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The Making of a ‘Home’: Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants in Toronto

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This study is aimed at exploring the role of space and spatial relations in constituting transnational diasporic lives. Drawing on the case study of the Bangladeshi diaspora in Toronto and their involvement with Bangladeshi diasporic restaurants, it addresses two major concerns. First, it explores how spatial processes that are manifested in a diasporic space could result in the making of a Bangladeshi community. Second, it examines aesthetic representations of home created and sustained by Bangladeshi restaurant landscapes. Thus, it investigates how Bangladeshi restaurants become microcosms of symbolic and imaginary processes that undergird social relations.
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CHAPTER SEVEN
THE MAKING OF A “HOME”:
EXPLORING THE SPACE OF BANGLADESHI
DIASPORIC RESTAURANTS IN TORONTO
NAFISA TANJEEM
PH.D STUDENT, DEPARTMENT OF WOMENS
AND GENDER STUDIES, RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY
OF NEW JERSEY, USA
Abstract
This study is aimed at exploring the role of space and spatial relations
in constituting transnational diasporic lives. Drawing on the case study of
the Bangladeshi diaspora in Toronto and their involvement with
Bangladeshi diasporic restaurants, it addresses two major concerns. First,
it explores how spatial processes that are manifested in a diasporic space
could result in the making of a Bangladeshi community. Second, it
examines aesthetic representations of home created and sustained by
Bangladeshi restaurant landscapes. Thus, it investigates how Bangladeshi
restaurants become microcosms of symbolic and imaginary processes that
undergird social relations.
Introduction
Space and spatial interactions are significant constituent elements of a
diaspora. Diaspora can be conceptualized in terms of complex and
interrelated sets of spatial processes instead of loss of homeland,
uprootedness, collective memory of a homeland, or a strong desire for
return (Jackson et al. 2004, 2). Ma (2003) argues that diaspora is formed
through spatial interactions which are “commonly manifested in terms of
connectivity, exchange and spread of people, goods, ideas and information
across networked space and among a number of places with varying
degrees of intensity and directionality” (p. 8). Brah (1996) proposes a
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 79
conceptualization of “diasporic space” referring to an intersectional point
where all these spatial processes take place. Diasporic space contains
different kinds of contested boundaries such as inclusion and exclusion,
belongingness and otherness, and “us” and them” (p. 209). Thus, exploring
a particular diasporic space can be an effective way of knowing a
particular diaspora.
The restaurant is a significant diasporic space where diasporic identities
are formed and maintained. It can represent the larger diasporic space
where it inhibits and plays a crucial role in social and cultural formations
of diasporic lives. Berris et al. (2007) note that there is a recent social
geography-influenced trend in restaurant studies which examines “the
larger networks, ‘scapes’, and socio-cultural practices in which restaurants
are set” (p. 8). For example, Turgeon and Pastinelli (2002) consider ethnic
restaurants in the urban landscape of Quebec City as “deterritorialized
ethnosites,” which can also be called “microspaces” for intercultural
contact (Beriss et al. 2007). However, Zukin (1995) explores restaurants in
New York City and suggests that local restaurants can “reterritorialize”
global processes. She shows how these local restaurants cluster together
by type and ultimately construct neighbourhood institutions such as “Little
Italy.”
