By: Lisa-Ann Placca

Like a ship at sea, my family steers my sails, while my friends make sure I never sink
Thanks to the people in my life I am confident in my course and able to explore new horizons which at moments seemed out of reach. Not only do I find myself living a fortunate life with the influence of my family and friends, but my unique upbringing in two distinct worlds teaches me lessons that to this day remain unforgettable.
My parents never got the opportunity to go to college like I do today; nevertheless, they still found a way to make a living in a country known as Bangladesh, which was filled with hardships and inequalities. Furthermore, we are not the typical Bengali family as our roots lie in Portugal and Burma. My great grandparents were from Portugal but I never got the chance to learn about them as they passed away when my grandmother was only ten years old. She grew up in a convent where the nuns took care of her, until she met my grandfather and they got married. My grandmother became a teacher in the convent and she taught for the next fifty years of her life, while my grandfather worked for the railroad company. Their firstborn was my uncle who was loved dearly and spoiled with any and everything, My father was born next but being the middle child, was not favored like his older brother or younger sister. Next, my grandparents gave birth to my aunt who was the most privileged as she got the chance to live abroad and receive a formal education in London with our other relatives who immigrated there. Nevertheless, my father was a strong and independent individual as far as I can remember and even before I was born, so he went to school and studied hard with aspirations of becoming a
successful individual one day. However, with increased pressure from his work, my grandfather began to drink excessively and even got into the habit of gambling to the point where it became an addiction. He eventually drove his family into poverty as he gambled away all their money, and even lost my grandmother’s wedding ring in a bet. He ended up suffering a heart attack and left his family to deal with his mess. Now with my grandfather gone, the family suffered financial burdens and my grandmother’s pay did not suffice, so my dad was forced to work in addition to attending school. He was told to drop out of school to get a full-time job to support
his family, but refused to do so. He kept going to school and worked, and on the side tutored students for extra money. In time, despite the financial burdens my father was faced with, he still made it a point to attend a technical school and obtain the least amount of education he could afford. His efforts paid off when he obtained the engineering position at the American Embassy.
On the other hand, my mother grew up in Bangladesh as well, but in a completely
different manner. While the roots on my father’s side originate in Portugal, my mother’s roots come from Burma. My great grandmother was born in Burma but moved to Bangladesh where she met her husband and settled down to have children. She gave birth to my beautiful grandmother, but as it was in those days my grandmother did not receive the chance for an education, so she was sent to the kitchen instead to learn to become a housewife. Soon enough, my grandfather met my grandmother and although she was thirteen years younger than him, it
did not stop him from marrying her. They had four children together, the eldest child being my mother. Now similar to my grandmother’s case, my mother and her sister did not get the chance to finish school because they also had to learn to cook and clean, while their brothers were praised in the male-dominated society of Bangladesh. Luckily, my mother is a fast learner so she picked up the craft of being a hairdresser from a family friend. Her efforts soon paid off when she was offered the stylist position at a renowned five-star hotel.

My parents eventually met due to both their fathers working in the railroad industry at some point, and then decided to get married. They were both very young but with their good jobs had no problem beginning their life together in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the place where my younger brother and I were born. They rented a spacious apartment in a good neighborhood and made sure we were always content. In addition, they wanted more for their children so they sent me to an English-medium school and pushed me to be the perfect student and excel in all subjects, just like my father had in his past life.

However, bringing in children to a third-world country of immense poverty and
corruption made them wonder what lay ahead for our future. The truth is there was no future, not until the year 1998 when at the age of nine my family and I immigrated to a far-off land in the west where possibilities stood endless and wide. Secretly, my father always had high hopes of coming to America and giving his children a better life, one which he never had. After working in the American embassy for twenty years, my father was finally given the chance to come to America. Without a doubt in their heads, they sacrificed all their comforts they worked so many years earlier to attain, just for us. They decided to give up their well-paid secure jobs and happiness to bring up their children in a safer world where there would be better access to
education and opportunities one could only dream of.

