Anyone who has ever journeyed beyond the village in which they were born knows that all travel involves discovery of the new. The moment we step outside the confines of our familiar surroundings (and this goes right back to when we lived in caves), we are faced with novel sights, challenges, situations and behaviours. Over the millennia we have quickly worked out that in order to survive, we need not only to notice what is unfamiliar, but to make sense of it, before it traps, harms or eats us. So the instinct to create meaning out of what is unfamiliar is hard-wired into humans, and this certainly comes to the fore when you move into a culture very different from your own. The problem is, it's not always so straightforward…
To take a very simple example, consider the question of physical contact between people. I arrived in Bangladesh nearly a decade ago having experienced life in a variety of cultures in places as different as China, Eritrea and Turkey. One of the first lessons you learn in China, for example, is that people don't generally hug. A colleague once told me of how he had left Beijing for a few years of study in the UK. His elderly father, whom he had never once embraced, was suddenly overcome with emotion at the airport gates and lunged forward to hold his son. The son, amazed at this, was unable to react at all. He stood there, stiff as a board and deeply embarrassed, and it was only years later that, with tears in his eyes, he acknowledged what an opportunity he'd missed.
To move from there into Eritrea was to enter a culture in which physical contact was all-important. With colleagues and friends, both male and female you'd perform an elaborate embrace which involved bumping your right shoulders vigorously together. People would not only shake your hand when meeting you but hold it throughout the entire conversation, and of course would stand very close to you while talking in a way which most Westerners would often find slightly uncomfortable, although you soon got used to it and learned to appreciate its intent.
Meanwhile during my three years in Turkey male friends would not only slip their hands into mine while walking along, but would greet me with a kiss on both cheeks. Hugs were frequent and bear-like. And there it was also fine to embrace my female students. Being something of a hugaholic, this was a wonderful country in which to spend time. There's nothing quite as satisfying as holding another person close, feeling the release of the stresses of daily life, the sudden shared warmth.
All of which goes to prove that by the time I arrived here, I'd experienced quite a range of kinds of physical contact, and could consider myself something of a hugologist, conscious that each culture had its own norms, and that it was only a matter of time before I found my way in Bangladesh.
I suppose I was already well aware that it would be a more conservative starting point, and so, you'll be glad to know, I didn't make the mistake of trying to give a bear hug to the first female college Principal I met. Even so, I was a little surprised and certainly embarrassed in my first week in Rajshahi when my outstretched hand to a female head teacher was left hanging in mid-air. It seemed an awfully long way back to my body from that hovering point. But lesson learned, I moved on, only to have a woman NGO worker the next day pump my hand with a strong handshake. Already my attempts to make sense of what was normal seemed to be hitting obstacles. I knew from my early meetings in the capital that life was different there, full of self-confident women, but out here in the provinces I was having to work things out rapidly, eventually formulating a working hypothesis: if she rides a motorbike, it's probably OK to shake her hand… Otherwise, a vague salutation in the air is preferable.
As time went on, and I moved to the much more cosmopolitan city of Chittagong, I was able to add some more nuance to this elementary understanding. Here I had two strong and assertive female colleagues, very self-assured and extremely friendly. Surely, at the end of a year working closely together, a hug was in order? And so it was, not without a certain degree of trepidation, that I reached out for that hug on the last day of our collaboration together. Big mistake my instinct for making sense had clearly let me down even with two people to whom I was close and for all the response I got, I may as well have been hugging the office photocopier. In fact, the photocopier would at least have lit up and made a pleasant whirring noise.
OK, I said to myself, Bangladesh now has two rules: you can shake hands with most people, especially if they are on two wheels, but hugs are off limits, either for men or women. No problem, I can live with that. A few years later, feeling quite satisfied with my sociologically acute insights, I set off for a week-long residential course in Savar, with teachers coming from all over the country. Like all such courses, an intense week of bonding and shared experience, and the final ceremony hurtled towards us. As I was handing out the certificates, three men suddenly got up from their seats and gave me a real Russian-style bear hug. Not all at the same time, mind you: I don't think Bangladesh is quite ready for the group hug, but it took me by surprise all the same, forcing me back to my drawing board to work out yet another theory of what was and wasn't possible. Was it simply that I'd been here longer and had never achieved that kind of bond with people before, or were these three guys mould-breakers, pioneers of a new hug-friendly society?
Then one morning my outwardly pious driver announced to me, with obvious glee at my startled face, that he hugged his wife for sixty seconds every morning before leaving the house, going on to explain: “My kids, they ask me why I do this each day. They're surprised like you. But I tell them that when you get to my age, you need to give and receive more love.”
The biggest shock was yet to come however. A few months on, I was walking around my new workplace in the company of some very august and rather senior education officials: the kind with at least three pens in their jacket pockets. My boss was by my side, and though we didn't wear a signboard to announce this, we were quite clearly an Official Party. Suddenly, out of a building to the side, a female colleague I hadn't seen in seven years emerged. Before I could even greet her she had flung her arms round my neck in a very warm hug, even by my standards, and certainly much to the astonishment of my elderly colleagues. (My boss was still talking about it eighteen months later). Over a coffee a few days on, she told me that now she was a successful professional, she no longer felt bound by normal social constraints, and had decided that day just to go with her intuitions. Wonderful, and very enjoyable to be welcomed in that way, but of course it once again shot huge holes through my understanding of what was and wasn't appropriate here.
Now I'm approaching that first decade mark, and living in the Big Mango that is Dhaka, I have close friends, both male and female, who are generous and expert providers of hugs, and so I've finally realised the futility of trying to create meaning out of anything at all. Life here, like in any city, is changing and evolving the whole time. It can't be pigeon-holed. Everything is in constant flux, and the only safe conclusion I can reach, after observing Bangladesh all this time, is that I have more knowledge, but less understanding than ever. And that's just fine: maybe I should stop trying to make sense, and just start embracing uncertainty.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007