Some of the greatest things, as I understand, they have come about by serendipity, the greatest discoveries. – Alan Alda
Has living in America been a “serendipitous outcome” for me? Here, I am not thinking out loud but trying to find an answer to this pertinent question asked by my former Higher Secondary School English teacher Ms. Moitri Roy. One of the highlights of this past pandemic summer was when I heard back from my beloved teacher. Moitri Roy is now Moitri Hume. We the students of Holy Cross School and College used to address her as Moitri apa (didi). Six years ago, I had found her email address from a former classmate of mine who was in London at the time. I was told Moitri apa has been living in Bristol, a city in the UK with a vibrant youth culture, art scene and nature for many years now. I procrastinated writing an email thinking that she might not remember me after all these years. Nonetheless, I had held onto the email address, and finally wrote to her in late June. A few days passed, and I sort of forgot that I wrote to her. But when her reply came after a few days, I was over the moon. She wrote: “What a pleasant surprise, to get your email (forwarded to me by my daughter). Suddenly the years rolled back, and I was fifty years younger! I remember you as a vivacious, attractive, young girl — full of enthusiasm. Your grasp of language was very good. Yes, I do recall The Luncheon and The Gift of the Magi [she was referring to two short stories that she had taught us from the syllabus). I must have been an arrogant young teacher (a bit of a know-it-all]. But if I have learnt anything over time, it is that life is a meandering river, forever in flux, and one must flow with the current in patient humility. I am now a widow, and a grandmother, of a little 7 1/2 year old boy. I am contented in old age, and have good friends and neighbors. I can do basic I.T stuff, but am not on Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. What about you? Do you have children? What is your life like in the USA? I think Angus knew your Dad in Bangladesh, many years ago. Do you visit Bangladesh? I have not been back since my mother died…” I was delighted to be able to reconnect and straightaway I replied. Her second email of July 2 had this to say and I am only sharing it in parts. “…Also [I wanted to know] whether living in the United States has been a serendipitous outcome. Is it all that you hoped for? I think of my roots often, and remember the sights, smells, and sounds of the past. The memories are recaptured in joy and delight. However, my life here is now firmly planted in British soil, and I have much to be thankful for, and feel blessed in many ways. There is a sense of freedom in anonymity. No one really cares about what I wear or where I go. Friends like me as I am, and as long as I have reasonable good health I am happy…”
I can’t remember when was the last time I had felt such pure joy upon learning that not only she remembers me but still recalls me with such precision. I found her wit and wisdom with a touch of British humor to be very refreshing. I used to admire her a great deal. In grade eleven, she made us read Somerset Maugham and O’Henry’s short stories. The image of Moitri apa in a white crisp saree with multi-colored border, GoGo sunglasses, and wooden platform sandals walking down a corridor to come to class on a lazy afternoon is very much embedded in my memory. Sitting in that classroom I would daydream about becoming a teacher just like her — feisty, confident, and surrounded by some aura of mystery. The mystery was due to her family background, and growing up among the indigenous people. She is the younger sister of late Chakma raja Tridiv Roy in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. When Moitri Roy became our teacher, by then Tridiv had abdicated his title as Raja and was living in Pakistan after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. His family had remained in Bangladesh. As a member of non-Bengali minority tribe, Tridiv Roy did not support the guerilla war and had felt it was better to side with Pakistan as the indigenous people according to him were subject of exploitation by the government of East Pakistan. In Pakistan, he was made a Federal Minister for life. Political history aside, we girls were often curious to know how Moitri apa grew up in a Chakma Royal family and what it felt like to be the sister of a raja. But we had to put a lid on those idle curiosities as apa was not very approachable in those days, and did not open up to her students. Her personality was such that it seemed she had put up a wall between the students and herself. We just revered her from a distance.
After I finished twelfth grade, I simply had lost track of her. I suppose apa also moved on with her life, got married and at some point immigrated to Britain. Her letters gave me food for thought as I have often pondered the same question about serendipity. I have yet to reply to her reflective question about whether I have found serendipity in a foreign land. This contemplative question has no easy answer. Instead an article titled America’s Vastness that I had written in 2009 popped into my head quite a few times. I think somewhere in that article lies the answer to my teacher’s pensive query. I penned my thoughts in the article in the following manner: Having lived here for almost thirty years, I frequently have pondered if given the choice, would I have gone to another continent happily, or gone back to Bangladesh. Or, alternately, am I just content to be here? These are not easy questions to answer. However, I’ve decided to explore my reasons, as to why so many of us have found it hard to return, and instead made America our adopted home. What is it about this country that made so many millions of immigrants have chosen as their adopted homeland? What really entices so many of us to stay here for decades? Sure, America, the “land of opportunity” is a melting pot of all nationalities; the independent spirit of Americans is contagious. But why do we really decide to stay back after we finish our mission such as higher education, or job assignments? Is it merely the “endless opportunities” that keep us from going back to where we came from? Can one find the true answer after peeling through the layers?
