This is the second part of a two-part interview series about Asian-American students’ identities. The first part was published on Tuesday, Feb. 29, 2016.
In the past week, The Argus spoke to six students about their Asian-American identities. Interviews with three of the students—Teimur Kayani ’18, Redwan Bhuiyan ’17, and one person who spoke to the Argus on the condition of anonymity—are published here.
Teimur Kayani ’18
The Argus: Where are you and your parents from?
Teimur Kayani: I am from Orange, C.T. My family is from Pakistan. My mom’s family is from Kashmir, specifically Gilgit, which is a region lying just outside of Kashmir, full of Kashmiris. And my dad is fully Panjabi and his family comes from Lahore.
A: How does your parents’ interaction with Pakistani culture differ from your interaction with Pakistani culture?
TK: They are much more assimilated into that culture because that is still their original home, and that is where they belong in a lot of ways. They understand the culture there, they understand the types of people there, they know how to interact with people there. For me, I am someone who visits [Pakistan] a lot. I love visiting, but I can barely speak the language, and that’s a huge barrier for me. I love the experiences I have there; it’s a huge part of how I am. If I could characterize it as such, my parents are Pakistani-Americans and I’m much more of an American Pakistani. And for that reason, I definitely have a connection there, but nothing compared to what my parents have, because they both came here when they were 30.
A: What is your favorite aspect of “Pakistani culture?”
TK: I don’t know how to describe all the parts that make up that culture. It’s something you really get a feel for. When you meet someone, you get a feel of what kind of background they are from, what kind of family they are from….I think of them as some sort of values, but none of them are necessarily positive or negative. It’s just qualities that someone has. In terms of me and my brother, treating elderly people with high respect even when they don’t give you respect back was something that was huge for us.…We always respect you regardless of if you respect us and hope that our respect would gain respect. That’s something that I love about Pakistani culture.
A: What are some of the values of “American culture” that you strongly connect with?
TK: It’s very liberal. I love the open-mindedness that comes with this society. The way that every idea is promoted before it’s judged. You can have all types of mindsets before putting this label. If you try to talk about homosexuality in Pakistan, no matter what your argument is, it’s already invalid, and I don’t like that. My family is one of the few proponents of homosexuality in that country. Over there, you can get punished by law. It’s a very different culture. In terms of just general ideas…[I love how you can] critique every aspect of your own politics…here. You don’t have to be like, “Oh wow, [Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the political party in power in Pakistan] will come and find me if I publicly berate them.”
A: Was there ever a time when you felt like you had to censor parts of your speech or even parts of your identity within certain spaces?
TK: It’s much more so in Pakistan than here because I feel like censorship is much more apparent there. I would call it censorship but, at points, if you have a strong argument about something, you will be invalidated before you can even present it. I think that’s blocking any opportunity to present any sort of idea. That’s censorship.
Even with my family, who are proponents of homosexuality, bisexuality is usually something that they are more on the fence about. That’s very interesting when people outside of my family bring in much more conservative ideals, quoting the Quran for parts, quoting the Hadith…things that I don’t necessarily agree with on the topic, but I don’t say anything. There were times when I was younger when I would say something and the whole room would just turn. Adults would be like, “What are you saying,” and eventually it just ends up going back to your parents. “Your kid is becoming too American” is something that they would say to my parents.
A: How do you negotiate these identities, and how do they interact with one another?
TK: It definitely is a conflict and something that’s going to be an ongoing issue probably for my entire life. Trying to negotiate two sides of you, both of which you are proud of, but which you know don’t fully represent you.
I wouldn’t consider it two identities, but two sources that I draw from. It’s always an ongoing process, as you figure out more about your culture and where you are from, it changes your outlook on your life and how you treat others, and how you live your life.
Redwan Bhuiyan ’17
A: Where are you from and where are your parents from?
Redwan Bhuiyan: Interestingly enough, all over the place. I was born in Saudi Arabia, and I stayed there for the first 10 years of my life. My parents, my elder sister, and I moved to Bangladesh, where my parents are originally from, and we stayed there for the next five years. Then, we moved once again and decided to come here. Before moving here permanently, we visited Pennsylvania, where my uncle stays, and also Washington D.C., where one of my aunts stay. Then, when we decided to move permanently, we decided to settle in New York.
My parents weren’t completely at home in Saudi Arabia, and they weren’t completely at home in the United States, and I can understand why: because they grew up in a single country and at a time when globalization wasn’t that widespread, their social connections were much more local and with people who shared the same culture as them.
A: Do you remember an instance when you became aware of “Bengali values?”
RB: One of the things that my parents were very precise about, and one thing I am very grateful for, is that they were very much focused on wanting the best for their children, for both my sisters and me. One of the things that meant was making sure we had the best education we could have. And so that meant that even when we came home, my mom used to be there and she used to go through all my books and she used spend her own time making extra tests for me, and testing me, making sure that I got the course material right.
