“It’s My Duty To Help Them Out”

Desai Praying Going over a package on poverty in the New Jersey Herald News, completed a couple weeks ago by my friend and former classmate Tom Meagher, I just realized that Tom had done more than write policy analysis and work and live as a temporary laborer for a month–he had also profiled several more regular members of the working-class poor, including two immigrants. One is a Peruvian father and husband named Julio, who has left his family behind in Lima. The other is a 20-year old son named Priyank Desai, arrived from India at the age of 16 and determined to help out his family:

Every week, Priyank Desai carries his paycheck home to the Passaic apartment he shares with his family, sets it before a makeshift shrine and prays to his Hindu deity.

“No matter how much money I make by working hard, it will all belong to you.”

Only after praying will he cash the check, which usually amounts to no more than $80 for two days of temporary work. He gives half to his parents to help pay for phone cards to call their extended family left behind in India, and for rides to work. The rest he spends on movies or lunch. He also pays for transportation to classes at Passaic County Community College that he hopes will lead him to a career as a Spanish teacher.(Link)

Tom himself spent a month working as a low-wage laborer in Passaic county. As the Columbia Journalism Review blog puts it, “It’s an old story idea — as old as George Orwell’s “Down and Out in London and Paris,” first printed in 1933 — but it’s a good one, and Meagher pulls it off.”  It’s a particularly good idea because these stories are evergreen, and constantly need to be updated for our times. Nickled and Dimed came out over four years ago. Tom’s parameters:

I begin on Aug. 1, a Monday. I leave behind my checkbook, my ATM card, my credit card, my cell phone, my car keys, my fiancée and our apartment in Brooklyn. I’ve got $424 to get started, an amount based on a week’s wages at the Poverty Research Institute’s self-sufficiency level. (Link.)

The specifics change from state to state and generation to generation. Irish-Catholic Tom’s undercover project may seem unrelated to the Mutiny, but even this tempoary abandonment of the old for a shaky grasp on the new is a useful experiment for anyone trying to understand the troubles of a poor immigrant–Irish 150 years ago, Jews and Italians and Punjabi farmers 100 years ago, Senegalese and Peruvians and Indians and Bangladeshis today. Native-born Americans migrating from state to state. Some of the problems will always be the same. Getting a place to live. Finding a job. Trying to find community and sustenance at the library or a house of worship. Learning the new dialect, if not a whole new language–or two:

“I am really happy because I am helping my parents. They are really raising me up with love and affection. It’s my duty to help them out,” he said.  Desai was 16 when his entire family received a coveted work visa and emigrated from India. He spoke very little English, although he could read and write it. He was excited to arrive in America.

“I imagined I would make a lot of money and find a beautiful girl for me.”

As he began classes at Passaic High School, he saw many of his classmates beginning to work and yearned to join them. His parents were able to provide for him, but he was tired of sitting at home after school. He wanted to be able to make money for himself, and to be able to contribute to his family’s finances.

. . .Through school friends and his Latino co-workers at Brickforce, he has become nearly fluent in both Spanish and English. He plans to continue to work there until he finishes school in a year and a half.(Link.)

 Today Tom updated his work with a new story on the increase in poverty in New Jersey. 

17 thoughts on ““It’s My Duty To Help Them Out”

  1. it is commendable what priyank is doing and a good reality check of what others in our community are going through..really nice article.. i hope that he makes his dreams come true…education, and a beautiful girl..

  2. Chick_pea you are an angel. I second your thoughts. This is a heart breaking but oft repeated story. In some cases, qualitatively speaking, the situation is not very different for people with “high technical skills”. H1B is also a nonimmigrant temporary work visa. Some mutineers have a rather cavalier take on the H1B plight and that’s not cool.

  3. It really is commendable what he is doing.

    This story has reminded me of something else. People in India (especially relatives) never understand what a struggle it actually is, to move to a new country and start afresh. They think that once you are in America or any other western world,immediately life is all hunky dory. They can’t understand why sending money home is such a struggle. They don’t realise that our parents had to work their butts off so that they could earn a decent living in a foreign environment.

    I’m talking here from the remarks i’ve heard from relatives when we do go on holiday back to Kerala. Its as if; why are they only giving me so little gifts, they are earning so much, why can’t they be a little more generous?

    No matter how wonderful a country is, it don’t rain manna from the sky!

    You gotta work yo ass off!!

    PS. its a little off the topic, but hey.

  4. People in India (especially relatives) never understand what a struggle it actually is, to move to a new country and start afresh. They think that once you are in America or any other western world,immediately life is all hunky dory.

    I totally hear ya!

  5. It’s nice to help out family if they need it. It’s especially surprising that a teenage boy would volunteer for such a commendable role. I hope they accomplish their dreams, eventually.

  6. Not that barely being able to subsist is a problem confined to “the…poor immigrant”; many, many citizens attempting to live on minimum wage barely manage to get by — but it is especially striking in the context of immigrants who come to the USA pursuing the “dream.”

