|Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011|
In Search of an Identity: The Bangladeshi Diaspora
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY provides insight into the identity crisis of the younger generations brought up in foreign countries.
Nearly two decades ago, I met a young mother at a Bangladeshi get-together here in the Washington DC area who took pride that her six-year-old son could not only read and speak Bengali but could also recite Bengali rhymes at ease. She also informed me that she took her son to various Bangladeshi cultural gatherings so that the child could learn and hopefully develop an attraction to the culture and heritage that she had left behind. The young lady had tutored her son herself, taking a break from her professional job as an accountant, and was obviously satisfied that her sacrifice had borne fruit. I envied her success since my sons (by that time too old to learn rhymes) not only could not read or write Bengali, they also evaded speaking the language as they found English -- the lingua franca here -- more native to them. I complimented her on her efforts and wished her success.
I could not closely follow the linguistic and cultural growth of the child as the family lived away from us, only until recently, again at a Bangladeshi gathering. I could hardly recognise the lady as she had become more matronly. When I enquired about her son she gave a sigh, and told me in a low voice that he no longer fancied these cultural gatherings. He was a full-blown young man now who preferred the culture that he had grown with and was more accustomed to. What about reading and writing Bengali, I enquired. He had given that up too, she replied.
A second case that I would like to cite is that of a father who was convinced that the only way he could rear his children in this alien land (read non-Muslim) was to infuse in them the spirit of religion and its teachings. He took pains to take his two daughters to an Islamic school run by a community of Muslims from the sub-continent and Middle East. He was a regular practitioner and as such insisted that his children also do the same. He informed me that his daughters were proficient in reading Arabic and would soon be able to complete reading the Koran. What about Bengali, I asked? He said for Muslims it was essential to know Arabic first. He was a Muslim first and a Bengali later. The daughters could learn Bengali later if they wanted to, but it was not a priority.
I was not in touch with this father for a long time, but would learn about his daughters' progress in life from common friends. Both children finished their education in subjects other than religion. Both married of their own choice, and, to the chagrin of their father, outside their religion.
The cases that I cited typify the dilemma and contradictions that all immigrant parents go through in raising their young in a foreign land. In the first case, the young woman had decided that the only way to keep her son away from the “cultural pollution” of the foreign land was by immersing her son in the language and culture of the homeland. In the second case, the father had decided that the religious identity and adherence to its principles would shield his children from the malevolent influence of western culture.
All immigrant parents go through this quandary and cross phases that eventually lead them to accept the choice of their offspring. What is missing in this cycle, however, is lack of empathy of the parents with the dichotomous reality that these children have to live through in their growth to adulthood and the pains they suffer, which oftentimes may lead to disastrous choices.
Over the three decades or so that I have been living in US, there has been a surge in the growth of Bangladeshi population in North America, surpassing UK -- the choice of destination of our people in the fifties and sixties. A rather hospitable environment for settlement in these parts combined with a variety of legal (as well as illegal) means to immigrate have led to a ten-fold increase in the Bangladeshi population in US alone in a matter of three decades. This migration has not been limited to one class or one category of people. Unlike the migration to UK, which was dominated by the working class in the fifties and sixties, the migration to US covered a wide range of people, from highly educated professionals (many of whom were educated and trained here), with well-paying jobs, to the barely educated in menial jobs who filled the lower rungs of the migration ladder. The immigrants have come from all corners and all sections of Bangladesh society (except perhaps the farming class). They carried with them a common language (although with regional variations), a common heritage and culture and largely a common religion, but not necessarily a common interpretation of Bengali nationalism. While the large majority would like to identify themselves as Bengalis with language and Bengali culture in the forefront, a good number of the immigrants would like to be identified as Muslims first, and Bengalis later. This divergence would show itself in the way they have tried to raise their children. In their effort to shield their children from the “pernicious effect of western culture”, some tried to permeate them with their own language and culture and others tried to protect them from western culture by introducing them to religion and its teachings. A small minority, however, let their children go with the flow.