In this chapter, I formulate my research questions inspired by
contemporary advancements in the socio-cultural geographical trend of
examining “scapes” of restaurants. I choose to examine Bangladeshi
restaurants in order to conceptualize the diasporic space of the little
Bangladesh located at the Victoria Park and Danforth region in Toronto,
Canada. I ask two questions in this study: First, how do spatial processes
manifested in a diasporic space result in the making of a Bangladeshi
community? I inquire as to how clusters of Bangladeshi restaurants and
other communal organizations can create the sense of a “community” at a
diasporic space. In order to understand the process of the making of a
“community,” I utilize Anderson’s theorization of the “imagined
community” which states that a community is not constituted through
face-to-face encounters; instead it is usually imagined (1983, 6). Second,
how do different forms of aesthetic representation of home produce
processes of place fetishism within Bangladeshi restaurant landscapes? I
examine approaches practiced by a Bangladeshi restaurant in order to craft
a certain kind of aesthetic home for the Bangladeshi diaspora. Clusters of
imaginative and sensory components of the restaurant landscape contribute
in promoting this homely aesthetic, yet this aesthetics of home is an
essentialized ideology. Brah (1996) articulates that “home” is not situated
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Chapter Seven
80
on a particular point of space for a diaspora. As the concept of diaspora
refers to multilocality across transnational borders, diasporic home is
situated multipositionally across different places (p. 192). Any attempt to
promote a unique aesthetics of home for the diaspora creates and sustains
place fetishism.
Methodology
Participants of my study were divided into three main criteria—
owners, workers and customers of Bangladeshi restaurants. I chose owners
who had been running their restaurant businesses for at least one year,
workers who had been working at a particular Bangladeshi restaurant for
more than six months, and customers who dined in Bangladeshi
restaurants at least once a month. Twenty-one participants were recruited
for this study. Among them, four were single or joint owners, two were
workers, and fifteen were customers of different Bangladeshi restaurants
located at the Victoria Park-Danforth area in Toronto. Customers who
participated in my study came from a wide range of sex, age, class,
occupational, educational, class, immigration status, religious and
geographic backgrounds. Seven of them were female and eight were male.
The age of customers ranged from twenty-two to sixty years. My customer
participants had a variety of occupations such as students, homemakers,
taxi drivers, sales persons, local entrepreneurs, and bankers.
I collected information by utilizing three qualitative research methods:
semi-formal in-depth interviews, participant observation, and short
informal conversations. I invited participants to take part in a minimum of
one face-to-face session and up to a maximum of two face-to-face
sessions. Each session lasted from 45 minutes to 1 hour. I used a semi-
structured guideline with themes and general questions to inquire about
certain arenas of interest for conducting in-depth interviews. I also carried
out participant observations and short informal conversations in six
Bangladeshi restaurants for nine days in order to complement and
contextualize the interviews.
The Making of a Bangladeshi Community
in Little Bangladesh
Toronto is the home of the highest number of Bangladeshi diasporic
population in Canada, and there are major pockets in the greater Toronto
area where Bangladeshis live in clusters. For example, the Victoria Park
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 81
and Danforth avenue region, Regent Park, and the Eglinton avenue and
Markham road region (Ghosh; quoted in Radhika 2009). Among these
pockets, the Victoria Park-Danforth avenue region has been popularly
known as “Little Bangladesh” since 2000. More than 24% of the
population of this neighborhood are Bangladeshi (Radhika 2009).
Fig. 7.1. Geographical location of the Little Bangladesh (the red line bordered
area)
Source: http://goo.gl/maps/FWHUw (accessed September 19 , 2012).
Any newcomer from Bangladesh is very likely to settle in Little
Bangladesh due to the already existing social networks. The region offers
some attractive incentives not only for new but also for old immigrants.
For example, many low rent apartments in high-rise complexes are
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Chapter Seven
82
frequently available in here. The apartment complexes are located very
close to Victoria Park and Main Street subway stations from which a
commute downtown takes 15 to 20 minutes. Clinics, pharmacies, shopping
malls, and elementary schools are located nearby. A wide variety of
businesses and services, such as grocery stores, money exchange offices,
travel agencies, bookstores, beauty salons, laundromats, furniture shops,
driving schools, Quran schools, food chains, and restaurants, are owned
and run by Bangladeshis. Many immigrants prefer to access these services
because the providers speak the same language, share similar socio-
economic backgrounds, and are willing to go the extra mile by offering
information and suggestions on housing, school, health care or jobs
(Ahmed; quoted in Radhika 2009). For these reasons, a significant portion
of the Bangladeshi diaspora in Toronto has clustered in Little Bangladesh.
