perhaps the most adorable…

My mother arrived yesterday on the start of her first holiday in Asia, and she’s decided to write about it!  She’s a much better travel blogger than I, so for a blow by blow account of what we’re up to here, click through to her blog below.


Click through to visit "Daughter in Dhaka"!


conversation on the dangers of dolls

Alisha and I met last year in the Institute for Global Leadership’s EPIIC Colloquium on South Asia; she was always one of the most inquisitive in the class, always posed the hardest questions to the guest speakers, was always staying late and doing more work than was required.

So I wasn’t surprised, but was certainly excited, when a message from her as a response to a previous post on portrayals of white women in Bollywood videos popped up in my inbox a few days ago.  It’s evolved into the start of an interesting little conversation, and so I asked if I could share the exchange on here – she’s agreed, and so here it is now.

The original post, The Dangers of Dolls, can be found on the other side of that link.  Below, you’ll find her response in full, followed by the little note I wrote back.

The idea of the white woman as more loose, and less clad, is not recent. I definitely carried this stereotype with me to the US and I don’t think it was because of the background dancers I saw in films, I think it was because of what I saw in mainstream American films, particularly chick flicks. It’s the cheerleader phenomenon, and that image created by the Hollywood industry is just something the Bollywood industry is now using because of two things: 1) the Indian fascination with white skin 2) the mistaken belief that an Indian women’s modesty is more pure, important and intact than a foreigners. I’m sure you can relate to the second point from what you’ve told me about and written of your experiences in Bangladesh.

I don’t know if you’ve discovered the phenomenon of “item numbers” yet. They are basically sexy cabaret songs and we have a slew of women in Bollywood famous for being “item girls” – and these are the women (for the most part) in the industry seen at the bottom of ladder because they are Indian women choosing to play the role seen as only fitting for the white background dancers in the minds of the Indian audience. They are the subject of trash talk and lewd jokes.

While the white dancers aren’t chosen particularly for their dancing skills, they are chosen because they cost less and provide the same value. For example, Shiamak Davar’s Dance Co. – what is now one of the premier Bollywood dance companies – has dancers that are ready to provide skimpy clothing along with sexiness and high quality dancing.  For example,

But the skin will never be bared in quite the same way, and I think this is also because (having been part of the amateur group in the company for some time) most of the Indian dancers just aren’t ready, especially en masse, to bare it like that. There is too much at stake – being disowned from your family, marriage prospects, reputation. Not that it doesn’t happen these days, and isn’t happening more, but it’s more of a struggle with the Indian female dancers. I remember that in our dance shows where our directors wanted us to wear some of the type of clothes you’ve described in the videos you chose, we wore full skin leotards underneath if we wanted to. More often though, we weren’t asked to bare skin in a way that made us feel cheap.

I don’t know if there’s one particular point im trying to make. I’m just giving you some more info, and saying that I don’t think what you’ve experienced as a white woman in Bangladesh stems simply from a Bollywood desire to denigrate the image of the white woman.

P.S. For a good depiction of a white woman, watch Lagaan. Even though the white female lead isn’t American, she’s British, she’s as white as it gets. The caveat there is that the film is set in pre-Independence India.

-Alisha Sett, Tufts University (A’12)

And my response:

Alisha, thanks so much for writing this – yours is a fascinating insight into an issue that I’ve only just begun to explore.  The points that you make are spot on – Bollywood is just following the lead of Hollywood, and so it’s no surprise that the image of white women is essentially a mirror of many of those portrayals seen in the US.

The aspect of this all that is most troubling to me is that the depiction is so one-dimensional; while white girls are certainly portrayed as sex objects and ditzes willing to don just about anything (or nothing) in American films, they are also shown in other roles – as brilliant lawyers and secret agents and powerful single mothers – and the list keeps growing as women continue to fill more roles in American society.  These certainly do not eliminate the idea of woman as sex object that we receive so often from the American media, but they do make it more layered and complex.

The danger with recent Bollywood films/music videos, as I’ve seen, is that there is only one role for white woman, and it is one that it is seen over and over again. I’ve yet to watch a Bollywood film with a white woman in a strong, confident, sassy role like those the leading South Asian women play. (To be my own devil’s advocate, there are far too few Hollywood films with women of color in such roles as well.  But really that’s a whole other issue – that women of color just aren’t cast in films nearly as often in the States, in any role.)  Where in contrast, white women seem to be being sought out more and more often in South Asian films – a number of my white friends here in Dhaka have been recruited for such films – but only in this one familiar part.  And that’s where the problem lies.

