by Sandip Roy
(PNS) -- Dear Joe/Jagdeesh,
You just put me on hold. As the muzak tinkles in my ear, I wonder if you know that although you call yourself Joe, the helpful technical-support person for my software problem, I suspect you are really Jagdeesh or Jeevan in Chennai, India.
Jagdeesh -- you don't mind if I call you that, do you? -- I do appreciate that finally I can speak to a telemarketer or a tech support person who doesn't choke over my Indian name. When "Sandip" pops up on your computer screen, do you wonder about my life in San Francisco, and how I ended up here?
Now, when I hear that Dell Computers is moving its call center back from India because American customers were having a tough time with the accent, I can only chuckle. When I first arrived in America, I listened dumbfounded as the young woman at McDonalds scrambled "For-here-to-go?" into one word.
At least, my friend Joe-Jagdeesh, you are trying. You make small talk about San Francisco fog, though it's a muggy night in Chennai. And you might even mention baseball, though cricket is your closest reference.
I know America sees you as the new global, back-office vacuum cleaner sucking up our jobs. McDonalds and Coca Cola and MTV were the ambassadors of America to the opening markets of South Asia. They stirred awake a gargantuan middle-class appetite for consumerism. You are the rear guard of that wave of globalization. You are ready to say "gonna" and apply a patina of an American accent. You already get the day off on the Fourth of July instead of Diwali, India's Festival of Lights. Halfway across the world, you match your life to my waking hours. Soon you might actually be playing baseball, and the U.S. will have exported "the American way of life" without firing a single Cruise missile. How about call centers in Iraq as a nation-building tool?
I wonder, Jagdeesh, what you think about becoming America's new brown peril. Outsourcing is the new dirty word. "Chilling," says the New York Times. Thanks to you, a business processing term has acquired moral tones and found its place in the popular imagination. When the United States turned a blind eye to proliferation of nuclear secrets by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program and hailed that country as a strategic "non-NATO ally," the Los Angeles Times quipped that it seemed America had "outsourced" its national security and the hunt for Bin Laden to Pakistan.
As you come into work as the rest of Bangalore falls asleep, do you wonder how you, Jagdeesh, recent graduate from a mid-level Regional Engineering College, suddenly became a hot-button electoral issue in America? When analysts ask if "sensitive personal data" will be safe in "foreign hands," do you ever feel like they are talking about you? Are you mystified that you have entered the nightmares and angry fantasies of so many politicians, who trip over your real name?
All you wanted was enough money to get a mobile phone, nice clothes and occasional outings to the new restaurant that opened up in Chennai. It sounds not much unlike my American Dream. Except I left my home and country to find it. You get a half-price version right there in Chennai.
Of course there was a cost. I hear that you and your friends are having all kinds of health problems -- insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, even symptoms of split personalities. But that's a small price to pay for being up at night so I can install my software by day, isn't it?
I wonder, did you choose the name Joe or was it assigned to you by your supervisor? Will you be Jim tomorrow?
Over here in America, where Sandips become Sandy and Bhaveshes become Bob, I clung to Sandip as a way to hold on to my homeland. And there, in the middle of Chennai, you put away Jagdeesh every day for eight hours, as if it were an umbrella.
I wish that you had been there when, at the end of the 1980s, I landed in the Midwest from India to go to school in a small university town. In the dead of night, I would wake up homesick and lost, and stand at the window looking at the deserted silent streets in the ghostly glow of the streetlamps. There was no e-mail, and calling India was too expensive. I wish then I could have dialed the 800 number for tech support for some random product and heard your familiar Indian accent. It would be daytime in Chennai, and though you would not know it, step by step, screen by screen, you would be for a few minutes, taking me home.
Next time, Joe, my midnight friend in Chennai, as you help me book a flight or install Turbotax, I hope you'll tell me your real name.
April 9, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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