My identity has been a constant ambiguity to others, to the point where it became an ambiguity to me. A brown figure huddled amidst a sea of white. The overbearing scent of slathered sunscreen stained the air between my nose and the sky as my bronzed skin glistened in the sun next to my best friend’s milky white complexion on the field of Eisenhower Elementary. With our chubby fingers twisting abused blades of grass taunted by the footsteps of ungraceful children, her face turned to mine and asked a question I would soon be met with by the majority of my peers throughout elementary school.
“What are you?”
“What am I?” I responded, face colored with a mauve tinge of embarrassment and confusion.
“Yeah, like, your race, or where your parents are from?” she nonchalantly waved in response.
Initial mentions of this simple question began as an innocuous occurrence, until I gradually felt as though I were an outcast among my solidified friend groups as I looked up and realized I was the only one who appeared different with my dark hair and tanned skin. The instinctive and primal need and desire to fit in and belong to a group trailed my every misplaced step like a shadow that the sun refused to overpower. Friends who twisted their faces in confusion when I formerly answered their questions with pride and told them “where I was from” settled into the cracks of my skin and filled me with insecurity for not having a simple answer for my identity; most people were unaware of Bangladesh, or what it meant to a Bengali-American person, so I referred to the country as that tiny pink blob on the map that no one pays attention to. Their lingering curiosity bolstered my naive younger self to wonder if there were something wrong with being different. The duality and complexity of being a minority had struck me at such a young age, before my maturity had grasped the concept of understanding that my strifes were universal. There were other girls on distant playgrounds with existential questions of why their families consumed rich curries doused in turmeric and tomato paste at parties instead of oily steak and roasted potatoes, or why weddings in their families consisted of diaphanous, vibrant saris and a vermillion mark painted on the bride’s forehead instead of a silk white dress and a nylon veil; I was not the only one.
Swarms of existential questions plagued my mind until I lost sight of a significant portion of my family’s history, the land that put me in a trance as a child as I spent endless passages of time laying next to my grandmother as she recited fascinating tales of the life she left behind in Bangladesh. As an enchanted child I dreamt of dipping into the teal waters surrounded by lush banana trees where she first learned how to swim, or attending the lavish parties in the block of houses her uncle owned with sweet and savory treats at every street corner. I imagined her grandmother sitting on stone steps warmed by the sun, gently dipping her fingers into a chilled bowl of coconut oil and patting splashes into my grandmother’s elongated black hair before tucking each strand into a thick braid against her pale gold skin.
Years later, the shame that once burned my cheeks as a child dulled as I graciously matured and learned to embrace the units that composed my existence. Though I no longer felt embarrassed, out of practiced habit, the distance between Bangladesh and I remained millions of miles apart, both physically and spiritually.
My relationship with my identity would strike my path again, but with a sense of serenity and light through the source of an Asian American Studies class. Presented with the prompt to compose an essay about any topic pertaining to an Asian American woman, I struggled with the broad nature of the essay and sought out my professor for advice. As time passed, she briefed over a handful of useful sources until an idea sparked in her mind that prompted her to mention a book titled The Namesake written by Bengali-American author, Jhumpa Lahiri. The mention of a well-known, accomplished writer with published novels who shared my racial identity passed a spark of joy through my limbs as this new and unfamiliar conversation unfolded. For once my identity was a topic of conversation not by confusion, but by familiarity; my professor inundated me with information rather than perplexing questions about my seemingly invisible pink blob on the map. While I found myself pleased to have my identity validated, I also found myself shocked at the mere fact that the idea to write about a person from my own background had not once crossed my mind. This significant piece of who I was as a second generation child of 1.5 generation immigrants had chipped away so fiercely until I had dispelled its existence.
Despite my original intentions, The Namesake was not chosen as my term paper topic. Instead, I swam into the sea of Jhumpa Lahiri’s rich, velvety prose during the summer after spring quarter had ended. I found aspects of my childhood sprinkled throughout each cream page from the details of battered Dutch ovens warming chicken curry on the stove to the cultural endearment of Ashima and Ashoke sweetly giving their son a daknam, a pet name used by the family and a bhalonam, an official name used for identification purposes. My heart swelled with comfort as I found images of my childhood that remain so fresh in my mind illustrated through a physical, published novel in the media. That summer, The Namesake became a comfortable book I clutched at my side as a child would with a familiar blanket. For the first moment in my nineteen years of living, I found a place outside of my home where my culture was illustrated as something beautiful and mesmerizing rather than foreign and ambiguous.
Throughout the novel, Lahiri embodies overarching themes of identity reshaping, isolation in a foreign world, and the ebb and flow of evolving life through the medium of fully fleshed out characters who humanize universal struggles that immigrants undergo. Though many aspects of the story are highly specific and tailored to the Bengali-American experience, the universality of each struggle that Ashima and Ashoke undergo allows readers to place themselves in the shoes of a life they have never experienced. Throughout the duration of my life, I had always carefully listened to stories from my grandmother about a life that felt distant and unreal; Bangladesh was a piece of me by association to family members I loved, though I had never known the depth of the experience of their unspoken struggles. Ashima’s despair in leaving her family behind as she embarked on her journey in the U.S. with Ashoke compelled me to reflect on grandmother as she arrived in New York with her three young children, most likely riding the wave of a homesickness so inexplicably deep in her core. Through the perspective of Ashima’s unfamiliarity in America, I had understood that homesickness at the closest level one could empathize with as an outside viewer; the dichotomous experiences between my family and I had been bridged in a way I never knew I was longing for.
As the end of the novel neared and my inner world had transformed, I came to the realization that my ties to Bangladesh were not severed, they were handed to me at birth as a withered string of rope with softly frayed edges. Ties to a land I was meant to be proud of had damaged themselves in the wreckage of assimilation, yet this singular novel had managed to mend them through the unvarnished truth of a family who resembled mine. The ambiguity that clouded my perception of myself cleared as I fully realized I did not have to be ashamed of my identity; if a spot in the world designated itself for Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, there could be a spot for me too.
Hannah Karim is a college student based in the sandy beaches of Santa Barbara, California. When she’s not racing against time to bike to class, she is a creative individual finding her footing in the world of professionalism, working on the two passions she loves: designing and creative writing. With a minor in Asian American Studies, and (fingers crossed) a minor in Professional Writing, she is excited to fuse her two interests of social justice and multimedia writing within her education. A topic close to the heart of Hannah’s writing is the concept of identity, whether that be finding comfort within being a minority, fighting through the sandstorm of college and young adulthood, or battling with mental health. She hopes to reflect reality in her stories, while painting a descriptive picture that resonates with all audiences in order to empower others to find interest in relevant topics.