Embracing Cultural Identity
“Where are you from?”
“What are you wearing?”
“Can you speak English?”
This was all I heard. I would expect those competent-minded adults to have some sense to know I have ears and could hear everything. It’s as if they wanted me to hear all these things. Oh right, “I can’t speak English.”
I walked down the street as a shy seven-year-old wearing a pink, sparkly lehenga on every Muslim’s favorite holiday: Eid. My mom asked me to pick up lentils from the corner store, and despite being embarrassed to go out, I walked with my head up high. My seven year old mind thought people would think my traditional clothes were pretty and that I would receive kind compliments. Soon after, my optimism faded. The questions and whispers started. I never once answered those questions, thinking that people would get confused if I tried to explain anything related to my culture. I just kept walking with my head down, trying to avoid crowds of people whose eyes would follow my every move. Those eyes, none that looked like mine, would look at me as if I was an alien from another planet, one that didn’t belong in any way, shape, or form. I am just walking, so why do you keep staring?
I came home that day and told myself that I would never wear anything like that again, nor would I go out on Eid like that. The attention, the staring, the unnecessary questions, I despised it all. No one else had to go through this. Why only me? Why don’t the white kids get asked if they can speak English or not? I get asked that all the time. Why don’t they get stared at when they take out their lunch at school? Why don’t they have to explain to people that they are not just visiting America from another country, but that they live here?
Being one of the few Bangladeshi kids in a majority-white neighborhood, not one day passed when I didn’t feel insecure about being different from everyone else. My insecurities made me willing to throw away my culture and everything that made me stick out. I tried to speak only English at home. I kept my mouth shut when asked about where I’m from. I told my classmates I went to Hawaii instead of Bangladesh when asked where I went during summer break. All that, just to blend in.
However, everything took a turn one glorious summer. I found myself and my family moving to another neighborhood at nine years old, and just like that, everything changed. The second we drove into the neighborhood, my eyes couldn’t register what I was seeing through the car window. Not one, not two, but three Bangladeshi supermarkets within two blocks. A group of people, and to my surprise, Bangladeshi people, were outside a shop, chatting and eating snacks. What they were wearing shocked me the most: colorful salwar kameezes on some and hijabs on others, two things I never thought I would see on other people. Men were socializing while walking out of a mosque after prayer. They seemed so carefree about even being near a mosque in their prayer clothing. I had never seen so many people who looked like me in the same area, and the fact that they were comfortable speaking in Bangla and wearing traditional clothes outside, shocked me.
I continued to be surprised in the following months. Soon, one of my least favorite days of the year, a day that reminds me of why I don’t show off my culture in the first place, came. This Eid, like every other Eid, would consist of me spending my time at home with nothing to do. Or so I thought. I could hear people cheering and laughing outside my window. Curious to find out what all the sound was, I looked out and realized what was going on. Aunties and their children in vibrant traditional clothing were happily taking pictures and socializing. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? Is that what people do here? I would have never imagined that so many people could come together like this without others staring at them.
For the first time since Eid in my old neighborhood, I got the courage to go out in traditional clothes. I excitedly put on the red and purple salwar kameez I was supposed to wear. Hurrying outside, I felt no embarrassment walking out in these clothes, as so many other people were as well. This time, walking down the street, I was greeted with multiple Eid Mubarak’s. So many girls my age were playing at the park, blasting music in Bangla and dancing along. Women's hands were covered in intricate henna designs, and the men were chatting while walking out of the mosque after the special eid prayer. Around me was a lively parade of people in dazzling sarees and salwar kameezes and lehengas: it was all so beautiful. For the first time, I was able to freely and proudly express my Bangladeshi culture.
My neighborhood, being full of so many people who share the same background as me, the same culture as me, and the same stories as me, has caused me to let go of my childish mentalities and become proud of where I come from. Those awful memories from my old neighborhood don’t affect me anymore. Today I can proudly say that I am Bangladeshi American. I can tell my friends stories about the great things I did when I visited Bangladesh in the summer, and there is no need to hide my ethnic lunch from people. All the people around me have made me realize that my differences as a cultural minority are nothing to be embarrassed about. Instead, they are things I should embrace.
Little Rock Central High School