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Thursday, July 5, 2012

My American Dream

I wanted to write this yesterday, but I truly had no time to get in front of a computer. So here goes...

In honor of America’s Independence Day yesterday, I had an itch to write about the American Dream. My American Dream specifically, which began before I was born, over 5,000 miles away…

I was born in Lautoka, Fiji Islands in 1981. I lived there until I was four years old when my parents migrated to the United States. Many people tell me they think we, or Fijian immigrants in general, are nuts for leaving a tropical paradise for the U.S. Why would anyone leave clear water beaches and all the lush beauty which is found in Fiji? Simple, it isn’t what it appears to be. Yes, Fiji is beautiful. Yes, if you travel there, as a tourist, you will be astonished by the breathtaking sandy beaches, five star resorts, sparkling clear waters, and the amazing hospitality by the Fijian people. But as a resident, life isn’t a five star hotelFiji is a third world country.  The population nears 900,000 and as you can imagine, the poverty rate for a third world country is quite high. Native Fijians make up 50% of the population while Indo-Fijians (like myself) make up 47% of the population.  Around 1870, Indians were brought to Fiji through British colonization as indentured servants to work the sugarcane fields.  After approximately 96 years of indentured servitude, Fiji gained its independence from Great Britain – but any indentured servants were told they could find their own way back home to India. As you can imagine, that was impossible and there began a long lineage of Indian heritage in Fiji.  For most people, home is where the heart is, but sometimes your heart wants more. The average life expectancy in Fiji is 67 years of age and opportunities for higher education, higher paying and higher level jobs as well as home ownership are few and far between.  Most people can’t afford to attend grade school let alone attain a college education when they must support a family – sometimes multiple families. 

My parents came from humble beginnings. My father was the third born of eight children to a college professor/educator and a stay-at-home mother.  Although my grandfather (father’s side) was an educator, he was the only breadwinner of a large family.  They struggled daily.  I remember my father telling me stories of how excited they (he and his siblings) would be when they had the opportunity to buy a chocolate bar. ONE chocolate barthey would cut it into equal pieces so everyone could have a taste. My mother was second born of five children.  My nana and nani (mother’s parents) were both educated and had good jobs.  They were both well respected and prominent individuals in the community. My nani was an English professor, and a social activist who often fought for women’s rights.  She formed and led a women’s group called the Jaanana League – a group of Muslim women serving the Fijian community.  Her drive to help those in need was awarded by the Queen of England while Fiji was still under British rule.  She had the privilege to have tea with the Queen and was damed for her commitment to the community she served.  In the Indian culture specifically, sons are always looked at as the pseudo leaders of the household – providers and the support system to all the females in the family. My mom’s eldest brother would have been that person.  He died when he was only 14 years old. As he was walking home in a torrential downpour, he caught what everyone thought was a cold. It wasn’t. Pneumonia filled his lungs and he died only a few short days later. My mother stepped up to the plate, often working long hours, having little time for fun while helping put her younger siblings through school, including one attending university in India and putting herself through college in Australia. Through the struggles, there were always great times; trips to the beach, a lot of laughter and many family gatherings. Everyone lived just down the street and everyone knew each other. It was a simpler time. No ipads, iPhones, computers, and a TV could only be found on average in one in every ten households. Life was hard, but it was good. 

Once my parents met, married and had three children (my two older brothers and I), they knew they wanted more opportunities for themselves and their children. Especially the opportunity for choices.  They were doing well for themselves in Fiji and had we stayed, we would have been financially secure.  My father was the equivalent to a super-intendant of a school district here.  In Fiji, that's like being President/CEO of a major corporation. In Fiji, educators are far more respected than in the U.S.  He made good money and was highly respected in the community. His struggles were not as his fathers were.  My mother worked at a bank – which was considered a very good job.  She also made good money and both of them were able to own a home in Fiji – something that was very difficult for the majority of the population.  We had a nanny that helped out while my parents worked; we had decent clothing, plenty of food, toys and entertainment.  But again, my parents wanted the chance for more, for their children.  Number one on that list of needing more was that all three of us attend and graduate from college.  They wanted their only daughter to have opportunities other than working at a bank or being a secretary – anything else was pretty rare for a woman in Fiji.  A few years after I was born my parents migrated to the U.S.  They set out for the American Dream and they struggled quite a bit.  Their cushy lifestyle in Fiji working good paying highly respected jobs, owning a large and beautiful home, ended.  My father’s college education, which he obtained at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, didn’t meet the standards for American education, leaving him essentially as a non-college graduate here. He did whatever he could to make ends meet, working as a gas station clerk, a janitor and taking night classes to get his degree and certification to make his Engineering degree legitimate to American educational standards.  My mother continued her work at banks in the U.S., but quickly realized working in a bank here, amongst twenty-something year olds, did not have the same element of prestige (or the paycheck) as it did in Fiji.  They struggled for many years as we moved up and down the West Coast from Fremont to Los Angeles to Seattle, back to Fremont and then finally settling in Sacramento.  Things were finally taking a turn. My dad was able to get his degree and a great job as an Engineer for the City of Sacramento where he has remained to this day.  My parents purchased their first home in the U.S. in the 1990s and it became my childhood home where I have many fond memories.  They saved every penny they could through the many years so that they could eventually settle down in a home which was quite an exciting feat after juggling through various apartments through the years. 

