One of the earliest childhood memories that I posses took place on the kindergarten playground. It was a crisp Michigan fall day and I was wearing an oversize pink windbreaker. My black curly hair was gathered into a messy ponytail, but uncooperative strands had fallen out to create more of an afro effect. Under the play structure, I was gathering wood chips from an awning, minding my own business. If I’d known the term then, I’d have said that I was zen.
I sensed someone come up behind me, and then I heard him call my name. When I answered, my worst nightmare became my reality. Instead of answering, “What?” in English, I replied, “Ke?” in Bengali. Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen! I messed up! I recall the confusion on the boy’s face behind me as I frantically tried to hide my red face from him. I wanted to shrink into a ball and hide until the playground disappeared from my sight. It felt like my whole world had turned upside-down.
After this, similar cultural dichotomies popped up everywhere. I was, and still am, bilingual. I have been spoken to in Bengali, a language native to Bangladesh and eastern India, since birth. I grew up in suburban Detroit, but up until kindergarten I was more fluent in Bengali than English. I had to frequently remind myself that we were in America, and that my kindergarten friends wouldn’t know what the hell I was saying if I spouted some of my mother tongue.
Fast-forward to first grade, and I’m in a basement in suburban Canton trying to keep up with the footwork that my Kathak dance teacher was showing the class. Ghungroos, bells on a string lining my ankles, accentuated every stamp of my foot with a sharp ring. Kathak is a hugely-popular Indian dance form, and as I learned it I assumed that everyone at my school would know what it was. So I proudly brought my ghungroos to show-and-tell in fifth grade, only to look back at blank stares from my classmates. They were confused. And I was confused that they were confused. After explaining what they were, my fifth grade teacher nervously replied that the bells looked long and heavy for “my skinny ankles.” I wanted to say yes, they were, but you get used to them. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t as weird as it looked, it was actually beautiful and made the most magical of sounds. But I bit my tongue. It seemed like too much work to say all that.
It’s odd, being surrounded by two different cultures your whole life. It’s hard to be thrown into one and completely forget about the other. As I grew up, I saw everything in my life in two different ways. I listened to American pop music on the radio, but I also learned songs by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Bengali poet and musician of all time. In my house, my dad’s portrait of Princess Diana hung right next to a sketch of an Indian girl in a sari collecting water in a pot. I went to my grandparents’ houses in Kolkata, India, and saw real, heart wrenching poverty in the dusty streets. Then I came back to midwestern America and tried to wrap my head around why India was, and still is, different in so many ways.
I think the antagonisms between these two different worlds confused me, but I’m so grateful to have been exposed to both of them. I’ve learned to blend the two in some ways; I wear traditional Indian clothes to school on Diwali, and many of my closest friends are from the Bengali family-friend circle I’ve been surrounded by since birth. I’m more than happy to answer the door when I’m alone with my grandparents in the summer to bridge the language barrier. But I’m also OK with my Bengali and American sides existing as separate entities. I can switch from one to the other with ease, and I’m not embarrassed by either of my upbringings in the slightest. I’m proud to identify with my Bengali culture, even if the American world consumes most of my daily life.
All these memories of my Bengali-American upbringing culminated in one event this year. Zakir Hussain, India’s treasured tabla player and musician, came to Ann Arbor with his band Crosscurrents. They presented a beautiful combination of Indian classical music and jazz that magically brought together my two worlds in one performance. It felt like the two halves of my heart were being sewn together, that someone finally understood me. I gushed about the performance later to my friends and was met with those same blank stares, eyes not fully understanding my epiphany or why it was such a big deal. But to me, it was a much-needed affirmation of what I knew I had been craving all these years. My American and Bengali worlds are sublime individually, but are extraordinary together.