David Treadwell

David Treadwell

“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?”

In his remarkable book, “How May I Help You?,” An Immigrant’s Journey from MBA to Minimum Wage,” Deepak Singh describes what it’s like to be an immigrant in a new land, unable to obtain the kind of position for which he was qualified, ashamed to tell his parents that he was working as a sales clerk at an electronics store. He needed the job to hold up his end of the marriage bargain, as his wife Holly was working on her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

After reading the book, I learned that Deepak now lives in Brunswick, along with Holly, who is completing a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Bowdoin, and their seven-year-old daughter Anushka. Deepak bared his soul in the memoir, but I wanted to get a better sense of who he is and why he wrote the book, so I arranged a meeting.

Over coffee at the Wild Oats Bakery, I began by asking Deepak whether he was glad he worked at the electronics store. “Yes,” he responded, “It wasn’t easy, because I’d never sold anything before, but I met some interesting people and made some good friends. I also earned money to help pay the rent.” Although he wrote the book a few years after working in the store, Deepak said that it was tough to relive those memories. “I even cried a few times when I was writing it,” he admitted.

As a technophobe, I can’t imagine working as a sales clerk at an electronics store in the United States, let alone in India or any another country, whatever the native language or culture, so I really empathized with Deepak’s plight. He did a masterful job of conveying what it’s like to be viewed as “different” by some people because of the color of his skin. I felt his pain when he wrote about overcoming the language barrier; some customers couldn’t understand what he was saying and at times they couldn’t understand him. I felt the pressure he felt to sell more expensive products, even though a given customer might not necessarily “need” what was being sold.

I emerged from reading the book with a much greater appreciation of the hurdles faced by immigrants, whatever their job skills or backgrounds. Moreover, I was reminded that every person who works behind the counter of a retail store — or anywhere else, for that matter — has a story. They are fellow human beings, not just cogs in the make more sales American capitalist machine.

I also emerged with great respect for Deepak’s talent as a writer. I’m not alone, as confirmed by the fact that he has been published in many notable outlets, such as “the New York Times” and “The Atlantic” and served as a commentator for the BBC and Public Radio International.

Deepak has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Brunswick, noting the kindness and warmth of the people. “I’ve gotten a lot of love from here,” he says with a smile.

Deepak and Holly face some exciting new challenges in the future. Holly has accepted a teaching position at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Deepak will spend a year at Boston University, where he will be working on his MFA in Creative Writing.

Based on their past experience, I am confident that Deepak and Holly will survive this temporary arrangement with their spirits and marriage intact. I’m equally confident that people who take the time to read Deepak’s memoir will be glad they did.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary or suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns. [email protected]


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