Montreal, 1989—Mukul Pandya, thirty-one, dark hair, affable demeanor, was a journalist based in India. Visiting Montreal to cover an event, he and his wife, Hema, also a journalist, intended to uncover a few stories in the United States on their way back, when illness struck.
Fevers above 103°F can cause confusion, even hallucinations. Mukul’s temperature was running at 104°F, but his hazy mind thought of money—it was running out. Constrained to $500 each by foreign exchange regulations, and with no medical insurance, the illness was now a calamity.
“It’s malaria,” the Canadian doctor said, and prescribed Quinine. Hema never left his side, but neither did the fever. Mukul thought of his sister who lived in New Jersey.
“It’s typhoid,” said the doctor in New Jersey. This doctor was right. In New Jersey, two weeks went by before the previously-misdiagnosed Mukul got to his feet. Gnawing away at the bacteria invaders, the antibiotics and the pathology tests had also nibbled away the precious few dollars. Mukul forced himself to focus—the mental switch clicked to freelance work, but nothing turned up. Finally, one kindly editor gave him a scribble.
He clutched at it like a drowning man to a piece of wood in a sea of uncertainty.
On this wood that had long become paper, there was a name. And a phone number.
Los Angeles, 2004—Vera Mindy Chokalingam, aka Mindy Kaling, was hired at the age of 24 as a writer on The Office. She was the only woman in a staff of eight, and the only Indian American. Later, she went on to create the critically acclaimed The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy featuring the character Mindy Kuhel Lahiri, a romantically frustrated gynecologist.
Mindy had planned on playing the role of Mindy in The Mindy Project, but she was told that she didn’t quite look the part. What part, you ask? The part where she plays herself. A thinner self.
Frankfurt, 1972—Charu Khopkar, then twenty-nine, landed in Frankfurt, with his wife, Alka, who had earned a scholarship to study German at Frankfurt University. Both had been educated at English-language convent schools in Bombay, India. Despite the odd incidents of “The apartment just got rented,” “They always get the best seats,” “When are you going back?” and “You are not here permanently, are you?” they stayed. For ten years.
When their first child was born, they thought of moving to an English-speaking country, and Australia happened to be advertising for immigrants up in Germany. By then, Charu was also armed with a four-year full-time master’s degree in economics from Frankfurt University.
Sydney, 2015—I have driven to Charu and Alka’s home. It’s in a narrow street in Sydney’s south. Signature upper-middle-class area—tall gum trees outline the street on both sides, the sidewalks are neat, the grass trimmed. The aging trees bend over the bitumen below, creating a tranquil, leafy canopy that keeps most cars in the shade.
The house is a picture postcard of suburban bliss—a well maintained grassy front lawn, an attached brick double garage, its white doors adorned with a green pattern matching the green of the fence and of the rain gutters on the roof. French windows with striped green canvas awnings are everywhere. No need to ring the doorbell, a Golden Retriever and a Labrador announce my arrival.
Charu and I sit at a long, narrow dining table with coffee. We talk for almost three hours. Charu is wistful as he remembers the early days.
“When I was new to Australia, a German company advertised through CES [Commonwealth Employment Service] for a representative with German experience and German qualifications, but resident in Australia. Liaison was required between Germany and Australia. CES sent them my CV [curriculum vitae].”
“I got a call for an interview. I was excited.”
“The interviewer was a middle-aged German. We spoke initially in English, and then in German. He asked about what I did in Germany. It all went smoothly.”
“When I inquired with CES about the outcome, I was told that they were looking for an Australian-born person.”
That was a reminiscence from 1982.
Scoring an interview is still hard for many. Australian National University researchers sent over 4,000 fictional resumes to employers in response to job advertisements. In all cases, they submitted a CV showing that the candidate had attended high school in Australia. Despite that, not only did minority groups suffer discrimination, but Italian names suffered much less than the Chinese and Middle-Eastern fictional names. Worse, the higher jobs and those that required customer contact (such as wait staff) suffered more than say, data-entry operators.
