Mishti be banned

Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Somehow I became that traveler. The girl in Dhaka who wouldn't eat the food, the man in Khulna who couldn't stand the crowds, the woman in Bagerhat who stopped making eye contact with the beggar children, or the angry traveler who had enough, shook his arms skyward in frustration and despair, and left.

Little over a month ago I said that Dhaka was a piece of cake. That piece of cake has since lost it's appeal and is now no more than a gooey overly sweet and sticky mess which has gotten itself in my hair, on my clothes, and refuses to be washed off. Looks like I'm sick of cake and Bangladesh.

I've now been home for a week and it's still difficult to identify exactly what went wrong in Bangladesh, why I was so unhappy, and why I simply couldn't make it work. Returned to Berkeley in contrast, where I should have cause for sadness (since my nomadic life has come to a screeching and premature end), the change in my mood and interactions, for the better, are palpable. During my first days of being home, I was surprised by the energy in my voice. Somehow, while in Bangladesh I was so far from being positive or energetic that I forgot that I could be. The fact that I could be so unhappy while working abroad for an incredibly good cause (providing shelter for people in such dire need) surrounded by people who I thought I could have fun with anywhere, absolutely floored me. The rural landscape was beautiful with lots of green, lots of fields, lots of animals, and children running around in bright colors. The Bangladeshis seemed friendly- different but friendly. So why was I unhappy and why did I feel like there was no reason for me to be there. At first I blamed it on my anti-malarials hoping that I could blame my overwhelming unhappiness on the medication. But even after I stopped taking my malarone, I was severely down in the dumps.

After all of John and my travels, I really thought I could handle anything. Of course I'd read that Bangladesh is the most densely populated country on earth, one of the poorest countries on earth, and maybe home to the most corrupt government on earth. I'd suffered through speeches from family members and friends with religious and terrorist concerns, who refused to call Bangladesh, Bangladesh, and would only call it East Pakistan instead. I knew the facts and I felt like I could face them. In fact, to placate my family, I'd had to fight the facts with counter arguments in order to go. However, it wasn't the numbers and accounts found on paper that made my time so difficult, although those problems most likely contributed. Instead it was the "innocent" cultural differences exacerbated by gender, poverty, and religious differences, which I found to be insufferable.

On the most basic level, the Bangladeshis are aggressive. They yell, they hit, they grab things away from each other, and generally simple interactions escalate quickly. Good thing they don't have alcohol. Even though I could rationally accept their increased aggressiveness as a cultural norm, I couldn't help having their everyday behaviors impact me negatively. A typical day on the job site includes crowds of 40 plus people gathered round, staring, yelling, laughing, hitting children, grabbing things from each other, grabbing tools from us as we try to hammer and saw, taking photos of us with their camera phones, arguing between the locals over who knows what, and Bangladeshi females grabbing at our hair and clothes. Some days it's better, some days it's worse, but without a doubt everyday will find you surrounded by a crowd. Now, the Bangladeshis are going to yell and laugh at you and it's normal. As far as they're concerned: what on earth is this quartet of white people doing carrying blocks of mud back and forth and trying to build a mud foundation? It's hilarious and unbelievably bizarre to them that the first white people they have ever seen are getting themselves dirty while poorly doing something that they can do so well. Of course they're going to laugh. Of course the family of 12 will assemble at 8 in the morning and continuously watch you until 5 pm comes along. Of course they're going to grab the hammer from you if you're a female; they don't think you know how to use it. Of course they're going to laugh when you try to speak Bangla or give up saying "bugi na"(I don't understand). And of course an entire community can surround you all day long because they really have nothing else to do- I mean their rice paddies and their shops were destroyed in the cyclone.

These dozens of jarring episodes assaulting you everyday compounded by the glaring gender inequality and feelings of entitlement emanating from the community were enough to put me over the edge. I know that the Bangladeshis never meant us any harm (except for when the "illiterate" woman poured mud over Valla, or when the guy in Roti man's stall jokingly pulled a knife on me, or when the man ripped the khunta away from me and proceeded to mimick me) but the crowds, their stares, and their questions can still be incredibly intimidating. When alone as a single white female surrounded by 30 Muslim Bangladeshi men asking me about my religion, what do I say? Every time I responded Christian or no religion, I didn't know what to expect. What about the times when Bangladeshi men ask John and I if we're married? We say no and then every Bangladeshi man thinks that he can touch me and stand touching me in pictures when they would never talk to or touch a local female- all because I'm regarded as a western slut offering "free sex". At least if we'd been "married" they'd leave me alone for respect of John and his property. What about when you ask two women dressed in heavy black burkas on an unbelievably hot day if they're hot, and a man replies for them saying they're fine? And what about the local elites who want to know why our group of 20 people isn't building 50,000 houses? And what about when they try to tell us that it's our DUTY as citizens from a western nation to build them 50,000 houses, because supposedly we're all rich? What about the men who don't believe that any westerners, or at least any Americans, can be vegetarians for the sake of not killing animals, since we all like to kill the human beings in Afghanistan and Iraq so much? I know that these are opportunities that John relishes in to rectify cultural misunderstandings. For me, they were too much. As much as I can recognize the importance of a positive American presence in a country that thinks we enjoy killing their brothers and the need for patient people like John willing to smooth out the misunderstandings and cease the flow of misinformation, I wasn't up for the task.

