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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The New York City Cab Driver Who Changed My Life in 10 Minutes

The (New) World Trade Center: Tower 1
My last night in New York City the cab driver taking us to dinner asked me where I was from. “Texas,” I said defensively. Everyone thinks Texans are wealthy because we are from the “Land of Bush and Oil,” so I deflected and asked him where he was from. After more prodding, he started to tell me his story, and it moved me to tears.

He grew up in poverty in Bangladesh but left for New York City 25 years ago at 40 years old. His family wasn't able to come to the U.S. until 12 years after his move.  It took him that long to get legal citizenship and safely bring them over.

He labored long hours for years as bussing tables in a restaurant at an age when his body was already tired. His English was broken, but from what I understood, he said the restaurant owner noticed his work ethic, asked him work as a cook. He soon after applied for his green card. He said after five years he took an exam and then got approval for citizenship.

The mere mention of that day un-furrowed his brows and brightened his eyes. He missed his family and could now move them to New York with him. All this time, his wife and six children were living back in Bangladesh—a country so poor he said most people work 12 hours to earn one American dollar.

Once a legal citizen, his family moved, and he hoped to provide them with a world of opportunities not available to them at home. He started driving a taxicab. He said, as a cab driver, his extended family at home considers him wealthy. He sends a few hundred dollars back to them in Bangladesh. It was obvious from his tone that this act was his pleasure, not a burden or obligation. 

He said he spends his life suffering for others and future generations, as he felt he should. His frame was small, his head and face, bald, and his eyes big, sweet and brown. He looked like a boy with wrinkles. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, but painted a picture of self-sacrifice most of us Americans can’t comprehend. The Dalai Lama calls the U.S. the most individualistic nation in the world—a culture that tends to fend for themselves and nobody else. But Mother Theresa reminded us through her selfless acts that joy is found in serving others. When we serve ourselves it is never good enough.

The cab driver became passionate and said first generation immigrants in America never have it easy so why would he. He then asked about my forefathers. I said my family goes back six or seven generations in the U.S. and five in Texas alone. He reminded me that they probably didn’t have it easy when they first came from Ireland and Scotland to have what I have today. I was humbled. 

In just one generation, he changed the direction of his family's path. He said in the U.S. all you have to do is work hard, but in Bangladesh working hard still ends in suffering and poverty. His hard work is manifest in his six children’s success—his eldest son has his MBA and works in finance, his daughters got their education degrees to teach, and his younger twin sons will soon finish their masters in chemical and electrical engineering.

I learned in my tour of the Financial District that the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island was 15-year-old Annie Moore. She traveled alone with her two little brothers for 12 days at sea. Her parents were already in New York looking for work and new opportunities. They eventually reunited, but the road wasn't easy. She married young, had 11 children but only five lived into adulthood. She died at 47 of heart failure. I can't help but wonder where her descendants are now, but this New York Times piece gives us some clues. 

The cab driver said if he were born in the U.S. he would have studied hard to be a doctor. In Bangladesh he said he was a shaman-like character helping cancer patients and treating other ailing people who couldn’t afford medical care. This guy was not just a cab driver. The bus boy is never just a bus boy, a mother not just a mother, a CEO never just a CEO, and a homeless person never just a homeless person. 

Everyone has a story. We all have something to learn from our fellow humans. 

After ten minutes we arrived at the restaurant. I tipped him and said "thank you for sharing your story."