In academic parlance, this is called the glass gate—if the gate providing an entry—to an elite university, a profession, to firms at the better end of town—is unfairly shut—then the groundwork for a ceiling is already laid. If someone is jumpstarted at a managerial level, like Rupert Murdoch’s preordained sons, they are on a glass escalator.
Who’s on That Escalator?
The recent CEO honor roll of multinational corporations in the West bears witness to immigrants on glass escalators. In Asia alone, there live 4.4 billion of the world’s 7.4 billion people. The CEOs were discovered exclusively in the Anglophone world after an ostensibly “global” search. Just how global is this search? I asked this question of several executives at leading headhunting firms by email, and I have yet to receive a single reply. Is this guilt admitted by omission? Anecdotal evidence suggests the following score—Spotlight on executives with extensive work experience in the English-speaking West: 100 watts, Asia/ Middle East/ South America: 0 watts—it’s rather dark in there.
Indian-American writer, entrepreneur, and researcher Vivek Wadhwa says when he came to the United States as a child in the ’60s, classmates asked him whether he charmed snakes. Much later in life, a venture capitalist told our snake charmer that the reason he wouldn’t fund his company was that “your people don’t make good CEOs.” Says Wadhwa, “My blood still boils when I think about this.”
But Wadhwa sees the silver lining. “[An] uncomfortable experience provides incredible motivation to do whatever it takes to succeed, as I can tell you from personal experience.”
He reported in 2012 that Indians had founded more startups than the next four groups (from Britain, China, Taiwan, and Japan) combined.
Four of the largest technology firms in the world—Google, Microsoft, Nokia, and Adobe Systems—appointed Asian-born, overseas-educated immigrants as their CEOs. Many others have become successful entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley innovates, in more ways than one.
But Silicon Valley aside, according to research reported to the U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission, white males are more likely to get the benefit of a glass escalator. Deprived of better assignments and mentors, career-enhancing moves omitted—these are the invisible glass walls—the neglect by omission of a people with no connections.lect by omission of a people with few connections.
What’s Wrong With My Voice?
I want to jump inside this glass behemoth—feel its shape, breathe its air, and smell its insides. It is not an accusatory quest. To tame a beast, we must first understand its nature.
I am not a detached explorer.
You can walk in from the main entrance of this bank every day of the week, and you still never stop noticing the large, arched windows and the enormous columns of green marble with brass tops in the main banking chamber, one of the largest in the world.
I went in first into a fourth-floor office, rather large sized for a middle-level manager. My supervisor, Lalit (not his real name), wasn’t there. I sat across his desk on the visitor’s side, solemn, staring out the window to my right, wondering why I was being summoned. Lalit appeared with customary delay to indicate how busy and rushed he was.
Like upper-crust city bankers, Lalit flaunts tailored suits and brand-name shirts and ties. He drives a BMW and boasts of an affluent-suburb address.
Lalit is not super rich. He bought a high-mileage three-year old car and rents. He tries to speak with a posh accent, but his subcontinental origins slip out every now and then, like cleavage showing through a loose kimono. Aware and self-conscious, he repeatedly closes the kimono, jittery and uneasy about how flimsy his cover is.
He speaks in trivialities, until I lose patience.
“So what are we here about?” I ask.
“Umm … there’s a course I want you to consider doing. It will be good for you.”
“What kind of course?”
He fidgets and squirms.
“It will be worthwhile. The company will pay for it.”
“Yes, but what exactly are we talking about?”
He is adjusting his fancy tie.
“Err … you will be working with a voice coach. She comes highly …”
“What’s wrong with my voice? I just did a presentation to over a hundred people that was very well received.” I feel indignant. My ire must be at large—he has picked it up in the air, his demeanor has noticeably softened.
“It was, indeed. But … how do I say this … you deserve better. You are clever, technically adept. It would be better … better for you if you neutralize your accent.”
