A Tale Of Two Worlds


I come from two worlds.

One is a land far, far away, where barefoot little girls with gold studs through their noses carry children barely older than they are on slender hips, coconut oil combed carefully through their plaited hair; where dirt roads, cheap sandals, and immense crowds reign supreme. I come from a land of rice paddies and lotus flowers, of corrugated tin roofs and occasional air raids. A land of teeth stained red from betel leaves, of gold bangles and bright silk, of merchant vendors and henna tattoos. A land where unaccustomed eyes water from the pungent smell of dried chili peppers, where unaccustomed feet struggle to pass through packed cars and rickshaws. This is a land where hungry eyes wander the streets, rags tied to frail emaciated bodies, begging for a spare anna. This is a land I’ve both seen and felt, dreamt about and longed for. I’ve walked along the dirt roads of a quiet country village; I’ve seen the taut bodies of young men carrying piles of sugarcane on their sturdy backs. I’ve sailed along the Padma River on a small canoe, sampled puri from a vendor, his stall lit by a small kerosene lamp. This is Dhaka, Bangladesh, the land of my birth.

My other world is equally exotic, equally real. It is a land of SUVs and spray-on tans, of high ranch houses and homogeneity. Here, waves lap endlessly against boats in the bay, and the sun rises to dewy manicured lawns. Here, I travel along highways that stretch out into the distance, yearning to be treaded on by hard rubber. This land is dominated by swimming pools and strip malls; it is run by PTA mothers who operate minivan carpools like KGB missions. Here, Juicy Couture bags and highlights are ubiquitous among the preteen female population. A driver’s license is more than a rite of passage; it is the entrance into civilized society. The scent of the air is strong, mixed with the aromas of Victoria’s Secret Love Spell and new money. This is Long Island, New York, the place of my residence.

I sit astride the line that separates these two lands. The distance that separates them is nearly eight thousand miles, but I can close this gap with a blink of my eye, I can erase the space with the nudge of my finger. If home is where the heart is, my heart is everywhere. Pieces of me are in the sweaty bungalows of Rampura and the quiet, culturally barren streets of suburbia. I try to complete the puzzle, but there is always something missing. I cannot say that I feel equally comfortable in both of my homes, but perhaps, paradoxically, I am equally uncomfortable. To my suburban friends, I am an anomaly every time I chatter in strange tongues to my parents; to my relatives in Dhaka, I am forever whitewashed. I don’t know where the Bengali Tausif starts and where the American Tausif ends – all I can say is that I am an alien, foreign to all, but grateful of the fact. I am a first generation American; I am not suffering an identity crisis. It is difficult to merge the two cultures that comprise my life, but I am lucky to say that I am not torn between the two – that would be terribly cliché.

If I dig through the file cabinets of my memory, I can distinctly see a young, frail woman dressed in her new green salwar kameez, her hair done in a bun for the first time at a fancy Dhaka hair salon. She is holding the hand of a little boy wearing his best suit, and her other hand is tightly grasping a British Airways boarding pass. This woman, my mother, manifested her hopes and dreams of a brighter future in this little boy, and boarded a plane to meet her husband to realize them. Thirteen years later, my mother tells me that I am not an American, that I will never be American. I don’t tell her this, but I think she is wrong. I will always be American, I will always be Bangladeshi, but I don’t believe in the hyphenated love child of these two distinct cultures. They are separate worlds of mine, but they have found a way to coexist peaceably. I am not confused about who I am, or how my race will play into the rest of my life. I am not afraid of losing my identity in either of my worlds. I am simply trying to say, in so few words: this is who I am; this is where I’m from.

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image – Salman Ahsan