It was 7 AM in the early morning, an hour before Zinat Sultana had to drive to work. She put on a professional blouse and a pair of business pants. “I never wear salwar kameez to school like I used to.”
Zinat Sultana, my mother, immigrated to Queens, New York from Dhaka, Bangladesh with her husband, Quamrul, and five year old daughter, Raisa. Born on June 1st, 1964, Zinat recalls her many experiences when immigrating here. She has been living in America for the past twenty-two years, arriving in 1996. She currently resides in Woodhaven, Queens.
Zinat came from a large family of nine kids, including herself. She is proud that her “family is very culturally aware and highly educated.”
Growing up, she received her Masters from Dhaka University in history, which translated to a undergraduate degree in America. Therefore, she went back to school and received a graduate degree in Education from Touro College. She currently teaches special education students (who span from ages three to five) in a private school. She has taught from pre-k to eighth grade in the past.
In regards to education rates, Pew Research states that the percentage of immigrants holding at least a bachelor’s degree has gone up to 53% in 2013, South Asians being one of the most well-educated incoming immigrant groups.
However, Zinat was upset that her Master’s degree from Dhaka did not hold the same weight in the U.S., forcing her to return to school.
The primary reason Zinat moved to New York with her daughter and husband was “for better opportunities.” She felt that her sister was “enjoying life,” in America, and that the economic situation was better. She was also looking forward to “eating food from around the world,” as she heard New York was a hub for various cultural cuisines.
“When we came with your sister, Raisa, we were under my husband’s H-1 visa. At the airport, I had to submit my papers a second time because the people in charge lost my original papers. We knew a little bit of English, so we could make our way around. However, there was no one to translate things.”
An H-1 visa is a work permit that businesses use to hire international employers. According to H1-base.org, the visa is a “dual intent” visa, meaning that it will “not be denied simply because a person has intentions to become a permanent resident.” In terms of translators, airports rarely have people working solely as translators for incoming immigrants.
When Zinat first stepped foot in America, it was for a vacation. Two years later, she would be greeted by her husband’s brother and taken to his apartment to live for a few days. In a few weeks, Zinat’s husband would rent a basement in a fellow Bangladeshi’s home for the family to stay in. The house belonged to Zinat’s sister’s mutual friend.
“My sister, Kity, helped my husband get a job as an accountant for a company. She then helped him apply for an H-1 visa, which he got. This allowed us to move to the states.”
Zinat joked that she gave birth to me in her sister’s basement. Although this was untrue, Zinat and her family did live in a basement following my birth. The family then nestled themselves between the lives of others when renting out someone else’s private house. A year later, they transferred to an apartment building for four years. Finally, in 2010, they invested in a private house they labeled their true “home.”
It is often customary for new immigrants to move in with other people from their country until they could get on their own feet and find permanent housing. Many Bangladeshis tend to move to Jackson Heights, though Richmond Hill was where Zinat and her husband purchased their first apartment.
Zinat said she was fortunate since rebuilding her life only consisted of moving boxes and that she ultimately found a comfort many immigrants could not.
“One of my greatest achievements was buying our first house in Woodhaven.” In 2013, Zinat was able to buy the house next door as well.
Overall, Zinat was grateful for living in Queens. When describing how she initially felt in her first year of residence, she stated, “I thought that I lived in a much better environment. There was a lot of convenience here, such as being able to get food nearby. The streets were much cleaner and easier to navigate. I could walk on the sidewalks with your sister without fearing danger. In Bangladesh, the huge population makes it hard to travel and we would need our own driver or take rickshaws. Overall, the environment made me feel happy.”
Dhaka, Bangladesh has a population of about 14.4 million, while Queens has a population of about 2.339 million, which is about seven times smaller.
In Bangladesh, Zinat did not work and lived with her mother in Gopibag, Dhaka.
Zinat expressed that she did not have any regrets when she first moved, even if she missed her siblings and mother very much.
“[I missed] my parents, brothers, and sisters. I miss[ed] my childhood home and my mom’s home cooked food, which is impossible to recreate. You can find the ingredients, but it will never be the same,” she expressed.
As the years went by, two of her brothers immigrated to New York and have since been traveling back and forth from Queens to Bangladesh. One of her sisters have permanently moved to the same block as Zinat.
“It is great that most of my siblings have moved here. It is starting to feel like living in Bangladesh. However, I still miss my mother.”
Most immigrants leave their direct families behind, starting a completely new life and bringing back money or gifts when they return to visit. Zinat tends to visit Bangladesh every summer, though she has skipped a few years due to work.
“The journey back is excruciating! The plane ride is over 13 hours and if you take breaks, you need to change planes three times. I always feel tired and nervous leaving my kids. I am also afraid of getting an illness.”
Mosquitoes are rife in Bangladesh due to the tropical climate, carrying various viruses like malaria and dengue.
Despite the many advantageous aspects of living in Queens, Zinat did face a few obstacles, the greatest one being work.
