So much so, that whenever I see immigrants working in the UAE being gently abused by jobsworth airport staff in transit to Dhaka, I fill in a whole tragic back story and then feeling intensely sad and guilty that I, through no hard work of my own, got to leave and have, consciously or unconsciously, rejected most elements of my cultural heritage. Except for sorrow and food! Sorrow, only some of the time. But food, really all the time.
Bengali social structures aren’t really set up to talk about much except for your family situation and what you ate that day. It’s almost Victorian in the tendency to stay quiet about your feelings and what’s going on. And in my experience, the luxury of leisure time is limited to so few people that there isn’t the same breadth of conversation about e.g. books and films. Largely, the conversation circles around the personal and domestic and around food. When put in those terms, it’s completely unsurprising that what comes most naturally to me is to talk about my life and experiences through the medium of a food diary.
Fortunately / unfortunately, I didn’t cook all that much until I turned 18 by which time many of the most interesting and formative ‘educated Bengali girl grows up in the UK and is encouraged to conform totally to elements of Bengali culture that she does not take kindly to’ had already happened. (And thank GOD, I tore up all my teenage diaries.) But thankfully / unthankfully, my experiences from times past have screwed me up and made me ill at ease effectively enough that I constantly reference and reflect upon them as part of my solipsistic project to understand exactly how I turned out the way I did, and how I even begin to go about managing it.
My parents and I had an awful time when I was growing up. I was a short-sighted, Asian, quite geeky and quiet girl who moved from school to school half way through the year. Kids are mean and I did not have an easy ride. I can only imagine it was similar for my parents who were living in a whole new country which was a lot less multicultural and progressive at the time.
We all felt like misfits and my parents tried really hard to fit in / fit me in but we just didn’t. Sometimes it was in obvious ways like when my mum sewed my swimming badges to my costume rather than my towel or how thinking about it, I only had three sets of clothes (which in hindsight was probably because my parents were scrimping money to send to their parents or to go back to Bangladesh).
While I appreciated doing best in class, I didn’t appreciate it enough that I was happy to be outcast by everyone else. At some point, that must have shifted in secondary school when I was bespectacled and had one eyebrow and still had no friends but I think I wore it as a point of pride because ‘I don’t want to be friends with you you’re beneath me anyway’.
I don’t know how that shifted but I acquired some friends and plucked my eyebrows and got a side fringe and that made my shallow peers like me a lot better and even made me attractive to boys I liked. Probably for a brief time I thought that meant that I’d stop feeling so alone.
Then the cruel twist (for my parents) became apparent that the successful cultural / social integration that they had wanted for me (they even got me eating with cutlery from a young age) made me an alien to them. I wouldn’t live by their norms and that plus raging hormones meant loads of horrible fights. Throw into the mix a genetic predisposition to depression, you have three very sad people being very angry at each other.
It was awful. Even thinking about it now I feel a sinking sensation. I have successfully repressed / forgotten most of those five years but the glimpses that I remember:
- Crying on the stairs before school and my throat being hoarse from yelling and my dad screaming
- Leaving the house in the middle of the night but having nowhere to go and eventually crawling behind a bush and wishing that I would die of cold
- Mentally snapping and playing pretend for two weeks over Christmas that everything was great except it was interspersed with moments of reality and getting loads of texts from my family asking me to come home
- Seeing how teenagers who are actually alone live and thinking I can’t do this
Anyway, amidst all that, I found time to fall in love with my first boyfriend and then have a brutal break up. I also found a great best friend and felt the first, genuine feeling of not being alone and being understood. This was complicated by the fact that it was a boy and he was into me and at some point amidst the pain of a first teenage break up and the pain of living in a house in which no one wanted to live, meant that some messy crossovers and overlaps happened.
So this is where I was at when I decided to take many, many diazepams and a significant amount of alcohol. The problem is that if you believe in what films show you, killing yourself is really easy. It’s really not. You throw up many of the tablets (which weren’t in a high enough dose to kill you anyway) and then when you have been asleep for 20 hours, your parents rouse you aggressively and then you cry and say you took an overdose.
