13. Against the odds: the Bangladeshi people

One of the greatest joys of travelling for me is the opportunity it affords me to meet and interact with people who are culturally different from me – in looks, in thought, in dress, in language, etc. During many years of travelling, I have seen some majestic and spectacular landscapes shaped by all kinds of forces (natural, cultural, social, perceptual, aesthetic, etc.). In each place, the many people that I have interacted with have provided me with one means of tangibly connecting with those landscapes. Memories of places are inextricably linked with memories of people I’ve met. As the years go by and more and more places become popular tourism destinations, it can sometimes be difficult to experience genuine cultural interaction. In Bangladesh though, where tourism has yet to make an impact, not only is it possible, it is unavoidable. It is one of the few places where I have travelled that I feel I am having comparatively genuine and authentic experiences (in so far as that is truly possible). People actually welcome being photographed too: many have told me that they feel it is an honour. For me it is indeed an honour – I only wish I had a better camera. (A photography course is high on my ever-expanding list of ‘things to do’.)

The odds are stacked against the Bangladeshi people in their fight for economic security. They are still contending with the aftermath of the 1971 war, with poverty, corruption, population growth, cyclones, floods, inequality, unemployment……the list goes on. (See post 8 for example, amongst others.) It would be so easy to sink into despair here, in the shadow of centuries of such natural and man-made disasters. Yet, the people I meet on a day-to-day basis, particularly those at the coal-face of the consequences of these disasters, seem the least despairing, and on the contrary, the most resilient of people. I think this can be seen in many of the posts in this blog. They are also immensely proud, and deservedly so, of the beauty of their country and culture. And yet, they are not overly idealistic in expressing their nationalism. Every person, without exception, that I have met here, has presented me with the initial image that Bangladeshis are ‘bad’, that there is nationwide cheating, dishonesty and corruption. It is an opinion that seems to be as uncontested as it is untrue.

Increasing individualism in western society can often mean that people become totally absorbed in their own ‘small’ worlds. It is refreshing then to meet so many people interested and curious about the lives of others. Every day in Bangladesh, I meet people who are just as curious as I am: they genuinely want to know more about me, my thoughts in relation to Bangladesh, my views on global issues, etc. Even those with no English know the words: ‘name’, ‘country’, ‘good’, ‘bad’. I have had so many experiences of the extraordinary generosity of people here: from the new friends I have made this is one thing, but from complete strangers it is unexpected. For example, on the many occasions that I have been invited to join someone at a tea stall, I really have had to persist to be allowed to pay, and more often than not I have failed. There is no shortage of invitations to the homes of people I meet casually on the streets. Even more than this generosity is the feeling that people are genuinely looking out for me. For example, I have had many experiences where rickshaw-pullers and CNG-drivers have gone out of their way to try to find a safer, or more comfortable route through a flood or a public demonstration. One evening, after losing track of time, I was finding it very difficult to find any transport – it must have been 1 a.m. – when  a couple in a large Land Rover insisted in making the journey across the city to get me home safely. (I think they thought me completely mad to be out alone at that hour.) The caretakers at my flat complex always offer to carry my groceries, or any other bags I might have, up the flights of stairs to my door. I usually give them a small tip (baksheesh), but on the one or two occasions when I had no small change they were equally courteous and obliging. I could continue at length on the subject of random acts of kindness!

It is, of course, impossible to generalise about an entire culture in terms of behavioural norms. (This is one of the problems I have with Geert Hofstede’s research.) However, I have to admit, that based on my own experiences of living and working in Bangladesh, and from reading local newspapers and talking to people from different walks of life, there is some generality to be found in my own attempts to describe the culture, in keeping with the Hofstede dimensions. This does not in any way, of course, suggest that Bangladesh is a homogenous society. My reflections are based on limited personal interactions. (Though it is true that in terms of ethnicity, religion and language, it can be said that there is relatively little heterogeneity – see post 8.)

