Immigrant Bengalis

Am I a Bangladeshi or a Canadian?*

Mizan Rahman

It all seems like yesterday. I had come to this country with my heart filled with hopes and dreams. Higher education, a specialist’s expertise, atop-notch degree --- the possibilities seemed endless. I’d go back to my country, I mused, and offer her the fruits of my western training. That was the unshakable resolve of my youth.

And then, God knows how, fifty years of my life rolled along, and I am still here, firmly settled in an alien country.

I had entered Canada as a student, but in three months I was able to afford a television. The manager of my bank sweet-talked me into taking a loan to buy a brand new car. Commuting problems came in handy as a convenient excuse. It was, of course, the same fellow who in his student days couldn’t afford a ride on rickshaws, took 3-mile hikes every day to save up on bus-fares. For one who had never seen the inside of a private automobile, a private car had suddenly become an absolute necessity.

I recall that in our old home in a crowded corner of the old town in Dhaka, there was no electricity, no running water, radio or stereo record-player. Yet within three months of leaving the country it became impossible to contemplate life without television. Once shy, self-conscious country-boy, I became overwhelmed by western goods and luxuries. My hands were filled with the bounty of a triumphant consumer society, and I was a bit like a destitute who fled a famine and was having his first taste of a feast.

I got my degree rather quickly. Since childhood I heard myself called ‘smart’ so often that a time came when I actually began to believe it. The easily acquired degree only helped fan my vanity. My head swam in wildly presumptuous thoughts. The absurd notion of having perhaps in my possession something very original to say in the rarefied arena of international academic world piqued my pride.

I crafted an implausible excuse for not returning home right away: I have to stay in Canada for a little longer, I told myself, to gain valuable research experience; I have to build a reputation by publishing in the leading professional journals of the West-----and this, in turn, will bring further glory to my country.

Then one day, when I do return to my poor country with mounds of knowledge and experience, what an earth-shaking day will it be! Perhaps huge crowds of admiring countrymen would line up to welcome me home with flowers and garlands, schools and colleges would declare a holiday to celebrate the home-coming of an illustrious son of the land. The son of the soil had returned, everyone would say, and he has brought pride and honor for the country.

That shy, self-conscious youth’s head had begun to spin.                            

You know something? Amazingly, inexplicably, none of those things ever happened in the last fifty years. I’m still here, still cooking up excuses and weaving the colorful tales to tell my fellow travelers.

But one thing is perfectly clear in my mind now. No doubt about that, no doubt whatsoever. Maybe some second thoughts, some lingering questions, but doubts? None. No lingering doubts any more in my mind that countless millions of so-called ‘bright’ chaps like me are roaming the streets of this world everywhere, every day. That I’m not, and had never been, a unique person in any way. I am firmly stuck with the stark reality that in the name of the so-called sacrifice for my country, what I really came here for is enjoy the good life and share it with no one. No illusion anymore that it is not my country that lost me, but it is I who lost a country. The realization has, at long last, dawned on me that my homeland was never truly poor, that it was I, laden with the yoke of poverty. Not in clothes, of course, nor in food and material goods, but in my mind. The poverty that is supposed to elevate a person to the vaulted status of Jesus Christ, as the poet said, the same poverty has given me nothing but mental decrepitude and a blind craving for wealth and luxury. Sometimes I get a creepy feeling that my homeland was lucky that I didn’t return.

Today, I feel I have but one true identity that isn’t fake, isn’t tainted or altered in any way -- that I am just an aging expatriate, that I am a venerable personality in the eyes of the newcomers, the wide-eyed fresh arrivals to this land of dreams, from the same wretched swath of marshy waste far in the East where I came from. They look at me with a sense of awe and wonder: God! You have been here so long? Almost an entire lifetime!

Yes, almost a lifetime. Yet, I have no desire to go on living with that identity in my wallet anymore. There is a longing for something else. Some other, real, identity. Something that has a meaning, an authenticity, that sounds right in the ear, feels right in the heart. Who am I, really, I used to ask myself often when I was younger, when my stars were still in a rising phase. Usually I had no problem finding a suitable answer to that eternal question that has troubled many a saint through millennia. But not anymore I am so sure of myself -- not in the least. Today I’m not sure which is closer to the truth: a Bangladeshi or a Canadian.  What am I, really?  One mind is tempted to assert: both, of course. My birth-place is Bangladesh; so, that is where my heart belongs, and always will. But it is Canada where I spent most of my life, where I finally found a sense of permanence, a sense of continuity. I carry a Canadian passport with great pride and self-assurance. Maybe I would like to be buried in the soil of Bangladesh but it is the maternity wings of Canadian hospitals where my children were born. They grew up to learn ice-hockey, the great Canadian game, to go out skating and skiing with friends in deep winter. I took them to Ottawa’s football games, cheered with them wildly when the home-team scored a touchdown, cheered for the Montreal Expos and Toronto Maple Leafs before the Senators, the local NHL team that we are all so proud of. I flaunted the Canadian maple leaf flag with childish glee and joy on the first of July, our great Independence Day, every year. So, what do all these prove? That I am a Canadian.  A Bangladeshi Canadian, to be sure.

