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Coming to America: A different story!

Coming to America: A different story!

The only job that is off limits to an immigrant is becoming the President of the US. I’d say that is a feature, not a bug, of being an immigrant.

By Nazarul Islam

This write up is not just about one family’s American immigration experience, but that of a genuine concern about his adopted country and some of the uncomfortable changes he is seeing, often the same ones most people observe. It is hoped that the valued readers will find it inspirational—reading from a fresh insight, fitting right in with Christmas season, and thinking about the next year. So without further ado, here’s this article!

On February 2, 1994, my family “got off the boat”—a KLM jumbo, we switched at Schipol, Amsterdam. We landed at JFK, our second stop on the way to Florida. I was in my early forties. This was a new world to us. My first surprise was Florida’s shocking flatness. I learned about the United States mostly from American movies which, with the exception of Westerns, heavily biased coasts and skyscrapers. West Palm Beach was flat, sunny, and unusually warm – Just a few days before we were freezing in Karachi in 3 degrees Celsius weather. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit in West Palm Beach. People wore T-shirts in the middle of winter.

That was not the only surprise for us.

In Karachi, every time in winter that we left the house, we paid close attention to how we dressed. Here nobody cared about their looks. This was liberating. I embraced this newfound freedom with all my heart. To this day I had been the worst-dressed person in our 12-story office building, sporting mostly T-shirts and jeans.

We were picked up at the airport by half a dozen strangers, members of my aunt’s group of overseas network. There were five of us: myself, my wife Nuzhat and my three small children Yasir 10, Anam 7 and my youngest Maheen, a newborn of one month. We had brought all our life possessions with us – six suitcases and three duffle bags. These strangers, who were to our big surprise always smiling (I will address the topic of smiling in a second), picked us up and drove us to our fully furnished apartment.

They had furnished an apartment for people they didn’t even know! That was shocking to me. I had been brainwashed into believing that Americans – capitalist ‘pigs’ – would sell their brothers to supersize their happy meals. (I’ll touch on this topic sometime later). Now, these cold-hearted capitalists had taken their time and money to care for people they had never met. Capitalism was supposed to make people selfish and greedy, but these people were anything but.

Now, on the subject of smiling – Americans do it a lot. Let’s be honest; these smiles are manufactured. There is no way you are happy to see every stranger you meet on the street. Indians and Pakistanis are stingy on smiles. They don’t give you frivolous smiles. When they smile they mean it. My thinking on this topic has changed a lot over the years.

The pivotal moment was when I went back to Karachi and Dhaka in early 2000s. I realized that smiling faces had become a necessary and welcome part of the décor of my daily life. Today I run on the treadmill machine, daily. I may be listening to an audio book or a podcast, but I try to give every person I meet a big smile. I do this intentionally for a selfish reason – you do this a dozen times in an hour and your facial muscles lighten and relax and your mood improves.

Try it. It has worked!

Language was another surprise. George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Shaw was so right. I had studied (more like memorized) English in school. I had enough vocabulary to maybe buy stuff at Walmart. But that was British English. American English was a completely different animal.

Americans like to garble entire sentences into a single sound. I honestly could not tell when one word ended and another began. The only person I understood was James, a wonderful man who had recently moved to WPB from Dallas. James was one of those cold-blooded capitalists who volunteered his time to help us acclimate in our first few months in the US. Unlike non-Texan Americans, James spoke with a slow Texan drawl. I could understand every word he said!

I think it took me nearly six months to be able to understand spoken American English. I remember that day – my friend was driving me to school and we were listening to classical music on the radio. A commercial came on, and I could understand it! That was a big day for me.

It is going to be very difficult for me to say what I am about to say without sounding like a complete idiot.

But I must preface it by explaining that in the Indian subcontinent everyone (for the most part) was overwhelmingly poor. My family, despite my salary had lived from paycheck to paycheck. Going to a restaurant was a big event for us. Our understanding of money, especially mine, was very limited – we never had any.

My younger sister Tara had moved to the United States a few years ago. She had married an ambitious business minded person someone gaiety foresight at the mosque had mentioned: “He is tomorrow’s millionaire.” I still remember the thought that ran through my head – there must be something special about that person. After a few weeks of intense observation of this fellow, I came to the conclusion that having millions of dollars in the bank did not make him extra special.

When he did acquire wealth and good fortune, I saw him drive a fancier car. He had a bigger house. But he dressed worse than me (which is hard to do) and he ate the same desi food and ice cream as everyone else.

Over the years I have learned that money and power reveal. They often unmask (expose threadbare) a person.

Sometimes you like what is revealed; many times you don’t. In fact, thirty years on, as an occupational hazard (I am an author) I’ve spent some time around quite a few very wealthy people. I haven’t observed any extra dose of happiness in them. Money solves money problems. It doesn’t make people love you; your actions do. Money, just like education, is supposed to buy you choices. It should provide security.

The first few years in the US, my relatives back home had worried how we were going to pay for groceries and rent. We don’t have that worry today – and that is liberating. (I wrote an in-depth essay on this subject. You can read it, in my published columns.

In the subsequent years…I have realized that the US has kept its promise. The poem on the Statute of Liberty reads:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The US has always presented itself as a country of opportunity – A country where you can achieve anything if you work hard. The only job that is off limits to an immigrant is becoming the President of the US. I’d say that is a feature, not a bug, of being an immigrant.

After we had arrived, 1994–this quickly turned into 1995. I spent a few months that year knocking on the doors of every business establishment within walking distance of our apartment and saying, “I’d like to fill out an application.” (My American friends taught me to say this.) I did not realize it at the time, but the country was in a recession. Getting a job was very difficult. Every member of my family needed to work.

I was rejected by both Taco Bell and McDonalds on multiple occasions. I still hold a little grudge against those two specific establishments when I drive by them.

My first job in the US was folding towels at an athletic club. I was fired a few months later for reasons still unknown to me. The manager called me into his office and gave me a long speech (I was a bit confused because he was smiling while he was firing me). Unfortunately, because he was not Texan, I didn’t understand much of what he said. I did understand that I was fired.

My next job was bussing tables at the Village Inn restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights. When I say night, I don’t mean evening, I really mean night. My shift started at 9pm and ended at 5am. At 2am, once the bar closed, the restaurant was flooded with folks looking for burgers and fries.

Everything I earned at the Village Inn, down to the last penny (including tips), I gave to my wife. This money went for food and rent. It was the least I could do. My mother, who was a homemaker in Karachi, was now stitching cotton napkins for an export house. So, despite having a job, I had no money of my own. Once I made friends and went out with a girl to a Chinese restaurant. She ordered Kung pao chicken, I ordered water. It was an embarrassing experience. I had to postpone making new friends, for a while.

Those were difficult years, but I would not trade them for anything. Those years taught me to work harder than anyone else. I don’t know if I was driven by hunger for success and fear of failure, or by seeing the contrast of what this country had to offer versus my earlier life in Bangladesh and Pakistan – Probably all of the above.

Yes, this country America has kept its promise. But as I reflect on spending the bulk of my adult life here, I realize I understand this country less today than I did 30 years ago.

[author title=”Nazarul Islam ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Nazarul-Islam-2.png”]The Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.[/author]