I’m not the easiest daughter to have around. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m erratic, and constantly in confusion about whether I should pursue my human rights career or pay homage to my writing skills. This year has been one of the hardest I have ever had to go through in making these choices and prioritizing my writing. I’m yet to find the silver lining in the clouds, but daily, I find refuge in the fact that my father is my biggest supporter.
Oh, and I know that it hasn’t been easy for him or for my mother to stay supportive of my non-linear career goals. Most South Asian parents would either balk at my dreams, or they would assume that my dreams should be quashed.
But this is when I find comfort, because my parents are not like the “normal” South Asian parents: they’re not conservative in their beliefs of what their daughters’ lives are worth, and they have spent years investing in ensuring that we don’t have to EVER depend on a man for our well-being. For this, and for so many other things, I’m eternally grateful.
Particularly because I’m aware of the difficulties I’ve caused my parents over the years… I disappear for weeks on end, am easily antagonistic and prone to flare up to the injustices I’ve experienced, and sometimes only make myself available when I am going through a slump. But every time I’ve reached out to them, they’ve done the impossible by Bangladeshi standards, and indeed, by global standards. They have never pushed me to be someone I’m not. They’ve never forced me to get married, as is normal at some point of almost every Bengali woman’s life. I know that it’s not been easy for them to accept me for who I am, because being a global nomad who gets into the strangest situations, but through it all, my parents have been my pillar of strength.
It is my father’s birthday today. I would have never been able to achieve half my dreams and goals without his constant support and encouragement, even when I’ve written about things that he finds difficult to stomach- he encourages me. As has been one of the only constants in the last fifteen years, I’m half a world away from him on his special day, and today, this makes me sadder than normal, because I don’t even have a date for when I will see him again.
Hence, here are ten lessons my father has taught me, lessons that I know that many South Asians will never learn, because they think that their sons are more valuable than their daughters. I am glad my parents are exemplary of how shortsighted this perception of women are. They’ve spent their entire lives making sacrifices so that their daughters could have the best education, and the best career possibilities. It’s incredible, what my father in particular has achieved, especially given the hardships that he himself faced as a child, growing up without a mother.
I love you, Abba. Thank you for being my biggest fan. Here are the ten lessons I keep reminding myself every day. They get me through the days that are hard to bear, and always provide me with smiles on the good says.
1. Don’t ever stop dreaming, because the sky is your limit. When I was accepted as an Emerging Leader by Harvard University, my father was the first person to congratulate me. He was also the first person to tell me to apply for work with the United Nations. He has always been there to support my big dreams, even when folks were telling me to settle for working as a checkout girl in a women’s accessories store in Grand Central Station right after college, just because it paid my bills. Even in my darkest moments, my father has pointed out that the rain can never wash away the sun. That I have what it takes to succeed.
2. Control your passionate nature and channel it to do good things for the world. Prejudice will always exist, but it’s how you fight this prejudice that will define your legacy. I have a penchant for anger. I’ve realized that this anger is derived from constantly being subject to trashy behavior from counterparts who believe that being a woman means I have to somehow take the back burner to being wronged. I’ve also noticed that when I have channelled my passionate nature that I have made the most amount of impact. I was devastated, when I realized during a field visit with UNICEF, how little the Government of Bangladesh actually does, for the little kids who are born with HIV in the country. I was frustrated, but then it was because I swallowed my frustrations and went about my work, that I received a recommendation from the UNAIDS country director in Bangladesh, who told me at the end of my research, that I was the first person he had met, who was asking all the right questions to move the dialogue forward.
3. Remember that words are powerful. They are like arrows. Once they have been released, you can never take them back. This is self explanatory and timeless. Think before you express yourself.
4. No man will ever be as supportive of you as your father. I kid you not. No man. NONE. Not your boyfriends, not your husbands, and certainly, none of your friends.
5. So what if you get rejection letters? You need to learn how to get up again when you fall down, because this is the true mark of success. You need to see rejection for what it is- proof that even the best fall down sometimes. That this is not indicative of your capabilities, but should be seen as a way of figuring out how to use criticism constructively.
6. The best memories in your life are going to be the little ones.The impromptu drives to the beach, the beautiful walks up in the fresh mountain air, the time you spent sorting through 7 different types of tomatoes. Cherish the little moments. They make the bigger ones worthwhile. You’re in charge of the memories you choose to keep. You can choose to keep the horrible memories, or you can choose to keep the good memories. At every single moment, you have a choice. Don’t ever underestimate your ability to choose.
7. When you dwell on something and think too much about it, you lose perspective. Forgiveness is the key to loving, and forgetting is the key to staying happy. Stay active, because the idle mind is really the devil’s workshop. Read the news, speak with people. Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that, if you’re having a bad day, it too, shall pass.
8. Life is not easy. But sometimes, the only way to gain perspective is to plant seeds, because when the seeds take root, even the tiniest plants will bear fruit and flowers. It’s a wild world out there. And it’s true, it’s hard to get by with just a smile. But you’ve got to remember to smile sometimes, even when it’s difficult. You’re smart, intelligent, and a beautiful human being. You need to trust your own voice. Even if it’s difficult, trust your own voice.
9. Friends will come and go, as will jobs. But the only thing that will stay constant is your mind. Your thoughts are invaluable, because your education is invaluable. No man or woman can ever take this away from you, because you do have the capacity to choose between right and wrong, between the folks that will put you down, and those that will lift you up. Don’t be afraid to walk away from those that push you down. You deserve the best.
10. There is nothing like a good cup of tea. When I was ready to leave Bangladesh a few years ago, at the end of a vacation where I had spent time with friends who I now know would never bother to prioritize me, and in fact, have spent time belittling me and my ambitions over the years, my father sat me down, and played a beautiful Urdu song for me on his record player. Loosely translated, the words meant, “Don’t insist on leaving today.” We were sitting in our newly renovated living room, and sipping tea. I realized, for the first time, how invaluable the coconut tree fronds blowing in the wind were outside, and how important it is, to spend quality time with the only folks whose love for you will always remain unconditional. We sat there drinking tea and listening to old ghazals for a while. Every time I feel discouraged, I remember that day, that day that stands out, as one of the best days of my life.
11. Wealth is a state of mind, not a state of your bank account. Money will always come and go, but the only thing that remains constant is your capacity to remain productive, to constantly learn, to constantly engage, and to constantly give back.
Thank you for being one of the best fathers out there. We’ve had our differences, but we’ve also had some wonderful times together. I’m so proud of you, each day, and every day. And no matter what happens, I know no one can ever take this away from me. You’re the best. This daddy’s little girl has a million more lessons that she’s learned from you, but we’ll save the rest for ourselves.
Thank you for being you. I wouldn’t want you any other way. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!