How I Had an Identity Crisis at 12 Years Old
I have too many memories of my younger self, staring eagerly at the dinners plastered across TV screens. I have too many memories of smiling a little too hard at my reflection in the mirror, when I saw a paler version of myself staring back at me, after a nap in the dark. There have been too many times I’ve tried convincing myself that my hair is a shade lighter than what it really is. I’ve had a little too many regrets over my unique identity and made a few too many attempts at twisting myself into a person who could belong a little more easily.
I was 12 years old, sitting in class. One of my biggest dreams at the time was to be normal. I had ostracized myself for the past few years, it was time for me to simply fit in. Nearly everyone in my class was like me, but I knew the world is bigger than the little classroom I sat and daydreamed in. My teacher walks around the room, she tells us, “You’re all normal people. You just need to find a balance in your identity, and that can be hard. You’re still normal.” I thought of the word normal. I wanted to squeeze myself into, to fit it, wear it like a western dress.
I grew up with two languages, but I acted like I knew one. I grew up with two cultures, two identities moulded perfectly into my being, but doubted the strength of my captivity. I wanted to hold onto one because it was easier. My people fought and died for our right to our language. Contrary to English’s short, flat sounds, Bengali flows smoothly because it wants you to taste its sweet sounds as it leaves your mouth. I started to forget a little, what sweetness was.
Growing up, my mom fed me rice with her hands. Those were my favourite meals. In middle school, my hand began to forget the movements of balling up rice and bringing it to my mouth. I did not work hard to remember. I picked up forks and spoons with ease and my tongue memorized the taste of metal against rice like it was part of the recipe.
The powerful curries balanced with the soft rice, the bright colorful salwar kameez, a language mastered by intellectuals and the righteous; I did not understand how to fit myself into it. It seemed all too great and a bit too much for one little girl to hold on her own.
And in some ways, when I looked at the TV screens and dozens of books that I read, I, I never saw my roots reflected. in them. I didn’t think I wanted to make that space for them.
But here’s the interesting thing about being the first generation of a western country: you don’t have to choose. At first, you feel like you don’t get to choose. Then, you’ll feel like you must choose. The truth is, it’s really all about you. Your cultural identities don’t choose you. You choose them. And you choose them in whichever ways you see fit to your life. I once thought a balance was 50-50. I once thought I needed a perfect 50 of Canadian and a perfect 50 of Bengali. The truth is, it’s up to me. These cultures aren’t perfect, and they’re definitely not a one-size-fits-all. But they can fit you perfectly when you tailor them to your individualism.
It’s an ongoing process. There’s constant reevaluation, a lot of exploring, and an abundance of culture to love and learn from. I write these words in English, but to me there is nothing quite like the sound of the softened edges of Bengali rising up from its bloody triumph. I will always come back to my Eastern side, because it is essential to who I am. My cultural identity is unique and I will live within and create it in a way that confines to who I am and who I wish to be. Normal doesn’t have to be objective, and it doesn’t have to have a singular definition that fits the plethora of all the combinations of human cultural identities. As first generations, we should allow our cultures to teach us about who we are, rather than suppressing it within societal limitations and over-idealized notions of “normal.” Your culture is a part of you, and within it you can find parts of yourself previously unexplored, waiting to be learned and cherished.