their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor

This is the third interview in our series about those who did the mirror opposite of Jenny and I: New Delhiites who picked up and moved to New York.

In the last two posts (which explored Indians’ first impressions and the idiosyncrasies of American greetings), we talked about what they’ve found.

In this post, we talk about what they left behind.

Labor is cheaper in India. There, you pay people to do things that Americans usually do themselves. We’ve spoken of this before: the fact that our offices had peons, that someone was paid to remove our household trash, and that men were cheaper than machines at the golf range.

(To say nothing of the glory of hiring Ganga to cook the world’s greatest food for us three days a week.)

(Lord how we miss her baingan bharta!)

So what happens when you leave a culture of cheap labor for a culture where help is too expensive to hire? We asked that of Tiya and Divya, the two Columbia University students we’ve been talking to in this series. “What are some daily chores that you find much harder in the US?” Here’s what Tiya said:

“Moving house seems a lot more difficult here than in India. I suppose it’s because labour is much cheaper in India.

“I definitely don’t find the time to cook everyday, though I try to every other day. In India, I wouldn’t even cook as much as I do here because there was always house help to take care of that, so my food habits and meal timings were much more regulated in India.

“Then there are the regular chores like cleaning and laundry that one has to do in the US, whereas back in India I always paid someone to take care of it. But I don’t find these tasks hard at all.

“In fact, when I’m back in India, just because of the way I’ve been conditioned, and because I know help is just a holler away, cleaning and laundry seem like much bigger tasks than they are here.”

We posed the same questions to Divya. Here’s what she said:

“{I’m challenged by} the fact that everything needs to be done by yourself. I am used to a chauffer in India and my Dad’s assistant, so doing simple chores like sorting out bills, paying pills, running errands was something I had barely ever done.

“There is a lot of manpower in India, so small things which I never even realized need being done, suddenly had to be put thought and focus into.”

As always, we want to hear from readers: Indians who moved here, and Americans who moved there. How did the price of labor change your life?

21 responses to “their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor

  1. Hey Dave/Jenny,

    Yeah that surely is one of the things that strikes you when you move to the US from India. I think it strikes you a lot more if you’re not here by yourself (I’m here alone), like if you have a family to take care of, or a young child. I didn’t have a chauffer or any assistants as such in India, but there definitely was the cleaning lady who also cooked sometimes. So I wasn’t as dependent on other people. I lived with my parents in India, so yes, the meals were much more regulated and convenient in India than in the US. I really don’t mind doing these things myself, it’s not a huge inconvenience.

    Despite the fact that it’s significantly more expensive, I have great appreciation for the American service industry. My experience so far in getting what I pay for, on time and in a professional manner has been much better than my experience in Delhi.

    But yeah, conditioning matters a lot.


  2. Most of the stuff that you need other people to do in India are so much easier to do here. For example, laundry vs washing stuff by hand. Or vacuuming vs jhadu-pochha.

    The one thing that I miss is the “ironman” at the end of the street who would iron all my clothes for 2 rupees per clothing. Ironing is definitely one chore that I can’t stand. Even that isn’t that bad because you can always make do with an un-ironed jeans and tshirt. You cannot do that in India because drying on a clothesline leaves the clothes with hard creases.

    Cooking is something that I seldom even tried in India but had to learn here – I really can’t imagine eating takeout on a regular basis. I do miss the aloo parathas that our cook made us every Sunday afternoon – the frozen stuff just doesn’t cut it. I also don’t like the electric stove tops because you cannot make baigan bharta the right way – I actually considered buying a camping stove so that I could cook the baigan on a flame.

    I actually like the fact that I learnt to do some things myself after moving here: cooking, driving, making small repairs etc.

  3. on a side note, the baingan bharta you clicked is an eastern variety mainly in eastern UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and some parts of Bengal. The Delhi, western UP and Punjab variety is not made by directly roasting over fire and is much less delicious (at least to my taste buds) and more oily.

  4. As an American 3/4 of the way through a two year assignment in India, I’m beginning to fear getting used to these daily chores. The biggest impact, at least for someone who previously was used to doing these things, is the additional amount of time you gain in a day. Only after 18 months of not doing laundry, cooking, cleaning and finding parking spots do you realize how much time these things take. Great series, by the way, great getting the opposite perspective.

