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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

The Bengali-American

One of the greatest ambiguities in my life exists in the tension between the ‘Bengali’ and the ‘American’ in my identity. Growing up, I had three separate worlds in which I lived. I was ‘Toshi’ in two and ‘Tashroom’ in one. ‘Toshi’ pre-dated ‘Tashroom,’ but the bearing ‘Tashroom’ had in my broader social understanding increasingly affected both ‘Toshi’s as I aged.

The first ‘Toshi’ that existed was the one at home. My parents and other Bengali community members called me by this name. I’m not wholly certain where it came from; it wasn’t from a random dude in a Bengali village, and I’m only confident in that since the name is Japanese. I spoke Bengali pretty well as a young child, took Arabic lessons with other Bengali kids who called me ‘Toshi’ too. We had lots of communal events, like these ‘Dawats’ that would happen every other weekend. Families would get together, there would be a ton of food, and my one opportunity to trade Pokemon would present itself. I’d see my friends Sajid and Rakin who lived far away in South Charlotte. There would be singing; my mom is an incredible singer, and I’d hear her voice flow melodiously alongside the harmonium, accentuating her Bengali words which I couldn’t quite understand in her musical voice. There would be dancing: the best were Juthi Khala and Noreen, the former who was once a professional dancer in Bangladesh, the latter a girl my age who would regularly perform at local cultural festivals. I’d sit and talk and eat biriyani until I couldn’t move, barely being able to reach my hand out for rushogolla or payesh or shondesh.

The day after these great communal events, the other ‘Toshi’ would be yelled at by his club soccer coach at practice for being sluggish. I could never tell him that I ate so much the day before; we seven-year-olds were banned from eating any sugary or fried food. In my adolescent soccer career, At the time, I was playing at a club in North Charlotte where I lived. The area is primarily populated by minority populations; my club teammates mirrored those demographics.. My favorite coach of all time, Coach Carlos, who I credit for developing my technical skills, managed my mischievous, restless seven-year-old self alongside Victor and Grant. The three of us played in a U-10 team and completely crushed our competition.

When I turned 11, a new coach told me that I was too short to play up. My dad and I were pissed, so I switched to a different club in North Charlotte and played premier with kids my age. By my third season, the new team I played for qualified for the Regional Premier League, but the club used the qualification spot for a team in their central location instead, a lakeside suburb where NASCAR drivers lived. I ended up switching again to this team, and my teammates suddenly went from mostly minorities to mostly rich white kids.

In the academic sphere, though, I’ve always been Tashroom. This is because when I was five years old, I didn’t tell my Kindergarten teacher about my nickname, so it never leaked its way into academics. This remains the case. None of you guys call me ‘Toshi.’ I was pretty good at school. My elementary and middle schools were in downtown Charlotte. They were magnet schools, so they had a good mix of kids from various backgrounds. I was still the only Bengali I knew in school up until two years ago, so that ‘Toshi’ never had a chance to present itself.

It became harder to balance these three worlds when I first hit high school. Academics demanded more of me, as did Regional Premier league soccer. The first ‘Toshi’ who spoke Bengali to “uncles” while stuffing his face with biryani at Dawats faded to make way for the soccer ‘Toshi’ and ‘Tashroom.’ I saw less and less of Sajid and Rakin; from once a weekend, to once a month to once a year; it’s been years now. My Bengali got a lot worse; I completely forgot Arabic and how to pray, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t sing. The gap between myself and my parents grew, because they took this Bengali cultural understanding for granted in a way I gradually lost. Their histories became alien to me, as did this version of ‘Toshi’. I didn’t know how to situate myself as someone Bengali.

I didn’t know how to situate myself as someone American, either. My home high school was pretty diverse; we were 11% white, I didn’t really have any white friends there. My friends came from many different backgrounds, and jokes about our backgrounds and races were commonplace between us; we were friends, we were minorities. On the field, my soccer teammates were all white except for me and an Ethiopian-American named Mika. At the time, I wasn’t fazed by curry jokes or getting called “terrorist” and “cow worshipper”, because I presumed that my teammates were my friends in the same way my old high school friends were. My “dirty” brown hands and calls for deportation all appeared as a joke to me. Mika left the team halfway through the season and I didn’t get why. I think I do now.

I didn’t feel very Bengali, but I didn’t feel very American, either; I had no relationship to America that permeated history, time, place, or race, like my white teammates did. What did it mean that I spoke and wrote in solid English but couldn’t conjugate in Bengali? That my Western academics came first, then my soccer, then my culture? That my primary mode of understanding Bangladesh was my parents and grandparents’ stories, nearly incomprehensible to me due to holes in both translation and memory? That despite this distance yet because of this familial node, I couldn’t claim to be American?

My senior year, in my Research in Humanities class, we read Lisa Lowe on the identity of the Asian American. She perfectly punctuated the tension I felt in being both Asian and American, that the Asian-American could only conceive of Asia through signifying actions because of its fundamental distance, but that these actions alter the experience of being American; I conceived of Bangladesh in my parents’ stories, in Sajid’s impeccable Bengali, in Noreen’s dance, and in my utter failure to be near any of those. Yet those actions, those signs of Bangladesh, are a massive part of how I grew up. To Lowe, Asian-American identity must be constructed as an open category separate from both the Asian and the American that is entirely novel, being defined by this very moment, by my action right now as a creator of a novel culture. This resolution holds no answers for me; it’s just pretty words dusted on my visceral tension.

To her, Asian American culture exists only insofar as it doesn’t; its existence is divorced from its two sides, the Asian takes from the American, while the American takes the Asian. But I suppose this negative concept is the only thing you can posit for a culture so fragmented. I can’t look at my father and gain a deeper understanding of where I am; his village in Chittagong doesn’t compare to our suburbs. I can’t do it with my mother, either; I didn’t grow up with my cousins, with a pressure to leave industrializing Dhaka when the smog clouded over the sun. I can’t even look at Sajid or Rakin and sympathize with their struggles, since they possess entirely different cultural signs than I do. Nobody I can look at has hollowed out a cultural identity I can lie within; our understanding lies in possessing a common struggle, not resolution. Sajid and I both struggle to locate our cultures, but the signs he finds for Bangladesh are completely different from mine; his mom doesn’t sing, but she makes clothing; he goes to central Dhaka every year, I’ve never been there. We are related only in the space of ambiguity, not our conceptions of Bangladesh. Yet this cultural struggle is ubiquitous to anyone in a nexus between two traditions; he and I are not uniquely related. Nobody I look at can better help me understand myself where I am merely on the basis of our shared, superficial identity. Nobody’s struggle is really any closer to mine because they are Bengali, or Asian, or brown. The problem is both ubiquitous and unique; having someone who looks like me doesn’t make them a better help than anyone else in locating where, or who, I am.

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