The major elements of Bangladeshi culture are consciously retained by the first generation of immigrants from Bangladesh, according to the author who writes about the evolution of Bangladeshi corporate activity in Ontario through his own experience as an immigrant. He analyses the intra-generational tensions and other societal problems confronting Bangladeshi families in Ontario.
As a Bangladeshi I would like to describe the complexity of our cultural experience as an immigrant community in Ontario. I am aware that no single Bangladeshi can articulate what most Bangladeshis feel, and like the experience of other immigrants, ours has been a varied one. Nevertheless we do represent a community whose identity is rooted in a common origin.
Like the majority of Bangladeshi immigrants, I came to Canada in early 1970 as a permanent resident in the family category. On my arrival I was greeted by my brother Dr. Mohammad Badruddoja at Toronto International Airport. He had travelled all the way from Mason City, Iowa, to meet me, and it was he who helped me find a niche in London, Ontario. The Bangladeshi community in London at that time was small. Everyone knew one another. They treated me like one of the family. As the basis of this sociability, Bangladeshis had a strong sense of belonging to the culture of Bangladesh. Their mannerisms, customs, and method of social interaction were distinctly Bangladeshi and made little sense to an outsider. They had all retained some essential identity of their native land, and for them nothing seemed stable and permanent in Canada. It appeared that the demands of the Canadian way of life were imposed on them, and contradictions were apparent in every aspect of their lives. They looked forward and backward but without living in the past. Rather, I believe, they found pleasure and security in their traditions, which were remarkably self-contained.
My arrival in Toronto in late 1973 came at a time when Bangladesh had become a sovereign state and Bengalees of East Bengal, formerly of East Pakistan, had emerged as a distinct community in Toronto.(1) They began to rally around their newly formed Bangladesh Association to affirm both its distiinctiveness and their own. My relationship with Bangladeshis in Canada also convinced me that whether Bangladeshis are in London or Toronto, all of them are immigrants whose language, religion, social values, and even food and dress are distinctly more Bangladeshi than Canadian. They are hard-working and never hesitate to take jobs that fall below their education and ability. They are nationalistic, share a common language and culture, and are fiercely family-oriented with a patriarchal leaning.
A thin line has divided us into two groups: the territorial group and the psychocultural group.(2) The territorial group is known for its intense loyalty to Bangladesh as its only home. Its dedication and enthusiasm for the cause of Bangladesh are manifested by the level of participation in community activities such as the observance of Victory Day, Martyr Day, and other national celebrations. Most of the cultural and social activities of the territorial group, known as the Bangladesh Association, are intended to strengthen ethnic solidarity, norms, and values through cultural and religious events. The group also collects money to meet the material needs of Bangladesh in emergencies.
In contrast, the psychological group rarely participates in community socio-cultural activities, though psychologically and culturally it identifies itself as Bangladeshi.
As Bangladeshis, we do not live in our own enclave, nor do we have our own mosque where we can congregate. One may wonder how we keep our unique perspective in an alien environment. Perhaps we have created for ourselves a self-contained world, a world that is juxtaposed between Bangladesh and Canada. But at the same time, we feel insecure, and everything around us seems unstable and impermanent; we wade through the crowded world without attachment or belonging. Fears haunt us: "Are we losing our identity as Bangladeshis? Are we losing the traditional essence of family that we consider to be so sacred?" We raise our guard against social practices that are considered alien to our culture. We constantly ask ourselves, "Who are we and where are we heading?" It is a clear indication that either we, the Bangladeshis, have not been accepted by mainstream society as equal partners, or we are psychologically remote from our adopted country. Acceptance seems to us hopelessly out of reach. Bangladeshis are symbols of a conflicting world of hopes and fears. Outwardly, they show unbounded enthusiasm for work, consumption, and adda (idle conversation), but inwardly many are alienated from the society where they live and work. One wonders what holds them together and keeps them going in a place where they are conspicuous for their colour and accent. Their resolution to survive as expatriated people derives from their families and women. For Bangladeshis, the family is synonymous with cohesion and unity. It is in the family that they find solace in their days of agony and pleasure. For them, life without a family is inconceivable, and thus, children play a vital role.
Given the primacy of the family in our culture, Bangladeshis are apprehensive about some problems that are increasingly prevalent in Canadian society, such as drug addiction and teenage pregnancies. Knowing that Bangladeshi families are not living in an insular world, they are apt to look for an alternative culture to combat a utilitarian ideology among the new generation of Bangladeshis. Perhaps for this reason they are increasingly turning towards religion and thus, are becoming more religious in their adopted country than they were in Bangladesh.
In other words, the locus of culture is the family, and the Bangladeshi family tends to take the prime responsibility for maintaining its culture. So far Bangladeshis have maintained their cultural identity by speaking Bangla (Bengali) at home, teaching their children to read holy scriptures, giving exposure to Bengali culture, socializing with other Bangladeshi families, marrying within the community, or bringing their spouses from Bangladesh. But, however practical all these activities may be, the family has its limitation in diffusing Bangladeshi culture among the second generation. If we understand culture as a code of communication, culture must be presented by one generation to the succeeding generation in a dynamic form.
Community members and leaders are aware of the acculturation process in Canada; for example, a typical Bangladeshi family is bilingual and bicultural. But a split is taking place between parents born in Bangladesh and their children born or raised in Canada. Children are becoming acculturated at an increasingly accelerated pace, and can hardly speak Bangla. They are hopelessly out of touch with Bangladesh, and the images of Bangladesh they glean from the mass media are one dimensional. Undoubtedly, this non traditional upbringing has created dissent within the traditional family structure. Parents are accused of unfairness toward their children, particularly to the girls, who are kept under tight constraints. One of the nagging issues in the traditional family circle is arranged marriages. Bangladeshi girls are rebelling against this tradition.
Under these circumstances, the Bangladesh Association has begun to reach out to the Bangladeshi community in Toronto and its surrounding areas, and as a result, the locus for cultural maintenance has shifted from the family to the Association. It is now responsible for diffusing and revitalizing Bangladeshi culture. However, the history of the Bangladesh Association is rooted in politics rather than in culture. The Association came into being in the wake of the civil war with Pakistan in 1971. The objectives of the Association on in the political crisis were to mobilize the opinions of Bangladeshis and Canadians against the atrocities committed by the occupying army in Bangladesh and to put pressure on the international community so that it might restrain Pakistan from unleashing its terror in Bangladesh and, instead, give its people the right of self-determinination. Only after the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh, did the Association become a cultural organization.
It is apparent that both the family and the Bangladesh Association are holding a mirror up to all Bangladeshis in which to observe their norms and values, and their hopes and fears in their adopted country. We are living in an age of social and cultural transition. We know, like all other South Asians, that neither the family nor any association can effectively counter the acculturation process in Canada.
We are a marginal people that lives on the threshold of two societies but is at home in neither. But there is hope. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "A culture must trace the growth of its greatness in the further soil, for then you know the true nature of its vitality." A culture expresses in essence the inner quality of a community, and as a code of communications must be presented by one generation to the succeeding generation in a way that validates its essential elements for the future as well as the past. Only time will tell whether the second generation of Bangladeshi Canadians will reject their source culture or whether they will adapt it to suit the conditions of their new home.
Aminur Rahim holds a PhD. from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He is a freelance writer concentrating in ethnic studies.
1. Bangladesh became an independent state in 1971 after the partition of East and West Pakistan.
2. For this concept, I have relied on Eui-Young Yu, "Korean American Communities and Their Institutions: An Overview." In P, vol. 9, no. 4 (Winter 1988), p. 34.