Americans in Bangladesh
Modern times are wondrous. I say this despite knowing that it is the same era when capitalist corporations are in process of swallowing up the whole world, when powerful nations turn a blind eye while Israel intercepts international relief ships and when Mother Earth is heated enough to drown her land mass.
Yet I remain optimistic, focusing on the brighter sides of life. Even the stern pessimist will have to agree that our generation is testament to an ongoing revolution that solely holds the power to overcome the impediment of time. Yes, I am referring to the information and communication revolution, which is uniting the world into one global consciousness. People are increasingly communicating through the phenomenon called the Internet; they are traveling places, interacting with the presumed strange people of foreign lands and in the process, coming together. Of course there are differences, yet given a little bit of goodwill, there is no reason why we cannot cherish our uniformity.
Photo courtesy: Asif Khan
My optimism was reinforced by my experience working as a guide for the American students of the HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs) programme, 2010. HECUA is a Minnesota based non-profit organisation that brings students from various American liberal arts colleges and universities to Bangladesh, with a view of providing them with a first hand perspective of the social, political, economical and cultural dimensions of Bangladesh. Independent University Bangladesh (IUB) is the partner institution of HECUA and the faculty and students here are in charge to facilitate their learning experience.
Our anticipation over the arrival of the fourteen students, accompanied by two faculty members, was mixed with excitement and apprehension. Our faculty in charge, Prof. Talim Hossian, explained to the five guides what was expected, and what our duties involved. After all, representing one's culture and people is not a task to be taken lightly. There exist vast differences between the two countries, not only in terms of geography, but also in culture and economy. We had the task of playing the moderator in bridging the gap, relying on our acquired understanding of the foreign and our local culture.
As soon as we met the students, we knew that our job was going to be an enjoyable one. They were a bright, friendly, incisive and jovial bunch of students, ceaseless in their interest in learning about Bangladeshi life and culture. Under the conscientious yet relaxed supervision of IUB and the American faculty members, we ventured into the urban and distant parts of rural Bangladesh, mingled with the rural farmers and the influential elites, danced to Bangladeshi music, viewed the world through each other's eyes and gathered renewed insight. It was a blast.
The programme lasted only a fleeting three weeks, yet it seemed like we had grown to know Each other extremely well. There was Ryan whose inherent humour disguises his deep maturity. I will always be grateful to him for introducing me to the genre of Indie rock. There was Brian, for whom we had to stop our bus at random places so that he could respond to the call of Nature. No wonder, “toilet kothai?” or “Where is the toilet?” is one of the many phrases that he picked up the fastest! There was the cool Steve, who was impressed to find out that the Bangladeshi version of 'Pizza Hut' was rather close to a castle in size. There was the dynamic duo of the two Matts, who wowed the village boys with their impeccable soccer skills. Girls were no less impressive, with Ali who provided me with a crash course on the potent American art of 'pick-up lines'. There was the self-proclaimed nerd Cheryl, and of course Carrie, whose fluency in Chinese proved to be a major source of entertainment for the group.For fieldwork, we went to the village Bangra of Bogra. The warmth of our friendship and constant laughter enabled us to brave the infamous cold of January winter. Students were divided into different groups according to their focus on politics, religion, education and health of the villagers. We walked miles on the sandy village paths between the lush greenery, interacting with the shopkeepers, farmers, housewives, Madrasa teachers and the Union Council Chairman.
Yet exhaustion from all the activities was never an issue, as the genuine cordiality and hospitality of the villagers constantly invigorated us. It's hard to forget the particular morning when fifty students of Kalshimati Primary School, sang the national anthem for us under the mild winter sun.
With the evening came the time for classes. The prevailing exuberance was temporarily dropped when listening to the profound scholarly lectures of Prof. Haroun er Rashid or when Dr. Sarah Pratt initiated group discussions reflecting on the day's work and relevant literature. We seemed to agree that though Bangladesh might fall in the lower vicinity when measured in the conventional scale of national wealth, the capability of the people to prevail, and their will to find containment in the face of adversities was an achievement worth noting. Though the village people evidently need developments in the conditions they lived in, concerns remained whether the methods of modernisation were the desired ways for their betterment.
The climax of the trip came on the night of the cultural programme, when our foreign friends performed a dance number to a deshi tune in front of a cheering crowd consisting of IUB LFE (Live in field) students and Rural Development Academy (RDA) officials. Thanks to the choreography skills of a friend Miti, it was hard to believe that these students had never heard a Bangladeshi song until a few days earlier. All good things must come to an end, and so did the HECUA, 2010. On the last day, I didn't question Ben's sincerity when he said that he wanted to sing Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares to You”, dedicating it to his Bangladeshi friends. We departed with the promise to stay connected despite the distance. After all, there is the modern day marvel called Facebook to fall back upon. And we have kept our promise. Just the other day, Cheryl came back all the way to revisit the friends she made here. Steve wrote telling me that he had had the time of his life in Bangladesh, and he is considering getting a tattoo in honor of the times here. He wanted to know the Bangla for the word 'perspective', his choice of word.
I guess in the end, it all comes down to perception. U2's Bono said, “To be united is a great thing. But to respect the right to be different is maybe even greater.” The funny thing is an equal amount of wonder, if not more, lies in our differences as in our similarities. As we communicate with people from around the world, share our stories and celebrate our differences, we get to broaden our horizons further. Only by doing this can we ensure a better future for all of us who share the same boat called Earth. Well chosen, Steve!
(The writer is a student of Media and Communication, IUB)