by Samanwita Sen
One of the memories I look back upon fondly happens to be tucked away in the cozy little enclave of a bus seat, lit by the scintillating bobs that blurred outside as we drove past and the shadows of strangers bouncing off the window. I let myself fade into the lull of the murmured discussion, the soaring skyscrapers, the rhythmic motion of the bus…
And then I perked my ears as the hazy sound of voices came into sharp distinction. I remember catching phrases in Cantonese, the native language of Hong Kong, interspersed with other conversations in Japanese, some dialogue communicated in Mandarin, and the occasional English. I marvelled at how wonderful it was that in such a compact space, a vessel designed purely for pragmatic purposes of travel, that there could be this confluence of rich, diverse cultures. Indeed, most walks around the district I called home were always peppered with languages I had the immense privilege to witness – the gentle, nostalgic shades of Bengali, the racing rolls of Hindi, the fervency of Cantonese…
I always considered myself lucky for such an upbringing. While my thoughts and primary modes of conceiving the world manifested in English, I was always acutely conscious that it was not the dominant way of viewing the world. I was also aware that such a conception of the world was heavily informed by an education system that at times glorified Western ideals. There were even times when I would find myself slipping into Bengali ways of thinking – being ethnically Bangladeshi, there were always emotional expressions that could only be done justice to with the redolent, soothing beauty of my mother tongue. Having grown up with the opportunity to learn Mandarin, I often found myself describing situations with Chinese idioms – the four-character, pithy statements summating all the complexities of what was happening so much more succinctly than English could.
My affiliation with such an international sense of self was solidified by my experiences at school. I found myself bonding and uniting with my friends not on the basis of similarity, but on notions of difference. We were all young, impressionable teenagers, many of whom were of ethnic backgrounds that did not originate in Hong Kong or were of mixed heritage, and having gone to an international school, many of the Hong Kong students themselves identified more as having a polymorphous cultural identity due to such exposure. We all found ourselves in this ever-shifting nexus of a city, and together we cultivated that shared identity of fostering this unique sense of self – negotiating our own native backgrounds with this simultaneously international and specifically Hong Kongese upbringing, trying to reconcile the two in the entity we called “me.” My friends and their refusal to comply to absolute cultural norms but amalgamate them played integral roles in this formative aspect of my identity, and I can’t help but cherish this understanding of myself as “international.”
Of course, I have acknowledged the importance of learning about my cultural background while maintaining this international sense of self. I grew up having been surrounded by not many Bangladeshis, and found myself falling into thought patterns where I considered myself “rare” and often having to specify to people that Bangladesh was next to India on the world map – rather annoyedly. However, this uniqueness of cultural heritage – the breadth and scope of our literature’s ability to capture the complexity of human emotion, the cultural songs replete with soul-churning verses – is one I’ve come to adore and seek increasingly to assert in my identity. The same goes for my “Hong Kong” upbringing – whether it be the complexities of the entangling language or listening to Chinese music (most often in Mandarin rather than Cantonese due to my stronger grasp of it) and appreciating the lyricism of the words – I sought to integrate both of them harmoniously into my life.
I think in a world with increasing political tensions and racial divisions, or even in top tier universities where international students struggle to find someone else of a similar upbringing, embracing our differences and viewing it as a force to unite rather than separate is especially important. I once had an Indian man at the airport tell me Bangladeshis were essentially Indian, and after seeing how annoyed I was, he clarified that asserting such differences were only divisive, and seeing us all as part of one unified entity while cherishing our distinct identities was more cohesive to an integrated world. Of course, I still believe Bangladeshis are their own type of unique people, but I won’t deny our cultural ties with the rest of the world.
Ultimately, we are all similar in how uniquely different to one another we are, and making that conscious effort to learn about someone’s background and how that informed who they are now can be a very enlightening experience. It is especially at university, where I find a significant paucity of people of colour on my course, a lack of improvement in how widely people of my ethnic background are represented in the student demographic, that I am making a more conscious effort to unabashedly cherish where I come from. Of course, I don’t go around insisting that I’m the focal point of every conversation or that I had the best upbringing, but rather that I’m more than willing to talk about how my perception of the world is different to yours, and why that’s actually really cool – after all, it means the world can be just as polymorphous as we are.