Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, June 17, 2010

Other Places, Other Faces

By Shehtaz Huq

Straddling the currency divide is no mean feat. The perpetual state of conversion, while browsing aisles at the local Wal-Mart or looking at online catalogues on used book websites, and the carpel tunnel from whipping out a calculator from the depths of a schoolbag or from under piles of newsletters, is hardly enviable. I pick up an item and my eyes are immediately drawn to the yellow price sticker. “Four dollars for a CANDLE?” I exclaim, theatrically but of course. “That's almost three hundred taka! This is MADNESS!”

And yet the madness ensues, with every other price sticker encountered and every menu perused and likewise abandoned. Bringing me to my conclusion that maybe, just maybe, living in the mosquito-infested, constant-state-of-power-outage-induced-darkness that is Dhaka City wasn't so bad after all.

Here is the DVD you cannot buy
I go down the DVD aisle at Wal-Mart and my depression hits a new low. Ten dollars for the Avatar blue-ray high definition shenanigan, the quietly malicious sticker tells me. I inwardly flip off the economics behind such unfair pricing and mosey on my way.

How much easier it was back in Dhaka, when the nearest DVD store was a ten-minute rickshaw ride on the congested Kemal Attaturk Avenue away. Fahim, the haunt of the perpetually bored, the somewhat flimsy black cases propped up on the shelves. I would prance down the narrow by-lanes, navigating around other perpetually bored individuals, and trace my finger down the spines. Breakfast at Tiffany's right down the corner from the latest Bollywood hit, Sicko and Revolutionary Road on either sides of the same shelf, all landing into my basket with a gentle plop. A 100 taka for every movie, sometimes even less depending on my fledgling bargaining skills, a price that would perhaps fetch me a Cadbury Easter Egg from the candy aisle at this end of the Atlantic.

So those seasons of House, those thirteen episodes of Breaking Bad that my mind constantly strays to, those shall have to wait. Far too many hours spent browsing the Internet for free movie hosting sites, on the off-chance that entire shows will magically make themselves visible to me. If I'm lucky.

And if not …
Hello, $29 DVD pack.
Here is the burger you must pass up

“Wendy's Super New Chicken Wrap,” the smiling waitress in the commercial tells me, holding up the aforementioned super new chicken wrap on a bright red tray. Beaming faces surround this feat of culinary arts while prices are rattled off, special timings announced. “Happy hour is from two to four!”
Half-price tacos, burritos, chicken nuggets, chicken strips, sirloin steaks so much meat, all shades of pink and tender red, bathed in all kinds of sauce and gravy, and all entirely inaccessible. A lifetime of formalin-injected fish and industrial dye-stained fruit has prepped my digestive functions, and yet I feel slightly nauseated when the hapless cow chewing biologically-enhanced cud is sliced and diced and patted into a hamburger paddy. “Do you know what's in YOUR burger?” that slogan shouted from the news networks demands of me, thrusting in my face images of slaughterhouses and McDonald's meat processing plant, turning me off my carnivorous nature instantaneously.

I almost long for the assurance of cuts of beef hanging from hooks in the butchers' markets of Dhaka city, those chunks of meat and bone swinging in the breeze while the blood ran deep in the gutters underfoot. “Fresh meat, guaranteed!” they would holler and we would pooh-pooh, our jute sacks slung over our shoulders and our noses in the air. We would swat away the flies and retreat to the air-conditioned comfort of our chauffeur-driven cars while our sneering faces haggled from the other side of a partially rolled-down window. And when we drifted towards those familiar haunts, the strings of Pizza Hut and Domino's and American Fried Chicken we were secure in our confidence that the beef/chicken/lamb/camel didn't roll off a suspicious conveyor belt in a processing plant. Ah, those were the days.

Here are the (medical) bills you cannot pay
I remember with a heavy sigh how absurdly simple it was to nip down to the neighbourhood pharmacy, slide a prescription (sometimes not even that) across the speckled glass counter and ask for a refill. Packets of medication were exchanged, 20 taka notes changed hands and were stuffed into chipped drawers, and soon we were moseying back home.

Except here, it is not so simple. Medication is either covered by insurance, or not covered by insurance. In the latter case, one would usually consider oneself screwed. That $10 bottle of pills would suddenly be worth $100, even more, depending on the pharmacy visited and the acridity of the pharmacist in question (the latter statement may or may not be a figment of the writer's imagination that was borne out of frustration with the convoluted medical system in place in the Land of the Dreams). There is the slight matter of the co-pay to handle, the minor complications (we understate) that may arise from a pre-existing condition. Heaven forbid that your family had a history of diabetes or high cholesterol. Sooner than you can whip out your health plan and hitch an eyebrow and exclaim “What the fish?” your insurance rates are suddenly going to start inching heavenwards. If you're lucky enough to get insurance in the first place, we are assuming. And one, of course, in this time and age of scepticism/realism/plain ol' misery (as the great Doctor would attest to) cannot except to hope for better things.

So, despite that three hour-long wait to see the doctor, draw comfort from the fact that medical consultation has not been denied to you based on the likelihood of when a diabetic boil will pop up on your right foot.

Here are the family values you won't find
If one is to draw from the traditionalist mindset, then the American philosophy of rugged individualism shall send the grannies bolting out the door. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps? Relying on one's own mental/physical/metaphysical prowess to blaze a trail in this dog-eat-dog world? No mother/aunt/second cousin twice removed/sister/cook to tell one how to go about business? What is one to do with all this, all this … freedom?

No one to dictate how to sit, what hand to extend when reaching for a spoon, how not to address the husband of your brother's wife's sister all these nuances of Bengali culture, these threads in the fabric of our society suddenly seem so much more insignificant once one steps off the boat and onto American soil. The notion of raising children with babysitters and sending aging parents off to retirement homes, of driving teenagers out once they hit eighteen and sending Mom and Dad a Christmas card every other year in short, the American way, these go against the grain of our upbringing. Well, to a larger extent, since in this era of globalisation no concept is too alien to grasp. But one gets the picture.

If you can't live without your Mommy, don't hit Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. You're not going to make it very far.




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