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Lost Identities

Columns | December 4, 2017

I was born with veins made up of the countless rivers of Bangladesh and my voice grew into the Midwestern twang of Southern Ohio. I gained dual citizenship at the age of 18 between Bangladesh and the United States, and I wear both flags proudly—a medley of East and West. But while the pride for the United States comes after living here for eighteen years, the pride for Bangladesh took a longer time to develop.

 

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and achieved the American Dream. 30 years later, the majority of my extended family has immigrated to the US and are working towards a similar dream. The only difference is that the dream seems farther and farther out of reach. My aunts and uncles grapple with excruciating minimum wage job shifts with a sense of hope that their children will have a greater chance to succeed in America, just as my parents seek out balance between American and Bengali culture after spending most of their life here.

 

We search for balance in all aspects of our lives. When I was younger, I would look at my brown skin but consider myself just as White as my peers, but when the racist comments ensued, I realized I was denying myself a part of my identity.

 

Just as I am American, I am Bengali, too.

***

My parents raised me as bilingual from the day I was born, but their mother tongue of Bengali never suited me well. Whenever the words of the sweetest language would come out of my mouth, it sounded more like a chainsaw struggling to cut wood. I never understood why I would ever need to learn another language when I knew English for the majority of my life.

 

Then, I went to Bangladesh when I was eleven years old, after almost six long years of my childhood. After that, I didn’t go again until I was eighteen.

 

When you land in the airport in Bangladesh, it feels like you’re entering an alternate space. The smog hangs over the tall trees, and around all that is a runway that is half covered in dust and dirt. The trip to Bangladesh is grueling: usually 13 hours to Dubai, a layover of many hours, then a four hour flight to Dhaka. Whenever I land, the stress and burden the trip had on my body is suddenly lifted and replaced with teeming excitement.

 

The airport doesn’t have functional Wi-Fi most of the time, the gates are confusing, the floors are scratched up—it takes me and my dad over 90 minutes to retrieve a travel visa for me, despite my dad’s insistence that I was a dual citizen. But maybe all of these struggles are not just unique to Dhaka, the same things happen to people every day at any American airport. The only difference is my passport—blue, American, intimidating.

 

I open my mouth to speak but the accent always seems a little off when I haven’t practiced in however many weeks, and instantly, people know I am American. I’m treated with more respect, I’m looked at with intrigue as I walk out the airport into the masses of people—but this isn’t what I want. I want to immerse myself in a culture, an identity, I had lost so long ago.

 

The last time I went to Bangladesh, I was much older and experienced at the age of 18. I was allowed to wander around the neighborhood so long as I went with my cousins who grew up in the country. I explored every crevice I could and yet two weeks of this behavior left me with a curiosity unquenched: I wanted so much more.

 

On this trip, I decided to make a legacy video for my massive family, as I just wanted to understand.

***

Sitting in the comfort of my dorm room, I listen to the stories of my two grandmothers, the only elders I have in my life now. Tears come to my eyes as I hear my maternal grandmother speak. Her speech has deteriorated in the last nine months since I had been there, due to a rapidly declining and absolutely mistreated Parkinson’s diagnosis. But in this video, I can find the parts of her voice that brought me comfort growing up. I listen quietly.

 

She talks about how her seven sisters and one brother mean the world to her. She would spend all her time growing up with them. They lived in a massive house and were considered higher class, but my grandma pauses here. I prompt a question: Why did you choose a different life?

 

My grandma takes a deep breath then begins again. She tells me that she grew up around people who were too far superficial and lacked any selfless qualities. For that reason, she married my grandfather. I never got to meet him, but my grandma tells me he was the best man she had ever met. To some degree it was an arranged marriage, but she had chosen him over any future man that would gain power like many of her sisters. My grandfather was a humble engineer who made an honest living, and my grandmother would sit at home with her kids, read books, milk the cows, and figure out how to give her money back.

 

To this day, my grandma donates the majority of her savings to the less fortunate. She tells me in the video that it is the most important thing you can do.

 

I pause the long clip now and switch to my father’s mother to observe contrast. My mother grew up in the heart of the city in a beautiful home, where education was guaranteed and more so heavily expected. My father grew up in a village in the southern part of Bangladesh. Over the summer, I watched videos on videos about the geography of Bangladesh, trying to absorb all the information of the minuscule villages and cultures within the already small country.

 

My father went to a boarding school at the age of 11 and went straight to the best technical institute in the country. While he did this, his five siblings were at home with my grandma and grandpa.

The clip starts with my grandma looking at me with a neutral expression. Before recording, it took me about 20 minutes to convince her to even let me record her story. She didn’t like talking about her past so I enlisted my dad to help prompt her to speak.

 

I ask her first what her childhood was like and a smile—just a little one—appears on her face. She tells me about how wonderful and fun it was, and how she was very close to her brothers. She tells me, solemnly now, that her father chose to remarry because her mother passed away giving birth to her. It is evident that this is something that weighs heavily on her so long after.

 

She then proceeds to tell me that the worst moment of her life was when Pakistani soldiers took away her eldest brother and her younger half-brother during the Liberation War. They were in a market—one in his 30s and the other in his early 20s—and a hint was given that they were Freedom Fighters on behalf of Bangladesh. They were taken and were never found again. My grandfather had connections in the Pakistani government and spent over six months trying to find them, only to no avail. To this day, there is no closure.

 

These are just the tip of all the stories that come with the Bengali identity. A country that fought for liberation against India then Pakistan. A country rich with history and culture, but cast aside because of its poverty and dense population. This is the heritage that runs through my veins—it is the identity I am trying to find once again.