A Matter of Attitude
“Three months?” An old friend was leaning against a car outside of my college dorm in New York City, eyes wide with surprise. We were discussing our summer plans. “You're going to Bangladesh for three months?” A Bangladeshi himself, the news that I planned to spend my summer here did not surprise him, but the length of my stay certainly did. “Wow.” He looked at me as if I had off-handedly remarked that I planned to go deep-sea diving in search of legendary sea-monsters. I couldn't help but ask, “Are you afraid of it?” He thought for a second and shrugged. “No, not afraid. Just…you know.”
I do know. Everyone knows. This vagary encompasses the attitude many have towards Bangladesh. There is an assumption both here and abroad that one must have exceedingly thick skin to withstand its various “you knows”, especially as an outsider. For a young girl used to life somewhere in the West, plunging into this country and staying for three months is considered by many as absurd and ridiculous as holding one's breathe for just that long. So far, I have not encountered very many Bangladeshis here in Dhaka who have not questioned me about this very anxiety, implicitly if not explicitly. “So, how's your stay here so far?” I am asked with worried eyes, as if I were in a hospital bed rather than my country of origin, and their own. They seem surprised when I say “Fine, wonderful.”
Am I not bothered, people ask, by the heat, humidity, noise, the poverty, the chaos, political instability, inefficiency, etc? I have only a question with which to respond. “Aren't you, too?” The setbacks of living here are at the tip of everyone's tongue in my presence, presumably because it is believed that they are also at the tip of mine. The obstacles of daily life are suffered by locals and outsiders alike, but somehow they are considered extreme and in deep contrast with the supposed ease of life in the West. Many citizens point a finger at the country and its realities, blaming it for their woes, as if the moment one steps off a plane and into the West, these difficulties disappear as if by magic.
A recent acquaintance discussed with me his views on development in Bangladesh, and the words were those I seem to have heard a million times before. “We have a lot to learn from the West here. There are so many people and no opportunities. All the opportunities are outside. We should imitate them.” I am disturbed and often angered by the suggestion that Bangladeshis cannot find their own solutions based on their own geopolitical, socio-economic context without referring to the Western model. Perhaps some of my anger is rooted in idealism, but some of it may not be.
I grew up in Italy, in a house with bookshelves lined with titles in both English and Bengali on the Liberation War, the Language Movement, Bangladeshi arts and culture, Tagore's poetry and short fiction, recent writing by Bengalis in the West on the immigrant experience, and photojournalism on dazzling bodies of water, jack-fruit trees and beautiful textiles. Living what many Bangladeshis would consider a life of ease in the West, my parents pine for Bangladesh. They rave about the spirit of the people in their efforts towards advancement, about the beauty of our language and culture, and maintain that in time, Bangladesh will be no less developed than any other country, and will have made it on the merit of its own people.
Hearing their excitement over the phone for the time when they will join me here, I find myself disillusioned. It is as if pride and patriotism are emotions reserved for those drawn back to their country through sheer nostalgia and the absence of family, hankering from afar for something to call their own.
It is true that as an outsider, an obvious Western import with dark skin, I am likely to note the differences between life here and life in New York City. It is also true that life in Dhaka comes with obstacles that I would generally not encounter in America. Yet based on my experiences in both New York and in Dhaka, however limited, it is within the similarities between the two that I find the one most immediate way in which Bangladeshis may be justified in wanting to imitate Americans, New Yorkers in particular. New York carries with it a reputation of glitz and glamour; busy Wall Street types, open air concerts, international food, celebrities, tall skyscrapers and constant media, alongside the unfortunate attack on the World Trade Center after which life as we knew it around the world turned on its head. People who have not lived there do not often picture nights spent sleepless due to the roar of trucks backing into narrow alleys, the stink of the streets of Chinatown at night, teeming with roaches, rats and urine, the men who live in cardboard boxes on street corners hoping for change, or the unholy traffic that renders ridiculous the idea of arriving anywhere on time in a car. These realities, similar to the complaints expected of me here, come to people's lips there and abroad far later than the glamorous ones. The reason for this is clear.
The attitude held by the people of a city is perpetuated both at home and in the outside world. New Yorkers hold their heads high and boast of their love for their city and all that it has to offer. Dhaka's citizens are quick to put it down, allowing it to suffer from the low self-esteem that generates complaints, denying themselves the will to change realities or elevate them conceptually for a more romanticised identity. The idea of the “New York experience” could be a model for “The Dhaka experience”. There are plenty of obstacles in the West. The political problems suffered by the United States of America are more complicated now than they have been since the Civil War, and under much closer international scrutiny. Americans, through their obstacles, regardless of the parties political and otherwise each citizen associates with, tend to speak of the spirit of the American people and their ability to make things right.
Average Dhaka citizens may have become so disillusioned by daily obstacles that they are remiss in noting, for themselves and for outsiders, the things that make living here wonderful. There are people here who are in fact struggling to make things right. Bangladesh has made in a name for itself through the Nobel Prize-winning Professor Yunus, but pride can come without grand achievement. My friends abroad fawn over our clothing, the beauty of our traditions, our music, the respect implicit in many of our codes of conduct the richness of our culture. A city or country must not have wealth to offer a wonderful experience, but the attitude to bring what is good to the foreground and allow all of the people within it, local or foreign, to be captivated, and proud.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007