Identity Angst and Imagined Communities

When South Asians immigrate to the United States, they conjure communities reminiscent of the ones they left. They build networks in an attempt to replicate the ones they had before, but the result is something altogether new. Imagined communities, they’re called. I wonder if we’re not all trying to conjure cultural communities out of an increasingly globalized and homogenized cultural landscape.

Are the places we perfectly belong always invisible to us, leaving us only acutely aware of the places where we don’t? Born and raised in the South, I never recognized it as a place I truly belonged: I was raised progressive, intellectual, and middle-class in the suburbs. W.J. Cash talked about how the South is inhospitable to academics, about how it’s a place where it’s difficult for anyone with an intellectual bent to belong. There is an unfortunate history of suicides among scholars of the South.

Only when I moved to Bangladesh to live and teach for a year did I begin to recognize the South as a place where I belonged. In Bangladesh, I was confronted with almost total exclusion. Linguistically, culturally, and aesthetically, I was faced for the first time with the totally foreign. I clung to the snatches of life there that I recognized from the South: the heat, the languor, the watermelons. In the absence of a community, I conjured the one I knew, embracing the parts I love, excluding the parts I never identified with. I cooked mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra, and creamed corn. I read Eudora Welty and Gone with the Wind. I studied my own culture the way I’d studied Bangladesh’s before moving there. I dropped the g’s off of the ends of words and let my voice melt a little into a Southern accent I’d never had. I found in these things a place that I belonged, and I wondered if I was faking it, if it counted as my culture if I had to study and perform it.

Are all cultures in large part imagined communities? Aren’t they all studied and performed? What makes one an authentic member of a cultural community? The rap songs I listened to growing up instructed me how to perform that culture, even though when I left school, I drove twenty minutes and two bridges away from the physical communities associated with it. But just like my friends from those communities, I wore the proscribed clothes and shoes, knew the vocabulary, exchanged the cultural currency. Was that then my culture? Could I make an authentic claim to it? Or was I permanently excluded because that culture has developed in large part as a resistance to and in contrast to the culture of my ancestors? Can I claim aspects of black urban culture as my own or is my very claiming of it contributing to its dilution and commercialization?

A year after returning from Bangladesh, I started listening to country music kind of by accident. Bored of NPR and Top 40, I found country music to be only a short leap away from the bluegrass music I love. After an adolescence in which it was de rigeur to answer “what’s your favorite kind of music?” with “anything except country,” I was surprised to find that the genre wasn’t what I expected. The songs weren’t all about God, guns, and beer, although there was some of that. Instead they told stories and painted pictures that were romantic and spoke to a strong sense of place and identity, the same way rap music did. The more I listened to it, the more obvious it became that rap and country were two sides of the same coin. In country, one drove a truck, wore boots and cowboy hats, drank beer and whiskey, and grew up in the rural South. In rap, one drove a luxury car, wore Gucci and Air Forces, drank Hennessy and Bacardi, and grew up in the urban (often Southern) ghetto, no matter where one actually grew up (see: Kanye West). In each, a distinct culture is defined and its adherents instructed.

I am fascinated and compelled by nostalgia, and so is country music. The genre is built on a reminiscence of a past that perhaps never was and a present that is perhaps non-existent—an imagined community, in other words. I listen to the country music radio station in the city and wonder how many people listening know how to operate a tractor. In “Buy Me a Boat,” Chris Janson sings, “they call me redneck, white trash, and blue collar,” and, despite being from South Georgia (just like many country stars) and despite having much in common with them, I am the “they” Janson refers to. I am always that they. There is a venn diagram of they’s: the groups of people against whom so many are struggling for liberation, the majorities that minority groups define themselves against. I exist largely at the center of that Venn diagram, at the confluence of America’s past and present oppressions, the epitome of that they.

Can I be both? Can I identify with the country singers who sing about the places, experiences, food, and lifestyles that I know and love and also identify with the they, the people from the cities (like me) and the North, the academics who bemoan the conservatism and anti-intellectualism that’s rife in rural Southern communities? A quest for belonging implies a desire to belong to only one community, where all the boxes are checked, but in the end I, like everyone else, contain multitudes. I have an almost desperate desire to belong to a defined community, a specific cultural community that extends beyond my family and friends, but in this cultural moment, when there seems to be a pervasive, unspoken demand to get in a cultural identity box and stay in it, to be both or many, to live in the void between the boxes is an act of resistance and defiance. Is the price of that resistance to live without an elemental sense of cultural belonging?

The Bangladeshi-Americans that I met in Bangladesh must confront these questions constantly. Their cultural identities are public and apparent, while the struggles to reconcile them aren’t necessarily so. I only ever spoke with them about these struggles briefly and superficially, perhaps because they assumed I couldn’t relate. In some ways I can’t. Their challenges in defining and operating within their identities are different from mine in important and fundamental ways. But aren’t everyone’s? Are we all wandering in the void believing we’re alone?

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