I recorded my boro chacha’s stories about the Liberation War one hot summer afternoon in the village house in Kushtia. We went into his private room with the fan turned on, but it was still sweltering; every few seconds I would swat at a giant fly that had swirled in too close to the recorder, or a baby would come toddling in for my boro chacha’s attention. But this was the last day we would spend in the village, and I knew that, despite the distractions, we had to finish.
Boro chacha is known as the “hothead” of our family – a label I also take after. It’s said that he couldn’t stand to be anywhere that compromised his values, which sometimes left him jobless. He was serving in the army in West Pakistan when the war broke out. So he disappeared. He deserted the army, changed his name, and hopped trains until he showed up out of the forest at the door of our village home. There were no reliable communication lines, so my family describes his arrival like the appearance of a ghost. Boro chacha takes pride in speaking Urdu so well that it allowed him to escape. He wasted no time at home though. A few weeks later, he left again – this time to serve in the liberation army.
My boro chacha is a wiry man in his seventies now, wearing a lungi and a long grey beard. I have my sister with me as we talk, and she will also do the written translation work afterwards. I feel embarrassed that I cannot understand it myself; I do not know enough Bengali to hear this story from boro chacha’s own mouth.
I found my connection to Bangladesh when I was fourteen: the year I found out I was adopted. It wasn’t part of the plan – my white adoptive mother spilled the beans. It was within the family; my Bengali adoptive father brought me into the U.S. when his sister could not take care of me in Bangladesh. I became a child of diaspora by a twist of fate.
Even once I knew about the adoption and having another family somewhere, I still wasn’t “connected.” I didn’t live in a Bengali community and I didn’t know how to find one in Seattle, where I grew up. Even my dreams of being reunited with family were in sepia tones; I couldn’t imagine Bangladesh as anything but a dusty set of buildings and brown faces. The first time I had any contact with my biological family was in college – when my biological sister found me on Facebook. I became consumed with trying to visit, finally convincing my father that we needed to make the trip in my sophomore year.
I was then able to fill in the colors and sounds – the loud honking of horns in Dhaka streets and the bright salwaars that are the day-to-day wear of women in every class. I was, however, virtually unable to communicate. Despite finally being part of the ethnic majority, I was handicapped by my lack of language skills and had to be led everywhere by my sister. Still, I felt more connected there than anywhere else I have lived. When I had to return to snowy New York for the rest of my semester, only the determination that I would go back helped me to survive through that year.
I asked my father during one of our more recent marathon phone calls: “Have you ever felt conflicted about your identity now that you’ve lived so long in the U.S.?”
“No,” he said, not missing a beat, “I am always a Bangladeshi man – at best, I am an expatriate.” An expatriate. Like the Brits in our country. Not the stereotyped immigrant who has to relinquish all loyalty to their previous homeland for citizenship. No worries about weakening ties. Not a hint of hesitation.
I am jealous of my father’s stability. His feet are firmly planted not only in Bangladesh soil but specifically in our village home in Kushtia, though he has not been back there for more than a few days out of ten years. He knows where he is from.
Celebrating Bangladesh Independence Day feels different when your heritage is more fragile, when you never feel “Bengali enough.” Most days, I don’t feel “American enough” because of how often I am asked to comment on “India” or “South Asia” – just another variation on “where are you really from?” But on this day, I am reminded that although I take immense pride in Bengali literature, I cannot yet read it. On this day, I am reminded that despite my loyal lineage, I feel I am still crashing someone else’s party.
The second time I went back to Bangladesh, I decided I had to collect stories. I begged my Amma, my biological mother, to teach me our language from books for kids in class 1 and 2. I tried to soak in all the family legends and wrote pages and pages of description as if the memories would fall out of my head once I landed on U.S. territory. My curiosity – and insecurity – has pushed me to take classes and read endless articles and books on Bangladesh while I am away. And slowly, ever so slowly, I am getting plugged in to the radical Bengali community that exists in the U.S.
As I turned off the tape recorder, stories in hand, I realized I am still trying to define where I fit into this narrative of national origins. This is a day of recognition: recognition of our pain and struggle, and of our victory. Achieving independence meant defining ourselves by separation: here is what we are not. Now, more than forty years later, we are still defining what we are. It is tempting to feel trapped in insecurities, but on this day I will be gentle. “Once a Bangladeshi, always a Bangladeshi,” my father would say. I am filling in the details of my own story along the way.