Immigrant Bengalis

In American superstition, the number 13 is considered an unlucky number. But in some societies, the number 13 is actually considered to be lucky. Whatever the case, when the travel agent said that the best deal he could get would make me land in New York on the 13th of the month, I simply said “I am ready”. Whether the luck was on my side or not, I was coming to America. Heard so much about it, read so much about it, dreamt so much about it, and now I was finally on my way.

So, on a cold afternoon of February 13, the jumbo jet approached New York’s JFK airport. I looked out of the window to get a glimpse of New York’s beautiful skyline – the tallest buildings in the world kissing the sky - that I had seen so many times in movies and pictures. But all I could see was thick dense fog. The visibility was near zero. In a figurative way, that was also the state of my mind – zero visibility of what lay ahead.

Of course, I was excited to finally set foot in America. But more than that, I was apprehensive, very apprehensive of how I would survive. My total tangible asset was 408 dollars - 400 dollars that the Government of India had allowed me to bring, and 8 dollars that I could buy at Calcutta airport. My only other assets were an engineering degree certificate, and the papers for a green card that would allow me to get a job in America. But where was the job? It was the early 1970’s, and I had heard from so many sources that the job market was oppressively bad. After hearing those horror stories, I had delayed my journey as much as I could, before finally taking the leap.

At the airport, I went through the Immigration and finally had in my hands the green card, which was, to many, the ‘dream card’.

Out of the customs gate, I saw Sujit and Shrimay, my college classmates, standing to receive me. At that moment, their familiar faces looked like saving angels – at least I wouldn’t be lost in the streets of New York on a February evening. Earlier, I had written to them, but there was no time to get a reply back. In those days -- with no email, no cell phones and no WhatsApp -- the only means of communication were letters, and these took days to reach across the oceans and continents.

Sujit and Shrimay took me to their apartment in Brooklyn. They both had come a year before me with green cards. After we had settled down with coffee, they started narrating their experiences in America.

For almost a year, they had been looking frantically for an engineer’s job, and there was none. So, the ‘dream card’ had so far brought in nothing, and day-to-day survival was the pressing issue. For months, they would go out and take any job for a few dollars that would go towards paying the rent and bringing food to the table. To stretch their dollars as much as possible, they were sharing the apartment with two other engineers from Calcutta, Manoj and Bhaskar, all in the same boat.

Every morning they would pore over the “Help Wanted” columns in the newspapers. If anything seemed remotely promising, they would make frantic phone calls. And if there was an address, they would show up at the earliest possible time, to compete with others who were going through the same struggle.

What kinds of jobs? Jobs that were euphemistically called ‘odd jobs’. Say, there was an ad from a store that was looking for able-bodied men to carry carpets; they would show up there. When somebody heard from some source that a store was hiring a clerk, they would show up there. They would not mention their engineering degrees, but only mention their green cards.

One day Bhaskar saw Manoj in a security guard’s uniform in front of a high-rise building. There was a code of conduct for such situations – they would recognize, but not acknowledge each other, and both were saved from embarrassment. Another gentlemen’s agreement – nobody would ask anybody whether they could find any work on that day and what kind of work they found. At the end of the day, whoever had earned any money would put part of it in the common coffers so that the rent could be paid and food could be bought.

Just before I left India, I had heard a little bit from common friends that they were having difficulties in America, but I did not know they were surviving on ‘odd jobs’ for almost a year. Sujit said, “We couldn’t write all the details to friends in India. They will think that this would be our life in America. None of us are going back to India. Things will change. Someday, we will find engineers’ jobs, and we all will do very well. But for now, we have to survive and keep trying”.

He was right. After forty-plus years, when they retired, Sujit was a Director at a Fortune 500 company, and Shrimay was a Senior Manager at one of the world’s largest technology companies.

By the time I arrived, things were looking a little more promising than a year ago for my friends. Sujit had a clerical job of data entry at a brokerage firm, and Srimay was hoping for an interview for a ‘real engineer’s job’ in Maryland. But Bhaskar and Manoj were still waiting for a real break.  

I told them about my plans. I had written to my college lab partner, Ambar, who was in Cleveland. He had assured me that I could live with him for a few days, or until I got a job. Both Sujit and Shrimay said that if I could leave New York and find some other place to stay without obligation, I should leave immediately. My plan was to stay with Ambar, so my ticket from India included a separate ticket to Cleveland.

After two days, I left for Cleveland, and there was Ambar standing at the airport to receive me. What a relief.

Some of the names have been changed to protect the identities. Those early dreadful days are now just distant memories.)


Ambar was very kind to me. He had a nice one-bedroom apartment in a Cleveland suburb, and owned a car. He also echoed what I had heard in New York. The job situation was really bad. His own job was very insecure and he wouldn’t be surprised if he was laid off. To supplement his income, he was working as a tax preparer for H&R Block in the evenings. Ambar made it very clear that I could stay in his place until I found a job, and of course, the sooner the better. He gave me few tips about making phone calls for a job and left for work the next morning.

So like Sujit and Srimay, I opened the morning newspaper and pored over the “Help Wanted” columns. There were all kinds of jobs – for butchers, carpet layers, ticket collectors, but none for engineers. I immediately realized what Ambar had meant, and what my friends in New York had been going through.

