On the Tip of My Tongue

A man sells Bangladeshi flags ahead of Victory Day, celebrating the country's independence. Photo by Madeline Ewbank

A man sells Bangladeshi flags ahead of Victory Day, celebrating the country's independence. Photo by Madeline Ewbank

The days when I could speak Bangla fluently are long gone, but that part of my life is stored away on a VCR tape on a dusty shelf somewhere in my parents’ house. Those memories are safe-guarded in the stories that my grandparents tell me, wistfully, of the little girl with long, curly hair who spoke to them in their native language over the phone and face-to-face every once in awhile, when we were together in Dhaka or Dallas. My Bangla is broken and painfully slow now, erased and replaced with fluent, impeccable, accentless English.

My great-great-great grandparents, at the dawn of British colonialism in India many centuries ago, were reluctant to learn English. It was an uncultured language, rough and unfamiliar to their ears and on their tongues which spoke Urdu, Bangla, Persian and even Arabic. But you know how this story ends. The British got their empire, and for a while, the sun never set over it.

Centuries later, my father boarded a plane bound for New Jersey. He was fluent in English, although it carried a gentle lilt, a reminder of the land where he had grown up. Nonetheless, over the course of a decade, he would have his masters degree, a house with a two-car garage, and two kids. That’s how I ended up in a Kindergarten classroom in the suburbs north of Dallas. Somewhere in this classroom, perhaps in the circle where I sat cross-legged for story time, or the tables where I counted and sorted colored pieces of macaroni, I lost my Bangla like I lost countless hair ties and friendship bracelets.

I was afraid that my r’s would roll too much and that I’d mix up my verb tenses. I didn’t want my friends to hear the rough edges of Bangla in my voice. So I started to imitate my teacher’s thick Texas drawl. She sounded like Dr. Phil, and for a couple of months, my mother tells me, so did I.

I stopped speaking Bangla at home. In my parents’ and grandparents’ recollections, I refused to speak the language back to them. Eventually, English became our lingua franca, and the sole medium of not just my dialogue, but the thoughts and emotions that grew in the recesses of my mind. Gradually, Bangla faded and atrophied, becoming an unused muscle flexed only when my parents needed to pass judgement on strangers in public or scold me for disobedience.

 

Few people that I’ve met in America know off the top of their heads where Bangladesh is, or that it has existed, in some form, separately from India since 1947. In casual conversations at the Barnes & Noble where I worked while in high school, at coffee shops and at libraries, I became an expert cartographer.

“Here’s India,” I’d say, drawing a long, oval shape in the air with my fingers. “This is Bangladesh.” I’d point to the right of the oval. “This is where my parents are from.”

I was always careful to make that distinction. This is where my parents are from. Not me. I was from Plano, down the road from the mall, the coffee shop, the classroom where this impromptu geography lesson was taking place. I was from the red brick house framed by two giant evergreens. The house with the old blue-green minivan parked out front and the oil stain below it, so permanently a part of our neighborhood that you can still see it from Google Maps’ satellite images. That was my home.

But when strangers ask me where I am from, sometimes they’ll repeat the question with a different emphasis until they know where to place my otherness. It is an experience that almost every second-generation American has had. It reminds us, constantly, that there is something about us that is different. Speaking accent-less English has been my defense mechanism to the endless interrogation of my otherness.

I wear my Muslim-ness on my long-sleeves and patterned hijabs. It was a choice I made almost seven years ago, and so I have learned to accommodate the questions, the comments, the stares. Perhaps I learned to resent the questions about my origins and my roots because I had not invited them. My voice, my accent and my speech hold no markers of otherness, but I could not hide the brown hues of my skin. I look, as most people might say, Indian. South-Asian. Once, someone guessed Mexican.

I don't look like I'm from Texas. I look like I am from Bangladesh: brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair slipping out of my hijab. I’ve wanted my voice to be heard louder than the brownness of my skin. But my voice isn’t loud enough to change the way we define what it means to be a Texan or an American.

This was a lesson I learned in my Kindergarten classroom. While I was counting and sorting pieces of macaroni, I knew that I was not so different from the kids sitting next to me with blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin that turned bright red in the August sun. But I also knew that some of the kids who looked like me, the kids who didn’t sunburn after half an hour outside, had to take special classes to help them with their English. I was secretly glad that I didn’t have to take those classes with them.

I did not realize that Bangla was the first of many pieces of myself I would cast off in my attempt to build a multitude of new, hybrid identities: Asian-American, Muslim-American, second-generation American. But rarely, if ever, Bangladeshi-American. It was too specific. It required too much explanation. And besides, who would miss that extra hyphen, that extra adjective? Certainly not my friends, my teachers or the strangers who knew nothing of Bangladesh except, if they were paying attention, that their t-shirts and jeans were made there.

