When Race, Culture, and Dinner Collide | Marion Ruybalid
“Mom, can we please go to the Indian restaurant for my birthday dinner?” my daughter Ellianna begged. Turning twelve had awakened a desire to experience her Bangladeshi side.
“We’ll see,” I said.
My husband Tim smiled at me. I tried to smile back, but I felt sweat pooling in the palms of my hands. I had dreaded this moment because going there would reveal that, as a Bangladeshi adopted woman raised by white British parents in the United States, I knew very little about my own culture.
My parents told me stories about their life in Dhaka. My dad worked for Save the Children helping starving mothers and their children. My mom enjoyed white female privileges. At dinner parties, the men and the women would culturally be separate, but my mom ate with the men. Their lifestyle was more comfortable than the one they would have had in England. They had a Hindu cook and Muslim gardener. If my parents requested chicken for dinner, they would work together to protect the Hindu cook’s religious practices. When I asked them if they had ever felt guilty having servants, they said, “We hired servants to provide jobs for people in need.”
By the time I was two, my family left Bangladesh. I did not remember anything. By the time I was five, my family settled in northern New Jersey. I was one of very few minorities in my three hundred-person high school graduating class.
Friends told me they loved the smells of Indian spices when my mom prepared curries out of Madhur Jaffery’s cookbooks. My mother also taught me to dress the part by showing me how to put on a pink cotton sari she used to wear. I learned just enough about my culture to feel it was part of my identity, but not enough to actually be a Bangladeshi woman amongst the company of other people from my country.
At eighteen -years old, I saw a glimpse of a life I never had. I met up with some full-time missionaries named Bob and Twyla in Bangladesh. There was a young village girl who worked as a maid. She looked about fifteen -years -old. I knew that once my own birth mother had been a fifteen-year-old servant in a similar kind of household. Each day, our laundry was washed, line-dried, and neatly folded. The girl moved around the house dusting, cleaning dishes, and making sure the place was always tidy. I closed my eyes and attempted to imagine her as my mother. Bob and Twyla also had a cook. I watched the cook attempt to please them with American-style dinners. The day I arrived he made grilled cheese sandwiches and fries. I watched him spend an hour peeling potatoes while squatting on the floor with a metal bowl to catch the peels.
After lunch, Twyla looked at me and said, “We’ll have to get you some clothes because women are expected to wear a salwar kameez.”
By American standards, my outfit was conservative. I picked out a pair of black dress pants and a loosely-fitting button-up white blouse.
A few streets away from Bob and Twyla’s house was a market with several small shops selling bright colored clothes. We raced around picking out three new outfits. A man behind the counter of one shop looked at me in western clothing and paused for a minute. Twyla began to negotiate a price. The man held the salwar pants up at my waist and gestured that he would need to hem my clothing. I nodded.
To dress the way I would have every day of my life if I had never left Bangladesh felt completely unnatural, but clothing was not the only part of my visit that made me feel separated from being a true Bangladeshi. I learned that a woman adopted from Bangladesh couldn’t just return and explore the country freely; she would need a male relative to take her places. Going to my birth mother’s village was dangerous. There was a belief that Bangladeshi babies were born with the native tongue inside of them so not knowing the language as an adult was problematic. People whispered and my friend Bob told me that strangers assumed I was mute.
I expected my experiences in Bangladesh to close a gap between my British American life and the one I had left behind when my parents adopted me, but I felt even more removed from my past. Even though I did not go to Bangladesh to find my birth mother, I had expected a connection to the land, the language, the culture, and the people.
Near the Puget Sound, my white boyfriend Tim had planned out his perfect proposal. He wanted to take me to the beach and slip a carefully chosen blue topaz ring on my finger. Afterwards we would meander back to an Indian restaurant. His plans changed quickly when he noticed the owner and his wife outside glaring at us. I had missed this entire moment. There was no reason for me to think that our fancy seafood dinner and better than sex cake dessert was not in his original plan. On the drive home, he told me about his discomfort with how the couple at the Indian restaurant had looked at us.
My mom once told me a Gora is what a person was called if they were a Bangladeshi married to a white man. This was all I could hear in my head when Tim told me what he had experienced. I was relieved that he had listened to his gut and we ate somewhere else.
When my own daughter wanted to know more about her culture for her birthday instead of receiving an expensive gift, I should have been proud but all I could think about was Tim’s proposal story. My response to her request made me question how I dealt with the past.
It was not that I tried to ignore my race, but I had let it fade into the background of my identity.
I did not want my own fears to hold my daughter back from exploring her identity. Going to an Indian restaurant would be the first time she would get to identify with something other than a mixed-race brown American? . I knew Tim had already walked by the place to check things out. He’d even asked friends and coworkers about their experiences.
“Nelita’s family liked the food and said their experience was great,” Tim said.
Our friend Nelita was from Sri Lanka and her husband was white. But, Nelita’s parents taught her how to be Sri Lankan, I thought.
“I guess we could try it,” I said. I still felt nervous and if it hadn’t been my daughter’s birthday, I would have sent Tim to get takeout.
The restaurant was packed. The owners looked at my white husband, my mixed-race daughter, and me, but I could not tell what they were thinking.
People rushed past us. Conversations filled the room with cheerful energy. I noticed that all the brown people were dressed in western clothing so perhaps they didn’t care where I was from.
When our table was ready, we walked towards a hidden part of the restaurant behind several tall booths. I hoped that maybe one of the white waiters would be in charge of our table. My daughter smiled. The fragrances of turmeric, coriander, and paprika were familiar because I often cooked curries at home. She eyed the staff thrilled to look like several of the people in the room instead of the only brown girl.
The owner’s son made it to our table to take our order. He looked at Tim. Tim began pointing at numbers. I felt like I could breathe again because I didn’t have to reveal that I was a fake reading the names of food I could not pronounce.
At the end of the meal, we all went to the counter to pay.
“Did she like it?” the man asked Tim.
“Yes,” we both said.
Did he assume he wasn’t allowed to talk to me? Could he tell I was from Bangladesh based on my looks or the meat curries we ordered? My husband noticed and we both awkwardly smiled on our way out the door. My daughter added a small skip to her step, holding her head up slightly higher on our way to the car. I left thinking that despite the weird moment at the end of our meal, I had made it through the experience and it was nice. I thought we could even go again.
Regardless of my conflicted feelings about my own relationship with my race and culture, being Bangladeshi was a part of myself that I got to share with my children. I wanted my daughter and my other children to be proud of who they were and if they could feel a sense of belonging in an Indian restaurant, it made me happy. I hoped that I would be able to embrace my own birth culture as freely as my daughter did someday.
Marion Ruybalid is a mother of nine mix-raced children (4 girls and 5 boys). She was adopted from Dhaka, Bangladesh by British parents when she was five months old. She has an MFA in creative writing from UCR Palm Desert and her work has appeared in Mutha, PANK, Portrait of an Adoption-ChicagoNow, BLUNTmoms
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