Thoughts on N. Sivakumar’s, Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers.
by Jennifer Kumar
I highly encourage anyone wanting a good laugh and lots of drama to read N. Sivakumar’s, Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers. My purpose here is to share with you my thoughts on the book, not a traditional book review.
The majority of this essay will focus on the first few chapters and the last few chapters of the book, the cross-cultural experiences of Indians in U.S.A. I will highlight quotes, chronologically from the book, and comment on them accordingly. Though I had read the so called ‘meat and potatoes’ of the book, trying to debug the corporate culture of software and computer programming, this topic is foreign to me, being that my present career in social work is as far from computers as one could get (and still know how to use a computer).
“What do Americans do with their grocery bags?” (page 27)
I learned the true use and reuse of grocery bags in USA, from immigrant Hungarian parents! Up until my stay in India, I would store plastic bags, using them to carry things in (books, lunch, used items to Salvation Army, etc.) and also used them as garbage bags, hair caps (when coloring hair), laundry bags, reusable grocery bags and other uses. However, after having stayed in India, I realized the true use and life of, as they are called in India, ‘plastic covers’. I have to say though, that most plastic covers in India are much better quality and can last longer than most in USA. They also generally are prettier too! I would have to say the most innovative use of a plastic cover I saw in India was a college friend carrying her books to school in the cover, and inside the book, hiding her currency notes. Who would see the notes, or know she is carrying money there? Then, I am spotted, a dumb foreigner carrying a thin strapped purse, which did get cut off and all contents, gone! Since coming back from India, I have not lost a lot of uses for the plastic cover, but gained a new respect for them. I continue to use them for most of the above stated uses, including carrying my lunch to work in plastic bags. However, being in the social work field, I know I am not alone in doing this. Plenty of my American coworkers (there is not much cultural variety in social work employees in my office) also do the same, and the more ambitious ones buy lunch boxes or canvas lunch bags. I have to admit, however, I would not use these plastic covers again and again if my curry had stained the bag and it begins to smell. (I do carry Indian food to work 1-3 times a week.)
“In the process of keeping the kitchen clean, most Indians will cover the stove with a foil paper.” (page 27)
…and the kitchen counters and the stove’s back splash, and…. Just Kidding! But I have walked into Desi apartment kitchens and been taken aback by the glow of light reflected from the aluminum foil that seemed to cover every square inch of space! Of, course the reasoning behind this act is totally understandable, though it does not necessarily look ascetically pleasing! Foil is definitely the easiest to find and cheapest way to do this job. However, recently visiting a Desi friend’s apartment, I was pleased to see an alternative material used that definitely reduced the glow, removable contact paper. The nice thing about contact paper is it comes in many attractive patterns, is washable, and is longer lasting than aluminum foil. However, on the down side, contact paper can only be used on counter tops, not stoves, and you will need to use pot holders to put hot items down on counter tops lined with contact paper.
“Standing in a line is not new to us.” (page 28)
Here, Sivakumar is relating how, in India, Indians learn the art of waiting in long lines, and how waiting in long lines, especially at the American Consulate, has trained Indians to wait in long lines on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) in electronics stores to get the best deal. When reading this, I was also reminded of the training I got in India waiting in long lines for everything from paying my tuition, to getting on the bus or train, to waiting to cross the railway track when the train is crossing. However, I think the most famous line I have stood in is the line to enter the Tirupathi Venkataswara Temple in India. Some years ago, I remember a forwarded email floating in cyberspace stating that Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (the state in which the temple is located) was considering installing a conveyor belt to make the devotees wait more pleasurable. I laughed out loud when I read that e-mail.
“Don’t get caught by those Amway guys!” (page 29)
Of course, an Indian’s American Dream story can not exclude the infamous Amway experience. In fact, when I set up my website way back in 1996, talking about India, not yet having gone, the first to respond to my website were Desi Amway representatives! Since my first introduction, I have been introduced many times since and always find polite ways to decline. Though, I have to admit, I have met some interesting people on the way! Sivakumar asks many questions in the book, one I have is “Why Amway?”. Why are Desis so infatuated by Amway? How did Desis get started in Amway? Is the ‘cheap’ factor really the reason? Is the idea of making a lot of money the reason? And, who really makes all this money? The one part of the Desi Amway connection that has always fascinated me is that, as Sivakumar has said in other parts of the book, Desis are not, overall, known to be forceful, in fact Desis appear more passive. I always wondered how does this quality equate to the stereotypical American salespeople? And, lastly, do Desis in Amway sell only or mostly to other Desis, or do Americans also participate in a large scale? (I personally have never been approached by an American Amway representative, nor do I know Americans who buy from Amway.)