I am silent. The words are stoking my rising displeasure but the penny has dropped that his heart is pure. Perhaps mistaken, but pure of intent. My gaze shifts, first to the sunlight filtering through the window and then downward to the floor under the table between us. I notice a pointy sparkle, like a small torchlight beam—how long does it take every morning for him to get his shoes shining like that?
“You can stop any time. Why not try it out?” He is persistent.
I nod to that. He smiles.
“On one condition,” I say, “will you join me? Don’t you need it as well?”
Touché. There is a stunned silence as the boobs have fallen out again.
Later, I hear similar stories.
Puzzled, I decide to call Carlos, the most multi-ethnic person I know.
I remember vividly the day I first met Carlos four years ago on a film set. Sydney Film School is housed behind a two-story, warehouse-like structure, next to a loading dock. The lower level is painted pink, perhaps to hide the rust on the metallic roll down doors.
He was seated behind a large wooden desk, sporting a jacket on a summery day, looking cool as though underneath a whirring fan.
Carlos Sivalingam is five foot three, dark-skinned, a fraction stout, and immensely articulate—he has a fascinating theory of why so many Australian movies never feature ethnic identities. To get the call for an audition, you have to first look the part.
Carlos tells me he is half Malaysian, half Sri Lankan. He is in his forties, and he wants to become a day-job actor, as in make those irregular checks frequent enough to not need a full-time job. My jaw drops—the odds against him making it are spectacularly high. I marvel at the audacity of his resolve.
He is eloquently aware of the gravity of the challenge—“I am the wrong shape, size, and color,” he says.
I met Carlos again recently. He lives by himself in a terrace flat in an inner-city suburb in Sydney and invites me in enthusiastically. The living room is homely—the furniture is old but well-kept, sunrays stream through the windows stained more by age than artwork.
I find out more about him—born in Malaysia, he went to school in New Zealand, and to high school in Perth. But meningitis as a child left him with an inability to concentrate for long periods. Learning lines must be twice as hard.
“Accents and looks are overrated by acting coaches and managers,” he says, “look at Sidney Poitier. He never got rid of his Caribbean accent. At first, Arnold Schwarzenegger got rejected a lot in Hollywood because of his Austrian accent. But when the films became successful, it became a strong point, his calling card. I think the audience loves to see a good performer performing. It becomes about the performance. They are drawn into it. They go with it.”
Carlos, you are a sage. Excited, on the way back, I head straight to the library.
It’s All About the Accent
In 2013, Laura Huang (University of Pennsylvania) and two others proposed that the glass-ceiling bias impeding immigrants is manifested in a bias against those speaking with non-native accents, the strongest signal of immigrant status—detected quickly and apparent almost continuously.
Huang’s team quotes other researchers who contend that a non-native accent is distinct from language fluency or competence. So they controlled for communication clarity. Two experiments were set up. A diverse (by race, gender etc.) group of 179 students assessed four candidates by listening to a job interview audio, but each student only assessed one candidate. The four candidates were: a White Caucasian American and a Japanese-American, both speaking with a native (American) accent, and a Japanese and a Russian, both of whom had been in the United States only for five years, and spoke with a non-native accent. The resumes, gender, and the dialog were identical. In the second experiment, the same candidates were assessed similarly by a large group of MBA students, but they requested venture capital funding, as minorities frustrated by the glass ceiling will often look to start their own venture as a means of getting ahead.
While assessing all four candidates as “comparable” for communication skill, collaborative skill, intelligence, confidence, and attractiveness (they were shown a photo), the respondents assessed the two native-accented men as having significantly higher political skill (the ability to influence others).
There was no pronounced difference between the locally raised Japanese-American and the European-descent white American. The researchers inferred that accent alone mattered, at least in that experiment.
But there are other claims. A University of New Mexico paper reports that “foreign-born whites with poor language and communication skills do not face problems in promotion and mobility,” and that “language capital is not required of foreign-born whites.”
Indeed, The Corminator, Belgian (foreign-born white) Mathias Cormann, has the physique and accent reminiscent of the Terminator, but he always talks at a hundred miles an hour, like he is about to miss a flight. It has not stopped him from becoming the Australian Minister for Finance. He even survived a political coup while backing the loser.