    Anyone read Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , by Barbara Ehrenreich? She did the same thing as Tom Meagher, pretty much — took up several bottom-wage jobs in different parts of the country, for a year, and documented her difficulties in simply managing to stay alive. (Serious difficulties, at that! An illness meant the threat of eviction and even starvation….)

  7. “Anyone read Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , by Barbara Ehrenreich?”

    about a year ago, i heard her give a talk. yup, she was check-out clerk at wal-mart. she writes for nyt now and then.

  8. Anyone read Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America , by Barbara Ehrenreich?

    Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote “Bait and Switch”, sort of the same idea as her previous book – but exploring white-collar unemployment.

  9. beyond the fact that this man is the american dream, the fact that he can speak english and spanish fluently (and Indian languages as well, I’m sure) is AMAZING.

  10. Hey, I’m glad people liked this. Sorry I’m so scarce. A few follow up points though I’m kinda late.

    Chickpea/Hanuman–yes, I feel the same way.

    KIT: I agree. Every mode of immigration and migration has its trials and tribulations, and the impermanence, allegiance and instability of the H1-B must be pretty stressful.

    ShokPact/technophobicgeek: I think this is also an oft remarked upon difficulty of immigration—it’s hard to settle your roots into the new place, but it’s also hard to ever truly go back home again.

    Simran/KhushTandon–Yep, I read Nickeled and Dimed when it came out. It’s got some methodological issues, and by many accounts her follow up work (Bait and Switch–thanks Maisnon!–and a tirade against using domestic help) is not as good. ND was quite a departure from her decades worth of opinionating, which I grew up reading in the back of TIME. Ehrenreich was aiming to get at the plight of the women being dropped off the welfare rolls, so her thesis was a bit larger and more convoluted, but the basic experiences were similar and illustrative regardless:

    Housing is a big deal. (This is particularly crucial since the obsolete poverty line metric overemphasizes food.) Networks are crucial for survival, and those without networks are often completely lost. It’s easy to be exploited. It’s emotionally draining. Naturally these are particularly likely to grate on immigrants.

    Simran, you also touched on a larger point that I didn’t get to elaborate on. It’s our usual habit at the Mutiny to look at issues from a desi angle–”are there desi’s involved in this issue in anyway?” Poverty is particularly bad for the immigrant. But the flipside of that is looking out from our community with a heart strengthened by our desi experience. Immigrants (and their descendants) should be particularly mindful of the issues of poverty and migration. There isn’t a community in America that hasn’t been touched by the grim difficulty of transplanting and replanting–to the point that we celebrate and fetishize it with goodbye parties, college fledgling rituals, and housewarmings. But all that pomp and circumstance can’t hide the fact that nomadic wanderlust of the pioneer is quite plausibly matched by the grief and disorientation of the homebody. For those of us who easily ran off to college here and a new job there, who’ve got cell phones and email accounts galore, it’s difficult to recognize that the poor are often poor because they can’t leave, and when they can leave, they’re often really screwed. Our economy—regulated by the fed on a national scale–assumes that people will go where the jobs are. But the poor are less able to move with the market, and more likely to fail if they try. Has any ethnic group been so expressive and so articulate about the pain of transplanting as ours? Perhaps not. But we’re hardly alone. Native Americans on ten thousand Trails of Tears. And then all the rest of us.

    And it keeps going on within the states. Fleeing slavery. Fleeing the cold countryside. Fleeing the sooty city. Fleeing the plantation. Fleeing the dust bowl. Fleeing segregation. Fleeing internment. Fleeing the draft. Fleeing crime. Fleeing high housing prices or bad education. Fleeing mental suffocation. Fleeing homophobia. Fleeing the madding crowd. It’s an American gift, this freedom of flight. Many of us might die or wither without it. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

    Hopefully we will always extend out this experience and skill we have at expressing and recognizing the needs of the transplant. The fact is that while it can be fun and hopeful and exciting, moving also often sucks. If tomorrow all the South Asian Americans magically became uniformly wealthy, reflecting our overall status, I’d like to think we’d remember our millenia tradition of respecting the pain of the exile and still care deeply about these issues of poverty and migration.

    Chai, I too was amazed at both Desai’s linguistic skill and his ambition to teach it to others. It’s a great detail–when you respect and admire someone, you can also respect and acknowledge their problems, instead of a shallow and dismissable kind of pity. I’m thinking he’ll make it, though. Viva Desai! :-)

  11. Saheli,

    Khush = means Happy in Hindi Kush = Lav & Kush, mythological twins from Ramayana

    I am Kush, if you haven’t figured that out. It doesn’t bother me at all……quite often, I Kooosh in Amrika.

  12. Ack! I’m sorry Kush, I know you’re Kush of Luv and Kush. :-( Poor form to make a typo in someone’s name. Thanks for being so gracious about it. My apologies.

  13. No worries. I would have not bothered. In past, I have never.

    But from your comments, it seemed that you have a broad knowledge of indian culture, therefore……..

  14. yea man… Priyank is the best person in the world…… I think one day he will make his dreams come true and he will one day find the girl of his dreams…… I knew Priyank for a while he lives in my building. This guy is funny and cool…….. the best freind a person can………………………