On She Goes

Searching for Heritage as a Bangladeshi American

On a journey to find one’s rootedness to place.

J.D. Shetu
J.D. Shetu
November 1, 2017
Story hero image

“How was it?” people in the US asked me excitedly after I returned from my last trip to Bangladesh. I imagine these people want me to tell them an anecdote about an elephant lumbering down a highway. I suspect they don’t want to hear about my Amma, crying on my shoulder and revealing the secret that, all this time, other people have been accusing her of “selling me” to her brother when I was a baby. Though, as I was reassured multiple times by my adoptive father, there was no coercion involved—they wanted a baby and couldn’t have one, and that was it. This seems to be my inheritance: a set of secrets that peel away from one another layer by layer the longer I stay in the country of my birth. I wonder if this is considered my heritage.

Many of us yearn to reclaim the cultures and stories that have been made inaccessible to us—our rootedness to place.

Adoption within families is not rare for Bengalis and other South Asians, but my adoption was considered uncommon because of the distance between me and my birth family. Instead of being raised just down the road from my birth family in Dhaka or taking me from the gram to the shohor—from village to the city—my adoption spanned oceans.

I grew up in Washington State, in a suburb outside of Seattle that—while still largely white—was multicultural in makeup. As I remember it, there were smatterings of all different ethnicities and not a particular enclave. In an area that is now too expensive for most of the families I grew up around, the people I spent the most time with were just barely middle class. I share many of the same desires as other second-generation children who were encouraged to follow in the assimilation of their parents, particularly as Muslim brown people in the post-9/11 era. Many of us yearn to reclaim the cultures and stories that have been made inaccessible to us—our languages, intergenerational histories, rootedness to place.

Customers at a flower vendor.
photo by J.D. Shetu

That hunger for stories has driven me to find every possible way to return to Bangladesh since first traveling there while in college. I’m infused with new energy every time I land at the dusty Dhaka airport, clamber into the back of a sickly sweet–smelling van or CNG auto rickshaw, and ride over the bumpy roads to my birth family’s apartment. Bangladesh, unlike Washington State, is mostly flat. And Dhaka, where everyone laments the loss of green space replaced with new apartment buildings, is the brown spot in a verdant green country. Dense with people and stories, you learn to weave around people and not be afraid when a light hand touches your back to guide you out of the way. It’s a city that’s smaller in area than Seattle, with a population of almost 14.4 million.

When I didn’t have the money, I earned scholarships and grants to spend a handful of weeks or months overseas. Having previously arrived to research perceptions of mental health and mental illness, and coming to know more about Dhaka, I was keen to understand more about the history of this city. I began writing a novel set in both countries. And in 2015–16, I packed myself small and spent the majority of the year on the subcontinent with no planned return date. Though on the surface I was going to complete my research and an early draft of my novel, I was also running away from the burnout and dead-end feeling of my work in the States. As a wise friend of mine notes, however, in leaving a place you become aware of the source of your struggle: is it truly the place or is it you?

Unaware and vaguely naïve, I believed this trip would bring me closer to my language and heritage.

In a way, I had walked onto the staging of another version of my life, where everyone had heard rumors of my life from afar. I was like a mysterious prodigal daughter returned midway through act three, a character everyone thought they knew but were challenged by the real-life version of. Unaware and vaguely naïve—having grown up with an amazing father whose parenting style involved giving me the National Lawyers Guild number when I went off to protests—I believed this trip would bring me closer to my language and heritage. While it did, it also taught me a lot about living at the nexus of other people’s expectations in a place I thought that I belonged to and that belonged to me.

