Mother Jones Falls Short with ‘My Summer at an Indian Call Center

by Guest Contributor Kirti Kamboj, originally published at Hyphen

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Mother Jones recently published “My Summer at an Indian Call Center,” which looked at the other side of the “these people are stealing our jobs!” outsourcing scenario. It was written by Andrew Marantz, an American who spent a summer in India and took a training course for call center agents, and focused on his experiences during this training and his views of the industry. Some parts were interesting, such as the strange and amusing anecdotes from his cultural training bootcamp, and it provided a much needed counter to the idea that the current system of globalization brings greater happiness and prosperity to everyone.

Points like this were particularly insightful:

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 [16]: 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.

But its critique was ultimately limited, full of over-generalizations, and at times contradictory. Below are four reasons I found it so, and why I would hesitate to recommend this article.

(1) Near the beginning of the piece, Marantz quotes a 2003 Guardian article which states: “The most marketable skill in India today is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else’s.” It’s factually correct that this is a marketable skill, but by labeling it the most marketable skill the article is overreaching. It also fails to make a distinction that few Indians overlook. Namely, that there’s very little money that a middle class urban Indian can earn by slipping into the identity of, say, a villager in Orissa, or a farmer in rural Nigeria. The marketable skill is the ability to slip into an affluent Westerner’s identity.

By itself, this is a small omission and overgeneralization, but there are similar ones throughout this article, forming a pattern indicative of a lack of awareness or concern for the underlying hierarchies that govern many aspects of a call center employee’s life, as well as a lack of nuance.

(2) The most interesting, as well as most questionable, parts of the article were those which talked about the cultural training call center agents are required to undergo. In this training, Marantz says,

trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call “international culture” — which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one.

While in this instance learning “international culture” is obviously corporate doublespeak for “If you sound too Indian, you’ll be fired,” to claim that there’s no international culture seems similar to the claim that white people have no culture, especially in its glossing over of underlying hierarchies. The point of this culture training, it must not be forgotten, is to give the Indians at these call centers names, accents, mannerisms, and cultural signifiers that help them to pass for Westerners, to circumvent the “protectionism” instincts of the callers. This isn’t a melding of two cultures into something no one is familiar with; it’s the attempted erasure of one to avoid instigating the anger and scorn of those from the other.

Furthermore, to say the signifiers of this “international culture” are recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one is to imply that the playing field is equal, that there’s no hierarchy in the making of said signifiers or in the awareness/consumption of them. It glosses over the history of colonialism as well as current economic inequalities, and implies something that’s partly disproven by the author’s own experience: that an American, walking into a call center recruiting office, would have the same chances of being hired as an Indian.

Marantz further exacerbates this by characterizing call centers, where Indians are pressured to pass as Westerners, as “one of the largest intercultural exchanges in history.” And the unacknowledged irony is that in this globalized world, it’s Westerners such as Marantz — who have spent a semester in Nepal, or gone through some call center training, or have had their jobs outsourced — that largely define for international culture what it means to be an Indian call center agent.

(3) The author makes statements that seem factually questionable, such as the following:

Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do.

Most workers in the BPO industry, of which call centers form a part, are not from Himalayan tribes or coastal fishing towns, but are “urban English-speaking youths“. One of the prerequisites of working at call centers, as Marantz himself states, is complete mastery of English, which is difficult to achieve in most schools to which Indians from Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns have access. Here, it seems like Marantz is trying to shove the lives of call center agents into a certain assimilation narrative — ambitious young men leave their traditional communities to make a name for themselves in (increasingly Westernized) cities, and in the process lose their identity — whether or not all the facts fit.

There are two other problems with this. The first, to paraphrase Charles Ramirez Berg, is that this assimilation narrative endorses the very system it sets out to criticize, because the only happy ending sends the ethnic/non-Western Other back to where he began, leaving him to cope with the negligible opportunities that exist for him there. The second is that it presents an oversimplified, binary view of the world. This is also evident in other parts of the article, where Marantz makes quite sweeping generalizations. For example, when describing a call center trainee, Marantz writes, “Growing up in rural Haryana, Nishant got his picture of the world from grainy Sylvester Stallone movies on a neighbor’s TV. Like all the boys in his village, he dreamed of living in California.”

For many young men and women, particularly those living near poverty, globalization has displaced nationalism as an ideal. For them, success is defined not in climbing local hierarchies, which can be quite rigid, but in bypassing them entirely and reaching affluence by finding work abroad. That said, I would have suspected at least one or two of the boys in Nishant’s village to have dreams of becoming, say, world famous cricket players, professions that would not require living in California. That Marantz doesn’t makes me wonder at the absoluteness of his perceptions.

And from parts such as this –

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.

– it’s clear that Marantz sees pre-1991 India as having almost nothing to offer ambitious men and women. That this statement ignores doctors, businessmen, professors, etc, is perhaps belaboring the obvious. What is also questionable is the implication that the last twenty years have brought nothing but progress. For while it’s true that middle and upper class urban Indians, on average, have become more affluent in this time period (and not always, or even mainly, by adopting Western identities, even in the BPO industry, despite the impression this article gives), the same can’t be said for others. When India bowed to international pressure and began opening its markets, some of the largely ignored consequences were greater income inequality, increased poverty, currency shocks, food insecurity, and a “crisis of extinction” faced by small rural farmers.

