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.