“I am,” I reply.
“You are the first American I’ve ever met in person,” he tells me with an enthusiastic smile.
“Can I ask you a question that I’ve always wanted to ask an American?”
“Sure,” I say, preparing to make excuses for President Bush.
“Why are Americans so obsessed with the word ‘fuck?’” he asks matter-of-factly.
* * * *
Abhishek, is a typical young, middle class Indian living in New Delhi, with a university degree, a strong command of English, a penchant for Eminem, a lust for Priyanka Chopra and the hopes of one day finding a happy Indian life in an arranged marriage with a beautiful wife, smart kids and a nice car.
During the night Abhishek changes his name to Brad, and becomes an even-keeled, calm customer service representative for Verizon Wireless (one of America’s largest mobile phone companies), using his tact, patience and masters degree to navigate a minefield full of ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’s’ from a line of Americans, whose expectations of proper customer service far outstretch any customer service that ‘Brad’ will ever experience in India.
But he, along with thousands of other young Indians, put up with it because to them, the money they can make is the opportunity they’ve been dreaming of.
To achieve his dreams, he’s willing to put up with rowdy callers, four weeks of training (including a class on ‘How to Speak American’), overnight hours (due to the time difference between India and the the US) and a ‘western name’ in exchange for free meals, free rides to/from work and the $350 USD monthly paycheck he takes home for solving America’s mobile phone crises for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.
Growing up, Abhishek might have dreamed of being a banker, a doctor or an engineer, but being Brad pays better, so he stays.
As is widely reported, all across India groups of young, highly educated Indians (the best speakers of English), many with masters degrees, are clamoring for these jobs in orderly, clean and efficient call centers, funded by America’s biggest corporate names in insurance, banking, cellular service and more: GE, Verizon, Citibank, AT&T, Bank of America, Principal and more.
In Hydrabad, a friend took me on a tour of a call center taking calls from customers of an American health insurance provider, and on the streets I talked with dozens of young call center workers who, as a whole, were pretty enthusiastic about what these jobs could do to provide for their future.
This is the crux of a challenge many developing places face: Low-skilled jobs with high demand & short-term high pay, are more appealing to the young, educated class then highly-skilled jobs that require a long (and expensive) education (doctors, engineers, lawyers, creative class jobs). These call center jobs are a shortcut to their dreams of a ‘good life.’
India is still forming its modern identity and its newly emerging middle class of young Indians appear (to me) to be trapped between this desire to entangle their identity with the hip, (relatively) rich, middle-class American images they see on TV and the traditions and expectations of their older Indian parents. The older generations often lived lives centered around parental expectations, arrange marriages and duty to family; Abhishek and his generation now shy away from many of these things in search of Hollywood-esque glamour, iPhones and the hunt to achieve that American-like middle-class life, as seem on TV—a life that seems now more within reach than ever. The images on TV create dreams that, coupled with a call center salary, seem just be over the Verizon….er, horizon.
* * * *
“I have one more question that I’ve always wanted to ask an American,” Abhishek later asks me.
“Sure,” I say, “What is it?”
“Do you know WWE Wrestling,” he asks?
“You mean Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker?” I say.
He nods politely, looking shy to ask his question.
He hesitates, “…Is it real?”
On my trip, I have learned, as travel writer Pico Iyer may have put it best, when “traveling…one must learn how to import–and export— dreams with tenderness,” so I pause and temper my answer.
“Is the WWE storyline true?
I don’t think so,” I say.
“Is what you see on TV real?” I ask.
“I believe it is,” I say with a quiet grin.
His shoulders relax and with a wide smile and a burst of excitement, he runs into the next room shouting at his roommates, “I TOLD you so! I TOLD you so!”
Many young Indians in pursuit of the new Indian Dream of middle-class life, as crafted by what they see on American TV, find these dreams slowly coming within reach—and many of this young generation believe these dreams are now very real and very possible, so they are willing to reach for it, even if they have to put up with the lot of us constantly telling them to ‘fuck off.’
What you can do now:
- Leave a comment on this post below.
- Read my ironic discovery in trying to find “the real” while traveling in Welcome To The Real World
- Want to see the other side of shopping at Walmart? Read my post from China: Shopping for Less (ons)