Tahiya Umrana Islam
Immigrating to a foreign country can be a frightening feat. A new culture, a new environment and maybe even a new language coupled with physical relocation can prove to be a daunting experience. It is not any wonder then, that so many immigrants are keen to preserve their own cultures and heritage in their new home countries, whilst adapting to the ways of their new environment. This is true of the Bangladeshi community in the UK, where customs and traditions from back home are very much alive.
The most notable concentration of Bangladeshis in the UK is probably in London's east end. Brick Lane (immortalised in Monica Ali's recent novel) is a real hub of 'deshi' restaurants, corner shops and mini-markets selling all the native fruits, vegetables and fish, not to mention the sari shops and 'paan' stalls often to be found by the entrances to deshi-music stores. The area has such a predominant Bangladeshi community that the neighbourhood has been renamed 'Banglatown', with street signs and public notices now presented in both English and Bangla. Walking around the residential back-streets of the locality it's easy to spot the endless rows of window planter boxes where an array of traditional vegetables (marrow, spinach and chillies to name a few) are being cultivated by the green-fingered residents. And, come prayer time, the male contingent of this community (and a few of the women too!) can be seen strolling along, chatting, in procession towards the large East London Mosque or one of the smaller mosques in the vicinity, in response to the call to prayer.
This vision of Banglatown is a pleasant one, where although the residents find themselves in a foreign land, they are able to (and want to) maintain their Bangladeshi heritage. However, this is just one aspect of the Bangladeshi experience in Britain and is one, although idealised, closer to the members of the older first generation. The young Bangladeshi-Brits face different challenges and are not content simply striving to build a life as similar to the one their parents and forefathers left behind. With the passing of a generation, a change in priorities has occurred and the Bangladeshis of 'now' are not merely Bangladeshis who live in Britain; on the contrary, they are British-Bangladeshis.
Young British Bangladeshis are very much a part of British society, after all they are at home in Britain, but also a part of the Bangladeshi heritage that the previous generation has worked so ardently to preserve. This duality of sorts is arguably the reason behind at least some of the tensions that arise between the young Bangladeshis and their elders, with respect to both the smaller and more important things in their lives.
In terms of the 'big' things in life, I suppose one topic that will strike a chord with most young Bangladeshi-Brits as a familiar source of disagreement and inter-generational tensions, is that of marriage. The more traditional arranged marriages are more or less a thing of the past, with 'introductions' being the closest substitute. These are arranged in the sense that there is still a weighty parental involvement (the girl and boy are introduced through the various 'uncles' and 'aunties') but aside from this the 'introductions' are an evolved form of life-partner selection.
Although the older generation has on the whole happily accepted the diminishing importance of the arranged marriage, a common complaint voiced is that 'youngsters' simply do not put enough emphasis on marriage in the first place, let alone the methods they employ to find their partners. Traditionally, marriage is seen as a vital and important part of a person's life, in many ways the main event of adulthood. This degree of importance has in many ways faded to allow for other factors such as educational pursuits and career carving. Young British-Bangladeshis are certainly less concerned by the prospect of marriage, and on most accounts less concerned with who (in terms of nationality, race and maybe even religion) they marry. The 'bio-data' credentials are no longer the criteria of selection, after all, the relevance of occupation, details of relatives and 'gramer bari' has subsided. On the side of the older generation, the concept of the 'sell by date' is very much alive with many 'youngsters' failing to marry at the 'appropriate' age. However, to condemn the second generation as having completely lost all regard for the factors held in high esteem by the previous generation is to go too far.
Although the younger generation may not be following the match-making methods and criteria of yester-years to, they are taking things into their own hands. One avenue being explored by many young Bangladeshis living in the UK (as well as other parts of the world I'm sure) is that of online match-making forums such as Shadi.com. These web sites work-individuals sign up to the site and enter their profile, which as well as specifying details about themselves, also allows the member to detail what they are looking for in a partner (occupation, age, religion etc.). Inspired by the success of Shadi.com other similar web sites have been created, for example for Muslims only, or those from a particular background. Those who choose to find their partners in this more technologically savvy way, whilst abandoning more traditional methods are still staying within the 'boundaries', broadly speaking, set by the older generations. Another interesting method being adopted by many young second generation Brits is that of speed-dating. For example Muslim-only speed-dating nights are becoming more common, where young professional Muslims spend the evening getting to know one another during 3-minute one-on-one conversations, with the option of follow-up meetings.
Another charge often made against the young British born Bangladeshis is that they are losing their 'deshi' roots and becoming too 'westernised'. If voluntarily watching Bollywood films is an element of being 'deshi' (as surprisingly some seem to think) then I and countless other young Bangladeshis certainly fail to meet the mark (although how 'deshi' Indian films are is something that few stop to consider). I fail once again if being deshi means associating with only, or predominantly, Bangladeshi friends or being able to muster up a twelve dish dinner spread for unexpected guests. However, I do eat 'shutki' 'ilish maach' and 'bhortha', with much relish, and have an appreciation for the traditional crafts and traditions of Bangladesh. I wear 'shalwar kameez' when it's appropriate and am a sucker for traditional 'mishtis'! Besides these superficial things, I appreciate certain ideas that are very deshi. For example, the respect that we are taught to pay to our elders and teachers, the hospitality that we show all guests, the customs of not eating or being seated before elders, and so forth. These are the sorts of things that really define the deshi way, for me anyway.
It is certainly true that the Bangladeshi-Brits are more integrated with British society than those who came to the UK from Bangladesh, but this is something not only natural but in many respects desirable. To settle in a foreign country and expect to continue one's life exactly as before is a naïve ideal to entertain and can be the basis for tensions between different cultural or racial groups. This is not to suggest that when in Rome one must do all that a Roman does, but rather that adaptation to the new society is essential. And, it is often the adaptation of the young Bangladeshis to their British environment that forms the basis for the charge of 'westernisation'. The difference between first and second generation Bangladeshis in Britain becomes over-looked, and the older generation do often expect the 'youngsters' to behave as though they too were Bangladeshis living in Britain. But, the important fact of the matter is that the young British-Bangladeshis are just that; both British and Bangladeshi and therefore different in a vital way to their parents and elders. It is possible to understand the compulsion parents may feel to keep their children as 'deshi' as possible, but the children are not 'deshi' in the same way. The young Bangladeshis aren't in the same environment and don't have the same experience as the older generation. Moreover, what the older generation often seem to misunderstand is that many of these changes are not the 'westernisation' of the youth, but the change that comes between any two generations-it's certainly not the case that the younger generation in Bangladesh are unchanged and living the same lives as their parents.
Although tensions exist for young Bangladeshi-Brits, the experience is by no means all negative. Many Bangladeshis chose to leave Bangladesh in pursuit of a better life and opportunity both for themselves and their children. In this sense, the younger generation certainly have something to be thankful for; they have access to some of the world's best educational institutions, and are able to enjoy much of the fruits of their parents' labours. In many ways, the 'youngsters' have an easier life and in another sense face a much more arduous task; that of striking the balance between being Bangladeshi and being British.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005