Little Bangladesh in America

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
Every year, thousands of Bangladeshi new immigrants are arriving at different airports in the United States of America. Most of them are lottery winners of US Diversity Visa Programs; almost five thousand a year. Many of the newcomers are also dependents of the Bangladeshi American residents and citizens. Many are arriving as students and visitors. Many students after completing or not completing their studies and many visitors, instead of going back home on expiry of their visas, are frantically trying to find somehow a way to stay back in America in the hope that they would find a chance to change their fate in this land of opportunities.

Those who have a friend to receive them at the airport are very fortunate. But a majority of the new immigrants arrive in America with only a few hundred dollars in their pockets having practically nobody to receive them in the airport. A new immigrant, who perhaps didn’t even live in the capital city of Bangladesh, who is perhaps coming direct from a remote village in Bangladesh to a megacity like New York in America, after winning a lottery of US Diversity Visa Program, finds himself stunned in a strange land in the midst of people speaking in a different language and behaving in a different culture. Such a Bangladeshi becomes desperate to find a corner where a Bangladeshi lives, a little community—a “little Bangladesh”—where s/he could speak in Bangla and have some Bangladeshi food of rice and lentil.

Fortunately, for such a new Bangladeshi immigrant, there are of course colonies in most of the busy cities in the United States where Bangladeshis are reasonably concentrated. If the new immigrant is a young man or woman capable of doing menial jobs, s/he gets a work within a week or at best two with a little help from a countryman living in a colony of Bangladeshis. Jackson Height in New York is such a colony where are found Bangladeshis galore.

A new Bangladeshi immigrant’s life in America mostly starts first as a helping hand in a restaurant, a slaughter house, an apple grove, or in a warehouse. In the new workplace s/he should prove his or her physical strength and mental alertness, always ready to lift, move and shelve weighty boxes full of merchandises. After a few weeks or a few months s/he would be given a chance to handle the machinery and equipment to do the main jobs of cutting meats, dressing chickens, gluing labels, kneading a dough of flour, frying pizzas on pans, etc.

S/he starts picking up a few English words and phrases to communicate at least with his/her supervisor. In most cases for a new immigrant a few years are passed by in the same place of work without a break. Life for such an immigrant in America starts with a wage of a few dollars an hour. A job of a cab driver, a security guard or of a waiter in a restaurant is deemed a coveted job that requires institutional trainings. New Bangladeshi immigrants who were well-to-do or did white-collar jobs in Bangladesh vie frantically for such a job. After getting a job, a new cocoon of dreams s/he starts weaving. A brand new culture s/he starts embracing.

America is truly a land of opportunities for those who are enterprising and America is a place where there is always a dignity of labor. Many who started their living as meat-cutters or cab drivers are now teachers in schools and colleges and computer programmers in big IT companies drawing hefty salaries. It is considered a pride in America if someone rises from rags to riches.

Like all other immigrants Bangladeshi immigrants in the USA, almost half a million, like to feel proud of their motherland. If there is a shop run by a Bangladeshi where Bangladeshi foods are on display, Bangladeshi expatriates rush to those shops to get a smell of their homeland. If there is a mosque where Bangladeshis congregate for prayers, new immigrants try to find a place near the mosque to live in.

There is always a spirit of camaraderie where Bangladeshis are concentrated. But, there is also a spirit of quarrelling where there is a heavy concentration of Bangladeshi immigrants. It is considered a ‘news’ if a day is passed without fighting among Bangladeshis in a city like New York or Los Angeles. It would be considered abnormal if there is no division found among Bangladeshis in a locality or a club or an association where one group does not belong to Awami League (AL) and the other to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Not only in infighting and quarrelling with their own compatriots, Bangladeshis living in America also cry out when there is a common interest for the sake of their motherland and where Bangladeshis, their friends and foes alike, can do something that may uphold Bangladesh. Bangladeshi immigrants in America compared to immigrants from other countries have proven themselves as real experts in lobbying to do whatever for the sake or in the name of Bangladesh.

To have Bangladeshi food, come over to “Little Bangladesh”.

In California there is a place in Artesia which has traditionally been known as “Little India”. Some Bangladeshis wondered if there is a place called “Little India” why not there should be a place that may be called “Little Bangladesh”! Though never been officially designated by the concerned City Council the place in Artesia was called “Little India” by words of mouth because people, especially Indians, go there for shopping saris, gold jewelry and Indian foods.

Inspired by the name “Little India” some enthusiastic Bangladeshis were almost successful last year to elbow out the Korean people in declaring a big chunk of area—generally and informally considered a part of Korea Town—a 56-square-block area from 3rd to Wilshire Boulevard and from Western Avenue to Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles, as “Little Bangladesh”. But some Koreans could somehow get a hint about the grand plan the Bangladeshis were conspiring. The Korean community leaders, who had not previously thought of an official designation for the area, instantly countered the Bangladeshi move and approached the City Council to declare the area as “Korea Town”. Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area, was embarrassed to face a tension between two Asian communities in owning an area as their own. Tom LaBonge started his efforts to forge a compromise between the Bangladeshi and the Korean communities.

And when the City Council voted on the matter in last August, the (poor) Bangladeshis got only a 4-block—instead of 56-block—stretch of 3rd Street between Alexandria and New Hampshire avenues as their own little home, now officially recognized as “Little Bangladesh” and the rest of the blocks were designated as “Korea Town”. Councilmember Tom LaBonge who worked for 18 months to make this happen said: “It is a great triumph for those 15,000 to 20,000 Bangladeshis who live in that area to have a little piece of home in their own neighborhoods in Los Angeles”.

The strip now officially recognized as “Little Bangladesh” doesn’t really have the look or feel of a Bangladesh. Most stores in the area cater to Korean or Latino clientele, and many of a dozen or so Bangladeshi stores are located blocks away. Aside from a handful of restaurants and grocery stores, the neighborhood features almost no other Bangladeshi shops or services.

Although Bangladeshi businesses in the area at this moment are not so noticeable compared to Korean businesses it is hoped that with the new neighborhood designated as “Little Bangladesh” there would be an increase of Bangladeshi presence in the locality.

There are already some signs of progress. The Bangladeshi owner of a 99-cent store at 3rd and Ardmore Avenue is planning to open a ‘halal’ butcher shop, catering to the area’s new Muslim residents. And a ‘halal’ butcher shop nearby is toying with the idea of opening a restaurant. Other Bangladeshi merchants are also planning to open their stores in the neighborhood.

Bangladeshis want to say to their compatriots and the world: “Hey, if you want to have Bangladeshi food, buy Bangladeshi costumes or watch Bangladeshi cultures, come over to “Little Bangladesh” at the 3rd between Western and Vermont!”

Last Saturday (15 January, 2011) not less than 5000 Bangladeshis attended a grand function in downtown Los Angeles for a get-together to celebrate the new designation of “Little Bangladesh” where Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders joined. The L.A. Mayor and the city officials said: “Official designations, like ‘Little Bangladesh’, ‘Korea Town’ etc. are a way of recognizing the contributions of L.A.’s various communities. Though symbolic, it also gives people more personal pride in their neighborhoods”.



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