Published in the Daily Star: “Trans-nationalism and Identity: The multinational Bangladeshis”

I wrote this piece reflecting on my own personal identity and struggles to integrate into the Bangladeshi society when I first arrived in September 2010. I talk about the multinational identity that many have these days with Bangladeshi origin, focusing on its cultural and economic implications, with globalization in mind. Pick up a copy of the Daily Star or read online by clicking here, or below.

Trans-nationalism and Identity: The multinational Bangladeshis 

OLINDA HASSAN observes the struggle between personal and nation-imposed identities.

With globalisation catching the attention of economists and policy makers worldwide, cultural anthropologists are much more concerned about the shifts in culture and the development of the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. This is certainly true for Bangladeshis, both living abroad and in the country with dual citizenships. A good number of individuals with Bangladeshi roots have complemented their lives abroad (usually in a Western nation) to their ethnic heritage to create an identity of dualism. In this century of globalisation, this idea of identity as well as citizenship is particularly interesting.

A few months ago at immigration at the airport, I remember one gentleman in the “foreign citizen” line yelling at a woman who had mistakenly entered the line. He exclaimed to her, “This line is not for you, you see, do you have one of these? I am British, you are not.” He said this in heavily Bangladeshi-accented broken English, holding his British passport firmly in front of her. The bewildered woman did not say anything but walked away. I remember this scene in particular because the gentleman (as I later found out from the expressive immigration officer) had just returned from only his second visit to the UK and had never actually lived there.

The fact that acquiring a non-green passport raises eyebrows cannot be ignored. Having a Western passport can immediately put the individual in a different, heightened social category, which in Bangladesh still continues to play an important role. This can be compared to education as well: putting aside personal connections, if one is able to acquire a foreign degree even if it comes from a no-name university (of which there is an abundant number across Canada to the US to all over Europe, often specifically targeting international students with a sizable bank account), he or she will get an upper hand in various job positions in Bangladesh over candidates with local degrees. Similar can be said for multiple passport holders and their place in the ‘social ladder’ of Bangladesh.

However, over time, passports have become less and less testimonial of a citizenship, let alone an individual’s loyalty to a nation. Rather, passports have become claims to participate in different economic markets. The numbers of dual citizens living in Bangladesh rather than abroad are increasing; as one businessperson who asked for anonymity explained, his claim to a British passport was mainly for economic and social purposes: it got him the contracts he wanted, entrances into the right clubs and a swift immigration clearance at the airport. He chose to live in Bangladesh because the luxury that Dhaka offers as result of his dual citizenship is incomparable to what his life would have been in the UK. The acquisition of a Western citizenship is still highly coveted in Bangladesh as it serves in many ways that are not necessarily related to defining one’s identity.

As for the many Bangladeshi-origin individuals living in the US, for example, citizenship is just one of the complexities of this particular group. Unlike the UK where South Asian descendents transcend to generations, Bangladeshis in the US is fairly new. Bangladeshis did not migrate to the US in high numbers in the 1980s when debate concerning poverty, social exclusion and the growing incidence of criminality among third generation Bangladeshis dominated conversations in the UK (Oxford Development Studies, 2002). It was only in the 1990s that Bangladeshis began to migrate to the US, and this group itself was mixed in terms of education, class, work experiences, etc. Nevertheless, Bangladeshi Americans in general are of the middle class to upper middle class range, with more than average education levels and income. Additionally, a sizable pocket of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are also noted in urban cities, such as New York and Detroit.

Because of the relative new migration pattern, the attempt to hold on to a root culture continues to be practised by parents upon their children. The idea of parental expectations of success once they arrive in America, a country even further away from the UK, resonated alongside expectations for their children. The two areas that have been specific to Asian culture that guided parental expectations are: children taking on the responsibility of enhancing family pride, and using education as a way to advance in the social classes and achieving the ‘American Dream’, (research has shown that education has, and continues to be viewed as the highest valuable asset and the sole tool to achieve goals. Since education is available for everyone, this is seen as an opportunity for parents and children). Combine this with many parents’ determination to connect their children to Bangladeshi culture, whether through the food, language, or dances and music as commonly witnessed in larger cities. The identity of these immigrants and their children are exactly what they are titled: Bangladeshi and American, or Bangladeshi American.

There is a popular concept in the US: the American Born Confused Desi, or ABCD. This type of identity is not very confusing, actually. These children basically are American by birth and upbringing, but are also Bangladeshi through their parental connections to their homes. They are like any other Asian American in this sense, and whether an individual of such a categorisation chooses to emphasise one or the other part of this identity makes it just as fitting for “America” where the history of the country is rooted in the basic idea of immigration and mixing of different cultures, ethnicities, religions and languages.

The notion of the Bangladeshi American can however get confusing when they are confronted with a homogeneous Bangladeshi society that takes over the former component of their identification. For example, let us take Mr. X, a Bangladeshi American who visits Bangladesh and is then asked why he calls himself an American, when he looks just like a Bangladeshi. He is charged with that just because he holds an American passport, it does not give him any right to claim to be American. For X, is physically looking Bangladeshi, eating Bangladeshi food with his hands, or speaking Bangla more important in defining himself as Bangladeshi than his experience of growing up in an American society, attending an American school and speaking English as a native language? Does X’s majority of life spent in America not count?

During the process of citizenship, immigrants are naturally subjected to a particular nation-state’s norms and attitudes. The state, family and economic conditions and or opportunities direct these transnational relationships. Cultural anthropologist Aihwa Ong considers citizenship as a cultural process of “subject-ification”, in the sense that much of the process is self-made and also forcibly-made through the power relations that take place between the new nation and the original “home”. For Bangladeshi migrants, this is especially true as they bring with them a set of norms and values that complement and challenge their migration, as well as their children.

Furthermore, these notions of identity and citizenship are compounded by the fact that today, many dual citizens, especially from Western nations, are returning to their ‘original homes’. In recent years, many Bangladeshis who lived and have had children abroad are returning and resettling, mainly in Dhaka. The most common employment areas for this population are family businesses, new enterprises and positions in multinational companies. They bring with them years of experience living abroad to Dhaka where they must now balance the two or even three histories. Ong argues that as a result of such events in an era of globalisation, individuals as well as governments develop a flexible notion of citizenship and sovereignty. These flexibilities act as strategies to accumulate capital and power, which is essentially what the ‘returned migrants’ are doing. They have a flexible citizenship, which refers to the “cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement” which induces such individuals to “respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions” as witnessed in Bangladesh (Ong, 8).

With most of the population under the age of 30, the images of the West combined with the hunger for modernisation is rapidly changing social behaviour in Bangladesh. As a nation in transition, the placement of ‘returned migrants’ makes the process particularly compelling. In today’s Bangladesh, the multiple-passport holder is a contemporary figure. He or she represents the differences between nation-imposed identity of Bangladesh and personal identity caused by migration, changing global markets and exposure to a very different lifestyle. In modern times, national and ethnic identities become distinctly different entities, while at the same time, international boundaries become increasingly insignificant. As a result, Bangladesh and Bangladeshis are shaping new relationships not only with traditional norms and customary ideas about the family, but also to capital mobility.

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