Saturday, January 03, 2009


Immigration: The Miseducation of the Planet

It takes a nation of millions to hold people back...

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Regardless of whether you grew up in a Caribbean Island (e.g. Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc), somewhere in South America (e.g. Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, etc) or even in Asia (e.g. India, China, etc) more than likely you grew up amidst an environment of scarcity rather than abundance (limited admission opportunities at good colleges, scarce jobs in good companies, scarce seats in public transport etc).

Immigrants over a period of many generations have systematically developed a mindset where they want to keep as much as possible to themselves. In order to satisfy that ambition, they try to deprive those weaker than themselves instead of challenging those perceived to be above them. For example, how many times, do they challenge the prices in shopping malls or posh restaurants BUT always haggle with poor rickshaw driver, poor cobbler etc who are struggling to make their ends meet.

The other day, I was in a restaurant and heard an unpleasant comment regarding the tipping practices of folks that may work for such firms as Wipro, Satyam, Infosys, Cognizant and so on. One part of my brain believed that the particular individual should have left a tip as this is the practice within America. When in Rome, do as the Romans. I thought about the economic aspects of working in a restaurant and how wait staff don't even get paid minimum wage in many places and the IRS automatically assumes that 40% of their income is derived from tips. In my usual way of thinking about how the Bushitler oppresses the masses, I wondered whether this is something used to systematically cause harm to other cultures within our borders?

Think for a moment, if the government assumes you are receiving a significant portion of your income via tips yet you are a waiter in an ethnic community whom by culture didn't grow up with the notion of tipping, this has a serious economic impact that others may not have noodled. The other side of my brain says that us American's need to be sensitive to the thought processes of immigrants and shouldn't necessarily resort to judging other cultures when they aren't observing the cultural norms of their host country. Maybe, they are blissfully ignorant and simply need to be pulled aside to understand best practices while in America. Maybe it is a failing of outsourcing firms to provide guidance to their employees or even it is just a matter of resetting unrealistic expectations regarding what service means in 2009.

Should a waiter look down on a foreigner who doesn't tip? I bet many amongst us desire for others to understand our culture but ignore the economic aspects of our behavior? If one culture tips better than another and you are deriving your income from tips, which would you serve? Are we being ignorant when we want others to understand our culture without taking steps of making our own cultural habits align with others?

This answer to this question is getting a lot harder. Maybe, the better answer is to encourage those amongst us who are immigrants to help change the mindset of others from our home country. In order to change the mindset, we need to be aware of our privilege, the role we can play towards cascading the wealth and most importantly recognize that while doing so we would not lose anything. It is not necessarily win-lose, it can be win-win. The mindset we developed over generations cannot change overnight and unfortunately our generation has to sometimes live with the embarrassment...

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