Sharmin came to the U.S. as a toddler from Bangladesh and aspires to make a bigger impact for her community.
A: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
S: I’m Sharmin, she/her pronouns and I’m Bangladeshi American, a New Yorker. I’m also Muslim. I’m originally from the Lower East Side of Manhattan and spent my childhood, elementary and high school years there. We moved to Midtown when I was in first grade and it’s very different from the Lower East Side. I was pretty adamant about going to school in the Lower East Side since I had my friends and teachers there so I made sure to stay until high school. During my free time, I like looking at interior design, home décor, reading about plants, and scheming what plant I need next.
A: Have you been back to visit Bangladesh? Can you tell us a little about it.
S: Yes, I was there in July and August 2021. We go about every two or three years. India and Bangladesh are next to each other. We used to be one land and once upon a time, we were all one country, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan. We are different as far as food. The same patriarchy is still there. Women are more restricted in Bangladesh than India.
I came to the States as a toddler in the 90’s. My siblings and I are very close and are interconnected.
A: What organization are you part of and what do you do?
S: I work at CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence). It’s a grassroots organization in New York City, founded in 1986 by working class women. We build the power of Asian immigrant, low income folks in NYC and our current work is around housing , public housing, private housing, rent stabilized housing. We work in Chinatown and Queens at the moment and I’ve been there for four years. I mainly work in development. My work centers around fundraising, communications, finance and operations. It’s a multi- faceted position. I organize donors to make sure we have the money in the organization to sustain ourselves. In terms of goals, I want to continue to be in the nonprofit world and I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations and philanthropy. A lot of the funders I meet do not look like me but then they are the ones making decisions about folks like me. There should be brown faces in there, where they know the experiences and have been directly impacted. I want to be on the other end where I can make the decisions and say here, take the funding, I know what you do and I trust you.
In college I studied political science, human rights and also majored in religion. I went to grad school for my Master’s degree in public administration, so public affairs, nonprofit and management.
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
S: Bangladeshi. I’m South Asian.
A: Is there a large Bangladeshi community in New York?
S: Jackson Heights, Astoria, Elmhurst. There’s now a huge community in Parkchester, Bronx, but not Manhattan.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
S: In terms of care, love and providing for folks I think I would be a typical Asian Mom. I take care of others before myself, this comes naturally but I am also the middle child so it comes with the role. I also personally make a choice to feel connected to my Asian and Bangladeshi roots, whether it’s learning something new, watching a movie in Bangla or even speaking to older relatives. I love the clothing, food and language, to be able to retain that and pass that on. I want my future kids to know the language too.
A: Tell about the Bangladeshi culture.
S: I think the culture has good and bad just like any other culture. I enjoy the food, it’s amazing and authentic, clothing, saris, jewelry. We’re very colorful. The bondings in the way the moms take care of the children and vice versa, I think that is very typical of Bangladeshi culture. There is a lot of hospitality in the Bangladeshi community which is beautiful. Then there is the part that is frustrating, which is the patriarchy you face in the community even in this present day. My dad passed away when we were very young so we faced a lot of the patriarchy, the pushing back, where they tried to make the decisions on our behalf. There is a lot of gender inequality that still exists in the Bangladeshi community.
Our Prime Ministers have been women since the 1990’s and there are other women in government who make decisions on education and health.
A: What are some of the stereotypes you have encountered being Asian?
S: I think the typical one is in school, the thinking that if you are Asian you must be a nerd and be good in math and science. It takes away from the fact that you have to work hard. A lot of times folks think if you’re Asian then you don’t have to work hard and it’s naturally in your head but it’s not true. I had to work hard to get those grades and balance my work life. That stereotype holds you back. Just because you are from a certain country or part of the world, you must be very smart, but that’s not true - you also have to work very hard to be successful. It’s important to not put us in that container.
Growing up, there was a lot of laughing and jokes when I spoke Bangla with my mother, where folks were mimicking and stereotyping the language, and that’s very frustrating. Growing up, folks made fun of the curry smell. Now folks love eating curry. Having to explain where Bangladesh is another stereotype. Being Muslim, especially after 9/11, I’ve also experienced racism.
A: What are your hopes and dreams?
S: I want to continue to work for my community whether that’s through a nonprofit or foundations. I want to be intentional about where I work to make a greater impact. I want to do things at a different scale and to make a big difference. I think wherever I end up with my dreams, I want to go home knowing I am making a difference in my community. I want to go to sleep knowing there is some impact I have made.
A: What message do you want to impart to others about Asians?
S: Stay connected to your roots and do not shy away from your experiences. Share your story. Storytelling is a powerful tool to bring your experiences to the forefront. It connects you to other people’s experiences. I like to share my struggles of growing up low income, Bangladeshi American, Muslim, and with a single mother. There are different layers and certain aspects of those layers others can connect with. Despite the struggle, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Life is a journey and it comes with a lot, the good and bad. But the relationships we build and maintain will help us go a long way.