It is not an easy task to pinpoint each individual’s reasoning as each person and their rationales and goals are different from one another. For some, it is purely America’s economic freedom, and the option of living a better “material life” that otherwise would not have happened elsewhere meaning the home country. With relative peace, no huge political chaos, better medical care, and most importantly giving our children better education are some of the reasons behind staying. (But in 2020 none of the above points holds true as America is facing chaos and crisis on all fronts. It simply is not the place as it used to be thirty years ago as no one is giving peace a chance.)
In recent times, the political turmoil and the uncertainty of a stable future in some Third World countries have made it difficult to return where there are no guarantees if one will have the security to live a stable life. People simply do not want to return to a place where they would have to be afraid of the people in power, won’t make enough money to pursue their interests, or won’t be able to exercise their freedom of speech, and enjoy their basic rights.
No matter what, the expatriate community in the US is generally homesick for the nostalgic past, and often tries to justify their reasons. Frequently I hear friends lamenting: “Had the kids been younger, and then a choice was easy. Now we have their education to consider, and returning is not an option.” Mind you, the kids were young not that long ago. My point is: there are all sorts of reasoning to stay in America, but one can almost never draw the line that leads to a definitive best reason. Such back and forth reasoning continues for many of us until we are much older, and still there are no right answers.
Materially, America has its distinct advantages. Some seem to (sadly) assert that life in suburban America is where ultimate happiness lies. Some find comfort in the monotonous life it offers, where essentially one can map out one’s life for the year by marking all future milestones and happenings on a calendar. Nothing is unpredictable in the way people carry on with their life’s routine.
Since we rely on modern technology, and have somewhat socially distanced ourselves to be self-sufficient, we do not ask our neighbors anymore for a cup of sugar, the way it was a necessity in pre-modern America. Most of us do not even need to interact with our neighbors. Our neighbors leave us essentially alone and never get into our business. I feel the utter selfishness of this society is the flip side of the coin of living in America. Such indifference and disconnect from others is something we all learn to accept reluctantly.
America’s solace may be its relative “safety.” For some people this basic sense of security may overpower the need to go and rough it out at the very place where their forefathers came from. In America, life may only seem attractive — so much so that we pretend that we truly belong here. Underneath the glossy exteriors of the large cars and spacious homes often there is very little substance.
Furthermore, I’ve found the expatriate community’s obsession with material comfort to be a calamity. They take the idea of “opportunity” very literally — competing with each other for bigger houses, wanting to live in wealthy and posh neighborhoods (where the postal zipcode indicates your average yearly earnings), buying better brand-name cars like the latest model of Mercedes-Benz E-Class, installing expensive home theatre center and buying 72 inch televisions — while ignoring the lush green forests around neighborhoods, and the rich possibilities of art and culture that lie outside their door.
The new trend in the last two decades and ultimate goal among the relatively prosperous Bangladeshi immigrants in my state Maryland is to buy a house in the town of Potomac. In Potomac, the per capita income is $86, 604, a number much higher than the national average of $28, 051 [it has gone up in 2020.] The median household income is $173, 289. [In 2014-2018 it has gone up to $180.104.] In this white-collar town 97.79% people have white-collar jobs. A lot of the residents’ income in Potomac exceeds 7 to 9 figures. CEO’s of bio-tech companies, high ranking IT professionals, scientists, astronomers, famous artists, designers, high profile media personalities and other like-minded professionals live in Potomac in their gated communities.
In and outside of the Washington D.C. area, I rarely see a Bengali expatriate take in a showing of Hedda Gabler at the Folger theatre, going to the Kennedy Center to watch a Jazz show, or visiting the Smithsonian or the Corcoran Gallery of Art to see new exhibits, unless they are showing “the sights” to visiting relatives from out of town.
In my time here, I’ve only seen America become more super-sized and hyper commercial. In the mega-malls, one can get anything imaginable — yet most of the products, if checked, are crudely made in China. People spend hours at the outlet malls looking for great bargains and fill their car trunks with loads of things that they do not need. There’s a way in which this country almost encourages such a narrow way of material living, stimulates us to keep buying more, and keep worrying about material things, and ceremonies that we never cared for when we were children in Bangladesh. [The pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about how to downsize and not supersize, how to prioritize your life and to think about what really matters in life given the limited choices we have now.]
