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This Is What Life Is Like For A Bengali-American

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As a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, the quote that struck me the most was; “It didn’t matter that I wore clothes from Sears; I was still different. I looked different. My name was different. I wanted to pull away from the things that marked my parents as being different.” I do not think any other author has made a statement that hit so close to home. Similar to Lahiri, I grew up in the United States but my ethnicity is Bengali. My parents were both born and raised in Bangladesh with culture still burning in their blood regardless of the countless years spent in America. Growing up I identified myself as “Bengali-American”. Many people who are given a different culture by their parents but are growing up in the United States have the same problem that I did. I cannot identify what I am without that hyphen. It is neither my weakness nor my strength. It is simply who I see when I look in the mirror.

Growing up with Bengali parents who immersed me in the culture of my ancestors clashed with the culture and values I was getting from growing up in Texas. Not only was I learning the American culture but more of the southern traditions. I always felt that I was struggling within myself to identify who I am and what defined me. The pressure of society and my peers did not help that process but at the same time is the reason why I identify myself with a hyphen. In the Bengali culture, people are very involved regardless as to where in the world they live. There are a few traditions that are expected for me as a girl to know/be good at where as my brother’s did not have the same expectations put on them. Dance and singing is a very big part of our culture. All our different festivals whether it be the Boishaki Mela (celebration of spring) or our independence day is celebrated with dance, singing, and music. All girls are expected to be light on their feet and very graceful. Dance is something that is gender specified in our culture and it is just something that is instilled with us. Fortunately, I fell in love with it and I’d like to take pride in saying that I am good at it.

In the Bengali culture, most things are differentiated between male and female. There are some things that are to be followed by girls which guys really do not have to learn such as cooking, cleaning, sowing, etc. Girls are taught these things because it is ideal for them to be knowledgeable in these categories so when they are married they will be successful at their in-laws house. In most cultures it is ideal for women to be at home while men are making the money. I did not completely grow up with these traditions because the world is evolving so the culture that my grandparents followed has been altered due to the changes in the world. Women now are expected to be educated as well as be a homemaker. Education is something that was held more important than the skills that will keep my future husband happy. It was what my parents saw as the only way to be successful. My parents pushed me to always excel and to value my mentors, professors, teachers, and education in general.

Growing up I never really understood where I truly belong because of my upbringing at home and my environment at school and in this country. I grew up in Richardson, Texas, which was a predominantly white school and neighborhood. I always thought I fit right in especially since I didn’t factor the color of my skin or my South Asian features any different from my white counterparts. I figured my classmates saw me the same way they saw each other except when it came to events where parents showed up. I remember at all school events my parents would stick out like a sore thumb. In all reality almost everything about me was different, to my brown hair/eyes, my olive complexion, and my ability to speak a language my peers have never even heard of.  I was probably the only Bengali, let alone South Asian person my peers have ever encountered. To be honest, I was embarrassed of how my mom dressed and how she could not speak English like the other parents. I would always wish my parents could be like my classmate’s parents since my mom was the only one who showed up to parent teacher meetings in a salwar kameez (traditional Bengali pantsuit). My peers made me feel as if I was an alien because of how different I was. I used hate the taunts I’d get from the Hispanic guys making fun of the fact that I was “Indian” and all the strange question they used to ask. I never really cherished my culture as much as I should have back then because I was constantly looking for ways to be Caucasian/American so the teasing would stop. Even with my Bengali friends I was different because I was much more Americanized and they would always say I was so “modern.” I never fit in with one side completely. I could not say that I was neither fully Bengali nor fully American. I was just simply confused.

Like most people who identify themselves with a hyphen I had a hard time categorizing myself. I could never fathom what exactly to classify myself as: Bengali or American? I loved the culture, morals, life, and everything else my Bengali culture brought. I loved the traditional sari, speaking a language only my ethnicity understood, my unique physical features and of course the food. I would never give up all that because I always felt that it was a part of me. At the same time I enjoyed the independence, privacy, food, and freedom that I felt very well connected to in the American culture. I guess you could say that I took out what I loved from both cultures, which put me in the middle. The American culture has given me freedom, liberation, independence and an open mind to everything. In the Bengali culture it is not acceptable to wear certain types of clothing such as dresses and skirts above the knee. It also has a lot to do with my religion and a lot of the times families are influenced by the religious background.

