Huffpost UK uk
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Shamim Chowdhury Headshot

Reconnecting With the Past - A British-Bangladeshi Returns to the Land of Her Ancestors

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

It is often said that the descendants of immigrants who hail from unfamiliar cultures are condemned to exist in the hinterlands of society, belonging nowhere, forever in search of a tangible identity to call their own.

Many of us whose ancestors lay claim to faraway lands will have felt this way to some extent or other, most acutely in our formative years; teenage days all the more angst-ridden for trying to reconcile what was then with what is now.

In the end most of us end up forging a middle ground of sorts, a 'pick and choose' existence as we embrace some aspects of both worlds and reject others.

But what happens when we return to the land of our forefathers? Do we feel we have finally come home, or does the gulf between our history and the present become even more pronounced?

For me - at least in recent years - it has been the latter. As a child I felt very much at ease whenever I returned to Bangladesh, the country of my parents' birth. In-keeping with the spirit of adaptability that defines childhood, I embraced a way of life which remains incomprehensible to many, so that language, values and local social mores became a part of me.

With the passage of time however, my emotional and psychological ties have gradually loosened, so that after my grandparents passed away I had all but lost interest in ever returning.

Then, earlier this year, I found myself back after eight years, only this time not in the role of the daughter of émigrés, but as representative of an international news organisation.

As my colleagues and I delved into the lives of the people and into the psyche of the country, the realisation came that my professional position had rendered me an outsider, perhaps not completely, but certainly it felt like an affirmation that I do indeed now belong to another world. It seemed as if the final confirmation came in the form of my unmistakably European colleagues. I was grateful for their company; they were the buffer between me and the rest of the land. With them I could observe from a safe distance, re-acquaint myself without getting too involved, because apart from anything else, I feared what I may experience now would be so far removed from what I remembered, it would in some way taint my precious recollections.
Yet something of the past remained. My attire flitted day to day from traditional to western - and both felt natural. I spoke in Bengali constantly - but reverted to English at the first opportunity. I craved Bengali food - but also relished western meals.

At the same time I desperately wanted to share with my colleagues some of my most cherished Bangladeshi experiences. I wanted them to eat a home-cooked meal, to sample local fruits, to visit the lush countryside. They were the only two people in the entire world apart from my family who had had a glimpse of something of my history, and I wanted them to love it all, the way I had once loved it.

But it occurred to me only when we were invited to dinner at my uncle's house that there need not be a schism between who I have become and the memories of my youth. At this point my two worlds met, and as my colleagues ate rice with their fingers - in line with custom - and both parties took pleasure in each other's company, the disconnect I had come to accept seemed to disappear. In its place was a harmony that surprised and delighted me.

Perhaps if I had stayed in Bangladesh longer the gulf between me and the land of my ancestors would have completely ebbed away, but as it is, I returned to London and in truth I was glad to be home.

But my visit taught me that while straddling two very different cultures is undeniably challenging, reconciliation - or at least acceptance - does comes with time, and that actually the 'pick and choose' method works pretty well. My lifestyle choices, beliefs and values may be heavily influenced by the land of my birth, but my heritage is equally a part of who I am - even in London I regularly eat Bengali food, wear traditional clothes and speak the language. Bangladesh is the essence of my very being in the exactly the same way England is. With this knowledge in mind I look forward to going back. The legacy of my forefathers need not be confined to history, at least not just yet.