Happy birthday, America, from a village in Bangladesh

Courtesy of Rejoanul Kabir Rejoan
Rezaul Karim Reza at his reading table in his village, Nizkabilpur Khiyarpara, in the Rangpur District of Bangladesh on June 27, 2021. The table is full of books and magazines that Americans have sent him.

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Twenty years ago, we had no paved roads or electricity, let alone internet, in my Bangladeshi village. But by listening to Voice of America’s “Learning English” programs on the radio, I developed my English a bit.

In 2010, our village was electrified. I bought a smartphone and connected with the internet. I opened a Facebook account and tried to reach out to Americans. A Virginian responded.

Why We Wrote This

As this writer proved, insatiable curiosity and dogged determination can expand your experience far beyond the confines of your community.

He and his kindhearted wife sent me a great many books and small gifts related to American history, culture, and literature. The books played a vital role in my life. I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which helped me learn of the American Civil War. While reading “The Grapes of Wrath,” I felt like I was moving with the Joad family to California.

By corresponding with a Texas friend, I came to know that everything is BIG in Texas through the photos he sent me.

I was unstoppable and met more Americans.

Now, from my tiny village, I can explore through the American wilderness and share my thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s role during the civil rights movement.

I want to thank all these good Americans who brought their people, culture, and history to me, and “Happy birthday to you, America.”

America, I am sending you a happy birthday wish from a small Bangladeshi village. I knew nothing about you before 2001, when 9/11 shook you and turned the world around. Twenty years later, as I wish you “Happy birthday,” I know about you, your people, and their history.

I first heard about America when I was in junior high school. Our geography teacher showed us a world map, and his finger stopped on the line that read USA. “This is America,” he said. We were curious why the teacher mentioned America specifically, but he did not explain it to us any further.

Then in 2001, when I was about to finish 10th grade, we watched the horror of 9/11 on a black-and-white TV in our village, and I saw America for the first time. While watching the huge plume of smoke and the towers falling down, I saw Americans. It was the first time I heard them speak, and something compelled me to speak like them, so I started learning English.

Why We Wrote This

As this writer proved, insatiable curiosity and dogged determination can expand your experience far beyond the confines of your community.

We had no satellite television channels other than the government-run TV station. We had no paved roads or electricity, let alone internet, so learning English was tough. After I found a radio set with my uncle, I tried to connect it with some English broadcasting channels. Thus, I discovered Voice of America. By listening to VOA’s “Learning English” programs, I developed my English a bit.

I wrote a letter to VOA asking for some books. They sent me some booklets and magazines and a beautiful photo of Washington, D.C. I bought some grammar books and started reading English dailies in Bangladesh. As my English developed, I started to know about America and its people.

In 2010, our village was electrified. There were color TV sets with multiple channels. I bought a smartphone and connected with the internet provided by a phone company. I opened a Facebook account and tried to reach over to Americans. Although many of them did not respond, some were friendly and responded, including a Virginian.

My Virginia friend and his kindhearted wife sent me a great many books and small gifts. The gifts were often related to American history, culture, and literature. The books played a vital role in my life. I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which helped me learn of the American Civil War. The couple included some fine works of great American writers, including Washington Irving and John Steinbeck. While reading “The Grapes of Wrath,” I felt like I was moving with the Joad family to California. “The Grapes of Wrath” added another lesson in American history to my list, the Great Depression. I posted some of my already-learned history notes in a Facebook group and reached out to some more Americans.

I corresponded with my Texas friend through Facebook Messenger. He told me about the Texas-Mexico war at the Alamo, and I came to know that everything is BIG in Texas through the photos he sent me. Rodeos, ranchos, and rattlesnakes were part of our discussion almost every day. He also sent me books, pens, and writing paper. I learned more about cowboy culture from the books, and when I hold the colorful pens, I feel a sense of my own American dream while studying, teaching, and writing stories for and about America. 

Then, I moved to California virtually, when I met a friend from the “grizzly bear state.” From the Spanish settlers to the gold rush to migrants’ lives during the Depression, my California friend brought me U.S. history. Through our conversation, I also discovered a wild America, from far-away Bangladesh. He introduced me to the Giant Forest, full of sequoia trees; Death Valley National Park; roadrunners; California quail; and the sun and surf of the beaches.

I was unstoppable and met more Americans. One of them served in the U.S. Army. My Army friend brought me world history – the Vietnam War, Korean War, Gulf War, Cuban missile crisis, and more. He was stationed in Iraq during the war there. We corresponded about his experience fighting for his country, leaving everybody back on U.S. shores. It seemed the life of a soldier is very hard.

If America did not exist, I would not be who I am today. Now, from my tiny village, I can explore through the American wilderness, walk through the trails in the sequoia forest, and argue with my friends about why Native Americans are called Indians. Now I understand and can share my thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s role during the civil rights movement with other people around the world. 

I want to thank all these good Americans who brought America – its people, culture, and history – to me here in Bangladesh. I thank you very much, friends, and “Happy birthday to you, America.”

Rezaul Karim Reza is a substitute English teacher in Bangladesh and a freelance writer.  

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