As I grew up I started to understand myself better and I realized no one said you ever had to choose one ethnicity. I began to understand that both cultures were a part of my identity. Growing up was hard since kids expect you to be in one category but realistically that is not always correct. I think I felt the struggle of both sides of me pulling to pick one because of my peers and even my parents. It was the pressure of society to choose what defined me culturally and ethnically.

As I got older that confusion was not as prominent in my search of finding out who I am and what I identify myself as. I realized that no one should be able to decide what I see when I look in the mirror or what I feel defines me. I am Bengali-American because I have the melting pot of both cultures. In some ways I feel that I get the best of both worlds. I get to experience this rich, colorful, exciting culture through the traditions, values, and beliefs that my parents have passed on. I love the saris and the various food that mom cooks at home. It has also made me more open to other cultures because of my ethnicity; I am much more tolerant of people of who are different. I will pass on the core values and traditions to my children just as my parents did for me. Although I love this culture, growing up in Texas has instilled some local traditions that my parents may not be as comfortable with as I am.

Growing up here I am much more independent, open-minded, and liberated than my mother. My mother on the other hand, grew up with a different outlook on life. Things were pretty set in stone for women and although females were educated that was not a main priority. Instead parents often married their daughters off so their daughters do not fall in love or “go astray”. Many people even today feel that when a young woman marries at a young age that is something that most parents would love for their daughters to accomplish. I think growing up here even confused my parents. I told my mother that the purpose in my life was not to grow up so I can make someone else happy but to figure out what happiness was to me. I guess you could say that since in America the idea of the “self” is put, as the first priority was definitely something that stuck to me. Many things in the Bengali culture are defined through the gender. When I was a child, I was always very loud, and outgoing. I was probably one of the most outspoken and loud girls out of most people I knew. My mom would always correct me and tell me that ladies do not yell. It was unlike of a young lady to raise my voice because women are seen to be soft beings. Women are expected to be light on their feet, soft spoken, and attentive. I think that is something that has changed over the years as my mom enjoys my crazy, loud personality.

I saw my mom over the years realizing that she needs certain freedoms to be sane. She started to instill the drive to be independent and instead of traditionally depending on my husband. She started to encourage me to do better in school so I could graduate and stand up on my own feet. The gender differences were there still but my parents began to see the world in a more American perspective. Unlike my ancestors my father always gave me the advice that in this day an age I should not let anyone tell me that as a woman I am expected to do certain things. He would tell me that it’s the 21st century and there is no gender differences because women have the freedom to empower themselves just as the men if not go beyond that. In the Bengali culture women are expected to stay home often and cannot be out late. Growing up this was a big struggle between my parents and I. On one hand, my parents expected me to be home before my curfew and they would be upset if I hung out with my friends a lot where my brother never got reprimanded for that. The fact that the Bengali culture had so many gender pressures on women was something that I did not like at all. This is an example of something I do not take home.

A lot of people get angry and tell me that is unfair or unreasonable that I just pick and choose what I want to follow according to that culture. My question to them is why not? Why can I not choose both cultures? No one has laid down a rule or act that claims that I cannot count myself as being a part of both cultures. I could never imagine just picking up one side. I am fully immersed within both and I intend to keep things like this.

My parents have instilled the culture in which they grew up with because they felt that no matter where in the world we live in we will always need our roots to be the foundation of our identity. Growing up in the states I have adapted to celebrating both cultures in my life and appreciating everything that I have experienced. Most people have horror stories of how they were bullied by their peers for being different but I took all the snares, insults, laughs and empowered myself to stand strong on my ground. I can proudly tell people what I am Bengali-American and there is no longer any confusion. TC mark

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