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    Volume 9 Issue 20| May 14, 2010|

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Me, Moi, Aami…

Anoushka Yousuf

My mum comes from a charming little town in France, and my dad comes from the overpopulated capital city in Bangladesh. And I was born American, in Northern Virginia, with the two very different cultures of my parents laying claim on me. When I look at myself I see: the European French girl who eats croissants in the morning, the Bangladeshi girl who watches Indian movies on the weekends, and the All-American suburban teenager who goes to McDonalds after school. But which culture do I represent? In fact, growing up I have asked myself the question, who am I going to be and what will my name symbolise? I have constantly struggled to find the path that will lead to my identity, experimenting with my different cultural choices in order to discover which will fit me the best, or help me embrace my double heritage.

The French culture was ingrained in me from the time I was a baby just learning to talk. I would speak in French, eat French foods, and dress in French clothing. My mother is a deep-rooted French patriot who refused to talk to me in English when I was a toddler. Sometimes when I go to sleep, I can still hear the soft humming of "Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, Dormez-vous" a French lullaby. Initially I was a little annoyed with my mum's insistence on learning the language, but eventually I learned to love my French culture and its originality. When I took my first French class in middle school, I realised for the first time the advantages of my association with the French culture. I was at the top of the class, answering questions fluently, and informing everyone about life in France. I realised the attention I received from my teacher, and this boosted my self-esteem. I began to think that maybe this was who I was meant to be after all.

All of this was altered however when I became older and was introduced to something referred to as "French etiquette". This was a code of conduct I did not adapt well to. I felt awkward greeting people I hardly knew by kissing them on both cheeks. The possibility that I might pick the wrong cheek to kiss followed by polite, yet uncomfortable laughter always loomed on my mind. Then there was the social custom of going over to neighbours' houses every day for the ritual of aperitifs or even sitting down at the dinner table for three hours waiting for all of the five courses to be served. I did not fit into this lifestyle, and figured that I might as well look into the other half of my ancestry to identify with.

Whereas French life now seemed staid, I discovered the Bengali lifestyle as more stimulating to a growing pre-teen. Energetic, lively, animated, are words that best describe the Southeast Asian culture. There is always a distinct smell in the air. It's a mixture of spices, sweat, and naphthalene infused sari fabrics. There's also a particular soundtrack of cheerful Bollywood music videos playing on a television; old ladies gossiping, the sound of "dahl" lentils being stirred, and constant overlapping dialogue of people telling jokes and fighting to be the loudest. I would fit in flawlessly, right? I began learning Indian dancing with some Indian friends at school recitals, and started watching Hindi movies religiously. On my regular visits with my 25 cousins from my paternal side, I developed a taste for decorating the house with flowers and garlands for some Bengali festival, or rehearsing a rhythmic Bollywood dance for an upcoming wedding. This lifestyle was so vibrant, I couldn't resist wanting to assimilate into it. The only problem was my lack of proficiency in the Bengali language. I realised it was hard fitting in the clan when everyone around me was conversing and joking away in Bengali, while I could not participate in the intimacy of the moment. Suddenly the decibel level seemed a little too high for the discerning ear. The other hurdle was that while everyone delighted in the flavourful, spicy Bangladeshi food, my delicate French palate was scorched by the intensity. Aaaah! My identity crisis was resurfacing. But wait, I had one more outlet to explore.

Growing up in American suburbia all my life, I naturally became integrated into the society. Most of my friends were Caucasians. We went to the mall on weekends, and discovered fun videos on Youtube during our free time. And yet, I always felt a little out of place since everyone would just label me as foreign, even though I had lived in the United States all my life. Often, I have been asked, "Where are you from?" My Russian first name, Anoushka, just added to the confusion about my appearance and my identity. "Aunushka," "Anaosshka" to "uhhh it starts with an A" is only a sample of the long list of names that have been uttered while trying to pronounce this eight letter word. I wanted to break out of this falsely perceived 'foreign-ness' and prove to everyone that I was just as normal as everyone else. Eventually, I did the most American thing that my immigrant parents would never have guessed I would do; I joined the cheerleading squad. My parents didn't understand why I would be interested in this, as I never fitted the definition of the stereotype of a cheerleader. But I was exasperated of being typecast, and told to act in a certain way to fit in. I had decided to create my own identity. Although I was the only dark-skinned cheerleader on the team, I loved how I fit in by just being myself. Ultimately, my individuality began to form and mould around me in other ways, as my two sides began to fuse, making me think differently.

In attempting to merge my dual heritage, I have realised that I do not have to compromise either one. I love my unique ethnicity, with the values and culture that both my parents have instilled in me. I have learned to appreciate diversity in myself and in others, and my initial struggle has only helped me navigate a multicultural world with greater ease. I feel culturally enriched with my three cultural heritages ever-present in my life. I have tried to find out which one I fit the best, but I have realised that I don't have to make a conscious choice. I can embrace all three. They are all part of me. Ultimately, I don't think I've ever met another Indian dancing, crepe-eating, all-American cheerleader with a Russian name. Has anyone? And each of these attributes of my personality and background serve as a talisman in my life, reminding me of my diversity, telling me who I am. This talisman is mine, and it's totally unique.

I have come to realise that I am not ready to give up any part of my heritage; I cherish travelling to France every summer, I love performing Indian dances at weddings, and I enjoy going to cheer at Friday night football games. When I stop to reflect on what I have learned in my 17 years, seeking my own identity, I realise it is a sense of balance, a sense of proportion. Yes, I just need the right balance of cultural diversity to be totally myself and bring the right amount of spice, or baguette, in my life. One's heritage is something to be proud of, and I am lucky to have three cultures to spice my unique American life and personality; be it a dash of fine herbes, or a pinch of red hot masala or just a squeeze of tomato ketchup. In the end, it all adds up to the harmonious whole, which I offer to the world under my own signature.

So, what's in a name? That which others call "Anoushka" by no other name would be me, moi, aami!


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