sure that it will work in India.”
“Let me see,” I said, and walked to DVD section.
“Are you also studying at the university?” the man asked.
“No, I am not.”
“So, what are you doing here?” he said with a curious face.
“I am working here,” I said.
He fired the next question. “What’s your background?”
“Yes, this DVD will work in India,” I said.
“And my background is in media,” I said. “I am in new in America and I am trying to find a better job.”
“Yes, I was thinking about that. You seemed to be an educated chap. You can do better than this,” the man replied. I don’t know why, but I was acting as if the couple would fly to India, and go straight to Lucknow and tell my parents about what was I doing. Out of more than one billion Indians in India and around the world, the chances of the Indian shopper in my store turning out to be someone who knew my parents were next to zero. But it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get the inhibition out of my system.
When the training finished, I had no business being in the backroom unless I was unboxing the newly arrived merchandise. All of a sudden I was in the open. My first reaction was to avoid being seen working as a salesman by anyone who looked to be Indian.
Although I didn’t know any of the Indians who came to shop, it seemed as if I could read their minds when they saw me working at the store. “You pathetic loser,” they seemed to say. “You came to America to do this?”