2019 Fall External Programs IFSA Ritapa Neogi Spain

Reflecting on Bengali-American Identity in Spain

Characteristic architecture in Seville, Spain.

Standing in the clean, orderly waiting area of the Mossos d’Esquadra station at Plaça d’Espanya, I tried to remember the color of my robber’s skin. The whole incident had happened so quickly that it was difficult to even remember what he had been wearing. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was overthinking. Telling the translator the thief’s hand was the same shade as mine just sent an immense sense of guilt through my body. It was the truth, and I’d seen what I’d seen. But it felt awful to admit a truth that perpetuated the same tired, racist stereotype on every tourist forum on the Internet: pickpockets aren’t real Spaniards, they’re immigrants.

That sentiment is problematic in a lot of ways. Immigrants are, by law and nature, locals of wherever they have immigrated to. They are just as valid of residents as a person born in that location. More importantly, even if the criminal aspect of the stereotype had a backbone of truth, it would be supported by a complex background, interwoven with institutionalized racism and a history of colonialism that led to Europe’s recent wave of immigration. It’s not as simple as generalizing an incredibly large and diverse group of people.

Since arriving here, it has been easiest for me to connect with first-generation Spaniards, even though I’m a second-generation Bengali-American myself. They tend to be more curious about where I’m from, and many prefer to speak to me in English than Spanish. Knowing which foreign nationalities are most well-represented in Spain, it’s surprising that I meet so many immigrants from Bangladesh. They are, of course, my favorite people to run into, because there is nothing better than greeting a stranger with, “Apni kemon achen?” and watching their face light up.

Then again, while everyone I’ve talked to has been overwhelmingly kind, there’s always that feeling that I’m not “Bengali” enough. I can always say my grandfather is from Sylhet, but I can’t understand Sylheti, or even some Bangladeshi accents. And finding Spanish fillers for my faltering Bengali is hard when I’ve never had to translate one to the other. If my Bengali were good enough, this wouldn’t matter, because fillers wouldn’t be necessary. But it’s not good enough, and every interaction with a native Bengali-speaker in Spain reminds me of that. If being a child of diaspora was hard in my hometown, a major American city, it’s five times as frustrating abroad.

My closest relationship to someone who has moved into Barcelona is with the waiter at a small sushi restaurant near my apartment. A college graduate from Pakistan, he works two full-time jobs just to pay off the fee of applying for paperwork — €9,000.

Yes, you read that right. Just like in the United States, immigration to Spain is unnecessarily difficult, bureaucratic, and expensive. The Spanish system doesn’t allow non-European Union immigrants to settle permanently without at least five years of prior residence, which means poorer non-EU immigrants are forced to live in the country illegally if they haven’t obtained permission through work.

A street in Gràcia, a neighborhood in Barcelona.

When my cheap, old, somewhat dysfunctional Motorola G6 was plucked from my fingers, I chased the robber for a hot minute. Somewhere along the run I became aware that I wasn’t going to win, and as some kind of twisted coping mechanism, I remembered my mom’s age-old advice: “Maybe they needed it more than you.”

I’m not sure if my outdated Android really helped this person out. I’m not wishing the best for him — after all, he did leave me stranded alone in the dark with no means of getting home, which made for a scary night. However, I’ve come to understand no experience exists without a web of experiences behind it. Although this thief may have been some teenager with nothing better to do, he could’ve been an immigrant who is trying to survive in Spain for five years before receiving long-term residence and being eligible to work.

It’s not so much a theory as it is a backstory that provides meaning. And despite being across the world, it’s a reminder that if we want to reduce minor crimes like theft, we need to acknowledge that there are bigger root problems causing them to happen. In the 90’s, my parents were able to continue living in Allentown after my dad completed his PhD at Lehigh. What if my dad didn’t have an education that led him to the opportunity of studying at Lehigh? Would my family still have been able to move into the U.S. with relatively little hassle?

Having a lot of important factors in how you define yourself is already overwhelming abroad. Learning how others see those traits can be even more overwhelming. But there is always a bright side to these things. Losing my phone didn’t just make me ponder the insane customs tax on my replacement, or the way I started carrying books to read while waiting for my sushi order. It triggered a deep reflection on my identity, and I think that counts as the bright side to what happened.

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