Stuck in an American Retail Job With a Foreign MBA

In a new book, a journalist reflects on working as a salesperson in small-town Virginia when he first arrived in America.

A cashier at a retail store looks at the cash register's screen.
Jeff Chiu / AP

Coming to the U.S. can knock immigrants’ careers off track for years. For new arrivals, integration is often an important part of achieving financial stability, as studies of upward and downward economic mobility have documented.

Deepak Singh grew up in northern India. He had a bachelor’s degree in commerce, an MBA, and a job with the BBC World Service in his hometown of Lucknow. Unexpectedly, he met a young woman visiting from western Pennsylvania at a local library; the two fell in love, got married, and decided that Singh would move to Virginia, where she was attending graduate school.

In his new book, How May I Help You?: An Immigrant’s Journey From M.B.A. to Minimum Wage, Singh chronicles his move to small-town Virginia, where he started working a job in retail.* The book reads like an ethnography, documenting Singh’s work experience, his colleagues, and his surroundings, and includes reflections on how the job taught him about American mores and norms. Though Singh was doing minimum-wage work, his book is not a story of poverty, but rather an account of the daily grind of America’s service workers through the lens of an immigrant with an MBA.

Singh is now a journalist again (and he’s written for The Atlantic). I recently spoke with him about why he wrote How May I Help You?, what he gained from the experience, and the skills it takes to sell things in America. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: Why did you decide to revisit this time in your life, and tell this story?

Deepak Singh: I started writing this book six years ago, pretty close to when I finished working at the electronics store. The experience of those two years that I spent on the sales floor in the electronics store in Virginia, I couldn't get it out of my head. It was such a different thing that I did.

Coming from India with an MBA, and working for BBC World Service, I was not trained to sell anything to anybody, no matter what country. The kind of people I met while working there, I got to know them and I developed a lot of empathy for my co-workers. I had this attitude that I deserved a better job, but that job, selling electronics, required a lot of skills and not the ones I already had. I had to learn new skills: to talk to people, to convince them to buy something that they didn't come to buy. It was an American experience working on the sales floor, and it was total immersion for two years selling electronics to people in a strange land.

Lam: How did you decide on the themes of the chapters?

Singh: The themes were [mostly] chronological. I was thinking about how I arrived, how I couldn't get the job I wanted—I wanted to work for radio, because that's what I was doing before. So I applied for sales jobs. This is the job I got.

I wrote about how on my first day, I was trying to hide from Indian customers because I had it in my mind that they would think of me as a low achiever working on a sales floor. But this was mostly in my head.

And then, I got to know the people who worked with me: what they're like, what their lives were, how they were struggling, paying mortgages, rent, car payments, and taking care of their kids on that minimum-wage salary. My manager wasn't very impressed with my sales numbers, because I wasn't a very good salesman. But then I learned how to sell, and how to talk to people.

Lam: When I read your book, I was thinking about how people like joking about how many immigrant taxi drivers in New York have Ph.Ds. It hit home how not-funny the reality of that situation is, the extreme underemployment of some immigrants.

Singh: It's sad. It's so easy to joke about how somebody who has a Ph.D driving a cab in New York City. But if you step into his or her shoes, you'll know what they gave up to come here and why. Every immigrant has a different story. You can't paint them with a single brush. I had an MBA in India and I was educated. I had to work [in sales], but I also valued my time there. I learned a lot, and I changed in the course of the two years.

Lam: That's what I found refreshing about your book. You address the downward mobility of first-generation immigrants, but then it's also a story of assimilation.

Singh: It was. You come from a different country, and you adjust. But you become used to the ways of the new place. I felt frustrated because if I had gone back to India, my parents would have thought of me as someone who quit. I stuck it out, learned the tricks of the trade, and became a good salesman. My manager and my colleagues started to like me and respect me for who I was.

Lam: It wasn't without its challenges, though. In one instance, you describe finding out that one of your colleagues had been calling you “Tupac” behind your back. But on the other hand, you also highlight that how your colleagues and the customers helped you socialize into American society.

Singh: The downside—I guess it wasn't really a downside—was that people would call me Tupac and I didn't even know who Tupac was. I didn't know if I should be offended or if I should be happy. I just knew that this was not my name, which is Deepak.

I like to talk to people, and the place I worked was a good opportunity because people came to me to talk. They came to me looking for help to buy electronics, and I got this chance to have a conversation with them and talk to them. They really helped me acclimate to American culture and society. They helped me mingle.

Lam: Being a retail salesperson is still the most common job in America. What was your experience of it, as an immigrant?

Singh: I grew up in India and had a very sheltered life. Before I came to America, I never left my parents' home. All of sudden, you're in America and you're working in retail selling electronics to Americans. Your colleagues are very different; they didn't grow up watching the same movies or reading the same books or eat the same food as you did. You have to work with them everyday, so eight hours a day you have to find things in common to talk about. Not only are you learning to sell something, but you're also learning about the people working with you and that's a whole different kind of education [about] the American psyche. In the process, they're learning something about me too: how I'm different, how I do certain things, and why that is.

You're performing, and you have a limited time to talk with the customers. Different kinds of learning are happening, even when you're not thinking that they’re happening. Even when I wasn't with a customer, I was still growing in a certain way. I cannot take that for granted. It was a hard time, but it was also a very special time.

Lam: Near the end of the book, your manager starts seeing a skill you have that your colleagues don't, which is your ability to relate and talk to international customers.

Singh: I developed sort of a niche in the market. I was easy to approach by people from other parts of the world—for example China, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Mexico. Some came to me thinking I might be able to speak Spanish, and some Americans also talked to me because they were interested in my culture. I did have something unique that most of my other colleagues did not.

Lam: I also think it was interesting the way you show how your career can be affected by the things you don’t have because you're new to a community. You didn't have any connections, it was hard to talk to anybody around you about what was going on, and phone calls home were expensive.

Singh: This is very true. I married a woman from rural Pennsylvania. She's not Indian; when I came I had no in-built Indian family or friend circle. My social life was very limited to my wife and working in sales. I wasn't able to discuss any of the experiences, good or bad, with anyone except my wife. She did talk to me, but many times it was hard for her to understand what I was dealing with. I was missing home; I didn't have family or friends to discuss what happened at work. That was hard to get through.

Lam: What happens after the book ends? Are you in touch with any of those colleagues from the electronics store?

Singh: I'm not in touch with any of them. It was 10 years ago, and they've gone different ways. I never went back to the retail world; I went back to journalism. I've been writing, doing radio and books. That's my life after the sales floor. I still think about it. Most of the things I learned about America, and American culture, came from that time.

* This article originally misstated the title of Deepak Singh's book. We regret the error.