MY GRANDFATHER, my mom’s dad, fought in the Bangladesh Liberation War: he was an artillery supplier. After the war ended, a lot of freedom fighters were under attack and so my grandfather decided to move to the US. Some years later, he sent for the rest of his family and my mom moved to New York. Meanwhile, my dad came to America on a student visa. He went to piloting school in Texas, but he got into an accident and so he didn’t really finish his licensing and started working in Chicago. My mom and dad heard about each other through their biodatas and agreed to marry each other. My mom moved to Chicago, which is where I was born. We moved to East New York, Brooklyn when I was six years old, after my brother got sick. He has neurological and physical disabilities and we had a lot more support in New York with my mom’s side of the family being here.
> We live in a low income neighborhood. I went to public school two blocks away from my house. But I think watching TV is where I learned there's a difference between classes and that's when I when I realized, oh, we're poor.
GROWING UP I knew that I loved entertainment and that I loved to entertain people, but I didn’t have any grasp of what that meant. We get to say we live in the greatest city in the world, but we don't get to experience any of the greatest city aspects when you grow up in a poor neighborhood. When I was a kid, I didn't know Broadway was in New York because I felt like it was some place that I would not be allowed. It’s only way into your adulthood that you realize, shit, there are several different New Yorks. There's a New York that you don't even know.
As a kid, I definitely felt I didn't want to identify as Bengali. There was always this cloak of embarrassment surrounding the culture. I felt like being Indian was just more palatable and cooler, and so I’d say I was Indian. And then as I got older and met more Bengalis, I realized how important that identity was. I used to think, oh, we're all the same. But I realised that no, we're not.
I READ SOMEWHERE that Bangladeshis are possibly one of the biggest communities in the US that are right below the poverty line. And not many Indians and Pakistanis experience that, because they'll come from their countries with degrees and things like that and they'll work and go to school, and then become doctors or something. I realized that the reason why I didn't grow up around many Indians or Pakistanis was because they were growing up in the suburbs. So, yeah, I did not have the experience a lot of Indians did of being bullied by white people. I didn't even meet white people until I went to college. I didn't have the classic story of getting bullied for my lunch because my lunch was the free lunch that they gave at school. I qualified for that shit. And my experience is something that I don't hear people talk about or see people telling stories about, because I feel a lot of the South Asian storytellers in Hollywood are a little more privileged than I am, not to downplay any of the work that they did.
I THINK AS A Bangladeshi Muslim, my parents will use fear tactics to teach us about religion. Like make sure you never miss a prayer or you’ll end up in hellfire. Everything was just ‘or else you'll end up in hellfire.' So that’s where a lot of disconnect comes in and we feel very othered by our own religion. We grow up with these identities of Bangladeshi and American and also Muslim. So it's like, where do I fit all of these identities inside of me? It really does take just growing up to understand that you get to practice Islam in a way that suits you.
> I do a lot of my own research: Islam is actually supposed to be an easy religion to follow. And also it feels selfish to just do good deeds to end up in heaven. I want to do good and I want to treat people with respect because people deserve it.
My parents are very by the book Muslims, but they weren't always this religious. I think the community changed them. My mom didn't wear a hijab before, but now she she wears a hijab because everyone in our neighborhood wears one. They're both silly, funny people – I remember, when I was younger, my dad would be the life of the party. But they also get very wound up by what society expects. For instance, they’re dying to get me married. It’s been a difficult time with them on this subject because they think that I'm 30, I should have been married by now.
WHEN I WAS GETTING MY MASTER'S degree. I was also working full time and also doing comedy on the side when I could. I'd tell my parents things like, oh, I got some school work to do, but really I'm doing a show or something. But after graduating, I was like, I don't have any excuses anymore. So that's when I kind of told them the truth, they know that I do some hosting type of thing. But they don't want to be like, yeah my daughter is a comedian, so they don't ever say it out loud. It's still hard to to be open about it. But laughter has always been a part of my life. Even as a kid, my whole persona was just to entertain my family. I was always the loud one and I was always getting in trouble for being loud, because, you know, as a South Asian girl, you're supposed to be demure and have a secret or something. But I was like I'm going to be loud, there's ice cream cake in the room.
And now, every time I perform comedy, that's the one time that I feel good about myself, especially if I'm doing well. That's when I feel like, OK, I don't need to worry about what my parents are thinking. Performing comedy just puts me in a different dimension altogether.
I feel like no matter what we do, we're going to be tokenized in one way or another because there's so many intersections to us. But are we going to stop ourselves from telling our story in fear that we're going to be tokenized? I don’t think we should. Because there will be people who will read your story and be like, this is exactly me, you know, and they’ll feel less lonely. I think we have to get used to juggling those fears, because, if you stop yourself from sharing your story, who are you really helping?
Zubi Ahmed (she/her) is a writer, comedian, and filmmaker. She is one of the hosts of Kutti Gang, a live comedy show featuring South Asian performers. She is the writer and director of Polterheist, a comedy web-series featured in the South Asian Film Festival of America and NY Lift-Off Film Fest. Being multi-lingual, understanding both eastern and western cultures and growing to appreciate them both in different ways, and also growing up in big cities her whole life has given her a different perspective. You can find out what she’s currently up to here.