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     Volume 7 Issue 29 | July 18, 2008 |

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Discovering My Identity

Tisa Muhaddes

What does it mean to be patriotic? Or come to think of it, to be a citizen? Sure, I can easily dredge up a verbose description of the above two labels but those descriptions won't suffice to capture my sentiments.

Spending a portion of my early years in a foreign land, I quickly accrued the skills of swift adaptability and assimilation into any and all foreign surroundings. As a child I did not understand the disparity between my dark skin tone and the sea of lighter hued children. I felt akin to my fellow peers and equally shared their adolescent pursuits. Years later when I stumbled upon a sole class picture from those years, I noticed myself as the lone brown child among a sea of international shades. Even though the picture exemplifies a miniature version of the United Nations with children representing all continents and even obscure African nations I could not help but feel back then that I truly did not represent any country at all. I cringe now at my childish disdain of belonging to another country, least of a country that I barely recalled and looked down upon as primitive and irrelevant.

Once returning to Dhaka and being surrounded by likeminded hues and peers, I again adapted to newer surroundings. However, the overwhelming disdain of the then-climate, conditions, and restrictions that shackled teenage life in Dhaka further propelled my need to escape the country that despite my being born in, made me feel as alienated as possible. Taking my O and A Levels and in fast pursuit of SATS and TOEFL became a crazy necessity in order to liberate myself from my surroundings. In short, I could not wait for the day I would depart from Zia International Airport for a new foreign land, where I would not be as foreign as I was in my own birth land. The day could not have come sooner and as the plane glided off the runway I whispered to myself there would be no need for me to ever look back or desire to return to a land that I never belonged.

Uniting under a common identity.

It took a completely foreign land and foreign people to make me discover my own identity. To say New York City is a convergence of myriad cultures and diversity is truly a weak and hollow understatement. Only those who have lived in New York can understand how a city as diversified as her can make people feel united under one overwhelming umbrella and strongly connected to their own respective roots at the same time. Once planted in a private liberal arts university at the centre of the New York metropolis surrounded by people not only from different ethnic backgrounds but disparate socio-economic upbringings, I began to understand the complexities of my skin tone. It was in New York that I felt different and unique both by my skin hue and by my cultural milieu. Walking down any street of New York, whether the Broadway of Jackson Heights or the loftier Broadway of Soho, I became ever conscious of the colour of my skin and the responses it would trigger in other people. Are you Indian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Brazilian, Haitian? became the mandatory questions I would encounter when meeting anyone new for the first time. At first the question amused me -- do I really look anything different than Bangladeshi? Sure, maybe Indian but the rest must surely be far fetched. But time after time, which quickly became year after year, the question still remained constant and I grew irked by people not being able to identify me as Bangladeshi. And the more they could not the more I yearned to be identified as such. What was it inside me then that compelled such strong identification to a country and culture that I once was readily alienated from and so easily exasperated by? The more I socialised with different people the more I became conscious of my own rich and varied heritage and ethnicity. The more I encountered new cultures through new friendships and newer interests the more I discovered and embraced my own culture. The more years I spent living, studying, and growing up in New York, the more conscious I was of my own formative years in Bangladesh and beyond. I learned to objectively look at my teenage years in Dhaka. I began to question my own previous feelings of alienation -- could it possibly have resulted from teenage angst?

I began to truly (re)discover and appreciate my culture and my country while residing in a foreign land.. Every minute details of living in Dhaka that I once took for granted and disregarded made me wince to recall how precious and pivotal they were in nurturing my identity. I realised I evolved into the person I am today because of the experiences that I encountered, shared, and learned while growing up in Dhaka. Experiences that not only shaped my persona but also bestowed my cultural identity. Experiences that evolved into lessons that I still abide by during my present adult years. Experiences that demarcated me yet allowed me to contribute a singular and innovative approach and outlook to the discussion when called upon. Experiences that undoubtedly made me as unique an individual unlike any other.

So what is it that truly makes someone patriotic? Is it a willingness to die for their country, or contribute to the future evolvement and safety of the country, or to simply be a representative of their country? In my case, I have found my answer. I have discovered and fallen in love with my country that I have long been uncertain and confused by. I have learned to identify and appreciate the richness of my culture as well as to educate and preserve its history. I have even learned to accept the shortcomings and limitations of my country and am subsequently emboldened to contribute in diminishing those restrictions. My country may not be as perfect as it should be yet but at the end it is the only one I have known and truly now feel I belong.


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