“What Are You?”
- The Constant Struggles Of A Multicultural Identity
I feel proud of myself. I am able to pull off the new bright, aqua blue panjabi with exquisite designs on the collars that make my freckles pop. My family bought it when I was in my home country of Bangladesh. It is International Night at the school, a night dedicated to the celebration of the diverse student population at the school. I am standing beneath the Bangladeshi flag, I am there to represent. Other flags drape the cafeteria, waving delicious aromas around our colorful costumes, energetic dances and fancy desserts. A tall, poised man confidently yet stiffly strolls toward me, awkwardly staring at my panjabi and my light skin; I move forward to greet him, offering a samosa.
“Are you even Bangladeshi? You are too white to be a true Bangladeshi … What are you?”
What? Not even a Who? Inside I was livid.
Born in India to a Muslim Bangladeshi mother and a mostly white father and moving country-to-country as a child, celebrating differences is an integral part of my DNA. I have always been proud of my unique foundation of different experiences, having lived under so many different flags. The bloody eyeball of the Bangladeshi flag challenges my mind and keeps it open, reminding me of mouthwatering food, my family, and the colorful mix of green paddy fields and crazy rickshaw-filled urban traffic; the Cameroonian flag inspires me to delve into linguistic and social conflicts; the Ghanaian flag makes me hungry, thinking of fufu found at the local market; and the Timorese flag brings back memories of semi-tamed crocodiles.
At that stressful moment on International Night, my comfortable relationship with my own flag was questioned because some stranger challenged my identity. The blood red circle surrounded by green, once fostering empathy and curiosity, conjured mixed emotions.
The man’s remark stung. It made me wonder: if Bangladesh’s flag did not represent me, what flag am I?
Though I retain a pleasant facade, the man does not subside. He does not stop quizzing me, like I am a gameshow contestant on “Who is the Bangladeshi?” In my mind, I am distraught. I feel challenged. I feel dehumanized. I feel unworthy, lacking a valid identity. Who gave this man the authority to question my culture solely on my complexion? It feels reductive, judged based upon the color of your skin on a day meant to celebrate all these ethnicities.
In reality, I smile and change the subject, defusing the situation.
I have learned that, while there have been times when I have been confused about my identity, living in and embodying the “Mecca of Diversity” has informed my character, making me appreciate complexity as a gift. Without that tall, poised man who objectified me, I believe that I would have never understood these truths. And though I may never wholly be a part of one culture, I get a taste of lifestyles that most people never can. I understand that my identity is evolving, but I am aware of that and I am not ashamed of my experiences or appearance. I am a masterpiece, yet a work in progress.
International Night brought an epiphany: my childhood love-affair with flags had resulted in a superficial understanding of identity; I am an embodiment of many flags. As a child, I thought my collection of paper flags on toothpicks represented the world. When in reality, it hid numerous individual identities within each banner. There is more to a flag than just pretty colors, just like there is more to a person than their complexion and circumstance.
Maybe that tall, poised man could not see past my freckles, but I can see through his pretension. I brush the samosa crumbs off my panjabi and greet the next visitor warmly.