In America, people love all kinds of celebrations. Sometimes, I see, in the name of the spirit of the season, Bengalis celebrating Thanksgiving Day (in November) by roasting a twenty pound turkey soaked incorrectly in ginger water overnight, and struggling to carve the undercooked or overcooked meat the next day. During the holiday season, I see some Bangladeshi immigrants decorating their houses, by hauling twelve foot Christmas trees so that their children can learn to appreciate mixed culture. If anything, living here can be confusing and strange for many Bengali families — eagerly seeking some sense of a rooted tradition, whether adopted or their own. I don’t have an opinion for these people; nor do I have the need to celebrate such radically different cultural traditions. However, some people find joy in this mix-and-match aesthetic.
The vastness of America is disconcerting to me at times; our remoteness from one another makes it easy to get lost in one’s ego. We often walk in a zombie-like state, totally oblivious of our surroundings. Through self-involvement, we are not able to share in the happiness of others or feel affected by their sorrows. A lot of the time all emotions become muted.
For someone such as myself, coming from a distinctly different home country where I spent my first twenty formative years, America can fall short spiritually. There is no sense of living for intrigue or drama here. While walking through America’s colossal national parks, I sometimes spy, in the distance, a piece of land that resembles the little pasture where the cattle grazed in my ancestral home on the outskirts of Dhaka.
While in a market, in the organic vegetable section, I seek for the smell of my mother’s winter vegetable garden while carefully picking out perfect red sun-ripe Roma tomatoes (with a Product of Mexico sticker,) or a nicely shaped West Indian summer squash, that is imported straight from the vegetable patch of a Honduran farmer. Then why do I have this prolonged pain that seeps through my heart and reaches to the very center of my being when I am taking a river cruise on the Potomac on a sunny summer afternoon? In my mind’s eye, I am thinking of a faraway memory: when I was a little girl, taking a boat ride at dusk in a wooden boat with my mother in the gentle breeze of the enchanting Shitalakhya River.
For me, the free spirit of the Americans attracts me most about this country. Here I can be totally alone and never feel abandoned while I take solitary long walks. It is this immense sense of being in control of my own individual self — is the most gratifying feeling for me. Here I do not have to follow any particular rules (as long as I am within the boundaries of law) in living my life. I can make my own rules and pass them onto my immediate family without giving a mandatory explanation to the extended family, which is an unspoken requirement in Bangladesh.
In America, I am able to move freely between worlds. I am content eating fried fish at my dear old friend Anamika’s house. In the kitchen, she always plays a tape of Abdul Alim’s heart rendering folk songs. After all these years, she still uses ‘bothi’ (a unique blade used in South Asian kitchens to cut vegetables, fruits, fish and meat.) After cooking she takes out her carefully packed Corell dishes out from the cabinet that she still calls ‘almari,’ (almirah). She sees no need to call everything by American names. I admire her for projecting her individuality and for displaying her own definition of what is meant by one’s sense of belonging. She has decided to live in America as she sees fit.
Similarly, while in Massachusetts at my sister’s house during Christmas holidays, I am equally happy having a grand feast at her good missionary friend Charlotte Goslink’s house, sitting in their immaculate dining room with place settings, using Charlotte’s mother’s fine China from Belgium (Beethoven playing in the background and their happy dog Bolaram snoozing near the fireplace).
To be able to move freely in both worlds gives me an enormous sense of self, without changing my essence. I belong, and I do not belong at the same time. Often I am reminding myself of the 2006 Hannah Montana song: “You got the best of both worlds.” I am still following this maze, so to speak, hoping to find a real answer for my being in the here and now.
I get the sense that being part of a community here can legitimize one’s not returning home to Bangladesh. I think of a quote by Salman Rushdie: “There are people who don’t belong…Anywhere. To anything, to anyone; comets travelling through space, staying free of all gravitational fields…but the only ones who see the picture are the ones who step out of frame.”
I sometimes wonder if I’m travelling through this land blissfully unaware that I do not belong to any place. Thirty years ago, did I cross what Rushdie describes as “a translucent membrane across the sky, between us and the last high road into the west, the unseen frontier”? Does it really matter to me that as long as I am breathing, it might as well be in any place on this earth?
Postscript: In the article, the parts in italic are from a published piece of mine that had appeared in the Weekend Magazine in the Daily Star, a Dhaka daily. I have extensively edited the piece for accuracy, and clarity. I chose the old article in the Daily Star to give a suitable response to Moitri apa’s email. The article seemed reflective in tone, and touched her simple but poignant question about serendipity. Therefore, I decided to include a big portion of the article in the above column. I dedicate this piece to my former English teacher of Holy Cross School and College Ms. Moitri (Roy) Hume.
Zeenat Khan writes from Maryland, USA