Even though I had spent half of my life in Bangladesh, I felt like I did not belong in a
place where most of the people and I did not share facial, religious, or ethnic qualities. Growing up in a male-dominated, Muslim society, did not hold much opportunity for a young Catholic girl. Although my parents were happy for the most part, there were many times when they were faced with discrimination and religious intolerance because they shared little in common with the typical Bengali. America had to be the next best alternative. especially when my uncle, my father’s older brother was murdered in his own apartment. Thus, the hardships and struggles that
accompanied my family brought an appreciation each day: a hope for a better life in a new country.
However, the new country also held its own obstacles for my family and me. My parents were having a hard time finding jobs because of their lack of merit and familiarity in a foreign place. On the other hand, I was trying to adjust in a new school where everything and everyone seemed new to me. But in this foreign place, I remember meeting my best friend for the first time.
When the teacher asked him a question, the helpless little boy looked up to the chalk
board unable to answer as the rest of the class burst into laughter. He had no idea of what was going on, but being made fun of on a daily basis and holding the description of a “poor student,” did not aid the process. Having recently arrived from Bangladesh, I was an outsider as well, who felt empathy for another lonely soul. I encouraged him to believe that he had enough potential to do well in school, and I began assisting him with his lessons in math and English. From elementary to high school, I was able to help him pass the general math courses all the way till
trigonometry, and even teach him the academic structure of writing essays, which prove successful in his English classes even today. Helping him has brought out love and compassion in a friendship I thought I would never discover in a world of competition and uncertainty. Fortunately, I met more people over the years and grew close to others who have helped me find my strength and independence during times I lost the courage and motivation to go on. During these times, my newfound friends gave me hope. They helped me gain confidence in myself by constantly reinforcing me with positive talk such as, “You can do it Lisa! You are a smart, independent person who lets nothing stand in her way.” My friends cannot take tests for
me, cannot earn my grades for me, but they can help guide me towards the rightful route. If it were not for those few influential people who kept encouraging me in my times of helplessness, I would have never discovered the steel within myself.

With the encouragement from my friends, I became Vice President of the College
Information Club in high school, where I assisted students who were not in those special honor programs and did not have access to information on colleges. I was also elected President of the Amnesty International Club in my school and joined the battle to fight for human rights in other countries. Whether I help students choose the right courses to prepare for college, or let others know that civil rights should not be taken for granted, the more I understand the world beyond my own two eyes.

Being the first person in my family to attend a university is a wonderful privilege as it
helped open my eyes to the real-world in my own way. I still tried to help others in college by aiding students in math and science through the UCLA California Teach Program and volunteering in the Braille Institute. Learning about my family’s past has helped develop my mentality and drive, to want to help the minority population who make it to America in hopes of finding a better life.When I first moved to the U.S., I was always posed with the question, “what are you?” Well, not much has changed today as I am still asked the same question, due to my physical appearance. I realized I not only fit into the Asian American immigrant category, but I can also fit in with other ethnic minority groups. People either mistake me for being Filipino or Latino, and sometimes even other nationalities. Therefore, I look at this as an advantage that I can fit in and blend in with almost any minority group. People have told me that I am easy to approach and talk to because they see a little of their own background and culture in me. I am able to relate to them and inspire them to hope for more and become a more successful person in the process, like I did with my best friend. I tell people that I am an Asian American because I understand what it means to have to start over in an unfamiliar place, but I am also an immigrant who shares similar challenges and dreams just like you.

When we moved to America, our lifestyles completely changed as I was forced to grow up and become more independent because my parents are always working. They are hardly around as they have lost their comfortable and secure jobs once held, and instead have low paying ones with long, tiring hours. It hurts me to learn about their past and see where they have ended up today, as I see them growing more gray and wrinkled every time. Since my brother was only four years old when we came here, he does not understand my parent’s greatest sacrifice as
he grew up under the influence of an Americanized lifestyle of self-absorbance. Therefore, as a first generation and the eldest child in my family, I hold the responsibility of having to take care of them. I hope to graduate UCLA soon and then go to pharmacy school so that I can provide my family with the medicine they will need upon aging. I want their elder years to be comfortable like their own lives once were a long time ago. In addition, because I am also an educated individual, I want to give back to the society that has shaped me. I want to be an activist and a part of the organizations that fight for change and betterment of humanity. I hope that being a neuroscience major will one day help me attain my goal of healing people, but meanwhile being an Asian American Studies minor will show me the road to becoming a more active individual in being aware and involved in making a difference in the immigrant community of America.

AuthorLisa-Ann Polacca