“In other words, an average programmer, who came from abroad, spends 80 percent of his income in the U.S.” (page 54)
This sums up the previous two pages detailing the economics of daily life for a H1-B in the U.S. I was happy to know this is ‘written in stone’ for others to read. When I was in India, plenty of Desis there, not knowing the situation here fully, thought I was rich because my family made X amount of dollars per year. Yes, it appears ‘rich’ when you translate that amount into rupees. But the key here is in the U.S., you earn and spend in dollars, you do not earn in dollars and spend in rupees! This is exactly the point, I think Sivakumar was able to highlight wonderfully.
“…because people in India want things that are only ‘made in the U.S.A.” (page 54)
Here, Sivakumar is describing having to buy presents from U.S. to take back to family and friends in India. This is true, Indians want things from U.S. made in U.S.A. Finding American made goods is a job in itself, as Sivakumar detailed here and later in the book (p. 69-70), and the history of Walmart can demonstrate. However, his discussion reminded me of buying Indian made goods in the U.S. Indian made clothing and imported crafts, specialty teas, coffees, and other goods that are sold in America are definitely sold at inflated prices, no doubt, but the trade off is huge. Firstly, many of these items are not found or difficult to find even in urban areas of India. Secondly, the quality of the same product is much better in U.S. I have to say I understand why, but it infuriates me. Indians, who manufacture these goods, also deserve to enjoy this ‘superior’ quality.
“Many American’s can’t differentiate between and Indian and a Middle Easterner.” (page 62)(sic)
Here, Sivakumar starts to recount his personal experience with prejudice in U.S. after the September 11th attacks. It is true, Americans either cannot differentiate or have a lot of difficulty in differentiating between Indians and Middle Easterners, and even Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and other groups (also alluded to in the book on pages 105-111). Some of it is complete ignorance, some of it misinformation and some of it may be a desire to lash out anyone different. In fact, if you were to study American history, this type of thing has happened all throughout with all kinds of Immigrant groups ( This includes ‘white’ immigrants, such as Irish immigrants during the 19th century.). I am not justifying this behavior, merely pointing out a possibility that this could be part of the American legacy (as sad as I believe this to be). But, I think most countries have a similar type of legacy for one reason or another.
“I can’t differentiate between an Italian American and a Scandinavian American.” (page 62)
In India, I stuck out like a sore thumb being the only ‘white person’ in a majority of situations a majority of the time. Whenever I was out with my Indian classmates and we saw a ‘white’, they would say, “There is your friend.” Their meaning of friend was defined as another American. Often, I surprised myself by telling my classmate that this person could be my friend, but was not an American. Often, I was right. (Had that same situation happen in U.S., I would not be able to tell just by seeing the person that he or she was not ‘American’.) Also, in India, many Indians assume if you’re white you’re rich, no matter what country you are from. I was surprised to meet many white students from former states of USSR that were spending more to live in India than their native places because of the superior standards of education in India.
“…Americans ran into the bookstores to buy world maps to figure out where Afghanistan was.” (page 100)
Here, Sivakumar was trying to highlight American’s need for geography lessons. This is ever evident. Although Americans understand the vastness of our country, unlike those who have not yet arrived here, a majority of Americans may not understand the landscape of our world. Recently, on an episode of the Daily Show, correspondents went to the street to ask New Yorker’s (In New York City) to point out Iran on the world map. All three maps used incorrectly stated Iran as being either Australia, New Zealand or France. With all three maps the Americans asked quickly pointed to the ‘wrong’ country rather than pointing out the actual Iran. I am sure they had done editing to prove this point, I am sure some people they asked knew the maps were mismarked, but it also goes to prove how hypnotized Americans are by the media! (In addition to being geography illiterate!) I am not here to say Americans are the only ones ignorant of geography, there are plenty of Indians in the same boat. When I was in India, my classmates and I had to plan an out of state trip. We were situated in the state of Tamil Nadu. We had a few choices of itineraries. One was Delhi, Agra, Shimla (which was eventually chosen) the second was Patna, Jamshedpur, Calcutta and the third was Bubeneshwar or Calcutta or Guwahati, Darjeeling, Aizawl (Mizoram State). I am forgetting the exact details, but the things that stick out most clearly is that only one of my elder classmates appeared to be certain where Patna and Jamshedpur were (beside me), in Bihar State, and that the places of Darjeeling and Aizawl in North East India were not only extremely difficult to travel to due geography but also extremely unsafe due to insurgency and other kinds of terrorism happening in the Northeastern States of India
“…just like many American Sikhs who have served- and have lost their lives – in the U.S. military…” (page 111)
It is true, there are many Americans of Indian decent who have served, are serving and will serve in the U.S. Military. In fact, in 2005, the Indian Community in Corning, N.Y. hosted a grand celebration for the Indian Independence Day (August 15). This was one of the grandest and most well organized Indian festivals I have been to. It was a street festival in downtown Corning. Indians performed a cultural program in the open air theatre and then sold tickets for a North Indian Style lunch. The attendees of this program were about 80% Indian and 20% non-Indian. It was wonderful. Also, the Indians in the Corning community who have an affiliation to any branch of the U.S. Military wore their full uniform on that day to communicate to the public (non-Indians) that Indian-Americans do give back to U.S. and are patriotic and grateful to this country. I was honored and also proud to be in the midst of such noble people.
