Coming from a difficult and challenging childhood, Foysal, a Bangladeshi American shares his story.
A: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
F: I’m a 21 year old New Yorker currently attending Columbia University. I am studying ethnicity and race studies on the premed track. I love to play basketball, write poetry, and bike. I’m in my senior year - currently at the last leg of my undergraduate journey. Afterwards, I’m hopefully going to apply to medical school, and so I’ll prepare for that.
A: Do you have a specialty in mind?
F: I don’t really have a specialty in mind, but I do know I want to work with underserved and marginalized communities. Coming as someone who is low income and first generation, I understand how important it is to have healthcare professionals that understand your background and can provide care that is meant for you and makes you feel comfortable. Growing up, I had very bad asthma to the point where my family was always afraid of me going out. And I always had to take my medicine. Even as a child, I became an advocate for myself because my mother doesn't speak English and I always had to translate for my Mom. I never realized we
had to be mature in those instances as children of immigrants, having to advocate for ourselves and my mother. I’m the baby of the family but unfortunately we all had our troubles equally. I think that is why our family is close knit. We lost our father in 2001 so I have no memory of my father. I only know him through stories and hardships. We all pulled each other’s own weight in our own way.
I speak Bangla and we speak the Sylheti dialect. Syhleti isn’t as popular as many other Bangladeshi translation services. Shylhet is the second largest city in Bangladesh. Most services don’t provide Sylheti interpretation so it’s hard for my mom who is illiterate and didn’t have a formal
education or exposure to other dialects. She grew up during the genocide in Bangladesh, post-British partition, and she is a woman which came with restrictions. She couldn’t work and didn’t have real skills so the burden fell on my siblings.
A: Have you been back to visit Bangladesh?
F: We went to Bangladeshi in 2001 and that is when we lost our father there. So I went as a baby. Then, we went in 2008, 2012, 2018 and then in 2021 for my sister’s wedding. So each time has been a different experience and I was making sense of the country. In America, everybody asks where you are from even though I was born and bred here. Back in Bangladesh, they can tell you are not from there, so they also ask where you are from so it’s like an internal conflict.
A: Which culture do you identify with most?
F: I’m South Asian American and Bangladeshi American. I identify as Asian American. I had to explain to teachers where Bangladesh was 10-15 years ago. They would ask if Bangladesh is in India. In the past decade or so, with sea levels rising, climate change, garment industry, globalization, Bangladesh has become more prominent in the news headlines and the media. It is separate from India and is a relatively new country. They recently celebrated 50 years.
A: Tell us about the Bangladeshi culture.
F: We eat a lot of rice, fish, and coconut. We have colorful clothing. We are very poetic. I take a lot of my poetry from my roots. I’m a big fan of Hip hop and Rap, so poetry lets me bring those two worlds together, Bangladesh and growing up in NYC. We are very family-oriented. Family is a big pillar of our culture. There is no such thing as calling someone a friend. It’s always a brother or sister, the elderly are an uncle or aunt. I like the aspect that everybody is family. It’s very patriarchal. I have my mother and my four sisters. My older sister is divorced and there’s a lot of stigma around women being divorced in our culture. Divorce is stigmatized in South Asian culture in general,
and in most countries in the Indian subcontinent. A man being divorced is okay but when a woman gets divorced, people always ask questions and blame the woman. And they may not say it outrightly, but they say it implicitly. I think it’s been very unfair. I have a lot of male privilege that my sisters don’t have. My sisters are trailblazers and they are my role models. I didn’t need a
father because they were there. For me, I always put my sisters and my mom up there. I wish our culture were kinder to our women. I have two nieces and I want them to not experience any of that judgment or have any lack of opportunities.
I’m a practicing Muslim. It’s the dominant religion and I think 95% of Bangladesh are Muslim.
We celebrate a lot of seasons and holidays. Sometimes people who are closer to their religion than their culture shy away from the celebrations, thinking they are sinning or defying Allah. I think it’s all about intention and celebrating what you’re celebrating.
Before we were Bangladesh, we were East Pakistan. And before we were East Pakistan, we were India. We are all the same people. If it weren’t for the British, we would be just one landmass. We have a complicated history and our cultures are so intertwined, why do we alienate and separate?
A: Do you still have family back in Bangladesh?
F: I have some family back home but a lot of family members immigrated to London, which has a large Bangladeshi population, to a point where whenever they refer to Asians they think of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians. This is very different from growing up in NYC where people automatically assume East Asian people are associated with being Asian. Asia is super big and there are so many people from Asia. Asians come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. It’s
A: Did your mom have certain expectations or want you to pursue a particular occupation?
F: Even though I am aspiring to become a doctor and my brother is in law school, my mom did not put any pressure on us. My mom never asked about our grades or attended any parent/teacher conferences. I wish she was more involved. We always had this innate feeling that we had to work super hard. We just got used to working hard and keeping it to ourselves. All of us had the opportunity to pursue higher education and to hone those skills.
A: What do you think about the term people of color?
F: It’s a way of reclaiming, changing, and appropriating. I think it implies solidarity among all of us but it is a broad term. Even Asian American is a broad term. For example, a Bangladeshi and Indian person can look identical, but their trajectory and history in this country are very different. Bangladeshi women don’t make nearly as much as Indian women do. You look into those
statistics and everybody’s experience is very different. Both terms sometimes leave out the individual
experiences of certain cultures and people and genders.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
F: I do consider myself an atypical Asian. I’m sure other kids have lost their parents and grew up in public housing. There are many children like me, but everyone has their own twist to their own story. My older sister took on the father role. She took us to school, had to handle poverty, and taught my brother and me how to shave. We learned how to tie a tie on YouTube. My mother is very territorial with the kitchen but I want to learn how to cook so I can make good food when I’m away from home.
A: What are some of the good and bad aspects of stereotypes you have experienced?
F: We are seen as being quiet, docile and don’t cause trouble. We are victims of a lot of silent hate crimes. We have a close proximity to this idea of whiteness that is fabricated. It alienates us from other groups that we should be in solidarity with. Growing up, we heard a lot of slurs and derogatory terms, especially post 9/11, we had to be very vigilant, we were seen as a threat. It’s
very unfair. Even among teachers, we are prided as being good students but you’re alienating me among my peers. Even though we work hard and you give me a pat in the back, we have no choice but to put in the work.
A: What message do you want to impart to others about Asians?
F: Love yourself, love your community, love your people, find your people, find your circles. Sometimes you outgrow certain people in life and you later recognize what they were probably doing to you. There were times when friends made me insecure about my culture when my fingernails were yellow from eating curry with my hands. Appreciate yourself and continue
to learn. Learn about yourself. Learn what being Asian American or a Bangladeshi American means to you. For example, I wear earrings and it’s not common among my community. Also, I’m Muslim American and they don’t believe in piercings but I’m defining that for myself. My Mom accepts it and she brought me into this world, so if my world accepts it, does it matter what anyone else thinks?