I never wanted to leave Fiji, but my dad’s words got to me, and I knew I had to do this.
There I was at the age of 45, ready to become a father for the first time. Ready to welcome my firstborn into the world, only to lose her before she was even born. All my hopes of ever creating my own family and becoming a dad had died. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t lose another person that I loved dearly. But one year later, the gynecologist who helped us with our first baby sat me down, telling me that I could do it again and he would be with me every step of the way.
He was right, I could and I did do it. Holding my newborn in my hands as she cried, me and her both had tears running down our faces, only mine were out of pure joy. Just staring at this little duckling in my arms made me the proudest man alive, and it took me back to where I came from, and how I started only to be the person I am today.
My name is Ravindra Lal. Ravi means sun, and my grandparents had given me this name because I was born on a sunny Sunday. I was born in the city of Suva, Fiji, on the island of Viti Levu. Fiji was my heaven. We weren’t wealthy. We lived on a farm, but life on that farm was the best. We had mango and coconut trees that I would climb everyday to get fresh fruit for the family.
Every morning, I would go and milk the cows, feed the chickens, tend to all the other animals, and play with the dogs. I am the oldest of 6 siblings, along with others in the family. All of them were known as my brothers and sisters, for there are no such things as cousins in this family. I was the one everyone looked up to.
My cousin, your Naren Dada, he had left for America when he was 18 and I, seven. He had his visa and his papers, ready to leave to a new country, but he had no money. So my dad gave him some money to help him on his journey. Naren Dada never forgot that moment, how he started. When I was about 16 years old, he came back to visit Fiji. He wanted to thank our family for helping him. He came back because he wanted to repay my dad. He said to my dad, “Main aapko aur aapke parivaar ko yahaan se nikaal doonga.” “I will get you and the rest of the family out of here.”
My parents knew they couldn’t leave right away because my siblings were so young, the youngest being only a year old. I remember my mom and dad sitting me down, looking me straight in the eye, and explaining what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to go try, and if I didn’t like it, then I could just come back. But my dad, he was a very persuasive man. He always told me, “You’re the oldest, if you do it, then all the doors are open for the rest of the family.” I never wanted to leave Fiji, but my dad’s words got to me, and I knew I had to do this. I applied for my visa, and three days later, it was ready.
I remember the day I had gone down to get my visa was the day that Fiji’s currency changed from British pounds to Fiji dollars. When the man behind the counter said, “I’m going to give you change,” and gave me the new money, I was so ecstatic, I forgot to get my visa and went home. My siblings came running to me, shouting, “Where’s your visa?” I didn’t realize that I had forgotten it, so I gave each of them my change and went back to go get my visa. By the next day, all my bags were packed and I was ready to leave Fiji.
We did have planes back then, and when I was leaving, I had boarded the very first QANTAS 747. It was a very jumbo plane, and I was so excited. The plane ride went smoothly. Today the flights from Fiji go straight to SFO, but back then, we had to stop at Hawaii. Then from Hawaii, I went through customs once again and was on board the next flight to SFO, where Naren Dada and his dad were waiting for me. In June 1969, I landed in California.
The first thing that surprised me when I got off the plane was that it was Saturday. I left Fiji on Saturday at 8pm, but I arrived here on Saturday at 10am. I was never taught about the time change until Dada explained it to me. As we got into the car, I was so ready to go home, but the road wouldn’t end.
We drove an extra 3 hours to go to Sacramento. Finally, we made it to the house. I was living with Naren Dada’s dad, my uncle, whereas Naren Dada lived in his own apartment. My first day there, I went to sleep at 8 in the evening and didn’t wake up until the next evening at 5. The jet lag was real.
I slowly became accustomed to my new life, which wasn’t a lot; just me learning the American. I learned how to walk to the Raley’s store about a mile from the house and back. A month after living there, Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon. It was so hot in the summer in Sacramento, that there would be days where I would fall asleep outside under the working sprinklers.
Naren Dada thought it was time for me to start making my own money. He took me to a farm where we picked tomatoes. Working on that farm reminded me of home, and I felt at peace there, even though I only had one job. I was only able to work when Naren Dada had his day off, though. It wasn’t easy, but we managed. For me, high school was very different. I started the local high school as a sophomore, and everything was very laid back. Back in Fiji, with the British system, you have to be disciplined in uniform. I was fortunate to already know English, especially since Naren Dada and his girlfriend both spoke soul English. My school life was as simple as it could get. I loved my life, but I definitely did miss home in Fiji.
I especially missed Babbi Fua, my youngest sister. I would always write a letter to them and others in Fiji, crying. I didn’t want to show my tears because of my parents’ words to create a better future for the family. I never wanted to change my lifestyle, because I wanted to stay as that young man that everyone was very proud of. In 1970, I learned how to drive and I bought my first car in ’71. I graduated high school as well. I started working at a restaurant as a dishwasher. That was my real first job, and I was so happy. Everyone loved me and I loved everyone to this date. That year, I got the chance to work at PG&E, the same time San Francisco was building its BART system.
They started to transfer PG&E workers, and I, being one of them, was sent to SF. That was my first time there. I stayed with another Fijian-Indian in a shared apartment. In 1974, I applied for a visa for the family to migrate to this country, but my dad died, so I went back to Fiji for the family. Dad’s passing made me the man of the house, and I was the one to make the decisions now. In 1976, I applied for the visa once more, but this time, for all 5 siblings and Mom. Without Dad, I didn’t want them coming at different times. Unfortunately, Mom’s dad had died (my grandpa), so the visa was postponed once again.
Finally, in 1979, Mom and the little ducklings landed in America. I was so happy to have them all with me. I bought a big house for the family and I got 2 full-time jobs. I would leave the house at 10pm and not come back home until 5:30pm the next day. Back then, union wage was a lot of money. So I worked like this for 6 months until my three younger brothers found jobs. We were all happy. We all lived with what we got, and nobody back then cared about the electricity as long as you got to eat. The one thing that was very important was the unity of the family. We always helped one another.
Today, I live with my wife and daughter and couldn’t be more proud of the family. My siblings are all proudly married with kids and some grandkids. I still remember raising every single one of my siblings, and when they had kids, I raised all of them as well. I didn’t marry until after they were all settled down. Today, I get to watch the youngest duckling of the family grow up with brothers and sisters. I also get to see the little grandkids in our family taking their first steps. I get to cherish the memories of everyone in my life who contributed in some way. Without my parents, I wouldn’t have been in this position and I will always be thankful for them. Without my family, I wouldn’t be wealthy with all the love and happiness the world could bring. They’ve taught me the right things and to really enjoy what we have in life. After all, it’s so simple to be happy, but so difficult to be simple.
This story is written by Seema Lal, the daughter of Ravindra Lal. Seema is a student in Palo Alto.