Redefining “Bengali” Reconnecting with my Culture without Losing Myself

Redefining “Bengali”
Reconnecting with my Culture without Losing Myself

By Zara Kabir

For most diaspora kids, feeling lost is a universal experience. But perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a hard time relating to other Bengali Americans. I’ve never struggled with balancing my identities because I’ve never seen them as two dueling sides. I was always just me growing up.

When people asked me what I was, I said, “American.” That was usually followed by “No, where are your parents from?” which was code for “Where are you really from?” But to me, Bengali and American were never mutually exclusive.

Growing up, I never really wore salwar kameez. I don’t like mishti. I don’t know how to wear a saree. I’ve never worn a bindi/tip. I don’t know any Bollywood songs. Yet, I am still Bengali. And I never struggled with being Bengali until high school, when I realized for the first time that I was different. Not different from the other “white” kids; rather, different from my own culture.

Soon, I started to find myself sidelined during lunch when topics shifted to things I wasn’t so familiar with, but everyone else was. My new Bengali friends were surprised I hadn’t watched the latest Bollywood movie. Or that I mostly ate sandwiches for lunch, even at home. I didn’t even like their favorite Bengali spicy chips. All of this earned me the “whitewashed” nickname. At first, it was just a joke, but it didn’t take long before it turned into mocking and borderline bullying.

I remember feeling uncomfortable during Muslim Student Association (MSA) meetings when conversations would end up about culture. I didn’t even know that there were distinct differences in dialects; it never came up at home. I just thought we were all Bengali, but apparently that was far from the case. I stopped going to those meetings eventually, unable to find my place.

Basically, I struggled to find friends I was comfortable with for a long time. I eventually carved out a more diverse group of friends where, for once, I didn’t have to work hard to fit in. One of my closest friends in high school ended up being a “white Georgian” girl with whom I’m still friends. It was ironic; I had more in common with her than the people from my own culture.

Looking back now, I spent a good part of high school trying to assimilate with my own people. When I started college, I ended up avoiding Bengalis altogether. I found myself hanging out with Arabs at our university Islamic Center. I made a good Pakistani friend. Unlike the girls I met in high school, she didn’t care whether or not I wore a salwar kameez.

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