commentary

a more layered identity

This is the first in a series entitled Rickshaw Musings – little ideas that take shape during the many hours stuck in the traffic here in Dhaka.  On adjusting to the  flow and feel of this city, the challenges it presents and the surprises it holds.  And any other things that may pop up along the way, too.

Cultural sensitivity. It’s a buzz-phrase that looms large in diplomacy land.  As the Fulbright program is, at its core, a cultural ambassadorial problem, sensitivity training is a huge part of the prep we receive before starting our work.  It often bounces around the foreign mind, with little voices repeating again and again the things learned as faux-pas from the numerous guidebooks and State Department briefs emailed out in near monthly intervals.  Never sit with the soles of your feet facing towards someone.  Women must cover their heads when meeting an elder.  Turn off all music when the call to prayer is being sounded.  A thumbs up might not mean what you think it does.

Some of these things are helpful, others, not so much.  Living in Dhaka, cosmopolitan trends have come to overwhelm many traditional ways – I’m currently typing this from a cafe blasting Beyonce to jeans-clad Bangladeshis sipping on cappuccinos.  In an attempt to pack lightly when first coming to Bangladesh, I brought very few “American” clothes, and there were a few more parties than I’d like to admit at the beginning of my time here at which I’d be the only foreigner – and the only one wearing traditional Bangladeshi dress – in attendance.  It was strange, to say the least.  I eventually righted that one, and now usually don half Bangladeshi, half American garb.  Partly because it’s more comfortable to move about in.  Partly because it’s more me.

But the process of coming around to being okay with wearing jeans in public, or walking around unescorted, or even simply voicing a contrary opinion in this country was one that took a while, requiring me to wade into the murky idea of cultural sensitivity.

In the first couple months here, most everything was new.  Things odd or unusual were more often than not explained away as a cultural difference.  Of course, it was a bit more nuanced than that – seeing men peeing or brushing their teeth on the side of the road didn’t so much speak to cultural disparities as it did to economic ones – but when you look at that in broader terms, of the division between public and private life here in Bangladesh, it is something that appears to be far more blurred here than back in the States.

And often, it made sense to trace odd pattens back to a differing way of life.  The lack of please and thank yous in Dhaka?  They’re just not that commonly exchanged here.  The expectation that you would eat everything on your plate?  If you didn’t, it would be seen as a sign that you didn’t enjoy the meal.  The incredible hospitality and graciousness of families?  It is what is expected of everyone, with guests seen as a gift rather than as a burden crashing on the futon.

But interesting or curious differences were accompanied by larger, more troublesome ones; I frequently found myself uncomfortably tolerating situations that I deeply disagreed with.  A rickshawallah asks my male friend for directions, even though I was the one who told him the way to go in the first place?  In this city, it’s the men who are spoken to.  My research assistant instructs me on what we do and do not need for my project, rather than listening to my instructions?  He’s never had a female boss before.   A stranger chooses to plant himself two inches away from me and stare while I’m trying to photograph a nearby building?  Likely, no foreigner he’s ever done that to has ever told him not to.

I was speaking about this exact issue with Ben, another Fulbrighter (“male friend” from rickshaw above) the other day.  A white blond guy, but one who is fully fluent in Bangla after a year of studying the language in Kolkata, he has a unique perspective on Bangladesh, able to see the country through the eyes of the foreigner but understand it through the ears of a near native.  Speaking about the too-close-for-comfort stares, he said, People know that’s rude.  That it’s not proper to do.  But they do it anyway, and assume that you won’t say anything because you’re not from here.

And after thinking on it for some time, I think it’s the result of what I’d call cultural oversensitivity.  Outsiders in Bangladesh have for so long not said anything – perhaps because we’ve not known how to, perhaps because we saw it as rude to do so – and as a result have built up a culture of responses to foreigners perceived by foreigners as insensitive.  There’s too much keeping mum on each side of the exchange, from Bangladeshis to non-Bangladeshis and vice versa.  When most of the time, just speaking up (pantomiming up works, too) and expressing what you are comfortable with and what you’re not so much will be not only well-received, but also much appreciated by all parties involved.

Granted, I am exceedingly aware of the idea of the Ugly American while I’m here – a stereotype that I do not want reinforce in any way.  But what I realized, a few months into my stay in Bangladesh, was that I was compromising key parts of my own identity in hopes of being more culturally sensitive.  I was keeping quiet on issues that disturbed me deeply, and writing it off as not my place to say anything as an outsider.

I’ve come to see that I need to be more sensitive to my idea of cultural sensitivity.  Which aspects of the way I behave and respond do need to be edited as the result of being in this new place, and which comments and activities are too fundamentally country to my own beliefs that I just can’t let them slide?  How can I be critically, rather than blindly sensitive?

Now, I have new responses to the looks and queries passed to me by strangers.  A long or repeated stare?  Shamosha ache?  Amio manush, na? (Is there a problem?  I am a person, too, no?)  An absurdly high rickshaw quote?  A laugh and then – ami bideshi, kintu ami Dhakay takhi, ami janni eta onek dam.  (I am a foreigner, but I live in Dhaka, I know that is much too expensive.)  The ever common: are you married? Ami ekhane kaj kori.  Ami amar manush. (I work here.  I am my own person.)  Most of the times I chose to speak up relate to situations that challenge my identity as a woman or longer-term resident here.  While I do hope that my new, pithy responses might stick with the person I’m talking to, I think they are often for more for my own peace of mind – for the hope of finding my own place in this strange new one.

As a white blonde(ish) girl in Bangladesh, I am and always will be an outsider to some degree.  But as a person who has chosen to live in this country for a more extended period of time, and someone who is working to learn the language and the ins and outs of this city’s streets, I am trying to reach for a knowledge of this place that extenders more deeply than cultural sensitivity will allow.  For in writing everything off as a cultural difference, I was creating a Bangladesh for myself that was keeping me perpetually a stranger.  I was not finding my own place and defining my own identity in Dhaka, but was instead defaulting to thinking that I had none here.  But by avoiding reducing all difficulties to ‘culture,’ and instead dealing with individuals as precisely that – individuals – I’m gradually finding an understanding that allows for compromises and adjustments that do not require me to lose myself within them.

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