Soomaiya Saturday- “The Plurality of my Strangeness” (Kieran Yates-The Good Immigrant)

I’ve been inspired to write about race and prejudice after I started reading The Good Immigrant.


Between Brown and British

To celebrate New Years I learned how to play ‘My Dear Acquaintance, A Happy New Year’. This is a Peggy Lee song, covered by Regina Spektor and now it’s been covered by me. I love old songs. I love the “golden age” of Hollywood. I love Postcolonial and 19th Century literature. I love period dramas. I love 80’s John Hughes teenage movies and artistic Ingmar Bergman films.

People often tell me I was born in the wrong era. I agree except for the fact that being brown, if I had been born in any of the previous era’s I would not have had the privilege to enjoy the art I enjoy now. It often occurs to me that it might be strange seeing a brown girl sing such an old, frankly put, white culture song. To be so passionate about art that doesn’t represent my ethnicity, culture or religion.

I mean imagine Ashwarya Rai singing “Tonight, you belong to me”. I can’t imagine it. I’m still getting used to Priyanka Chopra on Jimmy Fallon and having her own music video with Pitbull (eurgh). And I’ve never even seen a Priyanka Chopra movie so what do I even know. Don’t get me wrong, having more South Asian representation in mainstream pop culture is important. But the strangeness of these two cultures coming together has just been ingrained into my mind.

I wish that they could retain and almost exaggerate their South Asian roots rather than camouflaging into the Hollywood standards. Then I feel guilty that I am not Bengali enough myself.

Btw the autocorrect tried to change Ashwarya to ashtray and Priyanka to praying. Let’s try my name- Someday, Somalia, Someway. It sounds like a lovely name for a novel or movie.

I often have to confront the fact that I am so Western when I am around Bengali people. Many incidents decorated my life experience growing up that forced me to hide in the wilderness of my bengali culture. My mum tells me that I was fluent in Bengali until I went to school. Now when I visit my family, whether in Bangladesh or in London, I find it difficult to hold conversations in Bengali. I don’t know exactly when I started becoming so shy about speaking Bengali. I don’t think there was a defining moment.

I would say one thing that contributed to it was that we all speak English at home, except for my dad. I stopped being close with my dad from the age of about three. When I visited family I would always obviously spend time with those of my age who were born and brought up in London so we would speak English. I never formed close relationships with people who I would have spoken to in Bengali like my grandmothers, aunts and uncles. I was close to my grandfather but unfortunately he passed away when I was 10. If he had stuck around longer I might have had a better closer relationship with my Bengali culture.

I think when I started to get a bit older and adults started to really want to have conversations with me in Bengali I realised how inept I was. I had lost out on important Bangladeshi education during my childhood.

Every conversation I have is in question and answer form. I never ask the question.

I just say ji? Ji-oy. Ji-na.
Pardon? Yes. No.

And then after a few questions I get one of these two reactions:
A blank face and sigh from giving up on talking to me
Laughing about how I don’t know how to speak Bengali well

And then some moaning about how my parents failed.

I probably shouldn’t draw attention to this huge flaw of mine but it is relevant.

The thing is, I do know how to speak Bengali quite a bit. I am not amazing at it and I can’t read it, but I can speak it. It’s just that I’m so terrified of sounding stupid that I just stick to what I definitely know. The fear didn’t come from being crap at being or speaking Bengali, but the rigid line I had to walk between being too Bengali or being too Western, and that sometimes they accidentally overlapped. As Kieran Yates describes in her essay “The plurality of my strangeness”.

In one half of my family there was a clash between generations.  This clash was conceived with my mother who was the first of her siblings to be born in London. Her older sisters grew up in Bangladesh, her younger siblings in London. I was quite young when he died, but from what I can tell their father was the epitome of a strong breadwinner and enforced that stereotypical strict asian discipline…until he brought his second wife to London. At which point I believe he let the ball drop trying to juggle his two lives and his influence weakened. That may be why my older aunts are so different from their younger siblings. My time spent with this half of my family was soundtracked by Garage, R’n’B, Pop and some Bhangra. Hardly any Bollywood and we never spoke Bengali.

One particular moment that haunts me so often is when I had just arrived to my nan’s house after mosque. I forgot to take my scarf off. By the time I realised it was still on my head I couldn’t be bothered to take it off. Someone said ‘You don’t have to wear that here’ and everyone laughed. I felt really embarrassed because I knew that no one here was muslim and in fact they quite disliked Islam. I was a child at that point and I didn’t have a strong religious stance. I just wanted to be liked.

We still did Iftar at Ramadan and visited each other on Eid. We ate Mcdonalds but avoided pork and alcohol. We did Secret Santa at Christmas and visited Tower Hill on New Years Eve. In comparison, my dad’s side of the family never celebrated anything apart from Eid and were very traditional.
I grew up balancing on a tight rope between being called a kufar for playing guitar and being made fun of for choosing not to eat haram food anymore. Although we are talking about race I feel like religion is interwoven. So often I have felt that people assume I am not religious because I am not very cultural.

