by Osama Shehzad
Be Humble. Focus. Grit. Users First. We Before Me. Get Shit Done.
These six phrases were on a single slide on a massive LED screen on one end of the conference room.
“These are our cultural values,” said Jay.
We were in the biggest conference room in our office, reserved usually for company wide meetings and wishfully named “Merge”, a Git term, in hopes of bringing everyone together in every meeting in that room.
“These six values are the six-pack of the company,” Jay explained. His plaid shirt was untucked and one of his hands was in his faded black jean pocket, the other pointing to his midsection. I smiled at his analogy and wondered if he had a six-pack himself.
Jay was part of the four-person “Culture Committee” formed to help our two-year-old company establish its cultural values. The company leadership believed that Jay, along with three other employees, fully embodied the till-now-unstated company cultural values. Today, three months after its inception, the Culture Committee was sharing its findings.
The presentation was well polished and well practiced. The Committee started off the presentation by sharing their process; “it wasn’t easy coming up with this stuff,” they said. The methodology involved several company-wide surveys and countless in-person interviews that led to a complex set of information, which was then distilled to get this “cultural value six-pack”. These values were going to be our moral compass. Any new hire, we were expanding so there were too many of them, shouldn’t be confused about what phrases they should be guided by. Our biggest concern was that we were terrified of losing our unique culture. Our culture was important to us and the reason why all of us worked here. It was important to us that the new hires adhered to the same cultural values that we had worked so hard to cement. Till then we didn’t really know what they were so it was hard to explain them to newcomers; this presentation would solve that problem.
“A six-pack proves to people, and to ourselves, that we are strong,” Jay continued.
“And if we aren’t careful, we will lose this six-pack fast. Six packs are hard to attain and even harder to maintain. Trust me – I had one but then lost it.” Laughter spread around the room.
“If we let a culturally unfit person into the company, our culture can be destroyed,” Jay warned, “so we need to keep these cultural values in mind whenever we interview anyone. Recruiting is hard. We want to hire the best people, but also those that we know will move our culture forward. We need to understand that all that we’ve built requires hard work to maintain. It can be lost at any moment and we cannot let our guard down,” the Culture Committee ended their presentation on this dark note. There was applause in the room and everyone clapped.
I knew the Culture Committee was right. There were too many examples of companies that were once considered invincible, but a combination of complacency, overconfidence, and bad decision making led them to bankruptcy. Managers and top executives at successful companies are told to be paranoid and they guard their culture with great care. A much-recommended book in the tech startup world is titled “Only the Paranoid Survive,” and usually this paranoia is directed towards new hires.
Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, Exit West, narrates the story of two lovers, Saeed and Nadia, from a war-torn city. They decide to escape and “exit west” as refugees amid a paranoia of refugees from war-torn areas and other immigrants.
Almost all war-torn places in the world were, at some point in time, home to stable economies and societies. Photos of Afghanistan from the 1970s, before the Soviet Invasion, show a thriving and progressive society, complete with lush, beautiful gardens. Photos of Iraq before the US Invasion in 2003 show a country with normal people and normal lives, but the latest images in The New York Times depict the differences in neighborhoods pre and post US invasion in harrowing detail. Same for Syria, before the Civil war – photographs of Aleppo from a decade ago show a peaceful city with history at every turn and, according to the New Yorker, the best sandwich in the world.
Saeed and Nadia’s home city, whose name and location we never learn, undergoes such a rapid unraveling and becomes quickly uninhabitable. In today’s unpredictable, Post-Brexit and President-Trump-led world, any worst case scenario seems possible; this city could be any city, perhaps even your own.
Exit West highlights the plights of refugees and new immigrants as they try to make a new life in alien surroundings. Saeed struggles to adjust, and can’t make friends in the multicultural shelter that he and Nadia are staying at. Instead he finds a group of people that he gets along with well, a few blocks away, mainly because they are from the same city as he is. Nadia doesn’t enjoy talking to them and doesn’t want to meet with them. This baffles Saeed. How could she not hang with her own people?
Around a bend, on Vicarage Gate, was a house known to be a house of people from his country. Saeed began to spend more time there, drawn by the familiar languages and accents and the familiar smell of the cooking. One afternoon he was there at prayer time, and he joined his fellow countrymen in prayer in the back garden, under a blue sky that seemed shockingly blue, like the sky of another world, absent the airborne dust of the city where he had spent his entire life, and also peering out into space from a higher latitude, a different perch on the spinning Earth, nearer its pole than its equator, and so glimpsing the void from a different angle, a bluer angle, and as he prayed he felt praying was different here, somehow, in the garden of this house, with these men. It made him feel part of something, not just spiritual, but something human, part of this group, and for a wrenchingly painful second he thought of his father, and then a bearded man with two white marks in the back on either side of his chin, marks like those of a great cat or wolf, put his arm around Saeed and said brother would you like some tea.
