by Ali Boivab
Ammu would take the “desi murghi”, the thigh, the breast and the bone, mixing it in a scrumptious, aromatic cocktail of turmeric, garlic, green cinnamon, garam masala, with a tongue-sedating addition of red chilli powder leading to my childhood feasting of chicken curry. But sooner than later, what I considered aromatic would be considered stench by my American classmates at the all-White school at Secaucus, New Jersey. Their disgust and demeaning curiosity at the sight of my cultural lunch eventually drove me into a place of shame and then eventually betrayal of my own culture. First, it was my food which I shied away from, then it was English Pop replacing the melodic rhythms of classical Bangla music, then it was tie and shirts which replaced my panjabis, and then it was my soul. The invisible Western Empire, not too unlike the murderous-colonizing Spaniards or Brits, continues to colonize the souls of immigrants and non-immigrants alike over the global domain by asserting a racist and false sense of Western superiority. This assertion robs ethnic individuals of their identity, self-confidence and self-respect. Western cultural colonialism, the practice of wealthy Empires exploiting non-Western populations of the world, whether directly or indirectly, instills an unjust inferiority complex within the minorities of the world.
Colonialism, championed by nations like France, Germany, United Kingdom, Portugal or Spain, left societal wounds in societies of the colonized. In my birth country of Bangladesh, the fetishization of fair skin over the native and more dominant brown skin transformed into a societal plague. When girls are born to mothers, they pray for a girl with fair skin. My mother used to tell me when my older cousin-sister was born, uncles and aunties would say “Eto kalo meye ke biye korbe?” or “Who would marry such a dark skinned girl?” Such hatred of a darker skin tone at a societal level can trace its roots back to colonialism. When the British ruled the Indo-Bengal region, they instituted White supremacy by treating Indians akin to savages rather than a civilized population. Given that the British were in a position of power for over 200 years, Indians who praised the biological and cultural attributes of British masters achieved more societal success than those who attempted to hold onto their own culture and pride. As a consequence of this maladaptive cultural practice, Bollywood (India’s film entertainment industry – widely appreciated by the Bangladeshi community alike) almost exclusively features actors and actresses of fair skin even when the population resembles a darker skin color. My own mother would fall victim to the same indoctrination. When we would go to festivals or weddings, I would see my mother, a wonderful woman with perfect light brown skin, pick up the powder brush and religiously apply white powder to her face, thumping the brush repeatedly on her face until it left no trace of her ancestral beauty. When I would ask her why she would put on powder, she would reply, “Shundorjor jonne” or “for the sake of beauty.” Even to this day, Bangladeshis remain enslaved to the British Empire by unknowingly continuing the imperial narrative of White supremacy, incapable of accepting the beauty of their own skin color.
Colonized nations, although some newly independent, continue to be impacted culturally by the historical damage when they display an allegiance to Western culture subconsciously. When my parents and I came to New York City, we joined numerous Bangladeshi organizations that claimed cultural inclusion for new immigrants. In search of cultural comfort, we went to their “Pohela Boishakh” or “First Day of Spring” festival, expecting a cultural feast through songs and colorful traditional attire. Instead, when we arrived in our kurta panjabi, we were met with looks of disdain from our own fellow Bangladeshi-Americans! Dressed in Western suits and fancy dresses, they claimed superior status. The dresses of the women and the suits of the men seemed to have been sewn by a deep-entrenched shame of their own culture. While older pedantic individuals leveraged their amateur knowledge of English to establish a posh presence (in thick accent), youngsters so pridefully announced, “I only speak English.” To those individuals I would ask where they are from, and they would almost always reply “I am an American” as if their ancestry was written on a dry-erase board and not their DNA. My astonishing discovery was realizing that some immigrant teenagers who spent a majority of their life in Bangladesh blatantly denounced their relationship to their birthplace. But the reality is those immigrant children, just like myself, are victims of Western destruction and cultural colonialism.
Born to a family of freedom fighters and cultural individuals, I had inherited a strong sense of pride in my Bangladeshi culture. The pride began to fade when the culture which I held dominant and worthy of respect would then be mocked and smeared by ethnocentrism after our immigration to the United States. My father was no longer the revolutionary, but the recipient of “why don’t you speak English?” or the glares of others when he would wear Islamic or cultural clothes. When we would ride the train together in New York City, I would have an inherent shame in my parents and their Bangladeshi culture. When my mother would wear her long saree on the subway, I would always worry about what the White people were thinking about us. My culture, which inconspicuously instilled a sense of inferiority in the face of our former colonizers, was now arresting my self-confidence, my self-identity, and my self-respect.
Now, as a student at a predominantly White institution, I reside between both the prospect of privilege and the fear of losing my culture. I can bear the fruit of the colonizers in the form of excellent education but at the expense of my cultural roots. It has been nine days since I had last spoken Bangla, and nine days since I had my mother’s chicken curry. Every English prose I compose threatens my commitment to Bangla that much more. I want to meet another Bengali student who would sing aloud “Amar Shonar Bangla” (My Golden Bangla) on the road, who would rejoice at the poems of Rabindranath Tagore and devoutly enjoy chicken curry without an ounce of shame. Until then, the fight is within the colonized to keep their culture close to their heart, preserved from the coercive nature of Westernization. Until then, I must munch on the dry chicken of the dining hall at Skidmore while blasting the music of Bangladeshi legend, Hemanta.