In some ways I'm ashamed to post this entry after John's previous beaming one. John the eternal optimist and me the eternal pessimist. But not everything in Bangladesh twinkles and shines. Surprisingly though, I haven't turned my back on Bangladesh. Instead of being a nightmare that I'm trying to banish, Bangladesh fascinates me and I want to know more. Since being home with the phenomenal UC Berkeley library at my disposal I've been researching Bangladesh and whether there's truth in being able to call it an NGO state. So far I'm not sure what to conclude. My readings thus far have revealed much more gloom and doom about the corruption and lack of accountability plaguing both the NGOs and the government. With over 2 billion US dollars reaching Bangladesh annually in foreign aid, with around 18% going to NGOs, where does it actually go? More than anything though, knowledge of the ineffectiveness and misappropriations of aid money from other NGOs and the government, make me realize what a diamond in the rough Hands On really is. Hands On is so transparent and so responsible with its financing decisions that it essentially safeguards itself from the potential threat of corruption or lack of accountability. And because of Hands On, Bangladesh will have more latrines, more roofed schools, more Bangladeshis who aren't afraid of America's military might, and more homes instead of what other NGOs produce in Bangladesh- another white Lexus SUV in Dhaka.
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Comments

manob7
manob7 on

Expectations
I am a little saddened to hear about your unfavorable experience in a Bangladesh village.

Someone from Berkeley (there are Bangladeshi Students Associations at UC Berkeley) could've given you a cultural primer on how to deal with villagers in Bangladesh (social and religious tips). It is personally amazing to me of the heroism you guys showed of spending the time and building things as you did in this middle-of-nowhere place in Bangladesh considering no one coached you about these peoples' behavior.

The reality is -- these people at Rayenda have a completely different outlook in life compared to yours. Social respectability and refined behavior are not expected from uneducated villagers.

As an educated Bangladeshi person I can tell you that the class-divide and how classes of people deal with each other in Bangladesh has 'rules of engagement' and though they may seem unintelligent -- they will still follow it. This was the primary problem in your case.

It sounds awful and anti-proletarian -- but you have to realize that the 'rules-of-engagement' exist exactly to avoid the sort of negative experience you have. These rules are universal in all of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. These rules have been formed through years of feudalism and colonialism -- and it will take tens if not hundreds of years to bring things back to normal like in the West. Lately the mullahs have propagandized against the west enough that these people have very negative connotations about western people as well.

The villagers were surprised because their 'expectations' were that you'd provide money and at best 'supervise' feudal style -- not get hands on with it like you did. Educated Bangladeshis from middle class families 'never' get their hands dirty -- they supervise. Villagers are there for providing labor. These are expectations by the villagers.

They'd do fine with 'supervision' and the fact that you guys got 'hands on' is unexpected and unfathomable to do them. They had a hard time taking you seriously although the homeowners did appreciate it very much.

Most educated Bangladeshis like myself do appreciate the wonderful work you did -- but the villagers are another story. It will take them a couple of generations to realize the value of hands-on work (which is plentiful in Bangladesh because of poverty, unlike the west where it is prized much more).

From now on -- to avoid unpleasantries like what you've experienced please follow the rules that portray a young respectable woman in Bangladesh (if you want to go back). Think like they think!

1. Wear a head-scarf
2. Avoid treating guys like equals -- respectable Bangladeshi women don't initiate conversations with men in a Muslim context (not saying you did)
3. Try to take a few local educated volunteers (women if possible) from Dhaka NGO's who can be guides.
4. Speak with local educated women on how to conduct yourself in a village context.
5. I'm not saying you're the problem -- mostly the villagers are, but 'rules' have to be followed to prevent negative experiences like you had.

Again on behalf of all Bangladeshis -- my apologies. Hope your next visit is a pleasant one.

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