In the end, the point of the piece as I intended it was not so much a critique of Bollywood – I don’t blame the industry for assuming the image projected by successful white actress after successful white actress in the US – but rather to speak to how it’s affected my time as a white woman in South Asia.  How I think it has directly influenced the way that men treat me at work, on the streets, everyday.  That they speak to me and approach me and, at times, touch me in a way that they would never dare to do with a Bangladeshi woman.  And that the reason for that lies beyond the fact that I am different – they would likely not act the same way with a Black or East Asian woman (although, this is again something I’m just surmising, and open to be proved wrong by the experiences of ex-pats in South Asia!)  – rather that it lies in the fact that to them, white skin equals open, easy, and ready to bare all.  And that now they don’t just have to turn to American media to receive that.  It can be found in local – and therefore more familiar and understandable – media and entertainment.

Mine is not a rigorous or conclusive analysis by any means, it is more just my own musings on this idea that popped into my head recently, and has remained there ever since.  I really appreciate your taking the time to write, as I think it’s helped me clarify ideas, and made me challenge a number of other ones I came up with in the first place.

And so I’m curious to know – are there any other voices that would like to weigh in on the conversation?  Bollywood fanatics?  Fellow ex-pats?  Otherwise interested individuals?  I’d love to have my ideas questioned, and to know more about this all in general.  So do write (elizabethdherman (at) gmail (dot) com) or leave a comment if you’d like to add your opinion.  And thanks for reading!


the dangers of dolls

This past December, some fantastic people had me join the dancing crew for their friend’s wedding – in Bangladeshi weddings, both the groom and the bride have the equivalent of bride’s maids and groom’s men, and each group choreographs a number of dances to perform at its respective gaye holud, the turmeric ceremony that happens a couple days before the wedding itself.

Over the course of the three weeks of practices, I got a pretty stellar crash course in some of the top Bollywood tunes of the day.  Most of them I had never heard of, although a couple were surprisingly familiar – one being the hit song from last year’s Bollywood box office topper, Love Aaj Kal (translates from Hinglish to Love These Days).  I saw the film during a flight from Germany, and while I think one’s perception of a movie’s worth is directly proportional to the height at which it’s viewed, I was pretty thoroughly involved in Jai and Meera’s romance by the end.

Its top song – “Twist” – is the biggest dance number of the film (and that’s saying something in a Bollywood flick), marking the hero’s move to a new city and his discovery of the various temptations and frivolities London has to offer.  It progresses from him dancing in the streets, to dancing in a club, to dancing with (spoiler alert!) what is soon to be his romantic interest for a significant portion of the film.

It’s a dreadfully catchy tune that was a hit at the gaye holud, with eight of us fairly successfully reenacting most of the moves (I’ve still luckily managed to avoid getting any footage from that night, so sorry – no clips!).  But one thing that occurred to me, as I was watching and re-watching the clip, trying to figure out which way your hands go when your feet twist left, was that all of the female backup dancers are, well, white.

Okay, he’s in London, so it makes some sort of sense that the girls would be caucasian (putting aside the vast diversity of London proper for the time being).  But check out the dudes in the back.  They’re not.  White, that is.  The majority of them are South Asian, or at least look to be.

I didn’t think too much of it – that is, until I started seeing the same pattern again and again in other Bollywood music videos.  For example, take the one for “Love Mera.”  Set in some sort of bizarre futuristic space ship, it even features half naked white girls (well, their torsos at least) gyrating blearily in the foreground of the scene at one point.

And “Dil Hara,” with the leading lady chastely running away from the man’s advances, albeit at the last moment possible, while the white gals (literally) throw their legs in the air.

And one more, a personal favorite of mine (Denise Richards, what are you doing there?), with a hoard of white girls dressed up as Indian brides throwing themselves at the male lead for a significant chunk of the video.

As you’re watching these, you may notice that a number of themes carry through from video to video.  There’s always a huge pack of backup dancers (white), which are generally less-clad than the South Asian leading lady; both usually sport some sort of sari blouse, but the latter with a long skirt and the former with something resembling short-shorts or bikini bottoms.  The girls in the back always stay there, in the back, never interacting with leading lady.  Occasionally they do, well, brush up against the male star, but they’re not given a passing glance.  The shots never focus on their faces, with any close-ups there may be centering on their bodies.  And, while this is an editorialization on my part, they tend to look pretty dumb – their dance moves are always a little sloppy, their outfits absurd, and they even look a little uncomfortable – out of place.  But there they are, pumping out the subcontinental dance moves to Bollywood beats in the background of each of these videos.

