Some years ago a South Asian friend shared an interesting anecdote with me. When she landed her first job in the corporate banking sector in London, she bought herself a new wardrobe of business suits and dresses. She boldly announced to her mother: “No more saris. Now that I am part of London's financial world, I have decided to dress in western style. It will help me blend with colleagues at the workplace!” Giving her a long hard look, her mother replied: “Really? But what are you going to do about the brown shade of your skin?” At the time I thought it was a quaint and funny story. But I am gradually beginning to see the deeply embedded wisdom in my friend's mother's reaction.
The truth is that we immigrants will always remain the 'other' in western countries — no matter how hard we try to blend in by wearing the 'right' clothes and acquiring the 'right' accent! I became sharply conscious of this reality once again when I recently came across Zia Haider Rahman's article, “Oh, So Now I'm Bangladeshi?” (The New York Times, April 8, 2016). Zia Haider Rahman rose to fame when his debut novel In the Light of What We Know was critically acclaimed in literary circles. In the article Rahman notes that while he is British in all aspects, when he was selected as a panellist for the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize, the announcement described him as: “Born in rural Bangladesh, Zia Haider Rahman was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, Munich and Yale Universities.” In fact, The Man Booker Prize administration went on to recognise him as “a Bangladeshi banker turned novelist.” The author was riled by the fact that his ethnicity was singled out in the intro, whereas the same yardstick was not applied to other panellists.
Interestingly, Rahman has never lived in Bangladesh and speaks with a British accent that he claims he acquired from “imitating BBC News presenters on a cassette recorder.” It is ironic that despite his efforts to Anglicise, he could not shake off his hyphenated Bangladeshi identity. He suspects, “Keeping me Bangladeshi has the advantage of enabling some people to tell me to go back to my own country.” We could give the organisers of the PEN Pinter Prize the benefit of the doubt since casting Rahman as an English novelist of Bangladeshi origin could be a marketing gimmick to make him appear 'exotic'. However, the suspicion that this could be a precursor to something more ominous is not totally unfounded, given the prevalent hostile climate towards non-white immigrants in Europe and the United States. Women in hijab and men in turbans have been publicly harangued with shouts of “Go back to your country”. The current wave of attacks has particularly traumatised second-generation immigrants, since they have never known any other 'country'!
To gain a fresh perspective, I decided to engage in a free ranging discussion with my daughter (a Bangladeshi-American), as well as her friend who is an American of Indian origin. Both women were quite puzzled by what they called Zia Haider Rahman's “over-sensitivity.” My daughter responded rather strongly. “You, our parents, have always told us we should be proud of our heritage and origin, so, why should we be upset about being recognised as Bangladeshi? We must integrate but we cannot blend because we are different. Much of our personal journey has been to celebrate both cultural identities. It's unrealistic to think that in either Britain or America white people will ever think of us as anything but the 'other'. Because we are indeed different as whites appear different to us”.
I persisted. “Then why isn't a white man labelled as Irish-American or Polish-British. Why must coloured immigrants be singled out by their hyphenated identities? I think if someone does not want to project himself as Bangladeshi he should have that choice.” My daughter's friend interjected: “No, it's not a choice — because we can't change our skin colour or who we are and neither should we want to. It's part of our DNA”. She added quite emphatically, “Better we unearth our own subterranean demons as to why it hurts so much to be identified as Indian or Bangladeshi”.
Both women asserted that living in the United States is about recognising 'otherness', in all its aspects — ethnicity, religion, colour, sexual preference, etc. According to them, the challenge is to make the racists, bigots and supremacists see 'otherness' as natural! “This won't happen by quitting and cowering into our own spaces and ghettos. We will integrate as a nation, but we must strive to highlight our differences with pride,” they both said unequivocally.
Through the short dialogue I managed to peel off some of the emotional baggage that a first generation immigrant carries. But I also had this uplifting feeling that as parents we must have done something right to instil in our children a sense of pride in their ethnicity, their inherited values and cultural traditions. At the same time the exposure to a multicultural world has given them the confidence to accept their differences with equanimity. In fact, this 'otherness' makes them better equipped to address the complexities of today's diverse and uncertain world!
The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.