Guess Who Came to Dinner?
“One has to be careful not to overplay the race card. It’s a bad tendency to cry race each time things don’t happen the way we would want them to”—that’s the advice from Carlos.
Sidney Poitier left behind his parents and Bahamas home at fifteen to join his elder brother in Miami. Upset by the racism in the South, he decided to try his luck in New York. When he arrived in Harlem, he was barely sixteen with only a few dollars left in his pocket, having been robbed along the way. Do the math, as the Americans say: he had no education; he was black; he had no money; he didn’t know a soul; and it was 1943.
He slept in bus stations until he could afford a rented room. He lied about his age to join the army, which he did to escape the New York winter—heating bills he could not afford.
The army was not his calling. He feigned insanity to secure a medical discharge. Feigned? The audacity of what followed was insane.
He auditioned for the American Negro Theater, but the theater director ridiculed his Caribbean accent and poor reading skills. Incensed by the rejection, the young man resolved to become an actor, if only to prove his detractor wrong.
He read newspapers between shifts as a dishwasher, listened to the radio for hours on end—repeating every word to modify his accent—and offered to serve as a janitor in exchange for taking acting classes. Resolution and Resilience, you were Sidney. The rest is history.
In 1967, a mere twenty-four years later, guess who came to dinner and broke every taboo in the Hollywood canon? Yes, we know.
Resolution and Resilience
In an NPR interview Mindy Kaling, said: “Everyone wants to be mythologized in a great way … I’d rather be Odysseus than someone who was handed everything.” Now that—that is resolution.
But Mindy was born in Massachusetts; the mountain to climb would perhaps have been twice as high if she had been an immigrant who spoke with a “wrong” accent.
A coalition of sixty-four community associations of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Korean organizations alleged in its lawsuit against Harvard University that: “Harvard University is racist. They use race as a criteria to deny admission to many deserving Asian-Americans.”
The court documents filed November 17, 2014 assert that the university is “engaging in a campaign of invidious discrimination by strictly limiting the number of Asian Americans it will admit each year and by engaging in racial balancing year after year.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court blessed the minority affirmation action programs for university admissions by allowing them to take race into account, it didn’t count on one thing—if a minority outperforms the dominant majority on merit criteria, quotas will hurt them.
We await the Court’s resolution, but our resilience must be Poitier-like.
The day is March 4, 2015. Inside the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament House, Minoti Apte—a young-looking fifty something, ethnic with short hair—stands on stage displaying a mixed bag of emotions—pride, a quiet satisfaction in her achievements, and a few nerves. Also on stage, newly-elected NSW Premier Mike Baird is about to open an envelope. The moment reminds Minoti of the Oscars. She is on a shortlist with three other women. They stand with her, all in a line.
The audience is on edge. Baird tears open the envelope and reads out, “And the winner is … Minoti Apte.” A thunderous applause follows.
Minoti Apte, distinguished researcher in pancreatic cancer at UNSW, has just won the NSW Woman of the Year award. UNSW has also named a new back-to-medical-research-for-working-mothers scholarship after her.
Minoti attended an English-language-convent school in India and became a medical doctor, immigrating to Australia in 1982 with her husband. She fell into research by accident, and ended up finding her calling. She says neither she nor her husband ever suffered a single adverse reaction.
“I guess my skill set is insular. It’s technical and intellectual. I appreciate that immigrants who aspire to sales or managerial positions may be in a different position. Academia was very multinational even back then,” Minoti cautions.
“Not only do professionally qualified Indians speak English fluently, I think we write well; I write a lot better than native English speakers in Australia,” she adds, proudly.
Pride and Prejudice
Minoti stresses local qualifications, language, and collaboration, but indignation rises in her the minute I suggest name changing as an additional strategy.
“What about only a nickname, not a name change by deed poll, to make a difficult name easier?” I have hit a raw nerve. I backpedal to be congenial again.