So, what’s the reason for their presence here?  I’m sorry to say caucasian ladies, but it’s likely not for your dancing prowess – the backup ladies (and men, in some cases) are clearly outshone by the South Asian stars in each video.  Well, yesterday a friend forwarded this article along to me, which speaks about the “white skin industry” of India.  In it, tales of white girls on extended stays to the subcontinent recount getting paid – significant amounts – to act as sorts of hostesses/hustlers in bars, to make appearances at parties in skimpy outfits, or even to simply pose for photographs at important events.  The article reads,

The white skin fetish has created its own cottage industry. Sai Hospitality India’s proprietor Rahul (no last name) says blithely, “I provide white girls for parties, business conferences, weddings: tequila girls, Arabian night dancers, pole dancers, bartenders girls and girls who only stand around at parties. My charges range from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh for a girl per night. Whichever country you want, I can provide.”

Richa Singh, who works at Delhi’s KamaKazi wedding planners, raises the snobbery stakes. “We provide authentic English girls, not Lebanese, Chinese or Indian. Many companies colour the hair of Indian girls and pose them as foreigners. We’re not into such things. We charge Rs. 5,000 per girl for only standing at parties. They’re only eye candy for the guests. They’re like dolls…” she says.

This is a leaping off point for quite a few topics of conversation, one of the first being – why, exactly does this happen?  Theories of internalized racism of inferiority complexes spring to mind, but neither are by any means my specialty, so I’ll leave that to a later post, perhaps after consulting someone who knows more about these issues than I.  But the question that strikes closer to home, and that I think about on a near daily basis, is – what influence do these sorts of images have on perceptions of white women in the subcontinent?  And specifically, in Bangladesh?

In a country where the number of foreign visitors is relatively low and the number of television sets is sky-high, I think it’s fair to say that most Bangladeshis interact with caucasians much more through the screen than they do in real life.  And now, they don’t have to turn to ‘Western’ media to receive images of barely-clad white chicks.  As they begin to populate these roles as backup dancers, a new image of white women in South Asia is emerging.

Furthermore, while I have no idea what part Denise Richards plays in that other film above, the white girl that (temporarily) steals Jai’s heart in Love Aaj Kal is also played as inarticulate and unintelligent   Dumb as dirt, in fact.  So it’s not just that they’re are shown mostly nude – they’re played as easier, in both a physical and mental sense.  Meera, the Indian female lead, is depicted as a sharp and driven girl, clever and funny throughout the entire film, while White Girl barely speaks English, more often than not on screen in silent mode.  Which actually might be for the best, considering that she sounds like an airhead whenever she opens her mouth.

What with the pervasiveness of American films in the subcontinent, one might think this wouldn’t add up to very much – there are a number of movies from the U.S that could counterbalance this image, providing a much more positive, or at the very least stronger image of caucasian women.  But these are not the stereotypes, by and large, that make it across the globe.  Friends have confided, and leers and stares have reinforced, that white women are perceived by a number of Bangladeshi men as looser and more forward.  Admittedly, I am far more assertive and confrontational than a traditional Bangladeshi woman is expected to be.  But the danger of these images is that assertive, professional behavior is interpreted as an invitation for advances.  Nods and enthusiastic remarks at business meetings can be read as being ‘interested’ in the man rather than in the topic of conversation.  And when one’s work centers entirely around making contacts and connecting with individuals to conduct research and do your job, the feeling that you need to edit yourself and your behavior – to make yourself seem less interested in what you are speaking about and doing – can be deeply frustrating.

This post surely sparks a number of other questions – questions that have been at the forefront of my mind since beginning work in Bangladesh, ones that I have spoken about at length with women of all colors here, as many of the negative perceptions about working women extend beyond race and ethnicity.  These are questions on which I’m searching to hear others’ thoughts.  Questions that are currently being raised in the press, with the detention and subsequent sexual abuse of Lynsey Addario in Libya and the sexual assault of Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.  This is only just the beginning of this examination.  Where will we take it next?

commentary, photography

women warriors: intro

I have waited for you for ages, for an eternity and a day. Unseen, unheard, yet, you were always there the fighter, the warrior. Come forth in all your glory and destroy, as you had destroyed the enemy once and for all the myth that the woman is weak and helpless.

– Sharmeen Murshid

Getting back up on the blogginghorse with a little exciting news to share.  The Aftermath Project, an incredible organization founded by Sara Terry that provides support to photo documentary projects that examine issues surrounding the aftermath of conflict, recently announced its 2011 grant winners and finalists – and a project that I’ve been working on here in Bangladesh was named as one of the latter!