According to Ghosh, the main motivation for this cluster lies in the fact
that “there is a feeling of community” (Ghosh; quoted in Radhika 2009).
It is necessary to examine how the feeling of a Bangladeshi community
is constructed and how this ascribes meanings to the diasporic space of
Little Bangladesh. Certain imaginations function behind the creation of
this feeling. For example, it is anticipated that a cluster of Bangladeshi
people live within the single, bounded territory of Little Bangladesh. They
are the majority group of the population involved in an intense social
relationship with each other, which is not common elsewhere. In this way,
a shared communal life is assumed on the basis of commonality,
coherence, and consistent sets of rules, values and beliefs at the locality.1
Despite their large numbers, Bangladeshis do not essentially constitute
a majority community in the Victoria Park-Danforth region. There are
three main reasons for this claim. First, every person having a Bangladeshi
origin does not necessarily always prioritize their identity as a
Bangladeshi. This tendency is particularly prevalent among the second
generation of the Bangladeshi diaspora.2 Second, people from Indian,
Pakistani, Sri Lankan and other diasporas constitute 76% of Little
Bangladesh (Radhika 2009). Thus, the presence of a large number of
Bangladeshi people does not essentially mean that they are the majority
group of the locality. Third, a wide range of class and gender differences
also prevail within the community, which makes it impossible to consider
it as a single and cohesive social group (Rahim 1999, 247).
1 Personal communication with participants.
2 Personal communication with customers.
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 83
Fig. 7.2. Signboard of a grocery store written in Bangla and English in Little
Bangladesh, Toronto
Anderson says, “It is imagined because the members of even the
smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them,
or even hear from them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their
communion” (1983, 6). Bangladeshis living in Little Bangladesh do not
personally know all Bangladeshis living or working at that area, they just
see a large number of big Bangla billboards placed in front of different
grocery stores, restaurants, and business organizations located on the
Danforth Avenue. When they walk through the streets, they hear a lot of
people speaking Bangla. When they go to grocery stores and restaurants,
they find deshi3foods readily available. When they read Bangla
newspapers offering up-to-date news about the Bangladeshi diaspora in
Canada, they believe that a substantial Bangladeshi community lives
around and this community sharing coherent interests. In these ways,
individual and collective memory and re-memory produce, reproduce and
transform the matrix of economic, political and cultural interrelationships
3 Deshi is a Bangla word which literally means “from own region/ country,” but
could also mean “homely.”
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Chapter Seven
84
within the Bangladeshi diasporic space, which results in the imagination of
a Bangladeshi community (Brah 1996, 183). However, imagining a
community is not a mere fantasy or an escape from hardships of lives. It is
a kind of social practice which plays a central role in the constitution of
diasporic agency (Appadurai 1996, 31).
The Aesthetics of Home and Place Fetishism
The establishment of Bangladeshi restaurants in Little Bangladesh
dates back to 1995. A video store named Priyangon was first opened on
the Danforth Avenue. Sharmin,4 the wife of the owner, used to prepare and
sell Bangladeshi snacks and drinks such as dalpuri, tehari, porota and cha
to customers. Bangladeshis used to gather there to buy video cassettes, eat
snacks and chat with each other. In 1998, the same owner hired a small
place at a coffee corner to sell Bangladeshi snacks.5 Nevertheless, the first
establishment to actually call itself a restaurant was Ghoroa, established in
1997. The second restaurant was called Zamzam. It started as a pizza shop
but later extended its menus widely. Its ownership was transferred after
two years. The new owners changed the name to Makkah after the name of
a sacred place for the Muslim community. A Swiss Bakery was the next
restaurant to open, which specialized in selling Bangladeshi bakery goods.
Bangladeshi restaurants in Little Bangladesh provide significant spaces
for the deployment of social relations among the Bangladeshi diaspora.