Just like any startup or company, a country that prides itself on its culture is careful to protect it and afraid that they might lose or diminish their culture when new people join the country. President Trump has recommend extreme vetting and English fluency tests to ensure that immigrants will be a “cultural fit.” Liberal Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, told the immigrants and ethnic groups in his country to “act normally or leave.”
What does “act normally” mean?
“Osama, guess where I’m from?” asked my Uber driver, Talha.
I felt like telling him to shut up, but I didn’t. I had wanted a quiet Uber ride but now Talha wanted to talk to me, and he assumed I also wanted to talk to him because we were both from Pakistan. I noticed his eyes, accompanied by a big smile, were hung on me in the rear view mirror, waiting for a response. I let out an instinctive fake laugh, something I tend to do when I don’t know how to respond to something.
The way Talha had said “Osama, guess where I’m from?” told me we were from the same country. The elongated “from” at the end to emphasize the question was characteristic of the way Pakistanis talk. I stared at Talha’s eyes in the rear view mirror and I smiled, this time genuinely. His mannerisms, although maybe impolite for America and one-star worthy for an Uber driver, were perfectly normal for a Pakistani.
“Baatain mein kahan say hoon?” He repeated the same question but this time in Urdu and with an even bigger smile. His Urdu had an accent. I could tell that he wasn’t from Karachi, where Urdu is the first language for most people. His Urdu accent reminded me of the Pakistani cricket player, Shahid Afridi, whose first language is Pashto. I guessed Talha was probably a native Pashto speaker too.
I laughed again. Talha seemed like a genuinely nice guy and I felt bad for asking him to shut up, even though it was just in my head.
“Peshawar?” I guessed
“No,” Talha replied and looked in the rearview mirror at me again, giving another smile, inviting me to take another guess.
“Rawalpindi?” I guessed again.
“Oye are you even from Pakistan? Kahan say ho bhai?”
“I will give you a hint. Hint is Waqar Younis.” Talha was referring to a popular nineties Pakistani cricket fast bowler. When Usain Bolt was asked who his favorite athlete was growing up, he said it was Younis, a bowler who was so fast that he was called “Bhurewala Express.”
“No but very close. I am from Vehari. It is a small town near Bhurewala. Are you from Karachi?”
“Yes, bilkul sahi guess kiya.”
“I could tell from your accent. How long have you been in New York?”
“Just a couple of years,” I replied
“I love your area. There used to be a lot of Pakistanis in Greenpoint,” Talha told me, “but now they have all moved.”
I nodded my head. I had no idea about Greenpoint’s Pakistani community, although now thinking about it I had seen some aunties in shalwar kameez and dupattas.
“You live near the gas station on Huron and Manhattan?” Talha asked me. “We have some Pakistani bhais that work there. You should go there. There is Wasim Bhai and Jamshed Bhai. You should tell them you know me. They will give you first class service.”
I laughed. I was probably never going to go to that gas station—I don’t own a car—but nodded to be nice to Talha. I wouldn’t be surprised if Talha only hangs with other Pakistani men. It is only natural for people to hang with those that they are most at ease and comfortable with. However, this is often looked down upon when it comes to immigrants and refugees, taken as an indication for them not wanting to integrate into the society.
Talha told me that he managed a Facebook group called “Desi Zabardast Food Lovers” where they discussed Halal Pakistani food options in New York and arranged get-togethers. He invited me to join it, saying that sometimes they go to topnotch places far away from the city.
“I will drive you there for free because you are a bhai from Karachi,” Talha tells me, “best Pakistani food is in Edison in New Jersey.”
At that point, our ride was ending, and I started panicking a bit. Even though Talha seemed like a nice guy, I wasn’t going to hang with him. I dreaded he might ask for my number and started focusing on how to tell him no.
When the ride ended, Talha didn’t ask for my number, instead he gave me his contact card. “Regal Services,” he said with his big smile as he handed me his card. “Please call me if you need a ride anywhere or want any handiwork, kaam shaam, done around the house. Take care. Khuda Hafiz.”
