Independence Lost and Found

Or … “How I Became a Shut-In”

Anyone who knows me knows diet soda is my crack. I’m an addict and I’m only marginally ashamed to admit it. Friends and strangers alike feel the need to provide unsolicited warnings about the dangers of the chemicals I’m ingesting.

“Did you know you’re drinking FORMALDEHYDE?!”

”It’s really bad for your teeth.”

“Diet soda actually makes you gain weight.”

To which I always reply, “I’m not trying to lose weight. I like the bubbles … and, yes, I like the flavor.” (Turns out, formaldehyde is quite tasty.) “Oh and, by the way, how’s that coffee treating your teeth?”

So when I was about to run out of my soda stash, I was highly motivated to get more. It was Saturday afternoon and I hadn’t left the house since Thursday evening (the weekend here is Friday-Saturday), so I promised myself that, today, I would finally walk to the store alone and buy my crack like a big girl.

Except I didn’t. I sent one of the assistants in the office to get it for me.

The store is not far away. Maybe 10 minutes on foot, less than that even, but I just didn’t want to go. I swear if it weren’t for the constant presence of Bangladeshi people in the house where I live – or the fact that I teach four days a week – I’d qualify as a shut-in.

As I write this, it occurs to me that, somehow, in the two months I’ve been here, I’ve completely lost my independence. I’m actually kinda scared to leave the house by myself.

I read this awesome blog about creepiness and wondered if that was the problem. Like Arlette, I’ve experienced catcalls from young boys and inappropriate comments from older men. In addition, I’ve been complimented propositioned by homeless drug addicts and witnessed an old man masturbating at my high school’s bus stop. But none of that has stopped me from living an über independent life. Besides, from what I’ve seen, Bangladesh isn’t full of creepy men.

So what is it then?

Finger-pointing 1: I could blame it on the fact that, no matter where I go, I can’t blend in. Within moments of leaving the house, people will stare and follow me and ask me a barrage of questions I can’t understand or answer.

I did understand one question this man asked: “Dam khoto?” Which means, “How much?” … in reference to my camera.

Most of the time, I’m sure their motivation is friendly curiosity. But here’s the thing: I can’t trust my creepiness meter in this place. It isn’t tuned to this culture or this language – spoken or body. I don’t know what signals I’m sending or how they’re being received. I don’t trust my ability to differentiate a harmless situation from a dangerous one.

It doesn’t help that from day one I’ve been warned about safety and discouraged from doing many things alone. As a result, “many” things have become “all” things and I’m turning into an agoraphobe.

Finger-pointing 2: I could blame it on the help. Where I’m living, there’s a maid, a cook, a driver and various assistants who can help me with anything I need. Wow. That sentence sounds awesome. But don’t be fooled. It’s not as great as it seems.

My accommodations have a certain charm, but by no means am I living in luxury. After two months and countless attempts to fix my shower, I finally have hot warm water — sometimes.

On the left: Rather hard bed with mosquito net. On the right: My “closet.”

Even a simple request devolves into an extreme exercise in patience, and I leave the situation confused, frustrated and wishing I could just handle everything myself.

My Diet Coke request, for example, took 10 minutes to explain and confirm. When the assistant actually returned with 10 bottles of soda and the cookies I wanted and the correct change, I was happier than a kid at Christmas.

Which just goes to show how much of a shut-in I’ve become.

Finger-pointing 3: I could blame it on the fact that there’s nothing to do around here. Seriously. I have scoured the internet and found n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

According to Lonely Planet, “… Jessore, like many Bangladeshi towns, has no real tourist sights. Rather, its attractions are all in the exotic and chaotic atmosphere and in the web of narrow winding backstreets overcrowded with possible adventures.”

Well, Lonely Planet, that’s true if by “adventure” you mean drawing a crowd every time you stop to take a photo.

I think Wikitravel sums it up more accurately, “There’s not a lot to do here, but the people are friendly.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love that the people are friendly here, but sometimes, a girl just wants to walk to the store and get a Diet Coke like a normal person!

The conclusion: Normalcy. I guess that really is the crux of the problem. There’s only so much “otherness” a person can take. Yesterday, I came across a blog that made me feel a lot better. The writer has been in Bangladesh a few years and even he said, “One additional ritual that bideshis, being foreigners, have to endure at the picnics (or indeed, anywhere they go) is the stare of Bangladeshi strangers. Wherever we stand for even a few minutes we will gain a crowd.”