The idea for “Women Warriors” first began to take shape last July in Hue, Vietnam during the VII/[EXPOSURE] there.  I spent that week riding around the back of a moto to the homes of six women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army during the war with the United States, speaking to them not only about their experiences during the conflict, but how it shaped their lives after they returned home.  The work was recently published in Global Post, which had a small accompanying interview that was never published – so here it is now!

Women Warriors On Global Post

In heading to Bangladesh to research the creation of narratives of the Liberation War, I knew that I wanted to work on a photography project while here, and to have one that tied into that research would add a rather interesting twist.  So the Women Warriors: Bangladesh project emerged, and it’s grown in some interesting and unexpected ways as of yet.  It is moving much more slowly – in both good and frustrating ways – than its Vietnamese counterpart, unfurling slowly as contacts grow and shift here.

The project focuses on three specific aspects of the lives of women who served in the Liberation War – as armed combatants, spies, nurses, caretakers, organizers, and so on – and the way that the war has defined them, their families, and their communities:

  1. Personal History: Through personal portraiture and recorded testimonies of female Mukti Banini, I hope to add to the existing histories of the independence struggle and subsequent construction of Bangladesh. While such testimonies will include women’s wartime experiences, they will focus on their lives in the decades since, with their struggles to reconcile the dual roles they are expected to fill in Bangladeshi society.
  2. Physical Scars: Bangladesh’s war of liberation was fought at the doorsteps of every home in the country – the battlefields were the streets, alleys, and corners of her cities and towns. Its scars exist within the souls of the victims and on the surfaces of the nation. I will visually explore, using individual memories as guides, sites and localities where personal histories were made, where personal traumas were defined.
  3. Memory & Dreams: As photographer Shahidul Alam writes, “What of the photograph made out of nothing? What about painting with light? Is it photography? Surely if we can paint with light we can paint with dreams, create the morning mist or the afternoon glow. Is it fake? Hardly. Whatever else may be false in this tenuous existence of ours, imagination is not. All that we value, that we strive to uphold, all that gives us strength, has been made of dreams, and we must dream on. If pixels be the vehicle that realizes our dreams, be it so.” Using photography as a ‘vehicle’ for the imagination, I hope to evoke the intangible memories and dreams of this conflict, and the subsequent personal reconciliations experienced by these women. This photographic exploration will take place within the lives and communities of the women, in both past and present landscapes and sites, as well in those places they have yet to, but still hope to see. It will reveal not only what they have experienced, but also where they wish to go – the dreams they hold for both themselves and their children.

The narrative that has dominated in Bangladesh of women in the Liberation War up until the present has been one of victimhood – those who were raped en masse by the Pakistani army, those who watched their sons and husbands and brothers leave home to fight for the country’s freedom.  While official narratives fail to recognize the histories of these women, they remain deep within those who experienced them.  They face them day after day, developing ways to quietly process past experiences in an attempt to move beyond them. These women, who are raising the first generation of Bangladeshis born after 1971, have been guiding forces in shaping and forming the country and its identity. In learning the stories of these women, and understanding how their experiences in conflict have shaped them as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives, this project endeavors to document the ways in which conflict not only affects those who experience it firsthand, but those that they nurture and raise – the next generation – and, in that way, how their experiences continue to live on in the nation.


misnomers, missteps, and meaning

This is the second in a series (see the first below) 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.

The other day I was speaking with a Bangladeshi graduate student about the history of the United States when he referred to the U.S. War of Independence as its ‘Liberation War’.  The reference caught me off guard; it has generally been called by the former name back in the States.  Yet walking home later that evening, I paused, realizing that I had been referring to Bangladesh’s war of 1971 as its ‘War of Independence’ rather than the literal translation of Mukti Jhuddho, ‘Liberation War.’  I was making the exact same mistake.  And my misnomer must have sounded just as peculiar in all the conversations I have had since moving to Dhaka.

As an American relatively newly-arrived in Bangladesh, I find myself faced with a whole new set of reference points.  In addition to adjusting to a new routine, a new neighborhood, a new community and new food, I must reconstruct a significant portion of the lens through which I view this new world.

We each have our own personal set of reference points, formed by the experiences that have shaped our minds and outlooks throughout our lives.  This knowledge, commonly referred to one’s referential frame, is vital for effective and efficient communication.  As political scientist Emo Gotsbachner explains, “As most utterances in our ordinary day-to-day conversations are – and have to be – incomplete, allusive or otherwise truncated, whatever speakers leave out as taken for granted has to be added in the minds of receptive listeners.”[i] The events, people, places, and things that compose our referential frames fill in these gaps in all our conversations.