    • Hello John, My name is Kathy. I’m an American thinking about moving to Thiruvananthapuram. I have a TON of questions, and would like very much to talk with you about your experiences. (Anyone else reading this, please feel free to respond, also.) My email is

      Have a lovely day.

  5. You guys are so hooked! 🙂

    Reminisce all you want, but all you seem to recollect here is the ways in India. Did you make a lot of friends also, while you were here? And how do you keep in touch with now that you’re off GK.

    BTW, I’ve been reading your blog on and off for quite some time now. Quite a contrasting image from that Bollywood film poster you guys had put now, with the flicker stream showing photos of the cute kid!

    When did this happen ? Congrats ! Time to rename that poster to George , Dave aur Jenny. Here’s a call for redesign. heha

  6. I’m in England. And its as good/bad in the US. At university in India we were so bogged down with work, we cut a deal with a Laundry (Machine-wash :P) Service nearby. They would come to University – set up a small corner in front of the hostels – we would bring them are washing and they would weigh and give us a price per kg. It would be back in two days, washed, dried and ironed.

    Doing the washing here (England) is a task – wait for others to finish their washing/drying. Then ironing. Bah! So much time that can be used to finish revision gets used up in my chores. My biggest concern is time spent doing the chores as opposed to actually carrying them out. I dont mind doing the washing up/cleaning up (I find it therapeutic) – but when you have coursework/revision etc. chores seem to take away precious time.

    xx G

    Look who’s Wearing (LwW)

  7. I moved to NY in 2008, and I personally find the lack of cheap labour to be not much of an issue. In india maids are easily available at an affordable price but they lack professionalism. A good maid is very hard to find. So its quite stressful when they dont show up on time or leave for their village to tend to some ill relative without any notice. One has to keep an eye on them to ensure if they are doing things right, and it takes a while to build the trust to leave them alone in the house. Whereas here I was surprised how my roommates had given a key to the mexican maid who used to clean the apartment once in two weeks ($60 each visit). I have moved 4 apartments in NY which I cant imagine to do so easily in india, where again the truckwala etc wont show up on time, or have to be yelled at to carry fragile stuff carefully, and if they do break something I cant do squat since they dont have the concept of ‘movers insurance’. Apartments usually come with a fridge, laundry in the building, so unlike india i dont have to lug my fridge, washing machine etc every time I move.Here all one has to do is rent a uhaul truck, pick up packing supplies from manhattan mini storage (where u can return unopened clean stuff, another concept yet to arrive in india), load the truck (rent moving men for loading the truck if required for as low as $20 per hour). I also find using dishwasher and laundry in the building to be much more convenient than hiring a maid who has to be supervised. All i have to do is load up the dishwasher before going to bed and unload in the morning while my chai is brewing. Take 2 hours or so out of schedule once in two weeks for laundry. That’s a whole lot of stress avoided. Being able to hire a decent cook at an affordable price is probably the only “feature” where I personally find the trouble of adjusting with the unprofessional-ism to be worthwhile. Overall, the manual labour in india is cheap, but like most things in life, with low cost comes low quality and a lot of headache.

  8. It’s been 11 years for me moving from Delhi to Buffalo, then to the Bay Area, but I do remember some of the tasks that I had never gave second thought about, which I had to deal with. The first was most certainly cooking. The fact that I was living with other Indian guys in a P.I.G. ghetto wherein none of them had any tastebuds forced me to deal with understanding the art and science of cooking edible food. The first month I spent most of the time while cooking on the phone with my mom/aunt/bhabhi or any other Indian woman I knew guiding me step by step through the cooking process. After that month when I saw the phone bill, I remember wondering I could have just gone to the local Indian restaurant and spent the money on the phone calls to have a decent meal for the whole month. Needless to say, thanks to that effort, my wife now boasts that her Indian husband is great in the kitchen. 🙂

  9. I agree with Prasun. For me the life became easier when I moved to US. No more hand washing clothes or moping the floor on daily basis. Though figuring out how laundry works was a task in itself. It was embarrassing to ask anyone as they assumed if you don’t know how to operate laundry machine, it simply means you have never done laundry before. They don’t get the idea of washing clothes by hand. It was also hard to explain the concept of making your bread (aka roti) daily to my room-mates.

  10. Of all of the things that I never could get used to during my extended stay in India was the issue of domestic help. Something in my American soul just made the whole situation seem not right. Maybe more than anything, maybe there was some kind of class element to it. And maybe our different notions of self-sufficiency.