Talha was not the first person to make a comment on my Karachi accent. Since I moved to the United States eight years ago, everything about me has changed, except my accent. Most of my other friends who have moved to the United States with me or even just a few months ago, have different accents now. Some have very American accents and some have a hybrid of a Karachi and an American accent. Strangers in America sometimes ask me why I have an accent if I went to school here.
“Eijaz moved to Cleveland six months ago, now you hear him speak English, you can’t tell if he is American or Pakistani,” my middle school friend tells me, as we sit and sip chai at a roadside dhaba in Karachi. In Karachi, I am asked why I don’t have an accent. In the United States, I am asked why I do have an accent. At such instances I wonder if it is an unnecessary hassle to carry this Karachi accent around. Should I just fake an American accent?
I wonder if that is the goal that all of us, international students that came to the United States: for people not to be able to tell if we were born in the US or immigrated here. Is the goal to completely blend in?
Appearances can be especially deceiving in judging how well an immigrant has acclimatized to their new society. Figuring out who is “acting normally” and who isn’t is almost impossible. In Exit West, Nadia is more successful in integrating into the new society. She is friends with both locals and other immigrants and finds herself most at ease when she is not surrounded by just people from her own country. However, there is one thing that she cannot let go from her past: her burqa.
When Saeed and Nadia first met, Nadia wears a long flowing black burqa whenever she is outside her house. Initially Saeed thinks this is because of family, religious, or societal pressure. As Saeed and Nadia grow closer, he learns that this is because, as a woman who lives alone, shunned and outcast for her independent views on life, she doesn’t mind the invisibility that the burqa offers her. When Nadia moves west, there is no need for her to wear a burqa. In fact, in the west, her burqa achieves the opposite effect. It made her prominent and highlighted her as a minority. Saeed wonders, then, why then Nadis still wears her burqa:
One morning Saeed was able to borrow a beard trimmer and trim his beard down to a stubble he had when Nadia first met him, and that morning he asked Nadia why she still wore her black robes, since here she did not need to, and she said that she had not needed to wear them even in their own city, when she lived alone, before the militants came, but she chose to, because it sent a signal, and she still wished to send this signal, and he smiled and asked, a signal even to me, and she smiled as well and said, not to you, you have seen me with nothing.
All the conference room names in our office had a theme: Git terms. Git is a code management system used by many technology companies. Code management is needed because when multiple developers are working on the same body of code, it can lead to discrepancies. To avoid discrepancies in the code developers do not touch the main code repository, but clone it into branches that they can modify independently. After a developer has done editing a branch, they will commit it into the main code repository. If the branch passes all checks to confirm that it coincides with the main code repository, it then gets merged into it. If the branch does not pass the checks, i.e. it is determined that the branch has some code or logic that is at odds with the main code repository, it is called a Merge Conflict.
Conflicts—in coding, hiring, or immigration—always lead to short-term problems. But if these short-term problems are adequately addressed, they can lead to long term gains. A developer needs to spend time debugging their code and find where the Merge Conflict is occurring instead of just merging their code and hoping, fingers crossed, that the app or website will not crash. Immigrants and refugees do lead to short term problems, but there is strong evidence that immigration leads to long term prosperity for a country.
Technology companies often don’t hire the right candidates because they aren’t good cultural fits. Harvard Business Review’s January 2018 edition is titled “The Culture Factor” and advises companies to look beyond culture when they hire, stating that people often misunderstand a potential “cultural fit” as someone they’d like to have a beer with, rather of someone who can get the job done. This, inadvertently, leads to lack of diversity in companies because we usually don’t enjoy hanging with people that don’t have backgrounds similar to our own, and companies lose out on promising hires.
I walked into the decision meeting about Yang, 15 minutes late to the 30 minute meeting. Yang was a data analyst candidate who had participated in five separate hour-long interviews at our company today. We were meeting in “Commit,” another meeting room named after a Git term, to decide if we wanted to extend her a job offer.
“Thank you for finally showing up, Osama,” exclaimed said our HR manager sarcastically as I tried to sneak into the room.
“Sorry, I was on a call that ran a bit long,” I said.
“Don’t worry, the meeting just ended. You’re free to go back. We decided to say no to Yang.”
“How come?” I asked. I liked Yang. Not only did she have the skills to be a good data analyst, she also had an inquisitiveness about her to ask the necessary questions.
“She has the right skills, but she didn’t seem humble or a we-before-me kind of person.” He paused. “She isn’t a cultural fit.”
Osama Shehzad is a writer from Karachi living in Brooklyn.