As I grew up, I witnessed and greatly respected my parents drive to succeed and the enormous sacrifices they made for their children. They left a home, where they worked in high level positions, were well respected and known in the community, to make ends meet and struggle for several years.  They did this for us. For us to be able to go to college, to have opportunities and a choice to have the future we wanted.  They didn’t want us to be limited in our potential. Yet through their struggles, they still gave back to their community.  Through the Mosques we attended, my parents were always donating money to the needy, and even the clothes off their backs. They taught us the importance of saving, saving and saving – but also, giving. I’ve kept that close to my heart over the years.  I knew I had to go to college, it wasn’t an option. Not just for my parents and their sacrifices, but because I had an urge to learn and make a difference in this world.  It came with its share of sacrifices and struggles.  I had to take out school loans and pay for my education myself. My parents were able to help with costs of living here and there - they bought me groceries I'd trek back to SF State, I'd do my laundry in Sacramento, they'd give me money for this and that but the majority of the financial load to get my education fell on my shoulders, same with my brothers – they simply couldn’t afford to put three children through college after migrating to the U.S.   And it was hard. Although I definitely had have fun while in college, and met the most amazing people, I envied my friends that could go home and study for hours on end or hang out on their free time, whereas I had to work full-time, sometimes late nights, so I could pay for rent and the costs of school.  Studying sometimes had to happen late at night which made for a very tired Naz come the next day. But I did it.  And so began my American Dream, firstly with getting my college education.  

My parents achieved their American Dream, giving their children the opportunity to attend college and owning their home(s).  They didn’t take handouts, didn’t use government assistance and they worked incredibly hard.  That being said, they never forgot the importance of social activism, helping those who were needy and making a difference.  Growing up underprivileged, seeing so many men, women and children in Fiji without shoes, living in tin houses, begging for food and water, taught them this.  They in turn taught us the importance of caring not only for yourself, your family and your home, but for the greater good of all people.  This is what I hope to teach my son – and any future children Avin and I have.  I want Elijah to know that yes, hard work is key, education is crucial and family is your backbone, but the true “American Dream” entails never forgetting that life is about much more than you – life is loving yourself and your neighbor. You never turn your back on someone that needs help. You never forget to be thankful for all that Allah (God) has given you, and at the same time, never treat those who have less than you as if they are less than you. Never treat those that believe differently than you as if their beliefs are irrelevant. 

I can’t begin to explain how important it is to me that Elijah knows where he came from, as he is a first generation American.  He will have opportunities my grandparents never imagined, opportunities that were limited for my parents, some of which were not quite in my grasp but that are fully attainable for him.  I want him to know that we come for a lineage of indentured servitude, that his great grandparents, grandparents and parents struggled to give him the opportunity for more than they could dream of. I want him to know that Avin and I purchased our first home right before he was born because we wanted him to know the feeling we didn’t until we were much older, how amazing it is to come home to a house and not a small apartment. I want him to know the importance of education, family and hard work. But I never want him to lose himself in a country that has become innately selfish.  I want him to know that life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunities for all people to move forward regardless of social class or circumstances of birth and that we need to pick each other up instead of knocking each other out of the way as we get to the finish line.

It isn’t just about us. It isn’t just about what we work hard for, what we’ve attained, but what we GIVE to others.  Through service, assistance and a big heart, I want him to grow to be a great PERSON.  Only then will he truly be wealthy and successful.

This is my American Dream.


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