But I had to earn some money. My 408 dollars certainly would not last for more than a few weeks. So I had to survive in Cleveland the same way that my friends were surviving in New York. I picked up the phone and started calling. If a butcher’s position was open, I said “I can do it”. Fresh from India, I was not sure what a butcher really did. If the position was for an Encyclopedia Salesman, I said, “I can do it”. But the job needed a car, so no hope there.  

After a few phone calls, I realized that the effort was not going anywhere. But I kept calling. On one such  call, the gentleman at the other end heard my accent and sensed my desperation. So he asked, “Are you new to this country?”  

I said, “Yes’.

He asked, “From where?

I said, “India.”

He said, “You can try calling people like you called here. But let me tell you this: without any experience, nobody will hire you. So you have to get some experience first, and experience in the US. Good luck”.

What a chicken and egg situation. Without a job, I couldn't get experience, and without experience, I couldn't get a job. The situation looked very bleak indeed.

Perhaps my friend in India was right. He had more sense of Sujit and Shrimay’s situation than others in India. He had told me just before I left India: “You are going to waste your time. They are graduate engineers, and look what they are doing. You will do the same.”

But now there was no going back. I had consciously made the decision of leaving my good job in India. Now I had to earn some money, simply to survive, and then see where Lady Luck would take me.

A week passed. No sign of any hope anywhere. Ambar said nothing, but I sensed his unhappiness at not knowing how long I was going to stay with him. Maybe he was regretting that he agreed to host me for an indefinite period. I suggested that I could try my hand in tax preparation for H&R Block. But that needed training, and it would cost money, and I didn’t have a dime to spare. So, that wouldn’t work either.

After ten days or so, I found an ad for “HVAC Engineer”. When Ambar came back from office, I asked him, “What is HVAC?”. He said “It is heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.”

Air-conditioning – I had studied thermodynamics in college, I knew all about the principles of air-conditioning. Given a chance, I was sure I could handle the job. So next morning, I called that number. When a lady answered, I coolly told her that I was interested in the job and I had knowledge of HVAC.

She put me on hold for a while, and then came back and said that Craig would like to see me the next Friday. My first ray of hope! So the next Friday, properly attired, I showed up at Craig’s office. He asked me a few questions, I had no problem in answering them.

At one point, he asked about my extra-curricular activities. I was never good at any sports. The only thing I was reasonably good at was contract bridge. I told him that I had represented my hostel in competitive contract bridge. He listened, asked a few more questions, and then I left.

The following Wednesday, Craig’s secretary, a kind, older lady, called and said that Craig wanted to hire me. The salary he offered was well below the prevailing salary of an engineer. But to me, this was too good to be true. I got an engineer’s job within three weeks, and now I could survive on my own! I accepted the salary, and she asked me to start from the following Monday.

Ambar took me to an apartment building close to the university. The rent was cheap. The residents were mostly graduate students and some young immigrants like me. It was close to public transportation that I could use to go to the downtown office.

So I started my first job in America.

After about two weeks, Craig took me to his bridge club. I could see that it was a conglomeration of old men and ladies, all very impassioned about bridge. I could also sense that everybody was making fun of Craig behind his back, because his extreme enthusiasm was not matched by his competence. And now he had brought in this young man from a foreign country. The game started and I was his partner. With both luck and strategy, that evening we emerged as champions. Nobody laughed at Craig any more.

The next morning, when Craig came to office, he was literally jumping with joy and touching the ceiling. His secretary, in a half-joking manner, said, “And that’s why you hired Asok”. There may be a bit of truth in that. But Craig didn’t say anything.

Bridge triumphs aside - I believe my work had justified his hiring me. I had a colleague at the next table, Pat Dufton, with same engineering education and same experience. We both worked on similar projects, and both produced good results. But I could sense that his salary was quite a bit higher than mine.

After about three months, Craig called me to his office and said, “When we hired you, we did not have any knowledge about an Indian engineer. We didn’t know what an Indian engineer can deliver. So we took a chance. Now that we have seen your work, we are very pleased, and we want to raise your salary”. The raise was significant, and it brought my salary pretty close to Pat’s.

This IS my story. The same story was repeated thousands of times across America with many of the young professionals who came to this country in the early 1970’s. The decision makers didn’t know what we were capable of, and hesitated to take a chance on us. But once we got our feet in the door, we proved our worth. Not only that, but we excelled. We got the word out that we (the Indian engineers) were second to none. We got into positions of higher responsibility -- not because of our heritage, but because of our basic training in India, and sheer hard work. And yes, sometimes, luck. In my case, landing in New York on the 13th of the month was not so bad after all.

The generations that followed us did not have to go through the same hardships. In a way, we paved the path for them, and they proved their abilities when their turn came. Today, Indians are a thriving community of successful professionals, well known and respected in their chosen fields. We enjoy our successes, and don’t want to look back on our early days of hardship. But those days of struggle were real. We worked hard to make our way up, and we made an immense success story of America’s immigrants from distant shores. 

Job Search in America

Asok Baral

(Posted February 1, 2019)

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