The story of an Indian with high educational qualifications ending up in a job overseas that he would never do in India may sound familiar, but Deepak Singh has made that journey into a unique book. How May I Help You? An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage , published by California University Press in February, is not only about the fall of a proud, well-to-do youth from his homely comfort in Lucknow to a sales job in Virginia hinterland, but also about the daily struggles of others who worked alongside him.
The book has been in the works for the past six years and Mr. Singh’s account of an immigrant has found resonance in the current political environment in the U.S. Now a freelance writer, Mr. Singh has been interviewed by the National Public Radio and Atlantic, among others.
When Mr. Singh decided to leave a journalism job with the BBC in Lucknow in 2003 and head to America, following his love — Holly, a Fulbright scholar who was in India then — he was advised it may be a bad decision. “My wife and my boss at BBC said don’t do it. But I didn’t listen to them, left everything and came to the U.S. Hoping that I would find a better job in America, the land of dreams,” recalls Mr. Singh. He joined his wife in a student accommodation in Charlottesville, where Holly had enrolled for a Ph. D at the University of Virginia.
‘Go to the floor’
“Soon, reality hit me. Radio jobs that I would find were all volunteer work without pay. Lot of advertisement I saw, ‘help wanted’— and started filling in applications — from grocery stores to book stores. And finally when I got this, I was told to go to the floor and start selling, on day one,” Mr. Singh says.
The electronic gadget store required a lot explaining to potential customers, and understanding of the product. “I could not understand the customer or the product, and the customer could not understand me. There were too many problems. I was frustrated — the only job I got, i could not even do that. I felt embarrassed and tried to hide when Indian customers walked in. Slowly I overcame the embarrassment, but then the manager told me I got one month to improve my performance or quit,” he recalls. Mr. Singh then started copying his boss — “sentence by sentence” in his sales pitch, and it began to work.
But the first cheque was another rude awakening to a new life. Seven dollar an hour, 40 hours a week. “I was earning less than what I was earning in Lucknow,” he says. “I had thought of America only as a rich country. When I started working, I saw a lot of sadness.”
The new reality helped him learn about his own self also, says Mr. Singh in the book. There is poverty in America, though you cannot see it normally. America is a great country. But there is a side that people rarely talk about in America and people in India do not understand about America.”
How May I Help You is half about Mr. Singh and half about the lives and struggles of the people who worked with him. After two years into the job, he left it and spent more than a year in Lucknow, where the book took shape in his head. Mr. Singh now writes for several American publications and appears on radio stations, as a freelance journalist.