Foreign Students Speak
Journey into Bangladesh
France Yoli Joseph
Eight weeks ago now, fifteen American university students embarked on a trailblazing journey to Dhaka for the Summer Bangla Institute at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). The first of its kind, this intensive language study program was enabled at the last minute by AIBS (American Institute of Bangladesh Studies), The US State Department, and IUB (Independent University Bangladesh), and is part of a new wave of intensive language study programs that expose students to language and culture in a concentrated format.
Methods of education are changing in the world, and this change is being co-created by both teachers and students. Our group's age range was eighteen to thirty-three years old, and this age range is reflective of the budding generation of leaders, business people, scholars, academicians, and trailblazers on the rise. Education is changing because the world is changing. The internet alone has opened up cultural mysteries, indigenous knowledge, and the level of awareness of the myriad of Peoples who inhabit this one earth.
As a result of the rapid pace of change and development, the time has come that people of different fields need to know about other languages and cultures, in order to survive and grow in our bustling world. This is our purpose in coming to Bangladesh for the summer. Each student in our group is from a different university, some are completing undergraduate degrees and some graduate and post-graduate degrees. Each student's studies are focused in different disciplines. Some include religion, development studies, anthropology, linguistics, South Asian film, and international relations. Some in our group were familiar with Bangladeshi culture and South Asian traditions, and some had never even left America before.
No matter what background, Bangladesh was an enlightening and mind-opening experience for each participant. We were ready from the start for our grueling daily schedule which had us in class from 9 am to 4 pm, from Sunday through Thursday. Day one we jumped right in with “Assalamu Alaikum” and “Amar nam …”, and didn't look back from there. The program is a new step in Bangla language learning, and we were very excited to be its first set of students. We also understood that we would need to be patient and understanding as we would be out of our known place and comfort zones and on top of that learning a new language.
We soon understood that learning Bangla and learning of the Peoples who speak Bangla needed to go hand in hand. We weren't here just to learn in a classroom and out of a book, but rather the streets of Dhaka and the lands of Bangladesh were also our classroom. In that way, we had every resource imaginable at our fingertips, although of course it was rather intimidating at first.
When you are in your own land, you are in a known place. You know how to dress, how to speak, how to eat, even going to the washroom. Like fish out of water, in the first few weeks we faced challenges of daily life. For the female students wearing more conservative clothing and realizing the gender differences between our lands was hard to swallow at times. After a week we all knew that it wasn't 40 taka to go from Baridhara to Gulshan 2, and started to get the hang of riding on the rickshaws and not feeling like you're going to fall out at any minute.
By the end of week two we were already speaking, had completed the alphabet, and were ready to bargain hard in the market.
The male students were sporting kurtas and the female students were trying a hand at wearing a sari, and of course the challenge of keeping it on throughout the day. We soon learned the secret of the safety pin. We became more adventurous with food, opening ourselves to the daily feast of Bangladeshi cuisine. Mishti dohi, fish-head daal, kaachi biriyani, begun bharta, lassi, chingri dopiyaza, rui maach, kebab, and rosh gula soon became part of our regular vocabulary.
We took several short trips around Dhaka to the Liberation War Museum, Dhakeshwari Mandir, Lalbagh Fort, Dharmarajikha Buddhist Monastery, Dhaka University and more. We had lectures on the Language Movement, The Liberation War, Mughal architecture, contemporary art, traditional metal work from Dhamrai, Buddhist Stupa design, Islam and Hinduism. By the end of four weeks, half of our time passed, all of us were so surprised at the expectations we had come to Bangladesh with and the reality of the culture, language, and traditions before us now.
“Being someone who has never before been to a third world country, the beauty, joy and kindness I have found here surpassed my expectations” Lendy Krantz
“I had no idea what to expect coming to Bangladesh, but I found exactly what I hoped to: a beautiful country, amazing people, and a place that feels like home”
The group in front of IUB campus at Baridhara
Ann Marie Edquist
We took two trips outside of Dhaka. Our first trip took us to Bogra. We visited the sites of Mahastangarh, Somapura Vihara, Tangail, and a zaminder bari as well. For the first time, seeing the village life of Bangladesh gave us a completely new perspective of the simplicity and grandeur of life here. The green countryside and warmth of the people made us feel so comfortable and at ease. To learn of the international civilizations that existed in these lands for thousands of years is so incredible to us. Our country is a mere 250 years old.
“I was incredibly touched by the warmth of the people in the villages we visited. Entire families led us into their houses and fed us aam and mishti dohi.”
Our second trip was to Chittagong region. Life in Chittagong was eye-opening, especially our trip to the ship-breaking yards. Perhaps one trip to see that side of life and survival in Bangladesh is enough, but it was a real awakening experience to see a desperate environmental scene like that. Where we come from there is a huge awareness of the need to preserve the environment and dispose of waste properly, yet American ships are among the recycled waste parts found in the yards and surrounding markets. Though the scene was hard to swallow, we as non-Bangladeshis are also participants in this industry.
We also visited Sufi shrines, Vaishnava Ashrama, learned of the tribal populations of Bangladesh at the Ethnological Museum, and visited the incredible site Mainimoti (Devaparbata). In just a few days, we witnessed a wide range of life in Chittagong region, from the extreme of wealth to the extreme of poverty. It makes you look at yourself and start to ask where you sit in the picture.
This is another major aspect of participating in a cultural exchange: to learn about yourself. If our environment, language, fashion, and history make our cultural identity, then the journey of getting out of your known element can only help one to learn and grow into a better, more diverse and adaptable human being. To visit so many different cultural and religious sites in Bangladesh made us realize even more that there is a degree of pluralism here that is not present in all places of the world. Bangladesh may appear as economically poor, but Bangladesh is so rich in culture, heritage and tradition.
“Having the opportunity to experience firsthand such a diverse and deep-rooted culture has expanded my worldview and also the way I view my own cultural identity, not to mention giving a much-needed insight on the Bangla language itself.”
“Studying development economics in America, I could only understand Bangladesh as a collection of abstract statistics and a few anecdotes. It has been so exciting for me to see Bangladesh as a living country, and the development projects I have seen here are deeply inspiring and thought-provoking.” Caely French
We are going back to our homeland awakened to more of our global reality, and knowing more about ourselves. This diverse group will no doubt apply what we have learned into our multi-disciplines, and have a burning desire to share with our communities and the world at large the reality of the traditions and life of Bangladesh and its Peoples. Eight weeks is of course not enough time, but it was enough to leave a wonderful taste in our mouths, and we can't wait to come again for more.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006