I mentioned above how I thought that many of the Bangladeshis I meet appear to be less individualistic than many in the west. In this regard, they have very close ties with their extended family group, within which there is unquestioning loyalty. Major life decisions e.g. education and marriage are often dictated from within this group, and family protection will continue in exchange for absolute allegiance. I have had many conversations with friends about this: some felt very sorry for us westerners having to leave home and fend for ourselves, essentially, at the age of 16 or after college. (Others were dismayed that my parents (or any other family elder) had not made any attempt to find me a husband!) I could perhaps understand, to a certain degree, this aspect of their culture, as it is not that long since Ireland’s society was strongly family-centric too. In fact, I always think of Ireland when in conversation with say, rickshaw-pullers and CNG-drivers about their home villages (a topic they love). The question, ‘Apnar gram, kothay?’ (i.e. ‘Which village do you come from?’) always elicits an enthusiastic response and an engaged smile. There is a very strong connection amongst migrants in Dhaka to their home villages, just as there is amongst Irish people, in general, to the home place.

I have mentioned in other posts how hierarchical Bangladeshi society is, and it is difficult not to notice the inequality between people, in government, in organisations and even within families. Interpersonal relationships, at all levels, are governed by the principle of hierarchy, and based on a person’s status, social position, educational attainment, seniority and gender. I think it is this aspect of the culture, and the associated behavioural norms, that trouble me most, both at work and outside work. Most people that I meet accept (and expect) power to be distributed unequally. It’s part of Bangladeshi culture and it permeates every layer of society. People tend to grovel and kowtow to those ‘above’ them, and often dismiss and humiliate those ‘below’ them. The result of this is that there is very little meaningful, cooperative interaction across power levels. This aspect of behaviour was very significant and had very real consequences in my work situation (see  post 25 and post 48).

Most of my Bangladeshi friends have very strong religious belief systems: most are devout Muslims, though I also know Hindus, Buddhists and Christians (see post 37). Personally, I experience a good degree of tolerance for difference, but this does not always equate to true openness to other beliefs, ideas, etc. I would have to be cautious here, because the language barrier presents difficulties in delving deeper into these areas. I am also conscious of the situation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the plight of ethnic minority groups there. (See post 43.)

The majority of my interactions and discussions in Bangladesh are with urban men – both at work, on the street and with friends. (See post 12 and post 39, amongst others.) The women that I do have conversations with are educated and/or in positions of relative power. However, through travelling and visiting development projects throughout Bangladesh, I am getting some insights into the lives of rural women and men. (See post 18post 24post 32 and other ‘journey’ posts.) While the conditions of the urban poor (men, women and children) are visible through daily reminders while travelling through the city, and through daily encounters with street beggars, for example, I don’t really have much in-depth interaction due to the language barrier, though see post 30, post 35 and post 57.) The small urban middle-class cohort live much like their Western counterparts. (See post 7 and post 44.)

All posts in this blog will, in one way or another, revolve around the Bangladeshi people. As I said at the outset, this entry is not about presenting a definitive profile, but rather about sharing the experiences of my interactions, both personal and professional. (In the latter regard see post 25 and post 48.) The aim is to provide you with a richer picture of my whereabouts and exchanges. At the beginning of this post I also said that one of the most pleasurable parts of travelling for me was meeting new people. In this regard Bangladesh is surpassing my expectations.

It is difficult to choose photographs for this post: most blog photographs will feature the people of Bangladesh. Here are a few I have chosen randomly. Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.


Click on image below and then on the top-left image (31 photographs). Enjoy!

1_Outside Sakhipur UP hall


8 responses to “13. Against the odds: the Bangladeshi people

  1. You should work as a cultural mediator. You show great understanding and empathy.

    • I’m not so sure about that anymore Rob. With the passing of each year since I began this blog I think I’ve lost a certain level of tolerance. Can be difficult to counteract! Thanks for visiting.

  2. Wow. Nicely written ! Great observations !

  3. I feel proud as a Bangladeshi reading this.

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