One Way to Close Culture Gap? Telling Tales

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), September 6, 2007


Arif Choudhury is recounting a story from his childhood, a funny tale of what it was like to be the only Bangladeshi child growing up in his leafy neighborhood north of Chicago.

Choudhury, age 5, is in a sandbox when a boy suddenly asks him, “Are you black?” Choudhury thinks for a moment, unsure of the answer. “I don’t know,” he tells the boy. “Let me go home and ask my mom.”

The next day, the boy asks Choudhury what his mother said. “I’m Bangladeshi,” Choudhury tells him. “What’s Bangladeshi?” the boy asks. “I don’t know,” Choudhury tells him. “Let me go home and ask my mom.”

Audiences laugh at the story, Choudhury says, but more important, they get a chance to view the world from the vantage of a young immigrant trying to find his place in his parents’ adopted home. Like traditional storytellers’ fanciful tales with a moral, Choudhury’s stories contain kernels of universal relevance.

It’s that part of the craft that attracted Choudhury to the storytelling stage. He performed last week at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School on Chicago’s Near North Side and will appear at Purdue University in Indiana this month. The gigs pay little — Choudhury, 31, lives with his parents in Northbrook and has a day job as an accountant — but the stage is his passion.

“It gives me a chance to introduce myself to people,” Choudhury said. “I can inform and educate and counteract stereotypes or racial prejudice.”

Choudhury first stepped onstage after Sept. 11, 2001, one of several Muslim Americans who turned to stand-up comedy to counteract the negative stereotypes of Muslims caused by the attacks. He found the transition from comic to storyteller easy, he said. Some of the jokes were ready-made stories — he just drew them in greater detail.

Choudhury said, “If we just take the time to listen to each other’s stories, we find that we have more in common than we think we do at first glance.”

Subjects Covered: diversity training, education, personal storytelling

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