He went on to say that, “Other Bideshis, who are not new here, get angry, or become rude, or just avoid going out where there are crowds.”

Oh no! I don’t want to become one of those people. I certainly don’t want to leave next June and look back on my time and regret that I didn’t experience everything I could. The title of this blog is Untitled Adventure, after all.

That settles it. Next week, I WILL leave the house alone.

Maybe.

Wish me luck getting my independence back.

And thank you to the Weekly Writing Challenge: From Mundane to Meaningful for helping me use my soda addiction for more than just the bubbles.

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14 thoughts on “Independence Lost and Found

  1. I think the things you describe here are quite normal for a person new to Bangladesh. There are a lot of good things about Bangladesh and about its people. Some of those things that are good are also some of the things that are more difficult – such as the ones you mentioned here.

    Three things that need to be remembered from what you wrote here are:

    1) With 70% of the population reliant on farming and with very little education there is nothing much to see and do in rural areas (there are, however, lots and lots of beautiful places to visit around the country – including the amazing Sundarbans very close to where you live – and tons of historic monuments, museums and sites to see). But for most Bangladeshis the only forms of entertainment are chattering and gossip, and watching. They watch everything. And many have not seen a white woman before and that is something VERY special. You may find women bringing their children up to wipe their hands on your arm. This is because it is believed that your good luck (you are rich after all) will rub off on them.

    2) Bangladeshis are communal in nature. You need your family and neighbours when a drought destroys your crops or a storm rips off your roof or a flood wipes out your clay-built home. We value independency but in Bangladesh that is suicide. So space in your home is definitely a foreign concept. At around 160 million people in a country the size of England, it is the 7th largest population and one of the very most over-crowded in the world. There ISN’T any space to get away. But, again, why would they want that space?

    3) On the whole you will always be safe – Bangladeshis are incredibly friendly – but watch out for men, especially young ones, trying to talk to you or stand too close. Women are not generally highly valued in society and white women are thought of as being ‘loose’. A decent Bangladeshi man will know he should not talk to a strange woman so those that do are often trying it on. Generally, as long as there are several people around and it is not very early or very late, you will be safe. But you will always be safer if you are with another person, preferably a man or a Bangladeshi woman. Anyone who can speak Bangla well if yours is not good yet, will help. Learning the language is vital. My wife, children and I can all go out anywhere in Dhaka and anywhere in rural Bangladesh because we know what to be watching out for and we are fluent in the language. It makes all the difference. I recommend you get daily language lessons if you can – even if that is just a young woman coming to your home to talk Bangla with you and get you used to using it.

    I hope that helps a little and I hope you enjoy reading my blog in future.

    Best wishes

    Ken

    • I cannot thank you enough for sharing this information, especially about the safety issue! Usually, I research a place like crazy before I decide to move there, but this time I dove in head first without any preparation. As a result, my steep learning curve is adding to the challenge of adjusting to such a different culture. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in learning Bangla since my job is to teach English and I am surrounded by lots of Bangladeshi people who speak English, but you’re right, it’s vital for my independence and will surely enrich my experience here. Thank you again!

  2. I have tried to relate to the feelings you express in this blog. Once again, I am taken back to my year in Vietnam. I never felt comfortable leaving the security of the base. After all, there were real dangers outside the perimeter. So, I spent nearly the entire year living on the base with very few outside excursions (probably a half dozen or so). On base, however, I had many like minded people to converse and socialize with. I have never, in my lifetime, experienced the social isolation that you describe in your post. I hope the arrival of the new teacher will give you a companion that you can relate to and venture out with. I don’t like the vibes I am getting from this posting, and I am certain you don’t like them either. I pray things will change in the very near future.

    • Awww. Dad. I know. This transition has been much tougher than I ever would have expected, but the good news is that I’m getting more comfortable and I do think that despite the struggle (maybe because of it?) this experience will end up being very rewarding. I’m challenged to learn more about myself at the same time I’m learning about this culture. It’s not easy, but it’s not bad either. I’m ok. I promise!

      • If you would think of the people that gather around you as a form of protection, you might welcome their presence more. It is unlikely anything bad would happen to you with that many witnesses present. The curious become your “bodyguards.”

