Writing the Wrong
Not Up to Aunty Snuff
All my life I have been a classic underachiever. Not by small town American standards really. By those standards I am actually quite impressive. I have earned degrees, travelled the world, speak two and a quarter languages, am married with child and have gotten published once or twice. Plus I own a dog that is learning to do tricks. To most I may appear accomplished or just normal. When I say I am an underachiever, I am judging myself by Bangladeshi-American 1st generation immigrant standards. By these standards I am in fact a ne'er do well. This all comes down to two things: I did not go to a top tier college for undergrad, Ivy League or otherwise and I am not an investment banker. In fact, my parents consider it a miracle that any college accepted me at all so wayward was I. My head was in the clouds, my imagination rampant. I fancied myself, horror of horrors; an artist! In fact I wanted to be an actress, a profession which some equate with unsavoury (a favourite word of mine) types of people, i.e. unmarriageable women.
Almost all the kids I grew up with--I call them kids, most of them are paunchy or balding now, though I have to say the women kept themselves up--most of the kids went to the Harvards, Yales and what not and have since gone on to various professions in finance that have yielded them the necessary accoutrements for successful Bangu-Americans such as the requisite BMW and big house in a natty suburb. The various functions I attend involve at least one or two “Aunties” sitting around talking about how much their jewel of a son, Bunty makes or how large his kitchen is. Though one gratifying thing is that more and more aunties are boasting about their daughter, Rinky, Pinky or Jinky making as much money as Buntyonly no one can seem to find a husband for her. Rinky and Pinky are taking a bit longer to find a mate and now can afford to be a bit choosier.
No one who knew me would mistake me for an MBA type. It was clear that my motivations and compulsions did not jibe with what the community I was raised in valued. I had the benefit of a prep school education and nearly got kicked out. I had a little trouble making it to class on time or at all. Instead I sat in my dorm room and wrote or dreamed up stories that never saw the light of day. I flailed about, not pursuing the version of the American dream my community espoused and certainly not fitting into the white American ideal. At my fancy school, I auditioned for a play every semester and was told I was good but did not fit into any of the roles as they were all written for white or black characters. Naturally, in a fit of ire and melancholy I failed pre calculus. I would continue to struggle for years with this compulsion to perform. Acting or pursuing any art as a profession is a powerful uphill battle; imagine wanting to make a name for oneself in this country and being of Bangladeshi extraction to boot.
To many people in Hollywood Bangladesh is a punch line. In fact the other day I was watching a new comedy show on TV (the FOX network of course) where a character talked about his lowly social status in elementary school. He told a chubby kid who was getting picked on that when he was a kid “the only people who would talk to me were two exchange students from Bangladesh, Padma and big Padma.” Cue laugh track. I am usually a fan of irreverent, politically incorrect humour, but this was just plain dumb. First off, I do not know any Bangladeshi girls named Padma; that being a name most likely associated with some one who was Hindu or from India. I doubt many of the writers are aware that Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim. Bangladesh and India were just lumped together and the writers exploited and perpetuated the pervasive image of Bangladesh as a backward place to construct their lame joke. Apparently the only person lower than the lowliest kid in the school was a Bangladeshi.
This is partially the reason why I have put the acting thing behind me. I also realised I did not enjoy the spotlight as much I thought I would or watching myself mouth words on screen. So now I have moved behind the camera where I feel most effective. But it is no easier there. As a writer and filmmaker I am up against stereotypes, ignorance and also a plain lack of curiosity of what different types of people are all about.
Alas by the “Aunty” standard I am still solidly an underachiever, though I did manage to get into a top graduate programme at New York University but in something that they would find appalling: creative writing. When I visit Dhaka I still get the sense that writers of all ilk are revered. This is not so where the Bangladeshi-American is concerned. These people did and do not toil and sweat in taxicabs or airport bathrooms and bear terrible discrimination just so their beloved progeny can write silly little stories that rarely get printed or make films that never get distribution. To that generation of mothers and fathers anything less than the pursuit of the whole American dream is a betrayal. I don't agree with this notion but I fully understand it. For a long time I did feel I let my team downin this case the team being my parents, who for years had to bear the pity and smugness of others whose kids towed the line. Some of them in our own family. I still marvel, however, at how hardworking Bangladeshi immigrants are and how determined they are to make a good life for their children, and how, within one generation, many of them do end up with the “right” car and the “right address”.
That being said, my underachieving has led to certain fascinating things. It did lead me here, writing a column that allows me to sound off on various topics, and also making films that tell stories, which might otherwise go unheard. How boring life would be if everyone constantly lived up to their parents' expectations. What then would we have to aspire to?
(R) thedailystar.net 2007