Friday, August 5, 2011

As India rubs up against the world, some world rubs off

Call center employee's Royal Enfield carried him
around India; his job carried him away.
Somewhere in New Delhi is a young man who rides a Royal Enfield motorcycle and earns a living telling Americans his name is "Adam."

It's not.

"Adam" is one of the Indian call center employees profiled by writer Andrew Marantz in the July/August 2011 edition of Mother Jones.

Marantz, born in the United States, spent his summer training to work in New Delhi in what is called Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). That " includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do."

"A BPO salary is contingent on the worker's ability to de-Indianize: to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude," Marantz explains. "Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it's company policy."

He quotes a 2003 article from the Guardian: "The most marketable skill in India today, is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."

BPO employees earn as much $5,000 per year, a middle-class salary, but most live cheaply as possible in the big city so they can send money home.

"Adam" was different, Marantz writes. Adam wore his biker outfit: black bomber jacket, black boots, a bandanna around his neck.

He'd only intended to work in the call centers for a few months. At 34, he felt stuck.

"All this time 'perfecting my skills,'" he told Marantz, bitterly. "What skills? Accent and diction? How will that lead to a career?"

Adam's family had expected him to stay home and marry his high school sweetheart. He shocked them by moving to Delhi. BPO culture training encouraged him to eat American fast food and use American slang. And it taught him about societies where young people lived as they pleased.

His high school sweetheart met another guy, but Adam had not found a girlfriend in Delhi.

He told Marantz "he was still stuck in the same customer-support job, still verging on depression, and still single. He never could figure out how to date casually, as Americans do; nor could he bring himself to use the matrimonial websites popular in India."

Adam "is too westernized to be happy in India. He speaks with an American accent, listens to American rock music, and suffers from American-style malaise. In his more candid moments, he admits that life would have been easier if he had hewn to the traditional Indian path."

The conclusion Marantz comes to is this:

"Free-market cheerleaders, conflating rising wages with rising spirits, are quick to applaud India's 'maturing' markets. But the truth is more complicated: Studies show that once people move out of poverty, increasing wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.

"Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis."

There is much more to Marantz's article than I have quoted here. It's worth a look.

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