Human beings do not get to choose where they are born, their race, their gender, and, more often than not, their religion. Yet these factors shape a person's life significantly. A person born and raised in India is doubtful to view the world as someone born and raised in the United Kingdom. However, the biggest challenge arises when a person is essentially a product of two radically different ways of life. I was born in Bangladesh and spent nine years there before emigrating to the United States. Since then, I have spent my life moving between Bangladesh and the US. The tension between these two radically different ways of life has significantly shaped my life and leisure choices by affecting my views of gender and race.
Bangladesh has elected female Prime Ministers only since 1991 (Meena, 2019). Her longest-serving Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, is a woman. Her rivalry with the current female Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has come to define modern Bangladesh politics (Bahari, Tantra & Widodo, 2019). However, female heads of state are the only metric by which Bangladesh beats the United States in gender equality (Meena, 2019). Bangladesh is a highly patriarchal society where gender roles are entrenched and socially enforced (Meena, 2019). Gender identity was such an intrinsic part of life that I cannot recall when I became aware of my gender as male. It seemed like I had always known because it was an intrinsic part of everything.
I do recall specific incidences where gender roles were enforced. I remember always being told not to cry because 'men did not cry like girls.' Once, when I was about six years old, my female cousins came home with makeup kits, and I wanted to try it out, but my mother and aunts were horrified and banned me from trying it out. In Bangladesh, being a boy felt more important and was freer than being a girl. I grew up seeing women displaying deference to men and seeing female cousins being instructed on how to behave in the company of men. I also recall one of my cousins being told she will not find a husband because she played soccer with boys too much. Early on, I expected that I would receive such deference from women when I grew up.
The US was a culture shock for me. My parents and aunts tried to tell me what to expect in America, and they left me with the impression that American girls were not as good as Bangladeshi girls. American girls were more assertive, sure of themselves, and more willing to participate in activities with boys or events that may be considered mainly in Bangladesh, such as playing soccer. Women did not have to cover their hair, unlike in Bangladesh. Social pressure is also a significant part of Bangladeshi life.
The fundamental tensions between my Bangladeshi upbringing and my American reality influenced a lot of my decisions during my teenage years. During the early years, I was afraid of American girls and, as a result, did not have female friends. I avoided leisure activities that would put me in very close proximity to girls. I always liked swimming but stopped going because of my view of gender. I also did not want to play soccer with girls, and I was happy when soccer became segregated. My view of what it meant to be a man even made me avoid leisure activity that I saw as feminine. I had promised my aunts I would not betray my culture, and I would marry a Bangladeshi Muslim woman, so I avoided romantic relationships too.
However, my attitude shifted slowly due to necessity and adaptation to US life. By 16, I felt the US outlook on gender was better, and I had a lot of female friends as well as friends, gay, and lesbian friends. I started dating a white girl soon afterward. However, my trips to Bangladesh became awkward because of the casual sexism, racism, and homophobia that my Bangladeshi friends and family displayed. I could not freely share pictures and stories of my gay and female friends on social media because of fear of judgment from close relations back in Bangladesh. For a few years, I ran two social media accounts to shield my American friends from my family, and I dreaded meeting visiting family members in the company of friends.
Once, a group of ten friends wanted to accompany me to Bangladesh to tour the country and visit cultural sites. Still, I canceled and had to explain to a close gay friend that some people in my family wouldn't be too welcoming to a gay black man and his boyfriend. We missed a great trip as a result. I found it difficult to confront my family and friends because they tended to gang up on me and accuse me of becoming too 'Americanized' and looking down on my roots. I chose to cut off some of the Bangladeshi friends and limit contact with family members I felt were too extreme in their views. Yet, I can never really resolve the conflict between the two worlds I live in.
Bangladeshi is a far less diverse country when compared to the USA. 98% of Bangladeshi citizens belong to the dominant Bengali ethnic group (Farid et al., 2011). 90% of Bangladeshi citizens are Muslims, with Hindus, Bushists, and Christians representing 8.5%, 0.6%, and 0.4%, respectively (Farid et al., 2011). This is unlike America, the most ethnically diverse nation on earth (Frey, 2018). All the races have over a million people in the United States. Religious diversity is also very high in the US. Both countries have laws that protect ethnic, racial, and religious minorities (Farid et al., 2011). However, from my experience, the US respects these laws in practice more than Bangladesh does.
As a member of the dominant Bengali ethnic group and a Muslim, I did not face any experience that forced me to recognize my ethnicity or religion. I went to school with a few children from minority backgrounds, but they were often expected to conform. Languages other than Bengali and English were not permitted in school. All teachers were Bengali and Mulsim, and no one thought about minority representation in positions of power. Political representation for minorities is also low in Bangladesh. Stereotyping and making fun of minorities were a common part of life and mostly acceptable where I grew up.
In the United States, everything changed. Suddenly we were a minority, and we felt others looked down on us. My family and I lived in an area full of Asian immigrants, and my parents encouraged us to interact mostly with other Muslims and Asians. However, this could not happen in school, and it was in school that I first became aware of my racial and religious reality. I was often taunted in school due to my 'funny' accent and dressing. I often felt different and out of place in a mostly white school and Latino with very few Asian and African American children. I was the only Asian immigrant in the school as the others were born in America and could fit in better. I remember one day going home in tears and asking my mother if it was wrong to be Asian or Mulsim after incessant taunting. She called a distant cousin of hers over to talk to me. That was the day I became acutely aware of my racial status in America. I was ten years old.
Awareness of my racial and religious realities affected a lot of my life choices and leisure activities (Russell, 2002). Early on, I mostly kept Muslim friends who originated from the Indian subcontinent. I stopped going to a local swimming pool because of all the looks I was getting and the fact that I didn't want to be around members of other races, especially girls. I have had to quit clubs and different leisure groups because of discrimination. Later, I learned that prejudice is complex. We were being discriminated against, but we also looked down on black people and Latinos. I then resolved to stop all forms of discrimination and made friends of other races, religions, and sexual orientations. I feel that I missed out on a lot of leisure and growth activities because of racial self-seclusion due to the awareness of my racial identity.
Racial and gender identities do not limit a person merely because of the discrimination they bring. People can define their own experiences, leisure activities, and life choices because of their perception of gender and race, including their race and gender. I feel that is one of the most important lessons I have learned. I realize that I tended to limit myself because of my perceptions, even in situations where I would probably not have faced discrimination.
Bahari, D. M., Tantra, F. D., & Widodo, R. F. (2019). Women's Political Participation in Bangladesh in 2008-2018: Status Quo, Obstacles, and Future Prospects. Journal of Islamic World and Politics, 3(2). Retrieved February, 25th, 2020 from http://journal.umy.ac.id/index.php/jiwp/article/view/6561
Farid, K. S., Ahmed, J. U., Sarma, P. K., & Begum, S. (2011). Population dynamics in Bangladesh: data sources, current facts, and past trends. Journal of the Bangladesh Agricultural University, 9(1), 121-130. Retrieved February, 25th, 2020 from https://www.banglajol.info/index.php/JBAU/article/view/8754
Frey, W. H. (2018). A demographic bridge to America's diverse future. Brookings Mountain West.
Meena, R. S. (2019). Women empowerment in Bangladesh: A political scenario. ACADEMICIA: An International Multidisciplinary Research Journal, 9(8), 80-89. Retrieved February, 25th, 2020 from http://www.indianjournals.com/ijor.aspx?target=ijor:aca&volume=9&issue=8&article=009
Russell, R. V. (2002). Pastimes: The context of contemporary leisure. Pastimes: the context of contemporary leisure., (Ed. 6).Sagamore Publishing.
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