I am an ABCD — American-Born Confused Desi. I used to hate the term while growing up because I felt like it grouped me into something that I wasn’t sure I was. I never felt like I fit in with the other girls who swooned over Shah Rukh Khan but I also didn’t feel like I fit in with my friends who picked out their favorite Backstreet Boy. I grew up in two distinctly rich cultures, and I’ve never been able to make them fuse quite right.
Ever since I left my parent’s house, and mores haven’t seen my family as much, I feel like I’m not part of the Bengali community anymore. I’m generation 1.5 which means one of my parents immigrated to America and one was born here. My mom was actually born in St. Louis, where I currently live. She uniquely bonded with her Bengali heritage in that she wore salwar kameezes and saris during high school, college, and even still at work. I used to dress my dolls in ornate fabric scraps and pretend that they were wearing saris. I distinctly remember hoping that I’d grow up to look as elegant as my mother in saris. I feel like a fraud because I have to YouTube how to put on a sari.
I love dressing up my friends now in saris, salwar kameezes, and lenghas. I have a couple of my grandmother’s saris stowed away in my closet, and just touching the fabric brings me back to another place. In the past couple of years, I bought a couple outfits — a red and gold lengha and a deep purple salwar kameez but… I can’t bring myself to wear them out. When I was part of the Bengali group, the Bengali family, I didn’t mind the stares as much as I do now. I feel like I’m town between non-Desi people thinking that I’m weird and Desi people thinking that I’m doing it all wrong.
Now, I still love all the colors, and I try to wear dresses in bright colors because I feel like color is a part of the culture that stayed with me. I want my wedding to be bursting with color like all of the Bengali weddings that I’ve been to. It took me a while to pinpoint that I didn’t like traditional American weddings because of the lack of color. I grew up knowing in my head that I’d have this traditional Bengali wedding, and it’s hard to reconcile not having that even though it doesn’t fit me as a person anymore. I’m wary of the Bengali elements that I add to my wedding — I want them to be because I want them not because I feel obligated to be “ethnic” or “exotic” or whatever. It’s hard for me to add things in when people’s initial reaction is that they have never seen me wear whatever Bengali outfit or listen to whatever Indian pop song. It made me realize that I’ve spent so much of my life hiding that I was different that I have to justify liking parts of Bengali culture to myself as much as I have to justify it to others.
I want to be able to go to a Indian/Bengali/Pakistani restaurant and order plates and plates of jilapi, rasgulla, halwa, laddu, and kulfi. But again, I’m scared that the Desi people know I’m not part of the group anymore. I think they’ll prod and ask me about my family and who I’m related to, and I won’t have the right answers (it’s not an irrational fear, it’s actually a 50% chance when I go these places). I dream of my mom’s halwa and rasgulla and of my nanu’s kheer (grandmother’s rice pudding) but I have no way of knowing how to make it myself. I crave my nanu’s Bengali style meatloaf and my mom’s biryani. It kills me when I try to make it myself and nothing tastes quite the same. When I had my first American hamburger, I was so upset that it was just plain ground meat because I am used to all of the Bengali spices. The same thing holds for Thanksgiving dinner — all I want is my Bengalized food. I can have the most expensive steaks and pastas, but it doesn’t quite fulfill me like some good Bengali food.
I remember when the kids in school would make fun of me because I would smell like Bengali food. It’s a common thing amongst Asian kids to feel shame about smelling weird or smelling like food. I made a version of my mom’s Bengali omelet the other day, and Mark loved that the apartment smelled like the food but I was horrified. I discreetly tried to leave the apartment and come back in to see if the smell lingered for a long time. I’m always worried about taking Bengali food into work because of the smell. I grew up eating with my hands instead of a fork and knife, and Bengali food still just tastes wrong if eaten with utensils. I hardly ever invite people over when I make Bengali food because I don’t want to compromise my experience of eating the food by feeling obligated to use a fork and knife.
When I stopped being religious, I stopped going to Eid celebrations. Recently, I’m barely aware of when either Eid is anymore. It hurts to see everyone celebrating Eid with their brightly colored dresses and the whole family being together. I taught people here how to do the “Eid hug” aka “kula kuli” because I wanted just a little bit of a connection to the holiday in my life. I never quite connected to celebrating Christmas because it just feels so wrong to me still. I didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday so it feels bizarre to me to start celebrating a holiday that is traditionally part of a religion that I don’t identify with. Every time I celebrate Christmas, I feel like I’m turning my back on Eid and everything it symbolizes. Eid is traditionally a family and community-centric holiday so it’s near impossible to celebrate it just on your own. I grew up knowing that you wore your new, finest clothes on Eid and ate food to your heart’s content. I’m distinctly aware that I’m the oddball because I want to dress up on Christmas and other holidays because that’s what I’m used to.
I can barely speak Bangla anymore. I know a lot of phrases, and I understand a lot when it’s spoken (and it reawakens that dormant part of my brain), but I feel like I’m rapidly losing it all. It sucks that I can’t teach Bangla to my kids. I remember how my mom learned to write Bangla just so she could write letters to her mother-in-law. I have no such motivation. I barely have people to speak Bangla to in general. I don’t even know how I would practice. I miss hearing the rapid-fire Bangla-English fusion that my whole family speaks. People sometimes say that I have a high-pitched voice and talk fast, but it’s nothing compared to the other females in my family. Someone once told me that I sounded annoying like Mindy Kaling’s voice, and I had to restrain myself from getting up in his face and tearing apart his speaking style.
I can go on — there are so many things that make me have an internal struggle between Bengali culture and mainstream American culture. It’s hard for me when people tell me that I’m so “white” because it makes me feel like I’ve lost all of my cultural ties. In some sense, it probably means that trying to blend in has finally worked out for me! However, it just makes me intently aware that I’m betraying parts of myself and my history just to fit in. I’m still struggling to find the right balance for me. I’m sure it’ll change with time but I really hope I find it one day.
2 thoughts on “Two Different Worlds”
Wonderful post Neem! I like hearing your thoughts and perspective on this stuff.
Reminds me of what my Japanese girlfriend used to say. She said that she didn’t feel like she fit in in the US, but also didn’t feel like she fit in when she traveled back to Japan.
I asked one of my Indian co-workers about that, and he said that was a pretty accurate description. I’m guessing it’s pretty common amongst first and second generation immigrants.