“India is probably the only country in the world that has had a Hindu Prime Minister, a Muslim President, A Christian Foreign Minister, and an Italian lady as the opposition leader.” (page 117)
Politics, politics, politics! My response is when will America have a non-white, non-male, non-Christian president? I doubt in my lifetime!
“The menus are very simple or extremely complicated, like the Florida ballot sheets. But the difficult part is, when you order something, you should be prepared to answer ten other questions.” (page 171)
I often go out to ‘American restaurants’ with my co-workers for lunch. I am American, bought up in America, but even so, these menus baffle me! Some of these menus are so confusing, so many choices, and then the 100 more you have to think about after the waitress comes! So, if for me, an American, it is overwhelming and confusing to go to this kind of restaurant, I can imagine what it is like for a non-American. In fact, having over my in-laws from India last year helped me realize this first hand!
“It’s very common in some parts of India that the “Z” and “G” are pronounced as “JEE”.” (page 173)
Also, let’s not forget the “X”. In South India, it is not XEROX, but JEERRROKS. In the beginning of the word “X” is pronounced like “JEE” and at the end, it is pronounced like “KS”. In addition to interesting and difficult to understand accents (for Americans) the spelling of names and words can also be challenging. When I applied, over the phone from U.S. to India, to Madras Christian College, I initially spelled my name – J-E-N-N-I-F-E-R, and was not understood. Remembering how my south Indian friends recited the English alphabet to me, I tried it again. When I spelled my name JAY – Yeee- YEnn- (yet another) YEnn- EYE- YEF- EEE- ARRE, they were satisfied, and we understood each other!
“He had learnt everything that is American, and had even learnt to behave like Mr. Show Off, but he had not realized that he had been stinking so bad for thirty years.” (page 184)
This comment was alluding to the fact that no matter how long Indians are in America, and no matter how American they may appear to be, some parts of them will always be Indian. In this case, it was the food habits that retained their Indianness. The smell of the curry and the other Indian foods can be mouthwatering and fragrant to one person, and repulsive and stinky to another! I think many do not understand the importance of food to culture, though they go to extreme lengths to either assure or avoid certain items in their diets. For example, I was working with a family from Puerto Rico. One aspect of their culture was evident in their home, speaking Spanish, which required me to bring in a Spanish interpreter as I do not know Spanish. However, when getting to know the family, I asked them if there were aspects of Puerto Rican culture they continue, besides speaking Spanish, at home. When they responded, there were none, I asked about food habits. Then, they admitted that though they do eat American food regularly, they enjoy the spicy and varied cuisine of Puerto Rico in their New York home. To me, this is a large aspect of their culture they continue. Sometimes when I would walk in, I would be greeted by their cuisine, and most of it with different spices and non-vegetarian, was a sure culture shock for me, right here in America!
In this rather lengthy essay I have shared with you some comments, feedback and random, but hopefully, related thoughts I encountered while reading N. Sivakumar’s book Dude, Did I Steal Your Job? Debugging Indian Computer Programmers. One last comment that I did not mention is that I appreciate Sivakumar’s use of vocabulary to reduce stereotypes. He avoided using words such as ‘all Indians’, ‘every American’, and instead used “most Americans”, “many Indians”, to avoid stereotyping. I personally know how difficult this can be and appreciate his effort in this. I hope you have enjoyed reading this essay. If you have any comments or questions, do not hesitate to contact me.
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