by Arif Choudhury

Story Summary

Bangladeshi-American Muslim storyteller, Arif Choudhury, shares stories about growing up as the only “brown-skinned boy” in the neighborhood and how 9-11 changed how others might perceive him and his family.

Discussion Questions

  1. What’s the difference between an interrogation and a conversation? How do we be curious about one another but not pressure someone to represent their whole group or feel that they’re being examined and objectified?
  2. Did you ever wonder about your own identity? How did you resolve your questions and confusion?
  3. Has your understanding or behavior towards Muslims changed over the years? In what ways?

Resources

Themes

  • Asian Americans/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims

Full Transcript
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My name is Arif and I’m American. Or more specifically, I’m a Bangladeshi American Muslim who was born in Chicago and I grew up in Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago. So, sometimes it’s funny to me when people ask me, “Arif, where are you from?”

Now I was born in America, lived here my entire life but I answer honestly. I say, “I’m from Northbrook.”

And they might say, “No. I mean, uh, where were you born?”

And I answer honestly. I say, “Chicago.”

It’s a true answer but it wasn’t the answer they were looking for. So, they may try a third time and say something like, “No, Arif, I mean, um, how did you learn to speak English so good.”

And I’d say, “You mean, uh, how did I learn to speak English so well? Same place you did – school.” Sometimes the questions people ask me make me feel like I don’t belong.

When I was in high school, it was a Saturday morning. I was sitting in a teeny, tiny desk and I had a number two pencil in my ear and one in my hand and I was filling in those tiny bubbles. I was taking the SATs and I was nervous. I was drenched with sweat because my family, my friends, my parents, my teachers were all telling me that this test would determine the rest of my life. So, after I filled in the bubbles for my name, I came to the first question. And it said, “The following question will not be scored. It is for informational purposes only. What is your ethnic origin?”

Well, then I took a deep breath and I was calm, I was cool, I was collected because I knew the answer to this question. It might be the only answer I know but I knew the answer. So, I read the four answer choices because there are just four answers choices:  a) White, b) Black, c) Hispanic and d) Other. Well, I remember in class the teacher said eliminate the wrong choices first. So, I began to do that. a) White. No, I’m not white. b) Am I black? I’ve actually asked myself that question before.

When I was five years old in kindergarten, I was sitting during recess with the other boys in the sandbox and we’re making these hills and valleys for little toy trucks to play through. And we’d taking our shoes and socks off and planted our feet in the wet sand. And I noticed after playing for a few minutes that one of the other boys (his name was Timmy), he was staring at me. He was staring at the dark skin on my knees and on my feet and he asked me, “Arif, are you black?”

All the boys froze and now they were all gaping at me. I looked back at my friends and for the first time I realized that all my friends were white. And I lived in an all-white neighborhood and they all had sandy blond hair and light brown hair and blue eyes and green eyes and freckles. And I looked down at the dark skin of my hand and I knew that I wasn’t white but I wasn’t sure whether not white meant black. So, I said to Timmy, “I don’t know but I’ll go home and ask my mom.”

So later that day after school I sat in the kitchen with my mom having my after school snack when I sprung the question on her. I said, “Mom, are we black?

She said, “No, we’re not black. We’re Bangladeshi.”

So, the very next day at school, the boys and I were playing during recess again. And we were playing tag and Timmy was it, so he was chasing me all over the playground, up the hill and down the hill, up the hill. Up the jungle gym, down the jungle gym, up the slide, down the slide. He caught up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re it! Hey, what’d you find out from your mom? Are you black?”

I said, No, we’re not black. We’re Bangladeshi.

And he said, “Bangladeshi. What’s that?”

And I replied, “Uh, I don’t know but I’ll go home and ask my mom.”

But by the time I was taking the SATs, I knew that I wasn’t black so I didn’t mark that answer choice. I didn’t mark c) Hispanic either. And as I took my pencil, I filled in the little bubble for d) Other, I started to begin to feel like, officially, the other. And from time to time, that’s exactly how I’ve been made to feel.

When I was in film school I had this big, bushy beard and mustache. It was kind of hippie and arty because, you know, a lot of filmmakers have big, bushy beards so I thought I’d try to fit in and be artistic. And I had landed this plum job working at a movie theater behind the bars of this window. Now one afternoon, an elderly man came up to buy a ticket for the afternoon matinee and he slipped the $20 bill right through the hole in the bottom of this window. And I took the $20 bill, made some change, gave it to him and I noticed that he had also put a small slip of paper right there on the counter and I picked it up. It about the size of a fortune from a fortune cookie. And I read it and it said, “Death is the punishment of the enemies
of Israel.”

And I was shocked; I was stunned. Why had he given this piece of paper to me because I wasn’t an enemy of the state of Israel. And did he want me to die? Wow. I didn’t think that death would be the occupational hazard of peddling overpriced popcorn. Now that happened before September 11th.