I’m sitting at a traffic light in Upstate New York, myriad cornfields swaying in the wind. There is not a sound, not a smell, not even a person within reach. This might not seem out of the ordinary for most, but it was strange to me.
I grew up in Bangladesh and spent my entire early life not knowing anything besides the millions of people in my backyard all in a hurry to get somewhere. The hustle and bustle of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Sitting at a traffic light back home is so different. The sights and smells are overwhelming; the smells of the neighboring food stalls penetrate the car. The opposing forces of mishti, a sweet dessert, and spicy chicken curry somehow complement each other. I wave at Auntie Purnima as she flips the chapattis (flatbread) up in the air like UFOs. I see her passionate smile as she does what she loves.
My eyes wander to my right, where I see a little boy lying in a pile of bricks. His mother’s tired face longs for rest, but she needs to provide for her son. She breaks brick after brick, barely making a dollar a day. I look around knowing how blessed I am. That could be me sitting in a pile of bricks on the other side of the glass, wishing I could trade places for just a moment.
I notice a giant Bangladesh flag hovering above the car, the red dot on the green backdrop. It reminds me of the freedom that Bengalis are so proud of. Memories flood my mind as I remember past Victory Days, Bengali Independence Day, celebrations with my friends. They wear their nicest clothes, prepare the best food, and honor those who gave their lives for their freedom. I hear the crack of the cricket ball against the wickets down the street, kids imitating their favorite players pretending to be in the 20/20 finals. I can see past their situations and see their potential. I have no doubt that this group of kids could become doctors, scientists, or athletes. I hear a faint tap, tap, tap at our window.
There is an elderly woman standing right outside asking us if we would like to come in and have some cha (Bengali tea) with her. She gestures to the entrance of the local slum. Is she really asking us to get out of the car and have tea with her? My mother and I can’t believe the hospitality of this woman who has nothing and yet is willing to share what she has with us. We kindly decline because we have to be on our way, but her gesture sticks with us.
The light turns green, and we are off, but now every time I sit at a stoplight I remember all these experiences and how grateful I should be for what I have. I remember all the friends I have made and the world changers that will impact the future. I recall staring at that little boy on the mound of bricks and my compassion toward him. Every day I try to be more like that old lady, giving up something to others that they can cherish.
Bangladesh was a great place to grow up. It taught me that even though many Bengalis live in extreme poverty, they are the richest people I know.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.