There’s a lot on your plate when you first move to a new country for work. Even though you’re comfortable with the local language (English in this case), you still have to figure out where you’re going to stay, buy groceries (and what kind), commute and more. Thankfully, there’s always a network of friends and co-workers that are ready to help, and soon enough you’re feeling reasonably comfortable in your new environment.
The year was 1999, and I had just arrived in the US a few months ago. These were the pre-Y2K “boom” years where everyone from your neighbor’s dog to your third cousin twice removed was coming to the US or Western Europe for work. I had just moved into a new apartment with a roommate and the only furniture we owned was a computer desk that held my roommate’s brand new PC. We slept on sleeping bags, had the odd table lamp or two, but that was it.
In a way, we were minimalist before it became a ‘thing’, albeit unintentionally. The reasons were simple:
- we had just started our jobs and wanted to conserve cash
- we could be asked to move to a different client site in a different city at short notice
Within the next 3 months, I learned 4 lessons that gave me a better insight about life in America.
Lesson: I Was Expendable
My first job was at this company that made software adding DRM to PC-based games. I had a few co-workers who lived near me so they gave me a lift to work and back. The work was straightforward and I settled into a routine. I got familiar with the culture & customs of my new workplace, and made sure my new bosses noticed the great work I was doing.
One month into my new job, the client let the entire team of 16+ sub-contractors go with zero notice. It seems another agency had undercut our rates by 50%, and it was a no-brainer to just swap out the entire team.
I’d had only a few years experience at that point and came from a country where folks still worked the majority of their careers at one company. This was a new experience and gave me pause. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt as a new position opened up the very next day and in a job that was better suited to my skillset.
Lesson Learned: Loyalties and work quality only go so far. Everyone is expendable.
Mistake #1. I Got A Speeding Ticket
The only problem was the new job was 60 miles away. Since these were still the boom years, my employer allowed me to rent a car for the long drive back and forth. I got into a pattern where I would rent a different car every week. I had to negotiate with HR to allow me to do that and the fact that an Enterprise location agreed to give me a better deal for weekly rentals helped. Every Monday, I’d stop there on the way to work, return the “old” car, pick up a new one and carry on with my day. After a while, they automatically gave me free upgrades which I loved.
My First Convertible
Then came Thanksgiving – my very first one and a long weekend to boot. I found myself in a red Mustang convertible driving down to Baltimore & DC to visit some friends. The drive there was uneventful but let’s just say that I had a heavy foot on the way back.
Here I was, having arrived in the country of my dreams only a few months earlier, now driving a red convertible on a highway with no potholes. Life was good.
When the cop turned his lights on behind me, I was doing 90 miles/hr in a 65 mile/hour zone on I-95 outside Philly. I ended up with a ticket and the assurance that the points wouldn’t get transferred from PA to NJ. The cop was nice enough to drop my speed down to the “15-19 above” range otherwise I might have lost my license.
- Cops lie (who knew?)
- Just because there’s a gap between you and the car in front, it doesn’t mean you need to close it
- Later, I learned that red cars, especially convertibles, are a cop-magnet. I also learned to drive with the flow instead of standing out
- Points hurt, and for many years to come
Cost: $95 ticket, 2 points on my driving license and increased insurance rates for the next few years
Mistake #2: I Dialed 911
Being an Indian away from family means you end up making international calls very often. For those not familiar, one needs to dial 011 followed by the country code and the number when calling internationally. The country code for India is 91, which should probably tell you where this is going. Yeah, I ended up missing the leading 011 and ended up calling 911 mistakenly and heard the “911, What’s your emergency” that I’d only heard in movies. As soon as I realized what I’d done, I panicked and hung up (yes, like an idiot). When I picked up the phone 5 minutes later, the lady was still there waiting for me. She let me off the hook after I explained the situation, and I was able to finally call home and chat.
Ten minutes later, I saw a cop walking around and peeking through the windows. I opened the door and apologizing profusely, explained what had happened. He didn’t say much, except to ask me if he could take a look around. I agreed and then watched him spend an agonizing 5 minutes inspecting the entire apartment. To this day, I don’t know what he thought about the sleeping bags and the computer desk and if we were some sort of shady, transient smugglers. After all, who doesn’t have furniture in their apartment?
- Cops do show up when you dial 911 in this country, and everyone takes it seriously
- Don’t make stupid mistakes when dialing international numbers
Cost: Thankfully none. It could easily have been worse.
Mistake #3: I made an $800 call
Yeah, I seemed to have a thing with phones that year. Another day, another international call and I think I pressed the ‘0’ in the 011 for a longer time than I needed to. I near a nice voice asking me which number I wanted to dial, and I remember thinking “wow, this is exemplary service” and gave her the number I was dialing. The call lasted an hour (it was an old girlfriend) and I eventually hung up, never realizing that I had actually used an operator to connect the call.
At the end of the billing cycle, we got an $840 bill from MCI Worldcom. Naturally, My roommate blew his top as there was that one $800 line item sticking out that was so clearly mine. Long story short, after multiple calls and speaking with supervisors many, many times, I was finally able to get that entire $800 forgiven.
- You need to (politely) fight for what you want to get, and document everything. This is true for everything from negotiating your internet cable bill to requesting HR to add cheaper index fund options to your 401(k).
- Don’t use an operator to connect your call
Cost: $800, eventually zero
That’s it for the mistakes I made within six months of arriving here. The lessons I learned stayed with me, and have informed and affected my decisions since then. I did make more mistakes and continue to do so, including getting the occasional speeding ticket every few years.
You can never make the same mistake twice. The second time you make it, it’s no longer a mistake, it’s a choice. – Steven Denn
What about you? Any mistakes or lessons learned – either as a new immigrant or even stepping out on your own for the first time?