Zinat said, “I had an extremely hard time finding a job at the beginning. I would beg anyone and everyone for the smallest job, especially when I was pregnant. Many people would refuse [to give me jobs]. Once, a man in charge of a food cart asked me to stand there all day; it was winter and I was pregnant, but he promised me money, so I agreed. At the end of the day, several hours later, he only gave me $20.”
“I had a strong desire to make money and become financially independent. Later on, a secretary in [my daughter’s] school spoke to me about becoming a substitute teacher. I went to the Department of Education three times looking for help. No one helped me until finally, a counselor decided to give in and answer my questions. She told me how to apply and what to do. I filled out the proper paperwork and soon became a substitute teacher, working in many public schools.”
The entire process was not easy for Zinat because the internet was not as readily available and she had no connections in the education field. She was grateful to her daughter’s secretary for helping her to the best of her ability.
“When I got my permanent teaching license, I faced some discrimination three years into my job. My old principal had resigned and the new principal had some kind of vendetta against me. I felt that it was because of my accent and ethnicity. At one point, he had recalled my tenure and asked me sign to a document recalling it, even if I had received it the previous year. I noticed that the symbol on the paper did not match that of my school’s, and that he had created a fraudulent document on his own. I called the United Federation of Teachers who helped settle the issue, and received an apology from the principal. To this day, I regret not suing him. I ended up quitting that job two years later, and took over various different jobs at other private schools.”
Still, becoming a teacher increased Zinat’s overall happiness and confidence.
There are many things in New York City that stand out to Zinat. She said, “The subway systems and the clean streets always stood out to me. Transportation in Bangladesh is limited and takes a very, very long time.”
Usually, transportation in Bangladesh is through cars, taxis, buses, rickshaws (a bicycle-like cart driven by someone), auto-rickshaws or CNGs, and boats. Traffic is notoriously bad in Bangladesh, with people waiting to arrive at destinations for hours on end, even if the distance is not far.
A New York Times article confirms that Dhaka is known for bad traffic and an overall poor quality of life. It states, “the 2016 Global Liveability Survey, the quality of life report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Dhaka ranked 137th out of 140 cities, edging out only Lagos, Tripoli and war-torn Damascus; its infrastructure rating was the worst of any city in the survey” (Rosen).
Zinat acknowledges this and considers Queens her favorite place because she lived there for so long. Zinat also expressed that her neighborhood is diverse and that she sees, “Spanish, Chinese, African-American, White, and Egyptian people [on her block].”
She added, “In Queens, I know how to drive to many areas, like the mall. I can also take the train to other places like Jackson Heights or Manhattan. My least favorite place is the Bronx because it is so far from Queens, although it has a nice zoo.”
In Bangladesh, Zinat specifically loved the food and fruits you could find on every street corner. Zinat finds that the city is still a great place for her to find new foods. “I love all kinds of food. I like that I can eat different cuisines here, like Chinese or Spanish food. My favorite Bangladeshi dish is kachi biryani. I have all the ingredients to make it at home or get it from a store. My favorite American restaurant is Red Lobster.”
Asides from food, Bangladesh also has “a lot more nature.”
New York has not changed much for Zinat, though she noticed a greater influx of immigrants, particularly in the Bangladeshi community.
Statistics state that over 50% of current Bangladeshi immigrants arrived to the U.S. in 2000, where the population increased by 474%. New York hosts the largest majority of them in the metropolitan area. Bangladeshis are the fastest growing Asian group, substantiating what Zinat sees in her environment.
“Everyday, New York is becoming more and more like Bangladesh. I am fine with this, but also fear overpopulation, a reason we left Bangladesh in the first place.”
In the context of all of America, Zinat feels that her experiences are fitting. “Overall, my experiences in New York do reflect all of America—it is a place of fun, food, jobs, money, immigrants, racism, fighting, justice, and injustice.”
When asked if she identifies more with being Bengali, a New Yorker or just an American, she said, “I identify myself as more of a New Yorker. I still believe that New York is the best place in America. I think that, though I am still Bangladeshi and an American citizen, I will not fit in as easily anywhere else compared to in New York.”
She further added, “I have made something of myself here. Being successful in America has a different ring to it—it isn’t the same as being successful in Bangladesh, even if someone is making more money there.”
Zinat is one of many immigrants who learn to embrace their new surroundings, perhaps even favoring more aspects of American culture than the culture they left behind. Such immigrants do retain some traditional practices, but consider themselves comfortably assimilated to America. Zinat doesn’t consider becoming “Americanized” a loss, but a personal gain and still takes pride in the Bangladeshi things she practices, such as the food and music.
At the end of our interview, I asked Zinat the quintessential question: complete the sentence, “My New York is…”
She responded: “Everything.”
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Serafin, Jimmy. https://www.instagram.com/p/BV_DBXbjmry/?taken-by=jimmy.serafin