    So since this subject has come up, (not to hijack the topic!, but ..) I wonder if folks have any thoughts on the whole cheap labor thing in a broader context? I could never really ask anyone in India how they could sit around watching cricket while a villager on her knees cleaned the floor around their feet, without risking an uncomfortable exchange. But since everyone here is sharing their candid opinions, I wonder . . .

    • Agree with the point from Prakash stated below. In fact I call our domestic help maasi (meaning mom’s sister), a habit which was inculcated since childhood by my parents. We all wish that cheap labour should not be treated ‘cheaply’.

    • The maid is just doing a job that she’s being paid to do. There’s not much more to it. It looks bad only because she’s being paid so little by US standards, but that’s the going market rate.

      I think it’s much worse when US CEOs make millions while laying off people. Coming to think of it, the maid won’t eat if she wasn’t allowed to clean floors and do all the other little things she does.

  11. @Christopher: Very valid point. Something I felt too as a kid and so did my parents. There is not much one can do about them being so inexpensive, as in even in US what can the customer at wal-mart do even though s/he knows that that the people who work there have poor benefits and so on. But in india there is one thing that can be done, that is to treat them with respect. I have observed that in india, there are basically two kinds of people, one who are quite nonchalant about the class thing and would just sit watching tv or talking while the help goes around their feet mopping the floor. Then there are people who are more sensitive and move to the next room asking the rest of the people to move as well while the help can complete their task. That is pretty much what people do in US too, they just let the hired maid to do her job and not be in his/her way. So my parents did inculcate that sensitivity into me, while there are others who were not so. But from what I have seen, definitely the numbers of the sensitive former can increase a lot.

  12. In a word, I hate it. Hate hate hate it! I hate doing the chores myself. No matter what I tell myself, no matter how much I say its acceptable, EVERY pore in my body screams and shouts and rebels against doing them. And that’s an understatement 🙂
    Oh, I do them. I have to, since I can’t afford otherwise. I’ve been in the US for about 6 years now, and all I think of is that it has been six years of endless cooking and cleaning and bathroom cleaning and vacuuming and dusting and laundry and laundry folding and ironing and rinse and repeat…
    Almost every positive in the US is wiped out for me simply because of this.
    And this is the reason I’ll go back. Nothing else.

    You know, I daydream about the day I’ll go back and have my own cook, bathroom cleaner, home cleaner, dhobi, driver, etc. I have actually weaved myriad fantasies about this. I actually sit down and daydream about household help- and that is another understatement. My favorite fantasies are about the day I’ll go back and be able to afford it all again.

    I guess its cultural conditioning. Everytime I clean my house, a voice in my head keeps telling me that I am nothing but a maid. I travelled halfway across the world to become a MAID! And no matter what, this soundtrack doesn’t stop in my mind. I don’t want to imply that it is bad to be one or anything, just that I don’t want to be one.
    So yes, this is the tipping point for me. The one thing that matters to me so much, I can’t even being to express it. I’m going back to fulfill all my fantasies 🙂

  13. I laughed heartily reading Rachana’s comment here (I mean her wordings and the style, not at her). I have been hearing about the expensive labour charges from my colleagues who have come back from their onsite (US) stint.
    I wonder if the girls (or you) would comment on the children-living-with-parents difference. I think you have written on it already, but others can chip in with their views maybe.

  14. Rachna, I can totalllly sympathize with you !! I refused to live there inspite of all the advantages and my daughter thought a lot like you do, BUT, she fell in love and married a New Yorker and now has to be her own dhobi, cook and ayah on at least 5 days a week.

  15. First time here. Interesting stuff.
    This is one of the unfortunate things in India.The so called cheap labor.Having lived in different parts of the world, I know how difficult and more so,expensive to get domestic help in the rest of the world. My wife used to do all the domestic chores herself when we were abroad.Now,back at home,she has two helps at home.I discourage her,but she says,it is a way of helping them out.

  16. I have been discussing cheap labor with my husband tonight after seeing two different families living aboard who are used to it. As a person of the American middle class I find it to be a very strange thing. Unless I was sick or disabled I would find it a very odd thing for someone else to be doing what I could do. Or at least I would want to pay them above average. No one wants to do someone else’s work.

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