Our Eritrean colleagues looked at us in sheer amazement that afternoon, back in 1995. A recently-arrived British colleague had taken the culture shock of life in a new place badly, and had locked himself in his room, with a bottle of rough local gin. He hadn't emerged for over a day. “Why don't you just go and sit with him?” they asked. We, in turn, were equally stupefied by the very suggestion. In our culture, a locked door and a series of uncommunicative grunts from the person behind it were fairly clear signifiers that here was someone who wanted to be left alone, and that to insist on sitting with him would be a gross intrusion of his privacy. We slunk away, to much tutting and shaking of heads from our colleagues, but sure in the knowledge that we knew what was right.
That day, in retrospect, we were playing out two notions quite strongly embedded in British culture: the idea of a private sphere which it would be quite inappropriate to disturb, and also a deep-seated embarrassment when it comes to engaging with someone else's personal crisis. Subjects such as addiction, pain, depression, bereavement are often taboo. We skirt round them, we use euphemistic language, such as “Heard things are not going too well for you”, to distance ourselves from the issues. With someone recently bereaved, we may even avoid any mention at all of the obvious fact hovering in the air, preferring small talk which keeps us all within our comfort zone. Or rather, keeps everyone within their comfort zone apart from the person going through the trauma.
I've since changed my mind that we were right, and here's why. I recently went through an acute personal crisis of my own, returning home from the hospital to an experience I will never forget. There, in my living room, were about ten Bangladeshi friends (along with one or two foreigners) who just came and sat, who offered presence and companionship, and who talked head on about what had happened. This time, being on the receiving end, I came to see exactly how valuable their presence and their talk were.
Yes, initially there was a certain awkwardness. Here, after all, was a grown man in tears. Everyone was so surprised by what had happened that the air was heavy with grief and silence: though not, you sensed, an embarrassed silence. Bangladeshis always seem less wary of emotional displays and discourse than British people. Eventually someone broke the ice, talked about pain, and what might have gone wrong. The mood slowly lifted, and there were even a few jokes. And throughout, there was the sheer and simple comfort of human company, coupled with a total lack of judgement. I had never in my life understood quite so clearly what it is to have friends.
Now to Bangladeshi readers this may all seem terribly obvious. All of my friends here have said at some time or another that they are going to “sit” with someone who is going through a hard time. In a culture in which most people still live collectively in large families, the concept of shared space and time, of living through ups and downs rather publicly, is part of the everyday background. It doesn't always work, and there is of course also conflict and misery within Bangladeshi extended families, as in any culture, but the notion of a safety net when you fall, of the simple “thereness” of people, exists nevertheless. What's more, in such large multi-generational families, one is also never that far removed from health problems, illness and death, and these themes are not so easily sanitised and ignored as back home, where nuclear families live in their little bubbles, and sickness and dying can be farmed out to hospitals, old people's homes and hospices.
It's an interesting contrast with the response from friends in my own country. I don't doubt their sincerity for one minute, or their concern, but we have become conditioned to expressing our feelings in such distant and reserved ways that it makes me long for a less atomised and more natural Bangladesh-style response. After news of my situation spread, one friend wrote to me saying “Hesitating to write, don't want to intrude, but just sending my love”. Another said “No need to answer just for you to know we are thinking of you.” Some were too embarrassed or reluctant to make contact at all. One or two broke the mould of course, (we're not all the same after all), and wrote long and detailed responses, but the general tone remained one of respect for privacy and a wariness about the actual causes of the crisis.
It's well-meant, and comes from centuries of cultural conditioning, and it may be a simple result of the physical distance between me and them. There were times when I would have loved them to stop treading on eggshells and say “Listen, I'm going to call, and to hell with privacy”. Or “What on earth happened to you?” Or simply “I'm here, want to talk?” For those who are going through difficult patches, it seems to me now that at least the option of working through the issues with lots of support may be healthier than being left alone and in privacy to mull things over, out of a vague notion of politeness and decorum.
It took a difficult experience to understand this, but it's just one of the positive things which emerged. And as with so many other lessons, it's something profound and meaningful I have learned from living in Bangladesh.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007