Yet, beyond these individual frames, we are each influenced by larger, shared sets of reference points – ones from the groups to which we belong and by which we have been shaped.  Each school, workplace, or community has its own shared body of knowledge, and in becoming a part of group, we incorporate aspects of its frame into our own.

One of the most important and influential collective frames is formed on the national level.  As Benedict Anderson states, a nation is “an imagined political community,” one that is made cohesive by narratives of its origin and development that instill in its citizenry a unified understanding of themselves, their heritage, and the characteristics that distinguish them from other nations.[ii] These narratives, shaped by shared language, culture, schoolbooks, historical events, key figures, and so on, constitute the referential frame – or national memory – that defines a people.

As a result, each nation’s population views certain events, persons, and movements as key reference points, creating a perspective unique to that community. For example, mention in Bangladesh of the Language Movement[iii] carries a certain significance, whereas in the United States the Boston Tea Party might carry similar importance. Allusion to these events in their respective locales recalls emotions and meanings in ways that likely will not extend beyond national boundaries.

So what happens when you do find yourself in the middle of an entirely new place with a completely new set of reference points?  The national narratives that I carry are, by definition, different from those of Bangladeshi nationals.  We all have similarly disparate reference points, we all make the same cultural faux pas when entering a place where our frames do not quite match – stepping on our own toes in new situations, blushing at our misspeaks.

Yet, as socially painful as these experiences may be, our conversations are, in many ways, all the richer for them. Speaking with an individual who carries a different set of reference points forces us to reconcile these differing narratives and to construct new ones.  We find ourselves adjusting the frames we carry to mesh with new ones, combining diverse sets of knowledge.  Rather than discarding our own known reference points, we find ourselves engaged in a process of absorbing aspects of new frames that we find acceptable, and endeavoring to reconcile the differences that may not be so.

It is precisely these interactions that make the sharing of thoughts and discussions between two people of unlike backgrounds most enthralling.  For if we take the time to explain the significance of our own frames to those who carry different ones, fascinating things can happen. Parallels can be drawn. New ideas realized and innovative possibilities revealed.  Questions and issues suddenly become relevant in other contexts.  And these exchanges can, in turn, take one beyond the confines of one’s own immediate world.

Through such exposure to new ideas, our archive of reference points widens, and imagining concepts and ideas that we have not even seen yet becomes a greater possibility.  By opening our minds to the concept of alternative perspectives, it becomes easier for us to imagine that such things can and do exist.  It causes us to further question ourselves.  To be able to imagine that the world is larger than we can even imagine.

I know well that my knowledge of and exposure to Bangladeshi culture, life, and history is far more limited than that of a long-time Bangladesh resident.  But I am not looking fill the role of expert here.  Rather, I am seeking a different function – I am an outsider asking questions, raising issues without claiming to answer them, attempting to provoke consideration of matters perhaps previously taken for granted, seen as a normal part of everyday life.  I am looking to explore, to question, to discover things I do not understand and to present possibilities that perhaps were not previously in this frame. And, in return, to perhaps have the same happen to me and my perspective.


[i] Gotsbacher, Emo. “Asserting Interpretive Frames of Political Events: Panel Discussions on Television News.” In Media, Policy and Interaction, eds. Richard Fitzgerald and William Housley.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009.

[ii] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

[iii] The Bengali Language Movement was the political resistance to the imposition of Urdu as the state language in what was then East Pakistan.  Many trace the roots of the Liberation War of 1971 to this political mobilization.  Read more about the Language Movement here.


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.


down, up

After having no internet for a few days, it’s back up (for now!), and that means there’s finally time to share these two videos that have been on line for a while now!

The first, I don’t know quite how to describe other than to say it was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever witnessed, ever.  Captured at Wonderland – Dhaka’s local amusement park – this was the penultimate ride of the day, on a trip taken to celebrate a trio of October 12 birthdays.  In case it isn’t clear in the video, yes, that is Bengali man dancing in a giant mouse mascot costume.  And yes, that is an imam as the only other passenger on the ride.  We’re still searching for the words to describe it.

The second is my flatmate’s new kitten, a very loud and very sleepy little guy.

A new video is exporting as I type, so stay tuned for part three!

fun!, video

concentric circles

This past week was Durga Puja, and a few of us went and checked out the festivities at various times over the weekend (pictures forthcoming).

On Saturday night, we were waiting for a ride from Old Dhaka after the celebrations, talking with one gentleman who had been walking with us and acting a pseudo-guide for a while.  We were standing in a small circle chatting when we noticed a person or two come up behind us.  Five minutes later, this is what the area immediately surrounding our circle looked like.  It felt a bit funny making a video, but it was just too silly and absurd not to document.  I guess we stuck out a little?