The One, Unique Accessory That Helped Me Embrace My Bicultural Identity

Welcome to “I’ve Got This” — Refinery29 and Plan B One-Step's exploration of the pivotal, transformative life moments in which we’re reminded of our strength. Ahead, hear from one woman about the object she looks to as a reminder of her own fortitude.
Every morning on Mulafara Street in Chittagong, Bangladesh, a lanky man would walk down our road, shouldering a branch lined with bunches of bananas. “Bananas! Bananas! One TAKA!” he’d yell. My grandmother would drop a string down from our balcony with a one-taka coin attached, her bangles jingling, and the man would tie exactly five bananas to the string before she reeled it back up.
Advertisement
Each afternoon, the sun set right as the fourth prayer call sang from the mosque and rang across the entire town. That’s how I learned to tell time. That’s how my grandmother told time her entire life.
When I was four, we moved to New York — and time began to move differently. It was rapid and frantic. Everything sounded new — no bangles clanking, bananas, or call to prayer to punctuate the passing of each day.
In our Brooklyn home, I would sit inside and picture our apartment back in Bangladesh — how I would return home to the jingles of women’s bracelets brushing against pans while they made “botha,” the Bengali word for mashed potatoes. My aunts would hand me garlic to peel, but my tiny fingers couldn’t grasp the cloves properly. They would drop to the floor, and everyone would laugh.
ILLUSTRATED BY GRACE HEEJUNG KIM
All the women in my family dressed impeccably, even when they worked in the kitchen. They wore thick gold bangles when they were home. In Bangladesh, I watched them all gather — my mom, her sisters, my aunts, my grandmothers. When they went out to a wedding or a party, they wore their glass bracelets in blues, greens, and purples, selected to match the fabric of their dresses.
On one particular afternoon, having just returned from a game of soccer, my grandmother told me to go change for that night’s party. I was ecstatic — it was rare that I was given the opportunity to tag along. Next to my sequined dress she laid out a set of her red bangles for me to wear.
Advertisement
I watched the women dance and sing before we went out. They all had long, dark hair flowing down their backs, and the summer mosquitoes looked like butterflies to me. I couldn’t dance or sing like them, so I cried while the baul music played. The bangles on my wrists were too big — they’d dangle off my hands if I moved, it wasn’t fair.
ILLUSTRATED BY GRACE HEEJUNG KIM
By the time I turned 10, we stopped going to Bangladesh to visit in the summer. We lived in a big, Victorian house in Brooklyn, and my parents wanted my brother and me to focus our time and energy on our life here. They wanted to ensure that we would get into the “right schools,” and behave in all the “right ways.” I was supposed to thrive academically, make American friends — while still spending my weekends reciting verses at the local mosque and attending my cousins’ harmonium recitals. On one occasion, my mom laid out a traditional dress for me to wear to a family friends’ birthday. I rejected it. She wore her gold bangles, and I listened as they clanked against each other, wishing she wouldn’t make so much noise as we walked.
In that time period, in place of more traditional dress, I wore T-shirts plastered with popular punk band logos and blue jeans — and I tucked those red bangles away, far from my sight, in a jewelry box under my bed. I didn’t touch them until I moved to Boston for college at age 17.
Advertisement
ILLUSTRATED BY GRACE HEEJUNG KIM
At the time, I thought Boston was the perfect escape for me. It was five hours away from home — not too far, but far enough for me to feel as if I could leave any cross-cultural baggage at home. During my junior year, I saw an international student from the Netherlands wear a set of white bangles at a frat party. The ease with which she wore them struck me in a way I couldn’t articulate that night — like I had seen an old friend. It was confusing but tantalizing. That evening, I pulled the bangles out from under my bed and gazed at them. But rather than put them on, I simply returned them to their place.
After I graduated from college, I moved to D.C., and I began to feel a sense of ease that I had never before felt in America. My roommate Emma insisted everyone call me Shar-meen, the proper pronunciation of my name. For most of my life, I had never bothered to correct anyone, but now, Emma did it for me. I met my best friend Parth — he was Indian-American with green eyes reminiscent of my aunts’. He was always fluttering around, showing me videos of a Bollywood fusion group he led in Wisconsin. I started seeking out literature, movies, friends who celebrated their cultures, all of which served as a distinct inspiration to me. I began to find solace in place of isolation in my new life — one where I was open, and curious, and proud.
ILLUSTRATED BY GRACE HEEJUNG KIM
A year into living in D.C., my grandmother in Bangladesh passed away. I had just started a new job, and my parents insisted that the logistics would be too complicated for me to attend her funeral. I left work early that day, and walked along 14th Street back to my apartment, where I knelt down and pulled the boxes I’d hidden out from underneath my bed. I rifled through the memorabilia from my childhood: concert tickets, celebrity magazine cut-outs, band T-shirts, and among all the American markers of my youth, the set of red bangles. I pulled them onto my wrists, and marveled at the fact that they fit; they no longer slid off as they had when I was a little girl.
Now, my bangles sit on my dresser, proudly displayed beside my family photos rather than tucked away beneath my bed. When friends come over, they ask about them — they seem to glow, to catch everyone’s attention. I tell them all about the bracelets — and about my grandmother, my aunts, and the botha potato dish. It can be strange to hear myself talk with such pride and joy about something that gave me such great discomfort for so many years.
Last year, I went home for a family wedding. I hadn’t returned to Brooklyn to visit my parents in years. I wore a traditional dress I had picked out myself in New York, selected to match my lovely, red bangles and my kundan earrings. My mom looked at me, glowing with pride, all night long. As the ceremony ended, I watched the bride as she was leaving with her husband, her own glass bangles shining in the light. I closed my eyes and thought about myself as a child: I thought about my grandmother and my aunts, all dressed up for the evening’s festivities, long hair swaying, dancing to the baula around me until they shuffled out the door, leaving me with just the sound of chimes and clinking bangles.

More from Living

R29 Original Series