Friday, October 29, 2004

Diaspora: When you're in love with a Bengali women


It wasn’t my first visit to New York, but it was my first trip into Queens for the tour of the neighborhood and inevitable parental meeting. My girlfriend was driving, for ease of navigation, and we finally arrived in front of her house after a 45 minute journey passing through the Holland Tunnel. Upon arriving, her house was nothing like I had pictured. Regardless of preconceived notions, her face was beaming with anticipation, nervousness, and excitement for the journey that we were about to embark on. This journey would place me as the only white person inside the house — an outsider making a desperate attempt to act natural in this completely unnatural environment.


Cross-cultural relations require having open mind
Justin DeGraaf

Ami akta mayr shongay ghurchee jar shob athyo shojhon Bangla kotha bole, ar amee Bangla bujheena. That’s Bengali for, “I’m dating an Indian girl whose entire family speaks a language I can’t understand.”

I recently made my way to New York City for the highly anticipated, and incredibly nerve-wracking, first introduction to my girlfriends’ parents. Normally, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when a fairly traditional Indian girl introduces her parents to her tall, skinny, Dutch-Canadian boyfriend, things can get interesting.

First, a very short Bengali history lesson. Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh and it is one of the many languages spoken by many of the nearly one billion residents of India. It is a soft language that is written in a very elegant script.

It wasn’t my first visit to New York, but it was my first trip into Queens for the tour of the neighborhood and inevitable parental meeting. My girlfriend was driving, for ease of navigation, and we finally arrived in front of her house after a 45 minute journey passing through the Holland Tunnel.

Upon arriving, her house was nothing like I had pictured. Regardless of preconceived notions, her face was beaming with anticipation, nervousness, and excitement for the journey that we were about to embark on. This journey would place me as the only white person inside the house — an outsider making a desperate attempt to act natural in this completely unnatural environment.

As we walked to her front door, I tried to remember the last minute tips I received about conversations and customs that I should expect once I entered the house. “Take off your shoes, make sure you can articulate your entire life plan in a 30 second time frame, don’t leave any food on your plate, don’t be too outspoken — but don’t be too quiet” were just a few of the tips I had received.

Now, upon hearing that, you might think that I am under the control of a very demanding girlfriend. However, you must understand that this is the first time she has ever introduced someone she was dating to her parents — lucky me.

Her dad comes to the door as soon as we open it. Although I tower over him, standing about five inches taller, I feel tiny and uncertain. “This must be Justin!” he says with a smile on his face. I sigh in relief and relax after hearing a nice, warm welcome. I shake his hand and then give him a box full of Dutch cookies — a touch of my heritage to show I am excited about the mix of Indian and Dutch cultures. I then immediately remove my shoes.

Next, I must meet her mom, the harshest critic of all. She stands only 5’3", a good 14 inches shorter than me, and speaks with a noticeable Indian accent. She comes from the kitchen and extends her hand and welcomes me to her house. I reach to shake her hand and say, “Kamon *ch*,” which means, “How are you” in Bengali.

Her dad erupts into laughter, “Ha ha ha, kamon *ch*!” he repeats. Her mom’s face quickly turns into a large smile. “Yes!” I scream to myself silently, “I made a good first impression!”

From here, things became much less stressful. We sat down to an amazing meal that her mom prepared. She offered aloo ar lao-er tharkaree (a vegetable dish), mangshor jhol (chicken with curry), and chingree mach (a coconut curry shrimp dish); all of which were delicious. After dinner was finished, homemade rice pudding and tea were served for dessert. Everything was wonderful and I even had two helpings of rice pudding.

Conversations ensued about my life’s pursuits, educational status, family heritage, and much more. My Dutch culture was discussed as well as their families’ time spent in London, India, and New York City. The conversation was both enlightening and entertaining. It was wonderful to see where my girlfriend received her wonderful traits and culture.

The entire afternoon served as a fantastic experience to highlight ways of sharing the many similar and differing aspects of two amazing cultures. However, by no means did this one meeting alleviate all future concerns of a traditional Indian mother. Her daughter will be questioned on whether or not her culture will be lost by mixing with mine. Will her children be Hindu or Christian if we were to get married? Will her children speak Bengali or stick to just English?

These are just some of the exciting and wonderful challenges that dating someone from a different culture have presented me. The journey that I recently began will most certainly be long. I will remain an outsider, ignorant, but eager to learn. I will have to learn about the detailed and mystical stories from Hinduism and the five different ways to pronounce the letter ‘s’ in Bengali. Eventually, I may even have to learn the biggest lesson of all: the customs of an Indian wedding.

For now, I plan on learning this new culture one step at a time.

Justin DeGraaf, a Western Herald opinion columnist, is a senior majoring in marketing.

Western Herald 28/10/2004