I walk into the lobby and almost walk out again. About 20 people are standing around, half of them in suits and almost all of them carrying what can only be résumés. What on earth am I doing here? Whatever prompted me, a conservative software engineer and self-avowed geek, to apply for a job as a sales associate in a department store?

I have been in the U.S. for a while now and many weird and wonderful things have happened to me. But nothing has been as strange as being laid off. I am looking for another job, but I still have a lot of free time. Also, my savings are being rapidly eroded. On an impulse, I have decided to do something else that is new: work as a sales clerk.

An inordinately chirpy woman ushers us into a big room. We are to sit at an enormous round table; three of the managers sit on chairs opposite. Chirpy announces that all 20 of us will be interviewed together. My heart stops. I am now going to be publicly humiliated—all these people probably have years of retail experience. I visualize getting up and telling everybody that I have none at all. The only thing that prevents me from dashing out then and there is the thought of running away in front of 20-odd people.

Surprisingly, the questions are pretty standard: “Why do you want to work here?” “How would you handle pressure?” and the dreaded “Can you work on weekends?” I pass through the ordeal unscathed. Nobody jumps up and asks me what I am doing in there.

Interview over, the managers disappear. Chirpy comes back and declares the results. To my great surprise, I am in. I am almost as excited as I was when I got my first programming job.

The joy is not without ambivalence, though. I am the product of a rigidly class conscious society in which a person’s job defines his/her position. In ancient days, professions reflected caste. Now they determine social class. In India, sales clerks, like waiters, are often treated with indifference and sometimes with contempt. To become one, however temporarily, is a little scary, maybe even embarrassing. 6bccae63bd6598060d5814df06296a79-1

I accept the offer. And so my new job begins. It certainly is different. For starters, I actually have to be at work on time. A sharp contrast to the “Wake up at noon and work till midnight—as long as the job gets done” work ethic I have been accustomed to. I can’t throw on a crumpled shirt over blue jeans anymore; I have to dress up. And I have to actually smile at people instead of scowling at them before I return to stare at my computer.

The customers are a varied bunch. Most of them are friendly and patient, smiling while I struggle to scan prices (I swear, that scanner has a mind of its own) and ring up items. I remember all those times when I glared at slow sales people. I vow never to do it again.

My first brush with Indian attitudes comes with an old lady who brusquely asks me to “do it fast” even as she hands me her clothes. Another Indian person completely ignores me when I ask her if she would like a store credit card. I feel like one of those door-to-door sales people back home who get doors slammed in their face. In contrast, most Americans are polite, declining my offer with an “I appreciate the offer, but no thanks.” Is our behavior merely snobbery? Or is just a reflection of a culture where less value is placed on social manners? Or perhaps, we, as a people just have a problem saying “No” politely but firmly? I know that I do.

But all is not equal, even here in supposedly egalitarian America. My boss can be extremely curt at times, verbally chastising employees when they take sick days off. That doesn’t happen often in the software world. The line between white-collar workers and blue-collar workers may be blurred, but it is still there.

The ingenious petty crimes are another fascinating part of my job. People buy expensive dresses, remove the tags, and sew those tags on to cheaper clothes. They then try to return those cheap clothes for the price of the costly ones. In one case, a customer has attached a Tommy Hilfiger tag to a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, except that the T-shirt is a cheaper Tommy Hilfiger from a discount store.

And then there is the tall American woman who holds out a check with the name “Vandana Gupta” on it. I am surprised, but who knows, maybe she’s married an Indian and changed her name. I peer closely at the driver’s license that she waves at me (she doesn’t take it out of her wallet). The photograph looks as if it’s been pasted on, but I am still not sure. Then I see the height—5’03.” Aha! There is no way that this woman is 5 feet 3 inches. I ask her to wait, but she flees before security arrives. This is my first direct encounter with identity theft. Had I not been Indian, I wouldn’t have paid such attention to the check. It’s a disconcerting thought.

I’ve been working there for about two months when the call comes. An interview. Time to get back to the software world.

It has been an interesting experience. An experience that I have viewed through my narrow, self absorbed outlook, but an exhilarating one nonetheless. I have learned a lot. I have learned how to juggle five customers at once. I have hopefully learned how to make people feel good. I have learned to examine my attitudes. I have learned more than I wanted to about shoplifting.

Perhaps, in the end, it is just that I have done something very different, something I could never have dreamed of doing in India. I have broken my own boundaries.

Sandhya Char is a Programmer Analyst in Sacramento.

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