“Only if the name is unusually difficult. I make it a point to learn how to say my Chinese students’ names. Some people make no effort at all. We should not be that subservient.”
His pride hurt, Charu had jumped feverishly at the same thing—“I would draw the line at name changing. That would be tantamount to the well-known misguided attempts to ‘breed out the color’ from the First Australians.”
But Ragda Ali could wait no more. She had two years of experience in sales and a vocational qualification in marketing. After many applications, even for jobs requiring no experience, never earned a callback, she changed her name legally to Gabriella Hannah, applied for the same jobs, and got a call 30 minutes later. Sales job, sexy name—you do the math.
Montreal-based Veena Gokhale, who worked as a journalist with an English-language daily in Bombay, India, immigrated to Canada over twenty years ago, only to be told that “getting into media for a first-generation immigrant was an impossibility.”
However, immigrants who have qualifications and experience from the Anglophone world (the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, NZ, and South Africa), find it much easier to land jobs, and even do so at a level commensurate with their experience.
“Systemic racism when it comes to finding work here,” was Veena’s response when asked to describe “the most shocking thing she had experienced as an immigrant.”
And Fortune Favors the Resilient
Rejected by the German company, Charu found his career niche in the NSW public sector, where “there are good procedures to address discrimination.” He succeeded in being promoted to the NSW Public Sector Senior Executive Service from the lowest grade (twelve grades in all) within five years—this, despite his ethnic name, appearance, accent, and age (starting at the ripe old age of thirty-nine).
Veena ended up as an English-language author of a fictional work published by a Toronto-based literary press, fulfilling a long-cherished dream she had held since age eight, when she wrote her first short story.
In 2014, Mindy Kaling described herself to a graduating class of Harvard Law School as an “American of Indian origin whose parents were raised in India, met in Africa, and moved to America, and now I am the star and creator of my own network television program.”
New Jersey, 1989–
George Taber was the name on the scribble. George had worked for Time Magazine for 23 years, most recently as world editor, then launched a local business paper. His phone rang—some just-arrived-in-America journalist called Mukul Pandya introduced himself.
Following his principle that any journalist deserved at least one shot at writing a story, George asked Mukul to write about New Jersey’s largest thrift, which had just declared a loss.
Mukul didn’t know anything about thrifts or S&Ls, the American names for building societies. Mukul called a professor of real estate and finance, who guided him through why S&Ls were in deep trouble. Still weak from his bout with typhoid, Mukul took seven hours to write a 1,000-word story. But George liked it—and sponsored him for a work visa. Mukul was hired. Soon, freelancer became staff writer.
New to America, Mukul didn’t even know how to drive—for two months, George drove by his house to pick him up, even gave him some driving lessons, co-signed a bank loan so that Mukul and Hema could buy their first car, and took Mukul to his first baseball game.
In 1998, when Mukul was offered a position at Wharton, he was paralyzed by loyalty, until George told him to take the job.
Mukul, now the Editor-in-chief of the business journal of the prestigious Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, invites George, now a full-time author, to speak at the journal’s board meeting about his latest book, Chasing Gold.
Mukul, his voice breaking, delivers a long, heartfelt tribute—“a mentor who impacts the course of your life profoundly,” and “the reason I am here is because twenty-five years ago, George Taber took a chance on an unknown …”
Mukul hugs George. A few tears are shed. The crowd brings down the house.
Let it be said once more—Fortune favors the resilient.
This article was first published in the international literary and arts magazine, The Missing Slate.
Vinay Kolhatkar is the author of A Sharia London (2016), a literary thriller about a forbidden love that draws the Mafia into fighting radical Islam, and The Frankenstein Candidate (2013), a political thriller about a billionaire who runs in a U.S. presidential election as an independent. Vinay, who studied screenwriting extensively, likes to merge screen techniques such as cliffhanger scene endings and sub-textual dialogue, with character transformation and literary prose, to accomplish a cinematic novel. Vinay obtained a masters in journalism with High Distinction from UNSW. He is also a columnist at The Savvy Street.