You go to hospital and then you obviously try and escape because you’re like ‘what have I done I can’t stay here’ and also probably because you are very drunk and confused and then you are sectioned and confined to a room with two security guards. You are basically a cunt to one of them and then you remember having a moment of realisation of ‘I want to live, I know I’m going to go and do this great thing’. (Can’t remember what the great thing was.)
Anyway, after convincing a psychiatrist that you’re fine, you go home and then your parents are much nicer. It’s all very weird and you go to TGI Friday’s with your dad and he keeps putting his head in his hands and it’s really uncomfortable because you don’t know what to say and you don’t even have the common language to talk about it.
Then things are OK for a while. I guess a suicide attempt is a good trigger to make parents chill out a bit. It’s still weird though because you tried to kill yourself and that is a strange thing to have done as soon as you’ve done it for you and everyone around you.
The change comes with time and getting into Oxford drastically helped. Oxford is the dream for Bengali parents so getting into Oxford signalled redemption for our family – like yeah we had our fucked up time but now it’s all OK and none of us did too badly because she got into Oxford. I knew that would be the case and that’s why there were so many hopes riding on it – and that probably impacted my decision to study Law. I have never had any interest in Law, but it’s a palatable alternative to Medicine to my parents. And I figured, being as lazy and minimal effort as I am, that I’d get in for Law as the exam for it was the same as for all other universities. So it must be easier, right?
Turns out though – there are benefits to doing something you actually enjoy at Oxford. Because if you don’t, you totally waste your Oxford education getting drunk in stupid clubs and not even once making it to a talk at the Union (these life decisions in part explained by the fact that I was probably going through the longest dark patch I’ve ever, ever had at the time)
But to begin with, it was great. I felt that I had finally found my people – people I could really connect with and talk to. I felt like that at the interview too, which is funny, given how many of those people ended up not staying friends. I suppose at that point, I had spent so much time feeling alone in the world that my standards for people who made me feel less alone were less high. Over time, I’ve come to realise that’s a silly approach since it’s then really noticeable and socially awkward when you cut them.
I have a very halcyon days view of the early Oxford days. It was mostly to do with freedom and having it for myself for the first time. That’s also when I started cooking and got reaaaally fat. I also had my first time of not feeling clever enough. My course was hard and I had no interest in it. I was genuinely afraid that I wouldn’t pass so I worked a lot over Christmas which is still I think the hardest I’ve worked in my life.
I did well. But then I realised how fat I was and completely lost it at my boyfriend who was the same guy who’d been with me through the worst of the parents time and the suicide attempt. So someone with whom I’d shared a lot of history.
I can’t remember what it was and, as with so many things in my past, it was probably a symptom of depression but I completely flipped out at realising I was a bit doughier than I was used to being and called him 47 times in a night because I’d really got into my head that something had gone wrong.
(It had – all very normal and commonplace though – grew apart, never gonna end up with the person you’re first with, didn’t have that much in common, he loved rowing, I’m much cooler than him.)
Anyway, after that he said ‘Nothing was wrong… but it is now’. He was a weird guy too and we both tried to rectify things really badly and it culminated in him sleeping with someone else and me being really, really, really sad for many, many months.
I don’t know how I did it or how I managed it for that long or why I even wanted to (again, probably the depression) but we screamed and fought in a not dissimilar way to me and my parents. I would turn up drunk at his house and we would row and have an awful time. It always ended the same, with many tears and screams and the day after me staring blankly.
I spent a lot of time staring blankly. I worked in Oxford on my own over summer just to stay around him. I would get up, go to work, finish work at 1, go and lie down and take a sleeping pill or just lie down and stare and wait until such a time that I would see him. I can’t even remember crying very much.
Anyway, the blog started shortly after that. My own vehicle of spin to allow me to reclaim all of the stupid and depressing moments in my life and to try and improve what I was really thinking.