20
Feb
04

The American Deshis

http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2004/01/03/musings.htm

So when are you coming to see us?”, said my sister anxiously. Why not celebrate Anahita’s (my daughter) first birthday over here in North Carolina?” I replied reluctantly in the negative, “I have made other plans”. “What plans?”, she asked. I said with more hesitation, “We are going to Florida for a vacation. We need a break.” My sister replied with surprise, “Coming to our place is not a break?” Detecting the disappointment in her tone, I did not say that going to meet family has its own charm but it is not really a vacation. I calmed her down by saying that we would come soon. She hung up by saying “Khub Americander moto kotha bolo ajkal”(talking like a true American these days).

That made me wonder, when did we stop being Bangladeshi and start becoming Americans (hint: note the negative connotation of the last word)?

When we told Anahita’s Bangladeshi babysitter that we were going on vacation to Florida, her first question was, “Who lives in Florida? Didn’t you just visit your brother in Texas?” When we said we were just going to stay in a resort and not in any relative’s house having paratha and biryiani, she was quite shocked. Her shock turned into disbelief when we said that this resort had a day care centre. “You are going to keep your daughter in day care even on vacation?” said the nanny with a dropped jaw. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what was going through her mind. I asked my wife later to make a few guesses on the adjectives she bestowed upon us while gossiping with her deshi neighbours — “Cruel Parents”, “Weird” and last but not the least “How American!”.

That’s when it hit me again. When did we stop being Bangladeshi and start becoming American? Is being a little “American” after living the major part of adult life in America that bad? Should we still resist the good things of this culture, where we spent most of our adult lives, with both hands?

Our next door Bangladeshi neighbour is a real angel who often without reason showers us with samples of her outstanding cooking. One day she stopped by to say hello. Funnily enough, that was the night when we decided to take out food from a local Mexican restaurant. She looked at my wife and almost scolded her, “Why did you order food, you could have asked me or at least cooked an egg curry.” It didn’t really occur to her that it was a conscious choice of ordering food from outside for a change. The concept of ordering out food was so negatively “American” to her, that she thought we did it out of sheer desperation. Conversation did not progress much from there on as we just looked at her with sad and desperate eyes hoping that maybe she would cook for us on a regular basis from here on seeing our horrible American state of affairs.

When we eventually went to the much coveted break after two years, in Florida, we were thanking each other profusely for deciding to take this time off. The interesting and “American” part of our vacation was that when we were planning our first vacation in two years, we were looking for a place where it would be a real vacation for all of us and where the super working mom would not have to worry about the one year old’s next feeding and diaper change all the time. The concept of a vacation and staying at a hotel itself is foreign to a lot of deshi folks living here. It is not the money which is the issue as I see them spending thousands of dollars nonchalantly buying the latest Rani Mukherjee saree from Jackson Heights. It was the idea of a vacation which was unacceptable. Vacation itself was a rarity no matter how grumpy and whiny they become. If there is a vacation to be taken, it has to be at amuk Apa’s new house in Virginia. Never mind that amuk Apa may be shrieking at the idea of entertaining a van full of biryiani-expecting guests. However, since we were the “American” step cousins, booking a resort wasn’t too unnatural for us. We took the break from daily life and it made us both smile again like we havent done for a long time. It made us do things that we never thought we would try. We learned how to sail a boat and took a boat ride. I learned to roller blade — a childhood fantasy of mine. But more amazingly my wife and I did something we never imagined we would do after having our first child. We spent time with each other. We sat by the pool and talked. I got swimming lessons from her while I gave her lessons on flying trapeze. We caught each other stealing a peek at our daughter at the toddler centre while she was having a blast with her new pals. We bonded. We bonded all over again. I am sure I will never be able to show these pictures to my babysitters who were just plain annoyed at us for being so non-Bangladeshi. I am sure I would not be able to explain to them that in the end it was all three of us who were happy.

However, the same bhabi, the neighbour, was elated with joy when we invited her to come along with us to attend the Bishsho Shahitto Kendro mela in New York where yours truly and the wife were two of the key organisers. With a new born it was not possible for both of us to go together and participate. But we both really wanted to do this. Our former baby sitter was kind enough to sit with her all day after some pleading. So there we were, working for Kendro, reciting Bangla poems and showing Bangla films, while our baby was left with a baby sitter. Sounds American? You bet. But bhabi did not really mind that as we were doing things that were typically Bangladeshi — in however an American sort of way it may be. So, did we really ever stop being Bangladeshi?

Not quite. My wife still wants to listen to Hemanta when we get in the car. I religiously read the Bangladeshi newspaper everyday on the internet. We both co founded a Bangladesh focused human rights organisation called Drishtipat. Bangla still flows in every vein of our bodies. But then again we still like to take a vacation from everything for a break.

So what are we? We really don’t know. Are we confused Deshis? Not really. We know our roots and we know who we are. Maybe, we are folks that you can’t really label. We are the new migrants from Bangladesh. We work hard and play hard like a typical American likes to do. But at the end of the day, we still get antsy if we don’t have dal bhat two days in a row. After living in the US all of our adult lives, certain American thoughts and things come naturally to us. But not everything does.

When New York had a power black out in August, after a foot breaking three hour walk in pitch black darkness, I reached the baby sitter’s house from work. My little one year old daughter did not recognise my sweat clad self in the dark. I had to put her inside the stroller and walk back to our home. That was the longest 15 minute walk I ever took. In complete darkness my daughter was terrified and started crying. So I started singing the lullaby that I always sing to her when I put her to sleep.

“Hat tima tim tim, tara mathe pare dim, tader khara duto shing, tara hat tima tim tim….”

My daughter calmed down. 
Can you get any more Bangladeshi than this?

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