These restaurants form microcosms of symbolic and imaginary processes,
signify characteristics of the diaspora, and thus sustain identities of the
diasporic space. Eating at Bangladeshi restaurants is transformed into a
meaningful experience for the Bangladeshi diaspora through sensory and
imaginative modules. I use the broad concept of “aesthetics” to refer to all
imaginative and sensory components of the restaurant landscape. Fine
argues that aesthetics “is the broadcast of a cluster of terms that involve
the sensory qualities of experience and objects: beauty, creativity,
elegance, goodness, and the like. An aesthetic object or act, is intended to
produce a sensory response in an audience” (Shepard 1987; Wolff 1983;
quoted in Fine 1996, 178). According to Fine, in order to judge aesthetics
we should consider the intentional quality of human action defined by the
cognitive (satisfaction) and the affective (sensory) components.
4 Pseudonym.
5 Personal communication with the owner of Priyangon.
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 85
When the Bangladeshi diaspora dines in Bangladeshi restaurants in
Little Bangladesh, the restaurants offer the diaspora an expression of
homely aesthetics. However, the notion of home for diasporic Bangladeshis
is multifaceted. Brah argues that the concept of diaspora refers to
multilocality across geographical, cultural and psychic borders. Thus,
there can be double, triple or multi-placed “homes” for a diaspora (Brah
1996, 194). When restaurants intentionally create a symbolical space
resembling a certain kind of aesthetic “home” for customers, they fetishize
their landscape despite there being no single and unique form of home.
Based on the case study of a Bangladeshi restaurant Ghoroa, I explore
processes of fetishism of place propagated by different patterns of
aesthetic philosophy of Bangladeshi restaurants.
Ghoroa Means “Homely”
Ghoroa is a Bangla word meaning “homely.” The name of the
restaurant conveys its aesthetic motto, i.e. to provide deshi food in a
homely environment. Ghoroa’s contact card states, “We are the only
restaurant who serves authentic Bangladeshi cuisine in Toronto.” In order
to understand processes of fetishism of the place at Ghoroa, it is necessary
to explore in what ways this restaurant constructs the aesthetics of
“authenticity” and “home.”
The owner of Ghoroa says, “We serve home-based foods which taste
similar to the foods that Bangladeshis in Canada were used to eating at
home in Bangladesh.”6 Ghoroa’s most popular menus are different types
of snacks such as singara, pitha, samosa, spring rolls, vegetable rolls,
pakora, boot, muri, chhola, and shobji-porota, main courses which are not
party dishes but are usually prepared and eaten at home every day in
Bangladesh such as rice, fish curry, chicken curry, vegetables and vorta,
and different home-made sweets such as roshmalai, kalojam, golapjam,
pantua, and mishti doi. Though Ghoroa promotes its aesthetic image of
providing authentic home-based foods, it sells chicken biriyani, kachchi
biriyani, and mutton biriyani, which are very occasional dishes in
Bangladesh, in order to fulfill customers’ demands. In addition, “what is
prepared at home in Bangladesh?” is a much-contested question. In
Bangladesh, urban women are increasingly integrated with the labour
market and restaurants and fast-food shops are becoming readily available
as a result of the frequent flow of capital in many large cities. As a result,
6 Personal communication
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Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Chapter Seven
86
the tendency to prepare a wide variety of foods at home is decreasing in
urban Bangladesh.7 Thus, the imaginative home-based foodscape of
Bangladesh at Ghoroa is not a universal but a fetishized concept.
Fig. 7.3. Festive pitha served at Ghoroa celebrating the Bangla New Year
7 Author’s personal experience in Bangladesh.
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 87
Fig. 7.4. “Greetings for all in celebration of the Bangla New Year”—Bangla New
Year Greetings pasted on the wall of Ghoroa
Fig. 7.5. Bangladeshi TV shows live at Ghoroa
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Chapter Seven
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Fig. 7.6. Wall decoration by deshi handicraft
