Fire Escape's 2008 Short Fiction Third Prize Winner

Third Prize 2008 Fire Escape Short Story Contest
Pancakes or Porathas

by Naureen, Bangladesh/America, Age 15

Existing as a blend of two different heritages does not necessarily imply that you are a harmonious blend. Some people coo that you are "so lucky to be able to experience two cultures," to live the American lifestyle at school and go home to the smell of Bengali home-cooking. Others, however, notice the oddly shaped edges of your piece of the puzzle. You don't quite fit in anywhere. You notice it on a daily basis.

Your mother asks if you would like pancakes or porathas for breakfast – in Bengali. You reply in clear English, "Neither, I want cereal." Your mom clucks her tongue, a subtle reminder that makes you freshly aware of how fortunate you are to live in a land of wealth and opportunity, an infamous land called America. In Bangladesh, nearly every breakfast would consist of porathas, fried squares of dough used to hug vegetables so you can enjoy two food groups in one sitting. The only variety breakfast allots is meat or sughee instead of the redundant dose of vegetables.

You shuttle to and from school by bus each day because your parents are steadfast on taking full advantage of the free education transportation system. However much of a hybrid being you feel like, the clothes you wear to school are uniquely American. A cotton tee, as breezy and light as the selwar kameze your mom urges you to wear to weekend dinner parties, clings to your ethnic love handles. You sport jeans that you have found to be so comfy you've suggested them to your father on more than one occasion. Why he continues to wear a flimsy, plaid, wrap-around lunghi on his waist with such accessibility to good Levi's is beyond you. Unlike your father, mother, and friends at school, you do not dangle by the rules of one book, know loyalty to just one set of customs. Today you chose to have cereal; tomorrow it may be porathas.

After school an American friend with honey-colored hair asks if you want to hit up a movie this weekend, something new at the box office, or just hang out at her house. Without thinking, you politely decline the invitation, regardless of how appealing it sounds. You know your parents have already made plans for you, as they have virtually every weekend of your life. There are always Bengali parties on weekends. Birthday bashes, house warmings, baby showers, and casual gatherings for cups of chai when simply no other occasion presents itself. To each of these parties you are expected to wear a selwar kameze, a billowy, knee-length top with matching pants of equal fluidity. The outfit hides your curves under a mass of sequined fabric so you can stuff yourself with laddoos and payesh without revealing the fact outwardly.

Sometimes the weekend get-togethers spill over into Monday night as well. On rare occasions like this weekend, however, you are grateful to discover that there is only one party to attend. This gives you the chance to call your friend back and RSVP with good news!

Even carefree hang-outs with friends are not entirely blithe. You are always on tiptoe, conscious that your habits do not coincide with those of your American buddies. On your honey-haired friend's doorstep, you inquire into whether you should take off your shoes before stepping inside the house. At a Bengali household, this is not debatable. You would slip off your Bata sandals immediately. Your friend says her mother doesn't care if you take off your shoes.

You manage a smile as you stroke the massive dog that bounds toward you, licking your calves and jumping psychotically. You have never known the presence of other creatures in your house. Even without allergies, your parents would never allow pets. Your mother would be utterly perturbed knowing that you are eating dinner tonight without first disinfecting your hands. You have a great time with your friends, watching TV at a record high volume and spilling popcorn in the couch crevices. You go home without the familiarly heavy belly laden with rich desserts.

Every day your actions remind you that you are isolated in viewpoint. While you do some things that are Bengali and some that are American, you are not strictly defined by either culture. This idea nestles in the back of your mind but is constantly provoked – from the early morning decision between pancakes and porathas to your persistent suggestion of denim pants to your father. Some say you cannot be identified, that you have taken to falling between the cracks just like the popcorn in the sofa. But really you are more identifiable than not. You are two identities wrapped in a warm, crisp poratha and served with a side of vegetables.