I think that other Bangladeshi parents are like that as well. Almost all of my family members are particular about making sure that their kids get a good education, that they stay out of trouble, that they can be the best that they can be.…Back at home, I used to tutor Bangladeshi people in the third grade, people in the fifth grade, university exams. I know that their parents were just as driven as my parents in order to make sure that their children were also focused on their academics, improving themselves, attaining success, and living the American dream.
A: How do you negotiate your connection with Bangladeshi values, given that you have moved across the world in your lifetime?
TK: For me, I think I also ground my connection with Bangladeshi values in those aspects that I can always carry with me; for example, my connection to the language as well as always remembering the roots and history of my culture and country. At the same time, I think my Bangladeshi values have also inculcated in me values such as always being hospitable towards people as well as interacting with and helping build the community around us.
I suppose Western culture is much more different than what [my parents] brought with them that they have done a very good job of preserving Bangladeshi culture in the United States. For example, Bangladeshi communities in the West are much more traditionally Bangladeshi than people who currently live in Bangladesh. Interestingly enough, when I moved to America, I learned about some “Bangladeshi customs” that I had never heard [when I lived in] Bangladesh, which was very interesting for me. Many people who live in Bangladesh right now don’t follow them anymore because they have fallen by the wayside, or because they were so traditional that people just don’t do them anymore.
My parents were about as particular about making sure we got a good education as they were particular about making sure we learned about our culture. They would ask for a relative in Bangladesh to send us books in Bengali. When I used to go to an international school in Saudi Arabia they used to have Hindi classes or Urdu classes. My parents decided to make me take none of them and instead sent me Bengali books and Bengali homework. And I used to do them in class while everyone else was learning another language. I used to do my homework and I used to take it back to my parents and my parents would check them. I kid you not! Now I don’t mind because it has helped me so much.
I think my parents have done an excellent job of making sure we didn’t have a problem integrating anywhere, whether it was Bangladesh or the United States. I’m fluent in both Bengali and in English.
The Argus: What is your connection with “Indian values?”
AS: I definitely have a strong Indian upbringing. A lot of influence from my parents’ culture was placed into me. However, my parents made very concerted efforts to distance my sister and me from our Indian culture when we moved to the states permanently. For example, my first language was Tamil, but my parents wanted me to forget it so I could fully assimilate and be American and be accepted as an American by my peers and just have the American dream. I think their thinking behind that was just so beautiful. They wanted the best for me, and this is what they thought it was. All they know was the way they were raised and that was in India, within traditional Indian values instilled in them. Therefore, that’s what they know what to teach me.
A: Did you ever feel like you had to censor part of your identity in various spaces?
AS: When I went to an all-girls private school, my friend group had three white girls, another brown girl, and a girl from China. We looked “diverse,” I guess, but everyone was above a certain level of income. First of all, my parents said, “You can’t talk to boys until college. Don’t get distracted. They are just not going to be a part of your life.” Basically, I would never have male friends growing up because I wasn’t allowed to. My interaction with males was very limited and that was terrible for my development. Coming from an all-girls school, you’re empowered to speak up at Wesleyan, but the fact of the matter is, there was half of the population here that intimidated the hell out of me. But I’m doing much better now after the transition to Wesleyan.
A: Was there ever a time when you felt like you were excluded just because of your cultural background?
AS: I was on a train with a friend and we were on our way to a model UN conference. My friend was talking to one of the boys from an all-boys school and they were Snapchatting. I don’t remember the conversation, because I try to block it out, but basically I was with her and she sent him a snap and I was in it. He responded, and I’m trying to think about what he said because the way he phrased it was so horrible. It was along the lines of, “Why do you hang out with colored people?”
The sad part of it was that I was not outraged. I was sad. I thought, “Wow. That’s how I’m viewed in this world.” It’s like the idea of double-consciousness. I saw myself [as] who I thought I was, but then I saw myself through his lens; therefore, I thought less of myself. I was more critical of myself. I was deemed less worthy of any sort of love or any sort of attraction even. So that was shitty. That was when I first realized that people saw my race when they first meet me.
A: How do you negotiate your identity given your parents’ traditionally Indian expectations and what you want to do in life? How has that affected you?
AS: I definitely seek my dad’s approval in everything because of the huge role he played in making sure I was doing certain things. The way I think is because of him. The way he wants me to think and the way he doesn’t want me to think. He was raised in India in the slums. His family could only afford to send one of their kids to a good school, and they had three kids. They chose him. He was raised to place so much [emphasis] in school, but that means taking away from personal relationship development and placing value in other parts of life.
The expectation of really good grades was a unifying expectation we had in my school…. I remember my French teacher said that “I love how you don’t fit into the typical Indian stereotype,” which was really insulting. What she meant was not like super grades! grades! grades! like other Indians. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know I wasn’t that way and that her class was super difficult for me, so I had to come across as chill about it. It was really painful that I couldn’t do well in that class. [The] fact that [it] was really painful to me speaks to how much I still want to fit into that stereotype and fit into the way that my parents raised me.