The identity complex

verbatimIn the heart of Chittagong we walked into a market packed with hawkers selling miscellaneous merchandise. The awnings were sprinkled with dirt and grime, and the air smelled of dead fish. My family and I walked towards the end of the market where coats and jackets were piled up high in a large wooden box. Our parents had decided to buy us a warm, heavy coat that could withstand rain.

The coat I was given was too big for me, and it was a bit of overkill for Vancouver’s mild weather. Although at six years old in 1996 the coat seemed perfect for the winter in Vancouver. I had never experienced a cold climate before. I was used to the heat in Bangladesh, and now I had to get used to the cold in Canada.

The weather was not the only element I had to acclimate to. Language was another barrier. My dad is fluent in English, and he spoke English at home so we could become familiar with the language. I excelled in reading during elementary school, and my English improved quickly.

However, the biggest adjustment was learning that I had a single and simplified identity: the immigrant. This, by far, was the hardest obstacle I had to overcome in school – to convince people, and sometimes even myself that I was more than a person who just eats different types of food and has a darker skin tone. I had to remind people I was from Bangladesh, not India, that my family are Buddhists, not Hindus, and that we speak Bengali not Hindi. Of course, Bangladesh and India have a long history and share a common culture and heritage, but growing up I had an entire array of experiences that did not lend themselves to being reduced to a stereotype of the general “brown person.” Many jokes were made about Indian people, for example, when kids would do the clichéd Indian accent. I was considered to be more fun if I laughed along instead of pointing out that I had never spoken with that accent.

When I was twelve years old I was ridiculed in front of everyone in the lunch room by a classmate when he found out that the Bengali custom is to eat with the right hand without using utensils. I chose not to respond, but I was deeply embarrassed to say the least.

The overwhelming impression I got from people at school, until I started post-secondary, was that it was somehow gross, disgusting, lame or “uncool” to be from India or Bangladesh. It was clear that this perception derived from an aversion to darker-skinned people.

Pigeon-holing everyone in school, not just immigrants, is not a new or surprising fact of life. This experience of being perceived as a one-dimensional person influenced the way I think about others. Humans are complex and multi-faceted individuals, and behind every person’s societal façade there lurks an acutely private person with inner struggles.

I believe I am an open-minded person now because when I came to Vancouver I desperately wanted others to be open-minded about me. As I got older and met more mature and tolerant people who did not just view me as a person of colour, I became more comfortable in my skin. Nevertheless, there are moments when I still meet people and their first question to me as soon as I introduce myself is “Where are you from?”

I am more than happy to tell them when they are curious, but the frequency with which this happens and the immediacy of the question after introductions, especially when the same question is not asked to anyone who is Caucasian, irks me sometimes. It is almost like a constant reminder that I’m not really from Canada – that somehow I don’t belong.

Yet, I understand the impulse to ask this question, especially in Vancouver where minorities seem to be more of a majority in the city and where we are surrounded by multiculturalism. Vancouver is more of an open and accepting city than most.

I don’t identify with being Canadian, nor do I identify with being Bengali, even though I am both. This can often be a common feeling amongst many immigrants who are unable to entirely assimilate to the new land and lose their connection to the homeland. I am a human being who is curious and who desires to discover and learn. This is the best way I can identify myself without placing my identity into easily-digestible categories.