Empty Room with Cardboard Boxes
The first night I fell asleep in the small, empty room that would be my "home" for the foreseeable future, I woke up in a fit of panic. My brain couldn't comprehend why the room I lived in for the last 20 years looked so different.
Cardboard boxes all around, my bare essentials clumped up together in a corner, a mattress without a bed sheet – the clues were all there to help me solve the mystery, but it didn't stop me from waking up every single time feeling lost. Over the following months, I made little improvements to that tiny room some 8,000 miles away. The cardboard boxes went away, a Star Wars poster went up and a table made its way (just barely) in the other corner. And one day I wasn't waking up in utter confusion anymore. I finally saw that tiny room as home without trying to piece the clues together.
The reason why I wanted to start with that tiny room some 8,000 miles away is that I find it analogous to getting accustomed to this life abroad, whether culturally or just plain emotionally. When I thought about writing this piece I thought the focus would be on "fitting in". But it has been more than that and I think it is fair to assume that is the case for many.
The first major reality check I was presented with was that I have been taking the minor details of day-to-day life for granted for way too long. Coming from a person who has lived his life in privilege, I never really paid attention to the simple yet crucial things that kept my life in motion for so long. I found myself stranded in a sea of minute chores and tasks that I never bothered to pay attention to before. Coming home after a tiring day of work and classes didn't initiate an uninterrupted period of relaxation and tomfoolery anymore unless I wanted to starve that day or watch the dirty laundry in my room pile up into a daunting figure. I still remember the day I nervously asked my American roommate how to use the washing machine. It might have felt embarrassing but I learned an important lesson, even if it was 15 years too late. The fantastic thing about living in a college town is perhaps that I was never the only one stumbling through life and learning from it.
Being a part of a community is probably the most efficient way of incorporating yourself into a new life. And yet getting over the inertia to make yourself a part of one can still be challenging. I have found the international and local communities in my city to be exceptionally kind and welcoming. As soon as the semester started, I was introduced to a plethora of communities focusing on things such as politics to table-top games. If I got to start this journey over, this is one thing that I would have changed. In spite of finding these enthusiast communities, I withheld myself from being a part of one because of a crippling impostor syndrome and social anxiety I didn't even know I have. But the only thing this does is make the solitude more unbearable.
Luckily I had the Bangladeshi community to turn to who made me a part of their group when I was too shy to approach them. While I didn't join the writer's club, or the Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast club, I was lucky enough to find people in the Bangladeshi community who I could talk to about writing and who I could play Dungeons and Dragons with. I found reassurance in the fact that these people suffered through the same feeling of isolation and anxiety while habituating to this new life. Before I knew it, my weekends were not a lull anymore as I found myself sharing a laugh with other people over coffee.
The cultural difference of a new country is something that many people have trouble getting used to. This has been less of an issue over time due to globalisation and how exposed we are to the culture abroad now. This is something I have truly appreciated about my life here – the amalgamation of the Bengali culture we grew up in with the customs of America. People in my college town foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation. For example, whenever they go out to eat with a multicultural group they make sure that everyone there could have an option to choose from that doesn't go against their cultural norms and restrictions.
My American colleague in the lab drops by every now and then to let me know what new Spanish word he learned and then asks me to teach him a Bangla one. Within a month I picked up the habit of holding the door every single time I enter a building for the person a few steps back, a very small etiquette I never had before but learned from the people around me. The cultural shift is such a noticeable thing that my few examples don't come close to doing it justice. But it's in the little things that I see in myself that the confused person in that empty room did not have, and I'm all the more glad for it.
I wanted to share a little story to finish things. Within the first few months I arrived in America, there was an Eid, a time for celebration back home but now just an occasion to reminisce about a life left behind, or so I thought.
I was invited to a dawat in the Bangladeshi community and I put on the only panjabi I had brought with me. When I arrived at the bus stop wearing my panjabi, I felt a crippling sense of self-doubt. "Are people staring at me?", "What will they think of this alien attire?", "Isn't this a bit too much?" I kept wondering. I didn't get on the bus that day. I went back to my home and wallowed in my bed. I was wrong to do so, I was so very wrong. It's easy for me to know that now, but not for the person in that empty room with cardboard boxes.
In spite of the many hardships, breakdowns and heartaches I have been enduring since, I have found a new home 8,000 miles away from Bangladesh, to the point that I can go to the coffee shop in a panjabi now and talk about culture with another person from another country. To the many people who would find themselves in another empty room with cardboard boxes in the future, the room can start feeling awfully a lot like home once you give it a chance.
Nuren Iftekhar is a PhD student at Virginia Tech. You can find him at [email protected]