After arriving in Dhaka, I was placed under a strict set of rules. I could not leave the house without a male chaperone, usually my ailing birth father who walks with a long limp. When out with friends at a restaurant or visiting someone’s house on the other side of town, I would receive calls and messages saying that we had to come home earlier and earlier, because I should think about his health and keeping him out of the home. When I complained, it was treated as though there was nothing wrong. They had let me go, after all; I should be grateful for that. Coming off the fresh high of solo travel throughout the US and Europe, I felt like all the air had been squeezed from my lungs. I called my father in Washington night after night, and he would have talks with them about letting me out to make friends and visit places for research for my novel. The words “shameful” and “safety” were thrown around a lot. If I cultivate compassion, I can see that their core motivation was to keep me safe; a young woman who appears foreign despite her brown skin can only invite trouble. And apart from the obvious threats to my body, my character and their family reputation were also on the line. As I saw in Dhaka, there is a range of ways in which women walk in Bengali society—for people perceived as middle class, maintaining good social standing is of utmost importance. Good daughters play by a set of invisible rules so that they don’t jeopardize their future stability. Never before have I felt my perceived gender so clearly marked—I was meant to stay inside.

A small vendor surrounded by food and spices.
photo by J.D. Shetu

In retrospect, I had brought more expectations to this trip than I recognized at the time. I expected independence, to move through this city as I had in others, lingering in new places and exploring just how many different ways there are to live. In my novel, readers enter into flashbacks of Dhaka in the early ’90s, and I was hungry to find images of how the city has changed in the span of 30 years. In order to get the feel of my character’s experience, I needed to know the feel of the place. The sehri wake-up call during Ramadan, for example, is a chorus of air-raid sirens. I have walked down the narrow streets of Puran Dhaka (the oldest part of the city) and looked up at the sunset during the longstanding kite festival. I learned how one goes shopping, from market stall to market stall, evaluating produce and plastics that spill out into the street. Bangladesh is not a tourist destination, and my interest was in collecting the small details. From my family’s perspective, I had not lived with them long enough to “earn” my independence or to prove that I, a young femme from another country, would be able to take care of myself in their homeland.

What heritage do I truly belong to here?

I hit a breaking point after four months and moved into my friends’ apartment in Banani, where other expats and those with familial wealth live. Dhaka is deeply class divided; my family, for example, would get uncomfortable about visiting restaurants or homes in the part of town that I was to live in. The streets were no less crammed with shops and people, but they were better lit and selling export brands. The apartment buildings had elevators and live-in buas hired to clean them. With my American accent, I could appear to fit in, but truly I was stunned by the shows of wealth and power that existed there—swimming pools, golf courses, private rickshaws, and hired cars. Everyone was quiet as we packed the car for me to go. My leaving was an open secret; everyone knew that I was not leaving for a job, which I told them was the reason for the relocation, but no one challenged me on my justification. The silence flooded me with guilt, but after my room door closed behind me, I was relieved.

It feels uncomfortable to comment on my experience as a Bangladeshi American witnessing Bangladesh. I always worry that my perception is filtered through the lens of being an American and therefore knowing nothing, as I’m sure it is. Each time I visit, I take careful notes and record audio, take pictures, and collect lots of books. I bumble around with the assumption that I can go where I please, to the embassies for a party or to a street vendor in Puran Dhaka, and be looked at as an oddity rather than a disruption. What heritage do I truly belong to here? The protective but limited faith that my birth family had in me? Their belief that I could experience all I needed to know from their two-bedroom apartment? Or the affluent English-speaking folks who live in a Dhaka that will not challenge them? Who pity or mistreat people of my family’s class background? I found myself participant and outsider at the same time.

“This trip must not have been easy for you,” my sister said on my last day. My room in Banani was packed up and echoed as she spoke. It was almost an apology.

I nodded. What if my trip truly could have been summarized in soundbites? Sitting on the back of a rickshaw with my hand curled around the wooden frame, recording the sound of bells dinging at a car that squeezed its way down a too-narrow goli. The struggle of gaining admittance to the national archives, return trip after return trip made to wade through bureaucracy. The final satisfaction of half-reading old copies of Begum magazine—a women’s magazine all in Bangla with articles and writing from powerful women—on my last couple of days before leaving. But I remind myself that heritage means more than cultural artifacts; it means taking on the pain of past generations, the disparities, and their messy attempts to heal as well.  

 Heritage itself is a weighted term. It implies you are standing at the end point of the timeline, reaching back into the past, rather than living within it. I came desiring an easy kinship and left with more definition to my origin story.