Jackie Kabir

It was getting dark and Roshni tried to hurry down the lane to the ladies room in order to change her outfit before heading home. As she came out in her pink shalwar kameez, there was hardly any resemblance with the hip hop teenager in a denim miniskirt. She now looked like the perfect little demure Bangladeshi girl from her Asian neighbourhood. It was her friend’s birthday party but she had to leave early, as her parents usually don’t allow her to stay away after dark, especially in the summer, if it’s not an absolute necessity.
Roshni is an epitome of most South Asian girls living in the United Kingdom. Many young women like Roshni, feel anxious about the way they have to live their lives whereas other nationals are quite at ease with British lifestyle and culture. Most parents from Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries don’t feel very comfortable with or happy about their daughters staying out of doors for too long even when they have reached an almost-adult age. For them, it’s like a cultural boundary that cannot be crossed.
This picture has been portrayed in works of a number of Diaspora writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, and Bharati Mukharjee. They write about the children of immigrants to whom the lifestyle imposed on them by their parents is practically foreign. Many teenaged Bangladeshis living abroad are accustomed to a dual way of life: one, for the family, and the other for the friends and people at work which is of course a much larger, broader perspective.
After years of persuasion, children may finally give in to their parents’ wish that they should live or at least dress like ‘proper Bangladeshis’ in social gatherings. These children have a very sketchy idea about the history of their own country and some know about the national days and holidays, but they seldom have much significance. One cannot blame these children, as they are confused as to which culture they really belong to.
“At home they are told to call everyone who is elderly as Bhai or Apa, Chacha or Khalamma but when they go to school they call their teachers by their names; this makes them confused from their early childhood,” says a mother of two school-going boys who have lived abroad all their lives.
There’s another impediment to their wish to become fully British: unacceptability in the British society. A young Bangladeshi woman working for a fairly well known firm says, “My friend didn’t ever get a promotion as she always wore deshi clothes at the workplace. This particular friend of mine was forbidden to wear western clothes by her parents.”
So life is not so simple for these children who can be called the “products of Diaspora.” It’s a disturbing fact for these children, as they remain forever confused as to which culture they should belong to. This puts them in a difficult situation while choosing their life partners. Parents usually want them to choose someone from their own country whereas years of companionship with individuals from the country they now live in make them oblivious of the fact that they are from another race, another country. Trying to justify their existence, they tend to seek refuge in the concept of “globalisation”. Internationalism in this age means replacement of specificity by the general, borders are no longer encouraged between nations. Even then migrants love to hold on to their native land they left behind in whatever way possible.
If we study the history of the first immigrants, we will see that Bangladeshis who had gone abroad for a better life are spread across the world. Of course, Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand are their most preferred destinations. There is a relatively small presence of Bangladeshis in Africa and Latin America. No one really knows the exact number of Bangladeshis living abroad as immigrants. The population census data of Bangladesh does not include information on migration.
The countries where Bangladeshis live are: UK, USA, Italy, Japan, Australia, Greece, Canada, Spain, Germany, South Africa, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. There are about 1.178 million Bangladeshis in these countries who are now living abroad permanently either as citizens or with other valid documents. South Africa is the only country of the African continent that has some information on expatriate Bangladeshis. On the other hand, though Japan does not admit long-term residents officially, there is a good segment of Bangladeshi Diaspora population living there. Sources claim that there are 500,000 Bangladeshis in both UK and USA making them the two largest Bangladeshi immigrant-receiving countries in the world.
The history of migration of Bangladeshis dates back a long way. The Sri Lankans believe that the Sinhalese communities first migrated to Sri Lanka from this area called Bengal. Aatish Dipangkar, the Buddhist scholar-traveller carried the knowledge of earthen embankment cross-dam to China during the 10th century. At the time of the British colonisation, people from this area also migrated to Assam and Burma.
However, Bangalis in particular, gained the reputation as ‘Lashkar’ or seamen over the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. People from Chittagong, Noakhali and Sylhet areas went onboard the sea-faring ships bound for the British Isles. Sometimes, these people stopped their journey in places like Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, US and UK. Those who jumped off ship in UK ended up settling in London, Liverpool and Bristol. These Sylheti seamen are identified as pioneer migrants of Bengal. The book Probashir Kotha (The Tale of the Immigrants) by Nurul Islam has information about the first migrants of the country.
The pioneer migrants from Bengal who landed in UK were predominantly of Sylheti origin. The early migrants found jobs as labourers in different industries. Early migrants in UK were not educated. Most of these early settlers got married to people living in the UK and established their families.
Today a huge Bangladeshi community, with a population of 639,390 people, thrives in Britain. The third generation of the pioneers is on their way to establishing themselves in the mainstream British business, commerce and politics. Like many other ethnic communities, Bangladeshis also have numerous financial, social and cultural organisations of their own across UK. They don’t want to be known as immigrants any longer. Of course they now are citizens of UK, but at the same time, they don’t want to lose their Bangladeshi identity as their elders feel that is will lead to their becoming a rootless community.
For these young people there is no dearth of efforts to get out of this confusion. Still the Bangladeshi Diaspora is in a dilemma whether to assimilate with the foreign culture as natives or hold on to their roots, as their parents so want them to.
Jackie teaches English Language at the Tarunnessa Memorial Medical College in Gazipur।

Jackie Kabir, teaches English language, is doing her M।Phil। in Diaspora literature. This article was first published by Star Magazine, a publication of The Daily Star.

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