Tuesday, Aug 22nd

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Understanding our World

For a couple of years in the 1990s, I used to help run a Vietnamese restaurant. It was an interesting experience, which taught me a lot about how self-employed people and small businesses operate. In any economy, even in the West with its large multinationals omnipresent, the bulk of jobs are in middle and small size companies. To be economically strong, therefore, in addition to driving large business growth, every economy must create an environment for efficiency in smaller businesses too. Unfortunately, India is consistently ranked among the hardest places to do business in, and this is stifling our growth.

Anyway, back to the Vietnamese restaurant. Around the time I got to Seattle for my PhD, Luc Ta and his family had been resettled in the area from Vietnam. They were 'boat people', you might say, fleeing the war and its aftermath for ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam. He is a very smart man, but he had one obvious challenge in America - he couldn't speak English, and therefore he was at a big disadvantage. Plus, he had three very young children to support.

One day, I stumbled on his restaurant near the university. I was playing with the little one (she was only two years old then) while I was eating, and then started up a conversation with Luc, mostly in sign language !! However, one thing led to another, and I began to slowly help him with more and more of the business. Advertising, menu printing, design, etc. grew into purchase management, stocking, and more serious stuff. I couldn't cook - that remained Luc's dept, but I helped with the eating !! - but everything else that needed to be done, I tried to pitch in. Eventually the restaurant became more successful and he relocated to a nicer neighborhood a little after I graduated.

My friendship with Luc also helped me learn some things I would not have ever seen otherwise - I understood how poor, immigrant families get into microsystems of their own outside the mainstream, or eventually adapt to join it. We wandered around most parts of Chinatown and Luc explained to me the differences between Cambodian and Laotian food, I learned some things about Chinese festivals, and even worked with a few people to secure state support for their resettlement from Vietnam.

There was one other thing that I observed firsthand - the divergence between the children and the parents, as time passed in America. Luc's daughters were very bright kids - especially the older one, who topped every class she ever attended. But Luc was unable to interact with the school to help her select the right courses to take, to pick the right programs to apply to, etc. So, I became a kind of guardian for such 'English' things, as Luc called them :) The kids also went through an awkward period, where they obviously loved their parents, but were unable to bring together their school world and their home world. This is a challenge that is going on in India too, as we witness rapid cultural change, but for an non-English-speaking family in America, it was a massive change.

We really understand our worlds only by engaging with the lives of those who live very differently. In India, the most diverse nation on the planet, this is a useful thing to remember, always

Understanding our World