(4) The concluding paragraph of the article comprises the main reasons that I’m hesitant to recommend it. It begins:

In a sense, Arjuna 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.

As stated above, I believe that this article contains a much needed — though limited — critique of the justifications of global free market capitalism. However, it often implicitly and explicitly reiterates the same essentialist East/West binary that such justifications rely on, the worldview that the East is conservative, traditional, stagnant, and ultimately (and deservedly) powerless against the dynamic, modern, independent, and ruggedly individualistic West. The statement that Arjuna is “too Westernized to be happy in India” contains an unthinking reliance on this East/West dichotomy — which is also present in the statements quoted above — and works to undermine Marantz’s critique of Western-style free market capitalism not being the path to happiness and prosperity.

I know of desis who were born and brought up in America who are now living quite happily in India, as well as Indians who are unhappy with their “traditional Indian” path and those who are happy with their “modern Western” one (I put these in quotes because I would be quite curious to know the exact criteria that distinguish a traditional Indian path from a modern Western one). The crucial difference, it seems to me, isn’t the degree of Westernization, but the available career opportunities. And however lucrative call center jobs might appear in the short-term, in the long-term such jobs are physically- and emotionally-demanding career dead-ends.

From the facts stated in the article, it can be inferred that Arjuna is highly educated and comes from a relatively privileged family. The problem isn’t that such a person became too “Westernized to be happy in India,” but that even with all his education and privileges, there were few options available to him. All that he — and hundreds of thousands of other Indians — have to show for their efforts are graveyard shift call center jobs that leave them physically and mentally disconnected from the world outside. Jobs where they’re required to speak English even among themselves, where they must take timed bathroom breaks and don’t have the freedom to step outside, where they’re minutely judged on their ability to pass as those more valued in global hierarchies and passively endure whatever abuse the customer throws at them. And the problem is that these are some of the people who are considered globalization’s success stories, and the hardships others face — those, say, from “Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns” — are generally greater and far more pressing.

  • Kirti Kamboj

    It’s likely from a lack of knowledge about the deeper complexities of Indian culture which (granted, the author could have researched better) causes the author to reduce the subjects into American/Eastern Traditional/Modern binary… but it’s a binary that’s pretty much the philosophical underpinning of the “West” (in general, America in particular), so to me, it’s not surprising.

    I believe the lack of knowledge on Marantz’s part stems from unquestioned privilege, both in his reliance on some Orientalist tropes and his misinterpretation of some basic facts. And I completely agree with you, that said binary is the philosophical underpinning of the West, and these days America in particular, and I wish that I found it surprising! It’s sad that what I find surprising is when I read an article here that doesn’t rely on it.

    I can understand your wariness/weariness towards this manner of thinking, as I’m sure that (like the workers in the article) you’re a complex cultural being that is much more complicated than a simple set of either/or distinctions…

    It’s more than that, though, yeah? I wouldn’t really care if these things only had limited personal consequences. But said binaries also seem to form the basis on which justifications for things, such as the British colonization of India, the prioritizing of developed country agendas in international “free” trade agreements, are built. So I feel it important that anytime they arise, they should be deconstructed (though I often don’t have the time/energy to do so myself, because as you pointed out they are the rule rather than the exception).

    I personally found it useful (original author’s viewpoint aside) was in hearing the direct voices of the workers; the words are rarely heard in the US media, even in publications like Mother Jones.

    *nods* You’re right, the other side of the outsourcing story is rarely ever discussed in US publications, and I was also happy to see it being done so on Mother Jones, at least initially. If you want to read more on this, I’d recommend Amitabh Pal’s Indian By Day, American By Night, if you haven’t come across it already.

     I just felt as though you were treating the original article as a “critique”, when it’s meant to be (in my eyes) mostly a bit of trite travel-journalism.

    ah, thanks for elaborating. That’s a weakness in my original piece, that I didn’t make clear that I was responding as much to the reception of said article, in certain liberal circles I’m part of, as the article itself. I agree with you that the article is more of a travel-journalism piece (though I would rather call it Orientalist than trite) than a critique of global free-market capitalism. I appreciate you further explaining where you were coming from on this.

  • Kat

    I’m a bit unsatisfied with this review… It seems too US-centric: Your phrasing implies that “White culture = US culture”. I beg to differ. My culture exists, is alive and is not American. I’m also White. Don’t take on board the Mother Jones’ author’s mistake: What he calls “international culture” (yikes!!!) is not “White culture”, it’s a small tiny fragment of “US culture”. 

    • Kirti Kamboj

      I’m sorry that I seemed to imply White culture = US culture. When I said  things such as “it’s Westerners such as Marantz” and “the ability to slip into an affluent Westerner’s identity”, I was trying to make clear that class plays a part in this as well.