I let go of Bangla, and then I doused my clothes in Febreze whenever my mother cooked food with turmeric and cumin, curry leaves and onions. I didn’t want the scent of her spicy chicken curries and daal clinging to me, wafting through the hallways of the school where my friends ate peanut butter sandwiches on soft white bread. I straightened my hair on picture day so that my hair would fall softly around my face like the sleek blond and brunette haircuts that I envied. In those photos, I momentarily tamed the frizzy, incorrigible locks of hair that have plagued generations of women in my family. I smoothed over the differences that marked me as Bengali so that I could become a more generic type of hyphenated American.

The first time I felt regret at losing my parents’ language was in Doha. Fluent English is the adopted language of privilege in this city, but outside of the expensive malls and the multi-million dollar college campuses, a different kind of English is spoken. It has been grafted onto the the guttural consonants of Arabic, the rolling r’s of Urdu, Tamil and Bangla and the truncated syllables of Swahili.

In this city, built and maintained by immigrants, there is a fluidity of language and a persistence of accents and cadences from elsewhere. In a country where there is no hope—or false promise—of assimilation, no one gives up the pieces of home that they have brought with them.

One day while wandering the souq, looking for dates to bring home as presents, I met a shopkeeper who was from Bangladesh. He was fluent in Bangla, Urdu, English and Arabic. He had lived in Doha for the last twenty-something years of his life. He had been selling dates in Doha for almost as long as I had been alive. He said he could tell I was Bengali the second he saw me walk into his shop. I nodded and smiled, afraid to open my mouth.

He narrowed his eyes, like he was trying to place me on a map. “Did you grow up here?” he asked me in Bangla. I shook my head. “Uh….” I stuttered. “Ami American,” I said. I’m American. I winced as I said it, hating the sound of the harsh vowels colliding into harsher consonants. “Amar Ma ar Baba…” I trailed off with a sheepish smile, finishing the sentence in English: “they grew up in Dhaka.”

He smiled back at me as he handed me the bag of dates he had just rung up. “Ok, come back again,” he said to me in English. And in that moment, I wished that I could have carried on the conversation in his native tongue. In my native tongue. A word popped into my head. “Dhonobad.” Thank you. He smiled again as I left the store, and this time it reached his eyes.

This would happen to me, over and over again in Doha. I looked Bengali (or Pakistani or Indian) and so I was a friendly face, familiar even in my anonymity to the shopkeepers and security guards, waiters and taxi drivers I met every day. I would watch the disappointment, the amusement and confusion slide over their faces when they realized I did not speak a lick of Bangla or Urdu. I could feel, profoundly, the space in my mind and on my tongue where something was missing. I wish I knew how to find it.

A few months later, I was in Bangladesh. This was my fifth or sixth time visiting, but the first time I had made the trip alone. In my grandparents’ home, in the living room adorned with old black and white photos of long-gone relatives I would never know, I saw a glimpse of the life I might have had.

In the teeming, bustling streets of old Dhaka, in the quiet, green solitude of the tea gardens four hours north, I shed my hyphens. In Bangladesh, I look Bengali, so for all intents and purposes, I am Bengali. I belong here in some visceral and inexplicable way, even though I am a foreigner by all measures.

Sometimes, when I’d go out with my cousins or in the few instances where I was by myself, I’d force my mind to think in Bangla. I’d practice the unfamiliar rhythm and arrangement of consonants and vowels. I heard the words around me and I knew what they meant, but I could never think fast enough to make them my own. I sounded like a toddler as I struggled with the weight of familiar but unspoken words. For me, this was progress. It was a small step in a direction that I had spent twenty years avoiding.

But this is not a story with a neat ending, wrapped in a shiny bow. I did not “find myself” after travelling to a far away and half-remembered homeland. I did not finally put to rest the question of what it means to straddle two countries, two cultures and two homes. I came back to the United States, back to my red-brick home in the suburbs, more confused and muddled than ever before. When I returned, I was hyper-aware of the gazes of the people around me who were taking in my otherness and trying to pin it on a map. Reflexively, instinctively, I fell back into my old habits and molded my accent, my voice and my very self to the people around me, as if to prove to them that I was back where I belonged.

I have built these habits, these safety nets, over the course of two decades. I can’t dismantle them overnight. But now, at least, when I fall into my old patterns, I catch myself. I did not find myself in Bangladesh or in Doha, but the veneer of assimilation that I have hid behind for most of my life has worn thin. It has lost its shiny, glossy finish. I am learning, for the first time in twenty years, to appreciate the cracks and imperfections.

 

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2017 ISSUE.