The aesthetics of the home-based authenticity of Ghoroa is
strengthened by the fact that only women do the cooking—the restaurant
has no male chef. Women from nearby Bangladeshi neighbourhoods work
part-time as cooks. Many of them also supply home-made sweets, pithas
and snacks. Since only women prepare food for this restaurant, many
customers have the impression that these foods are very similar to that
cooked for family members at home.8 However, procedures for everyday
cooking for a limited number of family members and restaurant cooking
for a wide number of customers are different. Shams,9 who works as a
cook in another Bangladeshi restaurant, says, “Many women cook once or
twice a day so that they can serve hot and freshly prepared foods to family
members. In restaurants, it is not possible to cook each time a customer
orders a particular item. A large amount of food is usually cooked at a
time. When a customer orders an item, servers just warm it in a microwave
8 Personal communication with customers.
9 Pseudonym.
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Exploring the Space of Bangladeshi Diasporic Restaurants 89
and serve.”10 That is why the involvement of women as cooks cannot
always achieve the mythic standard of home-based authenticity.
Culture expresses values and shapes patterns of interaction through the
aesthetics of kinesics, proxemics and paralanguage. These forms of non-
verbal communication play a vital role in fetishizing the place of a
restaurant. Kinesics refers to face and body movements, proxemics means
space and its use, and paralanguage refers to the vocal cues that
accompany verbal communication (Wood 2009, 145,147–148). Bangladeshi
people frequently eat at Ghoroa by using their hands instead of spoons and
forks, whereas many of them would feel ashamed of practising this in a
non-Bangladeshi setting. Customers who have friendly relations with the
owner or workers freely move around the entire space of the restaurant.
They enter into the territory behind the counter and even the kitchen for a
chat with the owner or workers. Many of them use an informal high-
pitched voice while talking to each other. The owner of the restaurant
frequently uses relational terms for addressing customers. For example,
whether she knows a customer or not, she addresses an adult male
customer as bhai (brother) and an adult female customer as bhabi (sister-
in-law).11 In these ways, the landscape of the restaurant constructs an
aesthetic home for its customers. However, the practice of certain other
forms of kinesics, proxemics, and paralanguage restrict some customers
from sensing or imagining this place as a home.
A female customer told me that “They (men) create an uncomfortable
environment through their gestures and behaviours in restaurants. They
will look at you as if you were not meant to come to this place. That is
why many women do not feel free to go to these restaurants alone.”
Another woman reported that she wears pants and a shirt while staying at
home or going to work; however, she comes to Bangladeshi restaurants
wearing a sari (a traditional Bangladeshi garment for women). Otherwise,
her and her husband’s male friends, who also dine in the restaurant, would
look at her negatively for “blindly following the indecent western
culture.”12 She would also be accused of violating norms and values of
“home,” which are expected to be sustained in restaurants.13
10 Personal communication.
11 Personal observation.
12 Personal communication
13 Ibid.
Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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Chapter Seven
90
In these ways, different modes of aesthetic representation of home
fetishize the place of Bangladeshi restaurants. The aesthetic representations
appear through different forms of scape, involving food, kinesics,
proxemics, or paralanguage. These scapes are deterritorialized from “home”
and then reterritorialized to a new “home.” Sometimes, they also invent a
new “home” in the name of representing the old “home.” Aesthetic
representations do not fetishize a place for all persons in the same way.
They are interpreted for each transnational actor in distinct ways
depending upon their subjective positions within the place of the
restaurant.
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Strangers in New Homelands : The Social Deconstruction and Reconstruction of “Home” among Immigrants in the
Diaspora, edited by Michael Baffoe with Maria Cheung, et al., Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/northeastern-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1132995.
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'Imagined Communities' examines the creation & function of the 'imagined communities' of nationality & the way these communities were in part created by the growth of the nation-state, the interaction between capitalism & printing & the birth of vernacular languages in early modern Europe.
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Kitchens takes us into the robust, overheated, backstage world of the contemporary restaurant. In this rich, often surprising portrait of the real lives of kitchen workers, Gary Alan Fine brings their experiences, challenges, and satisfactions to colorful life. A new preface updates this riveting exploration of how restaurants actually work, both individually and as part of a larger culinary culture.
Bangladeshi Community-A Portrait of Growth
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