Bengali in America: Raising my South Asian family in the Midwest

. January 1, 2020.
Bengali in America

I grew up in Bangladesh, but as the child of a diplomat, I have lived all over the world, from Beijing to Belgrade to Kuala Lumpur. I have always been surrounded by people from different countries and cultures, so I never felt particularly unusual or foreign. Only after coming to the US in 1993 to attend college in D.C. did I start to feel “different.” For one, the number of times people leaned into my face to declare, “Your English is very good!” was shocking. I could not understand why the immediate assumption would be that I wouldn’t be able to speak English fluently.

I transferred to a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, which was populated by a diverse student body. My inner circle tehre was comprised of a Scott, two Philippino-Americans, a Nigerian-Kazakhistani raised in Austin, a Lebanese-Somalian, a Muslim from Lubbock and other women with interesting backgrounds. We gravitated toward one another due to our inability to be boxed into a specific category.

Defining ethnicity

Subsequently, I moved to New York City, where everyone is so busy being unique and unusual that no one was particularly concerned with me. I fit in seamlessly and experienced the freedom of being completely myself, without being labelled based on my ethnicity.

A move to Toledo

In 2015, I moved to Toledo–my husband’s hometown–with our family, and I once again experienced what it felt like to be different in a sea of homogeneity. While there are many foreigners living in Toledo, I notice they tend to fraternize within their own community much more than I’d previously witnessed. Toledo is quite liberal and accepting, but I often feel as though people are more comfortable when they can categorize me in some way, allowing them to understand me within their own context.

I have met and befriended some wonderful people, folks who don’t see me in terms of my background, but I have also had my share of unpleasant experiences. For the first time in all my years living in the U.S., I was ordered to “go back to my country.” My children, who are both American, have been — more than once — defined by the color of their skin (and often incorrectly).

While it has been challenging in some ways to be judged as different, I want my children to feel proud of their differences yet still feel they belong here, as citizens of a country which once readily embraced other cultures and people.