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My Summer at an Indian Call Center

Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from.

Twenty years ago, before India opened its markets to the world, career prospects were bleak. Men might have been laborers or government workers, but even the most ambitious women often gave in to social pressure and stayed home.

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Today, almost half of BPO employees are women, many of whom outearn both of their parents. 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. 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. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it's company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.

At the end of each training day, the Qualis would drop me back at the Toyota showroom. From there I would walk down a narrow, unpaved lane and turn onto an even narrower alley, just wide enough (I learned the hard way) for a human to squeeze past a cow.

Like most BPO agents from out of town, I rented a room in a workers' hostel. For the equivalent of $80 per month, I got a nine-by-six cell—a plywood double bed, a ceiling fan, and two windows covered in newspaper—plus two hot meals a day.

In the hostel I met Satish, a slight, bespectacled fellow who worked with computers and always seemed to have a head cold. One night, he grabbed my sleeve and whispered that Shail, his girlfriend, was coming to visit. She lived in a ladies' hostel down the street, but they rarely saw each other because she worked nights at a call center. Shail, 23, had moved here from a small town in Uttar Pradesh. She had graduated at the top of her college class but always assumed she'd end up at a call center. She answered phones for Target, telling customers the balance remaining on their gift cards. The work was boring, she said, but she was "learning to feel independent" and saving up for her dowry.

Shail was bright and personable, with effortless good looks. I asked how she and Satish had met. "Online," she said, giggling. "Yahoo Chat. He proposed without seeing me. It was so embarrassing." Satish had selected her screen name at random and "proposed" that they date. Later, he told me he'd done the same with dozens of girls. "I never used to attend his chats," Shail said. "But something happened; we started talking and I realized that really he is loving me. After a few months, I accepted his proposal."

They planned to spend a few years working in Delhi before getting married and moving to Satish's home state of Tamil Nadu. "There is slight language problem," Shail admitted. She doesn't speak Tamil and Satish doesn't speak Hindi. "Even when we want to fight, we fight in English."

I returned to find a man sitting upright in my bed,  fast asleep. My cell, it turned out, was now a "shared room," and Amit was my new roommate.

When I stopped asking questions, Shail had one for me. "I have experienced some Americans—please don't mind—they don't like Indians. They act rude as soon as they come to know I am Indian. Why is this?" I stammered something about protectionism, but really I didn't know what to say.

The next morning, a Saturday, I went out for a late breakfast. When I returned, there was a man sitting upright in my bed, fully clothed and fast asleep. My cell, it turned out, was now a "shared room," and Amit was my new roommate. He was sleeping off a 36-hour triple shift at his tech-support job. For the next month, Amit and I slept side by side. The bed was wide enough that we didn't have to touch, but we could hear each other breathing. On nights when the power cut out and the ceiling fan stopped, we would lie awake sweating and cursing and praying for relief.

I also got to know a man I'll call Arjuna, a meaty guy with a cleft chin who rented a two-bedroom flat nearby. His hobbies included drumming (he liked The Eagles and Bon Jovi) and taking solo motorcycle trips through the Himalayas, and even in the oppressive summer heat he wore his biker outfit: black bomber jacket, black boots, a bandanna around his neck.

Arjuna told me that he spent the first half of 2003 raising funds for the GOP. As an employee of the outsourcing firm HCL, he called registered Republicans all over the United States to solicit donations. (That September, the conservative site WorldNetDaily, citing an Indian press report, reported that HCL was raising money for the "US Republican Party." The Republican National Committee insisted that the story was false. Later, as it happened, the FEC sued a Texas-based group called the Republican Victory Committee—which employed a Delhi call center called Apex to do its fundraising—for falsely claiming that it represented the party.)

At first, Arjuna figured we would just work in call centers for a few months. Now he's in his thirties, and feeling trapped between East and West.Arjuna thought he would just work in call centers a few months. Now he's in his thirties, feeling trapped between East and West.Arjuna told me he enjoyed fundraising but was opposed to Bush's policies, particularly the war in Iraq. I asked whether he felt partly responsible for his reelection. "It's a scary thought," he admitted. "Luckily, I wasn't very good at my job back then."

As he recounted his subsequent eight years in the industry, his big eyes swelled with indignation. He'd only intended to work in the call centers for a few months. At 34, he felt stuck. He was still at HCL, doing customer support for British Telecom. "All this time 'perfecting my skills,'" he said bitterly. "What skills? Accent and diction? How will that lead to a career?"

Growing up in Kolkata, Arjuna never got along with his parents. "In America, you guys move away from your family after high school or college," he said, "but not here." His family expected him to stay at home, work at the bank where his father worked, and marry his high school sweetheart. Instead, he shocked everyone by moving to Delhi. BPOs aligned with his individualist streak; culture training taught him about societies where young people lived as they pleased. He impressed coworkers with his American accent, and when he got his first paycheck, he tasted the liberating power of disposable income.

Soon, though, his hobbies began to feel hollow. He had lost touch with his family and made few friends. His high school sweetheart stayed in Kolkata and met another guy, but Arjuna had not found a girlfriend in Delhi.

During our second day of culture training, Lekha dissected the Australian psyche. It took about 20 minutes.

"Just stating facts, guys," Lekha began, as we scribbled notes, "Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly." Next to me, a young man in a turban wrote No college in his notebook.

"Technologically speaking, they're somewhat backward, as well. The average person's mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic." This drew scoffs from around the room.

"Australians drink constantly," Lekha continued. "If you call on a Friday night, they'll be smashed—every time. Oh, and don't attempt to make small talk with them about their pets, okay? They can be quite touchy about animals."

"What kind of people are there in Australia?" a trainee asked. "What are their traits?"

"Well, for one thing," Lekha said, "let's admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is—please don't mind, ladies—'brown bastards.' So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call."

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