      And while the US might make up a large part of it, imo, international culture is not just a tiny fragment of US culture, and it’s not just US accents and customs that call center employees are made to ape. International culture is also a tiny fragment of British and Australian and (in other contexts) French and Spanish culture, among others — the Western countries that colonized those of the Global South and/or are presently economically dominant. And in a lot of places in India, it is not American culture that sets the standard but the British one.

  • http://twitter.com/SeanJamesOliver SeanOliver

    Ok… so there’s some over-generalizations and some artistic license taken (particularly the “Himilayan/Fishing village”) passage… but otherwise, your main point is that he doesn’t give equal time to the negative effects of globalization on India?  That it’s been good for some, and not for others?  Or that there aren’t actually, Indians in these call centers who feel a sense of cultural disengagement?  Your use of a personal anecdote (“I know of desis…”) doesn’t really sell me.  I also know desis in the US, who constantly struggle with the pressures of traditional family structure and how to navigate the cultural differences between themselves, their parents, and their relatives in India.  Not really sure what your main point is. This seems (to me) to be a short experience-based piece, with lots of direct quotes, focusing on cultural issues.  Not an in-depth foray into the harsh realities of BPO in India.

    • http://www.facebook.com/artsanchez Arthur Sanchez-León

      Reading comprehension much?

      Main Point: 
      “[The article] provided a much needed counter to the idea that the current system of globalization brings greater happiness and prosperity to everyone. 
      [...]
      But its critique was ultimately limited, full of over-generalizations, and at times contradictory. Below are four reasons I found it so, and why I would hesitate to recommend this article.”

      Kamboj clearly delineates four specific reasons–using evidence from the text and a helpful numbered list–why Marantz’s piece provides a less than elucidating look at the realities of “a summer at an Indian call center”.  Her last point identifies and deconstructs perhaps the most salient failing of Marantz’s article:

      “As stated above, I believe that this article contains a much needed — though limited — critique of the justifications of global free market capitalism. However, it often implicitly and explicitly reiterates the same essentialist East/West binary that such justifications rely on, the worldview that the East is conservative, traditional, stagnant, and ultimately (and deservedly) powerless against the dynamic, modern, independent, and ruggedly individualistic West.”

      At no point does Kamboj purport to provide “an in-depth foray into the harsh realities of BPO in India”. What she does do, and quite well at that, is provide a cogent and succinct critique of a rather naive article.

      “This seems (to me) to be a short experience-based piece, with lots of direct quotes, focusing on cultural issues.”
      Perhaps that’s because you’re an [AD HOMINEM REDACTED]?

      • Kirti Kamboj

        Thanks for the succinct summary of my main point. I was beginning to wonder if I had been completely unclear in what I intended to get across, and it was good to know that wasn’t the case.

    • Kirti Kamboj

      Hey! First, thanks for the feedback. It appears I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be in my original article, so to address your points:

      Ok… so there’s some over-generalizations and some artistic license taken (particularly the “Himilayan/Fishing village”) passage…

      I think where we mainly differ is that what you view as some artistic license taken, I view as blatant (though unwitting) misrepresentation, in ways that mainstream American media usually misinterprets things when looking at the ethnic Other, both within its borders and outside it, revealing underlying prejudices and an essentialism on which hierarchies are based. In this particular instance, Marantz implicitly draws a picture of an authentic Indian culture, mired in tradition and an unsustainable stasis, completely at odds with the Western world. 

      Or that there aren’t actually, Indians in these call centers who feel a sense of cultural disengagement?  Your use of a personal anecdote (“I know of desis…”) doesn’t really sell me.

      I’m not trying to sell you on anything here. I never said there weren’t Indians in these call centers who feel a sense of cultural disengagement; I think it would be extremely difficult for anyone working at one to remain connected to the world around them. What I object to is Marantz portraying said sense of disengagement as Indians having become “too Westernized to be happy in India”.

      I also know desis in the US, who constantly struggle with the pressures of traditional family structure and how to navigate the cultural differences between themselves, their parents, and their relatives in India.  Not really sure what your main point is.

      My main point is that almost every single story I hear or read in mainstream American media relies on the tradition and hierarchy-bound stagnant East vs the dynamic modern West binary, relies on the contrast between an imaginary authentic ethnic culture versus an equally imaginary idea of the West, no matter what the actual facts of the situation might be, no matter how much more complicated the situation is. And this article is no different (and indeed, your anecdote about desis you know in the US is not much different either). Quite a few people would undoubtedly also classify my own life as a struggle to reconcile my modern individualistic Western upbringing with my traditional Eastern background/family/culture, and it is a simplification that I’m quite wary of, especially when it is the only one I ever hear in certain places.

      This seems (to me) to be a short experience-based piece, with lots of direct quotes, focusing on cultural issues.  Not an in-depth foray into the harsh realities of BPO in India.
      If by this you mean, the original Mother Jones article, then we completely agree (aside from the “short”, which I wouldn’t label either the Mother Jones article or my response to it). My point in writing the rebuttal above was, partly, to (try!) and point out how some common Western misgeneralizations and artistic licenses, based on and reinforced by hierarchies, might have influenced Marantz’s views, as well as the reception that his article has received. Judging by your comment, I didn’t succeed with you, but hopefully this reply will further clarify where I’m coming from.