My first full-time job was at a BP petrol station in a heavily immigrant-populated suburb in Auckland, NZ. Fresh out of high school and with two months to kill before heading down south for university, there was no way my mum would let me lounge around the house all summer, so off I went into the bottom end of the job market. The staff were a wonderful motley crew – under a Sri Lankan manager were a few seen-it-all Kiwis, a couple of Chinese, a Saudi, a Pakistani and another new high school graduate like me.
By far the largest complement, however, were the NRI boys; among them a fresher from Hyderabad, a family man from Delhi, a quiet Tamil and a cricket-obsessed Punjabi. I knew from the proliferation of Indian restaurants and South Asian faces behind convenience store counters that the ongoing influx of NRIs was, by the standards of NZ’s tiny population, an explosion. I hadn’t actually found myself in a position to interact with them in any meaningful way, though; NZ’s changing ethnic makeup remained something about which I had little understanding. Until, that is, the day I joined BP.
As Azeem (the Hyderabadi) and I sat out the back chatting and waiting for our interview, he told me that he was new to NZ and had been attending interviews for similar jobs all week. A qualified engineer with a few years of on-the-job experience back home, yet here he was beside this 17 year-old kid, interviewing for the same position. What could someone this sharp want with this sort of job?
Although he seemed qualified to walk into a number of much higher-paid positions, Azeem told me that though he didn’t really want to be here, but he had to take whatever was on offer. And he duly proved himself to be comfortable in the job dealing with all manner of customers, be they surly, flirty or threatening. Like most of the other NRIs, however, he had come to NZ in search of something more than he felt was within reach back home. While he rarely complained, virtually every one of his lunch breaks was spent poring over the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns hunting for an upwards move.
The thought of a man leaving his family and venturing abroad for the purpose of personal and financial success is, to many Western eyes, a romantic one, but little of that romance filtered into the lives of my colleagues. Working a menial service job for minimum wage in a foreign country and living as much within their means as possible, there seemed to be little scope for moving up in society. Though they weren’t that happy, they still enjoyed a good mix of the comforts of home (home-made masalas, imported chai) and the luxury of Western life (Saturday movie nights, ten-pin bowling).
There was one exception among the young, aspirant NRIs. Ram was a career convenience store clerk who had spent time behind thin wire bars at unsafe counters in New York City and Sydney, finally settling in Auckland with his wife and three children. “New Zealand is a great place to raise your kids,” he said. “You should see some of the crazy mother******s I dealt with in New York!” Having lived in a homestay for a year, he had finally signed an agreement to rent a home for his family, a long sought-after goal. Still, Ram remained realistic. “Today, I get a house; tomorrow, I’m back behind this counter. I’m happy, but there are always more bills to pay.”
I’m not sure where all my BP NRI mates are now. I phoned Ram a couple of times and he had moved on to a telemarketing job – that was a few years ago now. Azeem sent me an email telling me left NZ for Dubai, but I don’t know how that worked out. It seems to me that the great Indian dream of going abroad to make one’s fortune is, to most that try it, something that never materialises. For every Indra Nooyi or Arun Sarin, there are scores of hopefuls living day to day, month to month, wondering whether they should pack it in and return home. I take my hat off to them for staying at it.