Thursday, July 30, 2009


Met a couple from Bengal the other day--they rent out a portion of their house as a separate apartment, which I was moving some friends out of. Very gracious and engaging people, my new Bengali friends. They come from the opposite side of my grandfather's country, but the feeling of their home is still so inviting and comforting to me. When Kira arrives, she immediately announces: "It smells good in here!" (Good, of course, is in the nose of the beholder, so I'm particularly pleased that she agrees with me.)

During our conversation, I didn't ask Ram and his wife when they first came to the U.S.A., but it was probably some time ago because both of their children seem to be firmly established here. Ram did mention that he and his wife have been in Utah for seven years, since he was transferred out of New York to work at a corporate headquarters in Utah Valley (the opposite of what you might expect, but true!). The economic ups and downs of the subsequent years have been complicated for him, but he and his wife have come to love it here, in a quiet neighborhood with their outgoing and solicitous Mormon neighbors.

Ram mentions more than once that I look very Punjabi to him, his wife points out that I even wear a kara. Why is it that I am always a little uncomfortable to be told I look ethnic, yet always a little flattered to be told I look Punjabi?

Part of it may be that describing someone as ethnic or exotic is typically distancing, while describing someone in a way that implies an interconnected history has the opposite effect. Names can be magical: even being lumped into a category can feel good if the category is specific enough to show a better-than-average familiarity.

Like I said, I barely know Ram, and yet I automatically believe us to be somehow loosely connected.

My impression is that Punjabis made up the first wave of emigrants from India to Europe and America, and that Bengalis were the second wave, but that may be only because Bengalis have such a strong literary tradition that they naturally over-represent themselves. (Tagore was a Bengali, Jhumpa Lahiri seems to write almost exclusively about Bengalis, the Apu Trilogy, some of the most critically-acclaimed films to come out of the subcontinent, were Bengali. Come to think of it, Amartya Sen and Muhammed Yunus, both Nobel Prize Winners in economics, were also Bengalis--how thoughtful of them to come from different sides of old Bengal, so everyone is represented!)

Here's a thought: is it the overlapping knowledge we have more than any limited intersection in appearance that connects us? Can you begin to build a bridge between cultures just by knowing the kinds of trivia I list above? I think it's more this sense of shared information and experience than any concept of loose kinship or shared blood that gave rise to the concept of a desi community. While the information alone doesn't make someone a desi, I think it can greatly reduce the social distance created by our uncertainty about how to approach difference. Asking someone why they look ethnic and then having only the broadest of stereotypes to connect with their answer isn't terribly productive. Learning enough in advance to connect a little is far better--because place is made up as much of ideas and culture as land, learning is a kind of visiting, making someone else's home less foreign and more familiar: a good first step to harmony.

And in the age of the globalization and the internet, this approach to harmony is more realistic than ever. It's easy to learn just a little bit about different corners of the world to have a starting point for learning more as you get to know someone. Just having explored this post, for example, you're an important step closer to connecting with the next Bengali you meet.


  1. Yes, I think you've got it. Someone who comments that you look ethnic is saying that you're different, foreign, don't fit easily into their worldview. While someone who knows your specific ethnicity has common ground with you. However, there is always the fine line of guessing wrong, and upsetting someone by naming them as their rival group. I usually go with the question "where are you originally from?"

  2. You're ideas of interconnectedness remind me of a few experiences I've had with Tesch. He did a semester-long study abroad in Hungary with involved both mathematics study and some language study. Hungarian/Magyar is not a really commonly spoken language anywhere outside of Hungary, but it's one that he really likes, and he can still do moderately well at conversational levels.

    His skills are sufficient that he can recognize Hungarian (or Hungarian-accented English) when being spoken by random people. There seems to be such a small community, especially in America, of people who can do this, that his having even a semester's experience of the language is enough to give him a connection to people who are otherwise total strangers. We've gotten to hear amazing stories; my favorite was from a female engineer in her early seventies about women who became polygamous wives of Egyptian Muslims to escape the Soviet crackdown after the 1956 Revolution.

  3. Wow...that is an incredible story. See, I think history books should be written with stuff like that constantly interwoven: here's the story of the crackdown, here's the story of a woman marrying an Egyptian so you can see why it mattered.

    I think telling history like that would a) increase students' interest in history b) increase students' sense of connection/empathy with foreign populations and c)reveal some of the complexity of political events.

  4. Maybe such a series already exists. Let me know if you run across it.


Related Posts with Thumbnails