Do I Belong?
Do I belong?
This is a question I have asked myself on many occasions.
My father moved to England for work long before I was around, initially working as a bellboy in The Savoy Hotel London, later moving to Bradford as a factory worker. He didn’t want his family to move to England which back then he described as ‘a place not worthy of his family to be brought up in due to racism and lack of modesty amongst the English’.
I was born in a small village in Bangladesh in 1978 and by January 1979 I was on my first plane journey to sunny England travelling with my mother, two older brothers and one older sister. My eldest sister did not make the journey with us as she was in her late teens and my father decided she wouldn’t find a suitable husband if she moved to England at that age, so she was married to my first cousin before we emigrated. Not that I can remember any of this as I was only a baby.
My memories come from the time we lived in Manchester, we lived in a two-bedroom house in a cul-de-sac. One brother moved to Ireland for work and the other went to stay with family, first in Birmingham then in Portsmouth. So, in my formative years I grew up barely knowing one of my sisters and both my brothers.
The area we lived in was mainly white, but at such a young age I never noticed at school how I was different to any other children. Having started nursery and infant school at the same time as my English peers my spoken English was on par with them.
All our neighbours were friendly enough in Manchester and they enjoyed my mum’s cooking which probably helped us all to be friends.
It wasn’t until after we’d moved to Portsmouth, so my brothers could move back to live with us, did I notice differences in who I was compared to my friends. I remember the moment like it was yesterday, in middle school, I was 7yrs old and a girl who had recently joined the school approached me in the playground and stated,
“You don’t belong here, go back to where you came from”.
I was stunned. What did she mean by ‘go back to where you came from’?
As far as I was concerned, I came from Manchester? Didn’t I?
I answered, “I come from Manchester, why should I go back?”, to this she pointed out “you don’t belong here, you’re not white, you’re a Paki!”.
This was the first time I realised that I WAS different, my colour was not white, it was light brown but not white! I went home that day feeling numb. Not mentioning anything at home.
Thinking back this was the first event that made me think do I belong here? I had always thought of myself as English. When I visited Bangladesh prior to this happening I was treated like a princess, as a foreigner, the little girl from England who could speak English and read out poems that sounded so sweet. I used to lap up the attention and at the same time look at the roads and the poor people thinking Bangladesh is so dirty, but Ioved the animals there, and being treated like a princess there wasn’t a bad thing, My home was England though. Bangladesh was fun to explore but I wanted to be in MY country England, where the power never cut out and there was running water and proper toilets!!! But was England really mycountry or was it Bangladesh?
As I grew older, I faced many such occasions in my life where I was challenged, in not so nice words and in indirect comments about my belonging in England. I started to enjoy Bangladesh more when we visited. I would make a point of speaking to everyone, rich and poor, and ask questions about how life was like for them. Every one of them wished they were in my shoes, they wished they could be ‘living the life’ in England where money grew on trees and we didn’t have to bend down to clean the floor because there was a thing called the hoover and there was a machine that would clean your clothes for you. And then there was me who would look at the daughter of one of our ‘maids’ who I befriended and think wow, I would like to live like that, free, no school, no one picking on me for the colour of my skin, not worrying if my clothes would be up to standard to “fit in”.
However, on more recent visits back home the view of many people has changed, now they see more opportunities in Bangladesh, more education. Yes, it’s still behind in some areas but sometimes that isn’t a bad thing. To understand and learn your mother tongue, where you came from, to respect the elders and what they went through for us. Would we do the same thing now I wonder?
Grass is always greener on the other side? Until you realise the grass is greener where you water it.
Do I belong? I’ve learnt to accept that I am Bengali and British. Not English but British. I no longer shy away from speaking about my heritage, both the good and the bad. Just like I have lived in England with good and bad.
I was once told you are what you think in, I have always thought in English, but I know I am not English. I am a British Bengali and I’m proud of it. I have so much culture in me to share from both worlds and I just hope our future generations accept, learn and share this too.
I do belong, in both Bangladesh and in England. No-one can take that away from me.
Sobana Shuba Khatun