(I would like to point out that majority of the people who provided deliciously painful memories like these have completely changed their mindset and aren’t quite such dicks. I guess they were also navigating their way through two cultures too.)

I was recently part of my cousin’s wedding. I’ve never been part of anyone’s wedding before. I had to help make decorative food presentations called Taals and I enjoyed it! I felt so in touch with my Bengali heritage (although the Spock side of my brain doesn’t quite understand Taals). On the wedding day lovely Indian music played, I dressed in a blue lengha (my favourite style of asian clothes) and carried the Taal into the hall with the rest of my family. It was really beautiful and I had seen this happen so many times in other weddings. But I had never done it myself and it felt so alien. I felt like I was acting.

In the summer I went as a plus one to a white wedding. It was the total opposite of a traditional, Bengali, Muslim wedding and I felt much more myself there. I feel a bit guilty to admit that because I feel like maybe I NEED to be more Bengali, or I’m letting my side down.

I live in what used to be a predominantly Bengali populated building until very recently when redevelopment moved majority of my neighbours to brand new housing 5 minutes away. Now my neighbours are mostly white and black people.

My mum has told me about the racism she has faced growing up here. Children setting their dogs on her and her siblings on Commercial road in the 70’s, teenagers intimidating her on Poplar high street while she was pregnant in the 90’s, racist slurs in arguments on a bus in Hackney in the noughties.

There was recently a documentary on BBC2 about skinhead culture and the racism that took over it. This documentary sort of illustrated what my mum was telling me about. A clip taken from the old archives will never leave my mind where the white skinheads explain that they like black people but they hate ‘Paki’s’.

In The Good Immigrant Vera Chok talks about how racism towards Chinese people is ignored in the UK despite being the highest occurrence. Racism really works in strange ways with its own sort of hierarchy. Even within ethnic groups racism is highly prevalent.

I myself had not experienced direct racism until very recently. When a white working class family (think as annoying as Vicky Pollard from Little Britain) moved in next door, they decided to mark every Asian household door with a handprint. “Paki house” was written on the palm of each hand. That palm was a metaphorical smack in the face right on my doorstep. When I cut my hair short the neighbours decided I was Shabnam from Eastenders. I don’t mind being Shabnam, she’s beautiful. But they didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Another time when I was walking home a white man in a cab (driven by a bengali man) shouted to my family that the newly built housing is for immigrants like us. I’m an immigrant? I was born here.

It forced me to wonder what it would be like if I went back to ‘where I belong’- Bangladesh. Well that seems alien to me. Sure the hot weather would be welcomed, but even when I spent two wonderful weeks in the Palestine sunshine I longed for the chilly bite of London air, my home. And more than that…I wasn’t from Bangladesh. I was from Britain.

It is scary to be in certain places or around certain people for fear of being a victim of racism. I might be quite religiously and ethnically ambiguous and perhaps that is why I can usually avoid these attacks. But I am still afraid. It still happens. At times I can feel the tension of being the only person of colour in the room.

I am uneasy when the room is empty of people of colour (I can’t help but be reminded of my otherness with terrible pronunciations of my name) and when there are too many Bengali’s around (whose banter I will never understand). I don’t fit into a category. It doesn’t help that I hate social situations and give myself a migraine trying not to look like an idiot. Whilst I understand that no one fits into a category, as a person who suffers social anxiety I find these situations exhausting.

Malcolm X noted that when he went to Mecca he saw that everyone treated each other equally but they still stayed with their own ethnic groups. It makes sense to be naturally drawn to the people who share the same language, foods and habits. As much as I like being alone, when in the company of others I agree that we gravitate towards those that are similar to us. But I am such a mix that it’s hard to identify where I draw the line with each side. Where am I welcome? Where do I fit in?

Despite the painful memories of wondering why I don’t fit in, I realised that over time I have subconsciously decided to stand strong about the different parts of my identity.

I love the female empowerment and dance in Devdas. I love the noughties songs from RDB. I have enjoyed the poetry of Tagore. I have watched and loved Kuch Kuch Hota Hai like every brown person in the world.

London is home. I am a living and breathing noughties emo. I sort of enjoy smooth jazz…I look forward to the Christmas atmosphere every year.  

I’m a little bit of this and that. I am constantly in the process of building a world from two cultures. Trying to make it okay to be just the way I am.

Aside from culture and ethnicity there are some other things that I consider just as important if not more. For instance; I am passionate about my religion; I am passionate about music; I am passionate about having a positive impact on the world. These things matter the most to me and as long as I can touch base with each of these things I feel the best version of me.

Between brown and British.

So this is a snapshot into my perspective on being an unapologetic ‘good immigrant’; although, I’m not an immigrant.

If you identify with anything I have said you should read The Good Immigrant, you’ll love it. If you don’t identify, you definitely need to read The Good Immigrant.

I think my Best Nine 2016 perfectly illustrates that I love Islam and that I enjoy both Western and Bengali culture.


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