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On being both Bengali and and American

By Faria Afreen

Section: Opinions

November 11, 2016

When I was four, I immigrated from Bangladesh with my mother. I was considered the “golden” baby because I was born on Eid-al-Fitr, the celebration after the month of Ramadan, and around the very same time my father got his visa. I don’t have many memories of Bangladesh from when I was young. My one memory of Bangladesh is getting caught by my aunt for playing on the rooftop. I grew up in America, specifically in a considerably diverse community in North Cambridge, so I call myself American even though I don’t know what that means. I wonder sometimes if going by a nickname instead of my real name, “Faria,” makes me appear more American, or if the way I dress or talk makes up for the way I look. I am not sure, but I’m also not sure if it matters whether or not I appear American.

As a Bengali, I eat Bengali food at home (unless I’m cooking or baking), dress in Bengali garb when I’m visiting other Bengalis, celebrate Ramadan as many Bengali Muslims do (though I admit to being a horrible faster) and listen to Bengali music (please don’t tell my mother). I love being Bengali and, like many of my other multicultural friends, I feel wonderfully lucky to be part of a larger tradition.

Growing up, my mother embodied my closest connection to my Bengali heritage. I used to be embarrassed when my mother went to my school events in her Bengali attire. Admittedly, I still am sometimes, but it might be even worse to see her in American clothing. It’s also frustrating to be my mother’s translator, even though I don’t always have to translate any more because her English keeps getting better and better. It is even more frustrating to hear her tell me about someone who laughed at her English, right in front of her face. That person couldn’t speak Bengali as sweetly as my mother (to which I cringe because it can be too sweet), couldn’t leave her entire family for the sake of giving her children a better future in a foreign country. They couldn’t manage all the struggles and stresses that come with being a poor, brown-skinned, Muslim immigrant.

Because I grew up in a culture different from that of my parents, it is hard to convey and explain certain topics and ideas to my them. Whenever I am going to a diversity-related event, I tell my parents “it’s a conference,” and for some reason they always conclude I am going to a “debate” (the last thing you would see me doing outside the classroom). “Yes, I ran a conference today” is all I am really able to utter because I don’t know if I want to take the time to make them understand why I wanted to be involved and why it matters to me. When I think about my position as someone who is unable to talk to their parents about issues such as mental health, religion, race, sexual orientation and other topics that come up in diversity committee, I wonder: Why am I so different from the kid next door? If I were ever to tell my parents I was feeling sad, I can hear them telling me to “go outside more.” If I were to tell them, “I think I am depressed,” I would have to explain to them what the word meant.

When you’re Bengali, sometimes your religion is as much of your cultural identity as it is your religious identity. Bangladesh gained independence partly through religious strife, hence most Bengalis are proud, devout Muslims. Whenever we get into a heated discussion about religion, my mother says in Bengali, “How can you not be Muslim, it’s your culture! You can’t leave behind your culture—it’s what uncultured people do.” I’m old enough that my parents can no longer force me to attend Arabic School or go to the mosque, but that consistent pressure to go still remains. “All your problems will be easier if you go,” my father says. I want to believe him, but I can’t; I know they won’t be. I don’t know how to define myself religiously, but I know I can’t confidently say I am Muslim because I only pray during Ramadan, but I could never tell my parents I am not Muslim because there’s nothing else I could ever be.

Sexual preference is a taboo topic since my family is extremely pious. I don’t think my parents know what “bisexual” means or that it’s even possible. I’m not sure whether they would care about feelings or what others thought about them. When discussing sexuality, I can imagine both my parents saying that, “It reflects poorly upon our parenting,”

I often wonder how much my struggles with my parents are unique to my Bengali heritage. I realize that while is hard for me to bring up these topics with my own parents, it’s still difficult to talk about mental health, religion and sexual orientation in other communities, so how different am I? How much of that difference matters to you?

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