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.”
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 American culture, but also the southern traditions. I always felt I was struggling with myself to define 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 Bengali culture, most things are differentiated between male and female. There are some things that are to be followed by girls only such as cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. Girls are taught these things so when they are married they will be successful in their in-laws’ house. In most cultures, it is ideal for women to be at home while men make the money.
All our festivals, whether it be Boishaki Mela (celebration of spring) or our Independence Day is celebrated with dancing, singing, and music. Dance is gender-specific in our culture and is instilled in us. All girls are expected to be light on their feet and graceful. Fortunately, I fell in love with it and I’d like to take pride in saying that I am good at it.
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 these changes. Women now are expected to be educated as well as be a homemaker. Education is 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.
I grew up in Richardson, Texas—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 my 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 by how my mom dressed and how she could not speak English like the other parents. I always wished 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 too used to hate the taunts I’d get from the Latino guys making fun of the fact that I was “Indian” and all the strange questions they asked. 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 mention I was so “modern.” I never fit in with any one side completely. I definitely felt confused.
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 taught. I loved the traditional sari, speaking a unique language, my unique physical features and, of course, the food. At the same time, I enjoyed the independence, privacy, food and freedom that I felt connected to in the American culture.
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. 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.
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.
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 in me that my parents may not be as comfortable with.
Some mention that it is unfair that I pick and choose what I want to follow. My question to them is why not? No one has laid down a rule that I cannot be 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 felt that no matter where in the world we live in we will always need our roots to be the foundation of our identity. I have adapted to celebrating both cultures in my life and appreciating everything that I have experienced. Many people have horror stories of being 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 say that I am Bengali-American and there is no longer any confusion.