These disparate and often desperate efforts to raise children in a foreign land have often led to unexpected results. Our Indian counterparts have coined a term -- ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) -- for first generation Indian Americans and their struggles to find a common ground between two very disparate cultures. At home, they have been accustomed to seeing their parents act and behave in a certain fashion and asking them to adhere to it; while in schools they have been nurtured in a very different custom and to norms that are more tuned to the western way of life. For female children the difference is starker since some behaviour and customs that they see in school and the workplace (such as having male friends, dating, dancing, etc.) are not only frowned upon by their home culture, but may even be forbidden. Add to this the pressures that religious parents may have on their children exhorting observance of religious practices. It is no surprise that many of these children later suffer from an identity crisis.
Efforts of the parents to train the children in their favoured ways have often led to rebellion among these youths. Some have embraced the western way in more ways than even the mainstream. They have married outside their culture and faith. They have dissociated themselves from the culture and heritage that their parents so painstakingly tried to teach them. There are cases on the other extreme also. A feeling of alienation from the mainstream, and often an inability to blend with the mainstream because of cultural or religious inhibitions have isolated some of the new generation. In their bid to establish an identity separate from the mainstream, some youth have chosen identity with their religious faith over ethnic or national origin. It is not uncommon these days to see more young men of Bangladeshi origin sporting a beard or women wearing full hijab in public and choosing apparels that have little to do with Bangladesh. It is ironic that this extreme religious makeover has happened more in the cases of children of religiously moderate or progressive parents than others who have consciously guided their children to this direction.
The surge in immigration of Bangladeshis to US over the last decade has also had some salubrious effect in bringing to the fore the cultural heritage of the Bengalis. We have now more forums in bigger cities that host a number of events that celebrate our language and culture in a variety of ways, and the young parents make an effort to immerse their next generation in the culture and language of their country. Adherence to ethnic traditions and attempts to preserve these traditions are fairly common in US. Nationalities that have migrated to these parts over the last hundred years have tried to keep these alive by observing their national days and other cultural events. Attempts of the Bangladeshis in that regard follow the practices of other immigrant communities.
But laudable as these attempts are, most children will continue to face the same predicaments as the generation before them. Lacking any clear understanding of heritage and culture how will they identify themselves when they grow up? Will they take pride in a culture and language that is distinctive to Bangladeshis, or will they identify themselves on a larger platform based on religion, as a sizeable part of this community tends to lean toward this? Will the younger generation in this country continue to suffer from a schizophrenic identity?
The sense of pride and belonging to national traditions and culture can be passed down only when the preceding generation upholds these by practice. We only confuse the next generation by seeking identity on a religious platform, something that was tried in our country six decades before and which failed. Our previous generation paid a huge price for this false identity by forming a geographically divided country connected by religion that was destined to doom from birth. It is ironic that, years after the failure of a religion-based nationhood, there would be resurgence of thoughts of identity based on religion alone in this Diaspora of Bangladeshis thousands of miles away. It is conceivable why we drive the younger generation to greater confusion when such thoughts and efforts are dangled before them.
Perhaps the simplest way this conundrum can be resolved is to fall back on the collective experience of millions of immigrants to this country over the last hundred years. Each nationality and ethnic group had witnessed a period of great anxiety among parents to raise their children in their traditions, their efforts often turning into struggles. While the first generation may have enduring memories and an everlasting connection to the culture and tradition they have left behind, it is extremely difficult to transmit these memories and this attachment to a generation that has grown in a completely different environment. This can only happen if the next generation finds these of value, something that they can proudly hold on to.
The Bangladeshi culture and tradition may also someday find a niche in this multi-coloured fabric, but only if the next generation finds enough pride in these. And much of that pride depends on the image the next generation has of the home country in their mind. Culture and tradition of the country are matters of pride when the country they are rooted to is also a source of self-esteem to them. Seeking a separate identity based on a religious platform may not be necessary.
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in the USA.
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