Let me tell you about my friend Pema.
He works the evening shift at the Subway across the street from my apartment. Whenever I step into the store for dinner, he’ll always be there – happily making sandwiches for whoever is in line.
Every time he sees me, he greets with me a, “Hey brother, how are you?” and reaches over the counter to give me a fist bump.
From across the plastic counter, I’ve gotten to know Pema and understand his situation a little bit better.
Pema is a pretty strange name for an American, but that’s because Pema isn’t from America, but Tibet. He grew up there, but like so many other immigrants moved to America for hopes of a better life.
For the past two years, he’s been studying business at the nearby LaGuardia Community College while also juggling his full time job at Subway – an evening shift that lasts from 4pm to midnight – the best he could get with his limited English.
As a “Sandwich Artist” at Subway, Pema doesn’t make too much money. Nonetheless, every month, he faithfully mails the part of it that isn’t used for food, rent and tuition to his family in Tibet that depend on him.
“I don’t even eat dinner until after my shift ends, boss”, he told me. Since he was the only one working, he didn’t get any breaks. He would instead just wait until he got back home to his apartment in Flushing to have dinner.
“Wait, hold on, then how many hours of sleep do you get?” I asked him, surprised that he would eat so late.
“Maybe 5-6 hours, I have class at 8:30 in the mornings, boss” he replied.
Pema’s life sounds exhausting to me. Yet from what I’ve seen, he’s never missed a day of work and is always in a cheery, energetic mood.
Lately, we’ve been talking about his plans for the future. A few weeks ago, he told me that he was planning to switch to a better college / university so he can get a degree with more accreditation in business and finance. He told me about his desire to get a PhD, convinced that all this learning would be best for his future.
As someone in Computer Science, it’s never occurred to me to get another degree on top of the one I already have (as I can already have a career without needing to) but I can understand Pema’s thinking.
My dad grew up in a pretty poor family. I remember seeing his old family home when I flew back with him to our hometown in China and being shocked at how dilapidated and small it was. It was hard to imagine that this was where my dad had spent his childhood.
That’s why, growing up, my dad was taught that education was number one. If you study hard, then you can get into better schools. And if you get into better schools then you can go to better universities. And after studying at better universities, you will have a better life since it will be easier to get a good job and make more money. The opposite was also true. If you did poorly in class, then you would go to lower tier schools, only be able to get into a bottom ranked university and have significantly less opportunities. You would be stuck in the dilapidated house for the rest of your life.
That’s why it’s important for people like Pema and my parents to get higher education, because while I may only see a degree as a piece of paper, they see it as a ticket to a better life.
I’m so impressed by Pema’s unwavering drive and determination to make his dreams come true. When I see Pema, I’m reminded of the importance of hard work and how lucky I am to have a good education and job. I want to continue follow Pema’s story, but one day I hope to walk up to the plastic sandwich counter and hear that he’s no longer there. Because he’s gone on to do bigger and better things.