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     Volume 7 Issue 48 | December 5, 2008 |

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America's Vastness

Zeenat Khan

In recent months, a writer friend of mine wrote me the reason why she has been living in Europe for the past thirty years. It was a choice that she and her husband made to get away from "America's vastness" after living in the U.S.A. for several years. Having lived in America for the last thirty years myself, I began to wonder whether, if given the choice, I would have gone to another continent happily, or even gone back to Bangladesh? Or, alternately, am I just content to be here? This is not an easy question to answer. I've decided to explore my reasons, as to why so many of us have found it hard to return, and instead made America our home.

What attracts so many of us to stay here for decades? Sure, America, the "land of opportunity", is a melting pot of all nationalities; the independent spirit of Americans is contagious. Why, though, do we decide to stay back after we finish (or don't finish) our mission here? Is it the "endless opportunities" that keep us from going back? For some, it is purely this country's economic freedom, and the option of living a better material life that otherwise would not happen elsewhere, with better medical care and education, that is reason enough. In recent years, the political turmoil and the uncertainty of a stable future in some Third World countries make it difficult to return.

Often, I hear people lamenting: "Had the kids been younger, then a choice was easy. Now we have their education to consider, and returning is not an option." Mind you, the kids were young not that long ago. My point is, there are all manners of reasoning to stay in America, but one never draws the line that leads to a definitive best reason. Such back and forth reasoning continues for many of us until we are much older.

Materially, America may have its distinct advantages. Some seem to (sadly) assert that life in suburban America is where ultimate happiness lies. Some find comfort in the monotonous life it offers, where essentially one can map out one's life for the year by marking all future milestones and happenings on a calendar. Nothing is unpredictable. One's neighbours leave one essentially alone and never get into one's business. America's solace may be its relative "safety". This basic sense of security may overpower, for some, the need to go and rough it out at the very place where our forefathers came from. In America, life may only, I suspect, seem attractive, so much so that we pretend that we truly belong here. Underneath the glossy exteriors of the large cars and homes is very little substance. In my three decades here, I've only seen America become more super-sized and hyper commercial. In the mega-malls, one can get anything imaginable - yet most of the products, if checked, are crudely made in China. People spend hours at outlet malls and fill their car trunks with loads of things that they do not need.

Furthermore, I've found the expatriate community's obsession with material well being to be a tragedy. They take the idea of "opportunity" so literally, competing with each other for bigger houses, better brand-name cars, and larger televisions, while ignoring the rich possibilities of art and culture that lie outside their door. Here in the D.C. area, I rarely see a Bengali expatriate take in a showing of Hedda Gabler, or visiting the Smithsonian or the Corcoran, or encouraging their children to take an art classes, unless they are showing "the sights" to visiting relatives from out of town. There's a way in which this country almost encourages such a narrow way of material living, encourages us to keep buying more and keep worrying about material things and ceremonies that we never cared for when we were children in Bangladesh. Sometimes, I see, in the name of the spirit of the season, Bengalis celebrating Thanksgiving by roasting a twenty pound turkey soaked incorrectly in ginger water overnight, and struggling to carve the undercooked meat the next day. I see them decorating their houses, hauling twelve foot Christmas trees so that their children can learn to appreciate mixed culture. If anything, living here can be confusing and strange for many Bengali families, eagerly seeking some sense of a rooted tradition, whether adopted or their own. I don't have an opinion for these people; nor do I have the need to celebrate such radically different cultural traditions. However, some people find joy in this mix-and-match aesthetic.

The vastness of America is disconcerting to me at times; our remoteness from one another makes it easy to get lost in one's ego. We often walk in a zombie-like state, totally oblivious of our surroundings. Through self-involvement, we are not able to share in the happiness of others or feel affected by their sorrows. All emotions become muted. I feel the utter selfishness of this society is the flip side of the coin of living in America. Such indifference and disconnect from others is something we all learn to accept reluctantly.

For people like me, from a distinctly different home country where I spent my first twenty formative years, America can fall short spiritually. There is no sense of living for intrigue or drama here.

I get the sense that being part of a community here can legitimise one's not returning home to Bangladesh. I think of a quote by Salman Rushdie: that my daughter used in her college essay several years ago, "There are people who don't belong...Anywhere. To anything, to anyone; comets travelling through space, staying free of all gravitational fields...but the only ones who see the picture are the ones who step out of frame." I wonder if I'm travelling through this land blissfully unaware that I do not belong to any place. Thirty years ago, did I cross what Rushdie describes as " a translucent membrane across the sky, between us and the last high road into the west, the unseen frontier"? Does it not matter to me that as long as I am breathing, it might as well be in any place on this earth?

Yet, why, while walking through America's colossal national parks do I sometimes spy, in the distance, a piece of land that resembles the little pasture where the cattle grazed in my ancestral home in the outskirts of Dhaka? Or why do I seek the smell of my mother's winter vegetable garden in a local organic store, while carefully picking out perfect red sun tomatoes (with a Product of Mexico sticker) or a nicely shaped tukan summer squash, straight from the vegetable patch of a Honduran farmer? Why do I have this prolonged pain that seeps through my heart and reaches to the very center of my being when I am taking a river cruise on the Potomac on a sunny summer afternoon? In my mind's eye, I am thinking of a far away memory: when I was a little girl, taking a boat ride in a wooden boat at dusk in the gentle breeze of the enchanting Shitalakhya River.

For me, it is undoubtedly the free spirit of Americans that attracts me most about this country. Here I can be totally alone and never feel abandoned while I take solitary long walks. It is this immense sense of being in control of your own individual self that is the most gratifying feeling for me. You do not have to follow any particular rules (as long as you are within the boundaries of law) in living your own life. I can make my own rules and pass them onto my immediate family without giving a mandatory explanation to the extended family, which is an unspoken requirement in Bangladesh. I am able to move freely between worlds. I am happy having fried fish at my dear old friend Runu's house (in the kitchen, a tape of Abdul Alim's heart rendering folk songs playing) where she still uses 'bothi' to clean fish, and gets her carefully packed Corell dishes out from the cabinet that she still calls 'almari' after twenty five years in America. I am equally happy having a grand feast at my sister's good missionary friend Charlotte Goslink's, at Christmas, sitting in their immaculate dining room with place settings, using Charlotte's mother's fine china from Belgium (Beethoven playing in the background and their happy dog BolaRam snoozing near the fireplace ). To be able to move freely in both worlds gives me an enormous sense of self, without changing my essence. I belong and I do not belong at the same time. I am still following this maze, so to speak, hoping to find a real answer for my being in the here and now.


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