A Proud Immigrant's Perspective
I was ten years old, when my birth country gained independence after a brutal nine-month war. March 26 is the Independence Day and December 16 is the Victory Day of Bangladesh.
I still remember the sounds of gunfire and bombings while we lay down on the floor of our apartment in darkness each night. The fun part was that we didn't have to go to school, and I was with my cousins because three of our families huddled together in one house for safety. We played with homemade dolls made out of the Marlborough cigarette boxes that my father and uncles smoked. We played Monopoly, cards, and Carrom Boards. Our mothers said goodbye to our fathers each morning, not knowing if they would return at the end of the day. We ate one hearty meal a day of rice and lentil porridge and sometimes a chicken cooked to feed all thirty mouths. The men were fed first, then the young men for they might be leaving to join the war, then the teenage girls because of the fear of them being raped. My two cousins and I, being the youngest and girls, were the last ones to eat with our mothers.
I remember the day the Pakistani army drove off with my father's new Volkswagon Beetle, because it still had the black flag and Bangla Letters 'A' and 'B' attached proudly as signs of protest. I still remember the Pakistani soldier who came to search our house and spit in the middle of our living room after he drank a glass of water, reassuring us that killing us would be the same as killing dogs but he was looking for the freedom fighters, not us. Little did he know that our families were sending money and food to the freedom fighters daily! I remember the terror of those nine months, the smell of burned down houses in the first weeks of the war, and the joy of marching people as we flew the flag on December 16, 1971 when the war ended.
Sometime after that, we visited an area where there were remnants of war-saris over the rickshaws, a lost shoe of a child, a doll, a shirt, pieces of broken pots and pans - gruesome memorabilia of families killed by the Pakistani soldiers. I remember the stench of bodies buried in a hurry that coyotes had pulled out during the night for a quick easy meal. I remember that my brother and I stood on the top of a tank that was left behind, with small flags in our hands, feeling the joy of victory.
I still remember waking up in the middle of the night only two months after Bangladesh was born. That night my father came back home after being stranded in Dhaka for four months while we worried if he was even alive. It has been forty-six years since that day, but I will always remember running back to our house after hearing the gunfire, while the orange hues of the sunset were shrouded with the black smoke of houses burning. I caught a piece of charred hay that floated past me in the gentle breeze on March 26, 1971. Happy Independence Day, Bangladesh, my birth country.
Fast-forward and I am here in the United States today; a citizen, an immigrant, someone who adopted this country by choice. As I stood in the naturalization and immigration building one sunny afternoon in May of 2014 to take my oath, I could not help but cry as I listened to President Obama’s message on the screen that welcomed all of us present as new citizens of The United States of America. Every time I hear The Star Spangled Banner I choke up, no matter where I am. Whether it is at the opening ceremony of a football game, or at a movie theater, or at that somber, happy ceremony of my oath taking in a sterile naturalization office in downtown Portland. The words hit me in the gut- especially the last line, ‘The land of the free, the home of the brave.’
The United States of America is a country built on those pillars: freedom and bravery. Freedom - freedom of speech, freedom to choose your religion, the place where you live, the friends to you choose to be with. To be free is to live with others in harmony. To be free is to welcome new friends and family into your home. To be free is to be able to live in a country and not feel intimidated.
To be brave, however, has a deeper meaning for me. To be brave does not mean that you have the right to go after anyone you do not wish to be with or who does not believe in your religion or does not worship in the same place as you. To be brave is to embrace differences, to acknowledge and celebrate diversity. To be brave is to feel happy for the gay couple who can finally hold hands and say “ I do” as they take their marriage vows in a beautiful public ceremony. To be brave is to not to call every Muslim a terrorist, or every black person a predator, every Hispanic person an illegal alien or every Native American lazy. To be brave is to be honest and look closely at oneself and question your own prejudices. To be brave it to stand up for the down trodden and the weak. To be brave is to speak for those who do not have a voice.
On September 14, 1814, U.S. soldiers at Baltimore's Fort McHenry raised a huge American flag to celebrate a crucial victory over British forces during the War of 1812. The sight of those “broad stripes and bright stars” inspired Francis Scott Key to write a song that eventually became the United States national anthem. The American people adopted and embraced the song as their national anthem to honor all those who died that day holding the flag as their national symbol. To me, as an immigrant, that national anthem holds weight and meaning because I sing it by choice and not just because I was born here. I do not take my US nationality for granted - I chose to be here because this is the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The national anthem of my birth country Bangladesh was written by Nobel Laureate Poet Rabindranath Tagore. In 1905, the British Indian Government decided to split Bengal into East and West Bengal and the official reason given administrative problems. But the real motive was to divide Bengal since Bengal was then the center of Indian nationalism. There was widespread protest. Swadeshi and Boycott movements started in Bengal. It was on this occasion that Rabindranath Tagore wrote “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bangla) as people from both of the divided states exchanged “Rakhis” (bracelets) as a symbol of unity. When Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, the Bengalis chose this song written by Tagore as the national anthem because it encapsulated the vision and the core of the newly born Bangladesh. Bangladeshis chose to fight for their independence and to fight for their right to speak their own language in the country where they were born. Imagine not being able to speak in your mother tongue. Imagine someone with power and authority telling you that you do not belong in the country where you were born or that adopted as your own because of the color of your skin or the language you speak or the God you pray to.
That December evening in 1971 when as a ten year old I held that red and green flag of Bangladesh and marched with the pride and joy of a liberated country singing ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ will always be a vital part of who I am. Because for me to hold that flag my father had to fight since he was a university student and before that his father and his grandfather fought. The afternoon when I held that small flag with 50 stars and 13 red and white stripes that is given to all newly sworn citizens and sang the Star Spangled Banner in my timid voice along with a room full of at least a hundred other proud immigrants, my heart felt that same pride and joy as I felt back in 1971. Only this time it was mixed with a tinge of sadness as well, as if I had left my mother and gone off on my own. However, as an immigrant, there is not a single iota of guilt for having made that decision.
So on the Fourth of July, as I watched the fireworks across the sky from the Tom McCall Waterfront in downtown Portland, I got misty eyed again thinking about how much I love this country that has adopted me and the national anthem that I first learned to sing echoed through my head.
..Amar Shonar Bangla...My golden Bangla...Ami Tomay Bhalo Bashi...I love you...Chirodin Tomar akash tomar batash amar pranay bajay bashi...your skies, your wind play the sweetest flute through my heart forever….O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave… Happy Independence Day, USA, my adopted country.
My heart felt full and complete. To be free is to be able to sing both the national anthems of your birth country and of your adopted one. Happy Independence Day- July 4th and March 26.