Talking to my dad about mortgages makes me feel like a real adult. Clueless and afraid of being crushed by the weight of responsibility. It’s often when we talk about big things like this that my dad is most talkative. Suddenly, Googling something pales in comparison to the real-life knowledge my dad seems to have. So why do I not know more about him?
I read 1971 as my first book on the history of Bangladesh and found it to be incredibly interesting. However, despite the book’s detailed geopolitical overview of events that led to Bangladesh gaining independence, there was little mention of the personal stories of Bangladeshis who lived through the war and its aftermath. When I mentioned to my dad about some of the things I learned from the book, he suddenly became animated with tales of life in East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh). He was a little boy at the time, but had more than enough familiarity with the period through the experiences of his parents and older siblings. He also spoke about life in a newly-independent country, the shift towards autocracy under Bangabandhu and the eventual power struggle that followed his assassination. It might sound stupid, but I just couldn’t believe that he knew all these things. Almost as if I didn’t need another book on Bangladesh when I had its encyclopaedia sitting next to me drinking tea while watching the news.
For me, what followed after this conversation was a broader thought. What else did my dad know but did not mention? I don’t think I’m strange for not knowing much about either of my parents aside from what I’ve gathered growing up with them. I mean, what was my mum like when she was my age? I could ask, but in a house that spoke very little about things like this there was no real frame of reference for me. Even the way we speak to each other is a mismatch. I speak to them in English and they speak to me in Bengali. We make it work, but it is certainly easy to sometimes feel misunderstood or unable to understand. I feel like avoiding deeper topics altogether in fears of coming across the wrong way.
And yet, society tells us that we should be incredibly close to our parents. They are supposedly the people who have known us since birth. Idealised families on American TV shows like ‘That’s So Raven’ showed fathers and mothers talking candidly about their pasts, but also their hobbies and interests. Maybe my family was abnormal, because it seemed like even my friends had a greater knowledge of what their parents were like outside of their immediate roles as parents. You might be thinking that there’s an easy solution here, to just talk more to my parents and ask more questions. But where do you start?
I’m 24 now, and my parents are getting older. Hence the increased conversations about mortgages, saving money and marriage (lol). I expect my relationship with my mother and father to change with age, their roles becoming less authoritarian, more advisory and eventually more dependent towards me. This may make it easier to ask them about their lives as individuals, back-home, when they were teenagers, or even younger. What was life like? I worry, however, that if I don’t ask the right questions then this invaluable information may never be known, and these vital stories lost forever. They just don’t offer anything on their own accord. Perhaps, like asking my dad about my book on the Bangladeshi Independence War, it may need prompting.
Some of the best prompts arise on their own. I found out how proud my parents could be when I was received an offer to read Law at the University of Oxford. Up until that point, they were always incredibly reserved with their praise no matter how many As and A*s I achieved. But the day I got all my A-level results and finally secured my offer, they rang up the entire phonebook to tell people. Likewise, I didn’t realise how human my parents could be until we fell into moments of crisis. Suddenly, my dad’s incredible wisdom faltered and my mum’s brave face would slip to show that she too was sometimes afraid. This included perhaps what families go through but hardly mention: money issues, fierce arguments between parents and chronic frustrations that arise from being a squeezed working-class, immigrant family.
One day my parents won’t be around. Anything they don’t tell me will be gone forever, or found in relics left behind, or through the prism of someone else’s retelling. I wish I could take all the pictures, all the conversations and memories and put them in a museum. We’d walk through the exhibition together, discussing everything like eager tourists. But it’s not possible. I’m going to have to ask questions and hope they are happy to share. According to the International Council on Archives, ‘archives are witnesses to the past.’ Knowing your parents as people is a form of archiving; discovering your relationship with them and your heritage is part of your DNA. Your identity. By discovering the past, this archive won’t just stay with you, it’ll stay with anyone that hears their story. So how can we not bridge this divide with our parents, and ultimately make new connections with the world?
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