        • True. That’s a good way to look at it. Whenever a crowd forms, I usually start taking their photos, which they love, and show them the pictures on my camera screen, which they love even more. But then the crowd grows even larger and then it gets a bit overwhelming and I have to leave. haha. I’m sure I’ll find a balance soon enough.

  3. I was trying to take the opportunity to provide some guidance, but can see that Ken has already done most of my part. Now as a Bangladeshi man, I have still some more, you may take it or leave it.

    Firstly, I was really shocked to see your accommodation standard (you have a photograph inside it). Even a rural local people with average financial background will not accept it in Bangladesh. Why don’t your employee spends 4/5 hundred dollars for you to make it better? I am really astonished. A standard bed does not cost more than 250 dollars in Bangladesh. You will be able to get a standard wardrobe cabinet at around 200 dollars. Sales outlet of some bangladeshi furniture brands (like ‘Otobi’, ‘Navana’ and ‘Pertex’) are available in Jessore also.

    Secondly, I agree there is nothing for you to do to spend your leisure time where you live. You can arrange some visits to Sundarbans (Ken has already recommended). There are some tour operators, you can contact. You can also plan visits to Rangamati, Cox’s bazar, Bandarbans etc. places. You will like those places. For a regular practice, you can arrange regular retreats to Dhaka also. Jessore has an airport, so communication to Dhaka will not be very difficult. There are some good quality buses also. In Dhaka, you will enjoy (probably not as like your own country, but not very bad as well).

    Thirdly, the curiosity of the general people. Its natural for the rural people in this part of the world (whole of the Indian Sub-continent). I have experienced the similar thing even in the rural parts of the Africa (even though I am not a white skinned man). It has nothing to harm, actually, though I understand that its difficult to stand for someone who is new with these sorts of situation. The curiosity level actually tempts a man to ask the price of your camera. On the other hand can you remember one girl intended to hand over her ear-rings to you when you praised it. These are two parts of the same coin. If you like one, you will have to accept the other one, no hard feelings.

    Fouth, you don’t need to be worry about your security. I fully support Ken about this. Just to be on safe side, try not to be alone with an unknown man.

    I have written too much, sorry if you feel bad. In that case, just ignore it. I still like your posts. Keep on writing.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and advice! Please understand that anything I write here is not intended to insult Bangladeshi people. Like you pointed out, people have been so kind to me here. I’m just expressing the difficulty I’m having being the only one who isn’t “normal.” I’m a person who thrives in a world where I’m surrounded by people who understand and accept me as I am … not as a novelty or oddity. The isolation is tough to handle. But I’m here to have an experience that stretches my comfort zone and allows me to learn and grow. Sometimes, though, growing is hard. I have SO MUCH to learn about Bangladesh and its people and its customs. Please keep posting your perspective to help me!

      As for things to do in Bangladesh, I know there are MANY great places to see and I’m hoping to find the time to do all of them. Unfortunately, the cool things aren’t near where I live. hahaha. Even the Bangladeshi people I work with complain about being bored here. But as one of my best friends says, “Only boring people get bored.” So I’m figuring out how to use this time to my advantage and grow in that way as well.

      Thank you again for commenting. I value it more than you can imagine!

      • Oh, and in response to the accommodation. This was supposed to be temporary, but because of delays in the resort project, it looks like I’ll be living in this room longer than intended. It’s really not bad. I have everything I need and from what I’ve seen, it’s a lot better than what most people in this part of the world have.

  4. Ang…I’m enjoying reading your blog! I had similar feelings living in Chile, but your situation is so much more extreme. It’s unsettling to not be able to trust your instincts when a culture is different from your own. In Vina Del Mar my coworkers were shocked and worried that I walked home alone and I continued to do it anyway with no problems, but then later when I was robbed in our apartment in Argentina I wondered if I had been foolish. It’s hard to give up independence and it’s irritating as a woman to have to worry about it more than a man in these situations, but you don’t want be unsafe either. My two cents would be to listen to your Bangledashi friends….maybe walk to the store WITH the assistant next time. 🙂 Miss you!

    • Kathleen! Thanks for commenting. I remember your crazy stories from South America and hope I never have to experience the robbery thing. You’re right, I could walk to the store with the assistant, but if he has to go anyway, I might as well just relax at home. 😉 I miss YOU!!! Can’t you come visit??? (I know you can’t.)

  5. Pingback: How Dance Set Me Free | Untitled Adventure

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