And yet, today I do not feel a great deal of conviction in that bold proclamation of mine. Isn’t it closer to the truth that I am neither? Neither a Bangladeshi nor a Canadian?  Isn’t it the sublime truth of human condition that once you trade your own home for what you think a better home in some dreamland of yours, you actually end up being a homeless person forever? It will, of course, be far easier for my children to accept Canada as their natural home, but I’m not too sure of that either. Deep inside they may be having some conflicting thoughts as well.

Not long ago a gentleman came along to attend a seminar we organized in Ottawa. There I raised some of the questions I just mentioned here, and were troubling my mind quite a bit at that time. He rose to voice his strong disagreement with my views, claiming that he, like me, had been a long-time immigrant to this country, but unlike me has had absolutely no trouble getting integrated with the host society. He cited as example of his “integration” the close relationship he and his family in the Maritimes has been able to forge with his neighbors -- how openly and freely they address each other in their first names, how they go out on skating and skiing trips together, have birthday parties together, invite and get invited to each other’s cottages, share the same bar-b-cues. Commendable, no doubt, but I thought there is more to what I call true “integration” than doing the fun stuff together and using each other’s first names. Integration is like transplantation of an entire culture, of the mindset, of the way you think, feel, speak, act and react. It is the whole baggage -- which I think is never possible in one generation. Curiously though, the gentleman from the Maritimes, despite his insistent claim on total integration, became quite agitated with me for having expressed a view contrary to his own, a reaction that I thought betrayed his assumed ‘Canadian’-ness, because as far as I know, born Canadians do not usually react in that manner.

The truth of the matter is, as far as my own experience is concerned, I’m yet to meet a Bangladeshi whose child never came home with a broken nose or a bruised elbow following a beating by bullies in the school yard, or a Bengali lady who was not laughed at for her colorful sari or a Sikh gentleman’s turban didn’t become the butt of vulgar comments by the local thugs. Or anyone who didn’t have to endure the insulting slur ‘Paki’, or suffer the indignities of cold shoulders from racist neighbors. There will never be a lack of people to remind us how different we are from them, obviously the superior race. They will not feel too embarrassed to remind you at every available opportunity that you are not quite as welcome in this land as you think you are. Perhaps my next generation will be able to adapt better and integrate much more easily than my generation. Admittedly I enjoy enormous physical and political security than what I’d have in my own country. But what about my mental state?  My heart? Where do I find a place to hide my face, and merge with the host society just as easily as the white Europeans do?  Pity, these questions didn’t arise in my mind when there was time -- in time to turn the clock back.

If only I could break free from the mental deficit that I just alluded to, perhaps then I could take the right decision at the right time. Then, maybe, just maybe, I would be really worth something, something that I could offer my country to help make it a better place for future generations. I’d feel immensely good about being in a position to offer something to my poor country, which would in turn enrich me many times over. But alas!  What did I do instead? I set sail for an unknown and potentially unfriendly place, and put the anchors down where there was no spontaneous voice of welcome. I left my homeland, foolishly burning all the bridges behind, for the lure a place where the moon is as pale as a silver platter, where there are no miles and miles of rich, green paddy fields swinging as if in a symphonic swoon, where people do not treasure their memories, no empty hearts to sing in the melancholy rain of vadra. I set up my permanent residence in a place where the night critters do not screech in the backyard, the birds do not keep singing away incessantly over the thick bamboo bushes in the villages, the magnificent blossoms of brilliantly red krishnochuras  do not  send the midday skies of the city of Dhaka into a frenzied ecstasy.

Oh, how I miss those village girls breaking out in enchanted chorus of ulus in the  twilight hours, with time hanging still on the empty fields of late autumn. How utterly lonely I feel when the rain touches the windows in my bedroom reminding me of the monsoon flood that would invariably lure me out with a fishing rod in my hand, hoping to catch a live fish in the front yard turned a river by the torrent of angry water. Today I find no way of returning to that enchanted world of mine, that fleeting piece of heavenly bliss that only my impoverished country could provide. I was lured away by the glare of my career, of goods and glories. I traded the soul with the lure of comfort and security. Which I got enough of, but lost the core of my existence in the process.

Today I sit alone in my solitary porch in the backyard and ask the hard question that I evaded for so long: do I have any right to claim that I am a Bangladeshi? Or, for that matter, have I really earned the right to claim my ownership on the Canadian-ness either? I have reached near the end of my life. Finally, I seem to have a clear answer to both questions -- no! An unequivocal, resounding no. I urge you, anyone who is sitting in your solitary porch, to challenge yourself with the same troubling question. Do you think you have earned the rights?


*Translated by the author from one of his Bengali pieces by the same name that appeared in Tirtho Amar Gram, his first anthology of columns, published in January, 1994, that also appeared at various times in Mashik Bangladesh, Weekly Probashi, as well as monthly magazine Amra, during the early nineties.

(Posted August 1, 2014)


From  PC (Aug 2, 2014): "This is the best article I have read so far in your website. ...Every immigrant has the same question. Please publish more of this type of high level articles."