An Introduction

We had known each other for almost 7 years but it wasn’t until we got engaged that D started to clue me in to the part of her life that is Bengali.

She knew what was she was doing. For one thing, I wasn’t ready. I would have been overwhelmed and it’s not something that can just be explained in conversation – it has to be experienced.

That leads to the second point: I wasn’t worthy. Yet. To experience Bengali culture I would have to be introduced to all the aunts and uncles and friends and families in her community. What if we broke up? It’s a realistic concern … I guess it’s like when someone is pregnant they usually wait until they get past the first trimester to start telling their friends and co-workers. It would be too painful to have to go back to those same people and say, “Oh, it didn’t work out.”

She’s tried to clue me in previously but we never got very far. Her family isn’t from India, they’re from Bangladesh. So is Bengali what you call someone from Bangladesh? No, that would be Bangladeshi. Bengali is more of a people – they’re from both India and Bangladesh. Oh, ok, a people – like Jews who can be from Israel or anywhere else in the world. It’s passed down by birth. So is Bengali also a religion? No, Bengali’s are both Muslim and Hindu. Well what do they speak? Bengali. Or Bangla. Bangla is Bengali in Bangla. Confused? Me too.

I liken our conversations about being Bengali to watching a serial TV show. Over the course of a half hour or hour you might get answers to some questions but you’ll end up with even more questions than you started with. And by the end of it you’re dying to find out what happens next – even though you know the point is not to get all the answers, it’s to keep coming up with more questions. It’s the game we play to keep things moving forward.

It’s not her fault that she doesn’t have answers to all my questions. We all do things associated with our culture without knowing quite why we do them – or at least without thinking about it very hard. For example, in American culture we have many options when greeting someone:

• handshake, one handed
• handshake, two handed (the handshake sandwich) for emphasis
• hug, two-armed, full body
• hug, one-armed sideways
• hug, bro-style (handshake held, pull in to one-armed full body hug possibly
combined with a pat on the back)
• kiss, one cheek
• kiss, two cheeks
• kiss, lips
• head nod

Can you imagine trying to explain to a foreigner all the intricacies of when to use one greeting or another? Often I’m not sure myself – or you go in for one type of greeting and the recipient switches it up on and it’s awkward or embarrassing. It’s just something we do and we’re not always sure what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.

Speaking of greetings, I have a great story about the first time I had to do pronam to an elder but I’ll save that for another post.