From the beginning, race has permeated every facet of my life. It is the well-meaning caretaker that made decisions for me without my permission. Growing up as a first generation American, I struggled to find the balance between being both Bengali and American. My parents used the word “Americanized” like a curse word but too often I was asked by elevator companions and new coworkers the three words that made me cringe: “What are you?” People questioned my American citizenship but my fair skinned friend, who still had her green card, did not have the same problem. I was not brown enough and I was not white enough, leaving me in the muddy middle area that felt, for lack of better words, like poop. The more thought I put into it, the more confused I felt. Eventually, I took the advice of Dove candy wrappers and cheesy self-help books – “Be Yourself.” I learned to accept both my Bengali heritage and my American nationality, both of which clashed disastrously at times. I stopped trying to cover myself up in the summertime to fit into the Bengali ideal of light skin and I laid out on the beach with my friends unafraid of tan lines. I told people of my birthplace proudly and flaunted by ability to speak two languages. I was proud of my two worlds and I did not value one more than the other. However, although I had stopped trying to box myself into a particular stereotype, human nature had other plans.
Being in Uganda introduced a new dichotomy in my already complex feelings about race. Surrounded by mostly Caucasian Americans during training, I was praised for my beautiful skin tone, a compliment I had only previously gotten from the white boys I dated. With the absence of blow dryers and hair straighteners, I fell in love with my naturally wavy hair that also garnered much attention. Needless to say, being around Ugandans is a different story. Passerbys are confused by my appearance. To them, my mannerisms were American but my skin color said otherwise. I was informed that my hair looked better when it was in a pony tail. It was only when I spoke that they would call me “muzungu,” the word for expats or foreigners that literally meant “aimless wanderer.” My counterpart and supervisor commented on how much my skin color resembled that of light skinned Gloria. “Tahrima, if it was not for you hair, Gloria could be your baby!” People in the community asked my coworker if I was African and later that evening, when I showed her the tan lines that had formed on my ring fingers due to the sun, she advised me, in a voice that echoed my mother’s from my younger days, to wear sunscreen so I would not get any darker. Like the Bengali culture I grew up with, dark skin was not favorable in Africa.
For Christmas, my friends and I rented a hotel room in Hoima and spent the majority of the day at the pool. Looking at my tanned skin in the mirror the next day, I could not drown out the words of my mother or the words of my Ugandan coworker. I reached for the sunscreen and tied my hair. It wasn’t until later when I sat watching an Indian film that had been dubbed in English and then re-dubbed in the local language – a combination that resulted in an incoherent mess – that I realized what an incredibly absurd feat it is to navigate the ideals of three countries at once.