BY SHANIDA HASAN
The day was coming… the day where I would get to dress up and proudly display my own culture–cultural day! I was wearing a red vermillion lehengha that was adorned with jewels along the bodice and intricate sewing along the neckline. My arms were lined with henna designs that traveled from my arms to my elbows, each design tangled with the next. My black hair cascaded down my back, and gold earrings were looped through my ears.
Stepping onto the bus, I was careful to not soil my dress. Lehengha gathered in my hands, I glanced around the bus toward the rest of the students. I was greeted with a series of stares that ranged from confusion and awkwardness as I walked down the aisle to find an empty seat. Perplexed, I sat down and stared out the window, asking myself if it was the right choice to wear my lehengha.
Walking through the crowded halls was a whole other ordeal. Whispers taunted my ear. “What is she wearing?” “That dress looks weird!” Head hung low, I trudged to my classroom quickly. Backpack digging into my shoulders, I was stopped by my teacher. He was a stout man and was a simple man. “Wow – What a beautiful dress you have on!” He exclaimed, his smile reaching his eyes. Puzzled, I mustered up a quick smile, “Oh, thank you” I replied. Lingering for an extra moment, I wondered if it was genuine.
Entering the classroom, students were scattered all around. Surveying the room, I found my desk near the front. Shuffling my way to my desk, I sat down, spreading my lehengha so it was not gathered awkwardly around me. I sank into the desk, wanting to become invisible.
A classmate of mine entered shortly after, and she looked stunning, wearing a black pleated skirt, with vibrant red and green colors bursting out it, and a white blouse that had the same colors displayed as well. She wore a black hat with beads that dangled off. The beads seemed to sparkle in the light. I stared at her, seeing she was so proud of her own culture. I sank deeper into my chair. Just once I wished to be like her.
The day proceeded quite slowly with the boring lessons droning on. The only thing on my mind was my dress, so out of place. Before I knew it, it was celebration time, where we would express and talk about our own culture. Seats switched as my peers went to sit with their friends, whereas I stayed in the same place. Another classmate of mine sat across from me. She studied me, her eyes looking me up and down. After silent for a moment she asked, “What are you even wearing?” Startled, I glanced up to see her face cocked at an angle. “Your dress looks weird and itchy, who would wear that?” she asked again. Eyebrows raised, I was silent. My voice nowhere to be found. The itchiness began to crawl over my body, as it seemed to be powered by those words. Standing up abruptly, I simply walked out of the room. Marching myself to the bathroom, tears brimming my eyes. I wished to be normal. I stared at the mirror and a different girl stared back, one that was afraid and ashamed. Hands clenched together, I stood there for moments trying to get the tears to stop flowing.
A year ago, I was asked by my cousin to dance at her wedding alongside my two other sisters. A bit hesitant, my answer ultimately became yes. I then faced months of practicing for a 4-minute dance performance, evenings spent sweaty with the loud chorus of music beating in our ears. Our arms swaying and legs jumping, we completed our performance in our practice room, which was simply my sister's bedroom containing floor length mirrors. The day of the performance, we rushed to get ready. A variety of lehenghas were laid across the floor, and picking out a simple but elaborate red lehengha, I went to get ready. Looking at myself in the mirror, I was reminded of that day. Bittersweet, I stood for a moment and let the memory wash over me. But then, coating my lip with red lipstick and slipping rings onto my fingers, I beamed at the mirror.
When the time came for us to dance, I was fulfilled. I was proud of my work and effort, and more importantly, I was proud to display my own dance. Our dance had many traditional dance moves and included a Bengali song that my sisters and I loved. Our hands swayed to the beat, and the music burst out of the speakers. I grinned at myself, and I felt like I was floating. When our dance was over, surprisingly, many people came up to me to compliment our dance. My grin reached my eyes as I replied with a "thank you" to many. Later that night, I posted the dance on my Instagram. What happened was astonishing, as comments came in even more so complimenting me. My peers and friends reached out to offer a compliment. I was over the moon.
Through the past few years, I’ve learned a great deal of things about my cultural identity and who I wanted to be. Belittled by others’ words, I let them get to me. While this was one of my many experiences regarding my culture, it led me to harbor negative feelings about my own culture. I was too detached from Bengali culture, but I was too brown to be a part of American culture. Stuck in between, I was confused. I was unsure of my place in who I was. Wrapped up in cultural clothes for a majority of my life, I’ve learned to embrace my culture. Today, I wear my culture with pride. I don’t care how others might view me or my culture, because at the end of the day, I would not want to be anything other then Bengali.