I know all I write about lately is what it’s like being an expat, but I hope you’ll forgive me, as it’s really the hugest thing in my brain-meats going on. Living here is a constant juggle in my head of the cultures I grew up in and the culture I’m living in. The older kids are asking really great questions lately, and I find that only part of the time do I ever really have an answer that I feel 100% about. So it goes — you live and learn.
So here are ten things about living in Bangladesh — obviously, Dhaka is my frame of reference.
1. White people are a novelty. Suddenly, I get in part why as foreigners we are stared at so much — we are really foreign. We stand out. Over 98% of the population is Bengali, so yes, the tall white guy with the shorter Asian woman, traipsing around Dhaka with their three kids definitely stand out. But now, when I see another foreign space, I feel a sense of kinship with that person, the “hey, we’re both not from around here. I get it. I really do.” It’s sort of imbued in every nod or smile hello.
2. Social status is no joke. When we go out to eat or pop into a store to buy something, it is not uncommon for the wait staff or the store employee to turn on the air conditioner or fan to blow directly in our direction. I joked to Josh that as long as we live here he may never have to open a door or push an elevator button — at his school, faculty members are revered in ways not seen in American schools. We are treated well, and many times uncomfortably well. I want to shout that I am able to and happy to carry my own groceries and change my own light bulbs. We hired a nanny to help us with the kids and some household chores, so that I may devote more time to my own work as a doctoral student, and she calls me “Madame,” even though I have asked her to call me Casey. No go. She calls Josh and refers to him as “Boss,” which is more amusing to me, because really people — I am the boss of this household! But this is further indicative of the social strata we’ve stepped into. (I have another blog post brewing on our experiences thus far with having in-home help and how we have approached this — hint, it’s not easy for the soul, that’s for sure!) Me, I am having a hard time reconciling the fact that we are living comfortably in a huge city with amenities galore. I was just a poor grad student this past summer! Now, our nanny calls me madame. And we have a nanny?! What is this.
3. The voices inside your head are relentless, but they do simmer down. When we first moved here, and definitely to an extent now, I found myself constantly translating — not just language-wise, but everything. I learned what the going rate for rickshaw rides were and what foreigners were charged. I learned how to pay for rickshaw rides with confidence. I learned how to figure out what something was worth, and whether or not it was worth buying. I learned about the different neighborhoods in town and how sometimes in order to go right, you have to go left for awhile and make an illegal u-turn, in front of a cop. What’s a tiffin? It’s something like a snack, or a lunch packed for a kid, in a cool container. Constantly translating and figuring out where to go. This got exponentially easier when I learned three really important words — left, right, and straight. This, combined with Google Maps, has helped me navigate everything easier.
4. Everyone wants to touch your kids. This is the biggest cultural shift I have had to manage, and I’m still struggling — we all are. Matthew lately has been more significantly uncomfortable with all of the staring, and Lindsey too has grown more cognizant of her personal space. People are fascinated with our kids, because of their genetic mashup as well as just that they’re kids. Kids can be fun and it’s fun to coo at a baby or chat and play with a kid. Lindsey and I have had discussions about the differences in how people treat each other here versus in the United States. I’ve told her that if she doesn’t like someone’s friendly head-pat, she can say nicely, “Please don’t touch me.” The thing I struggle with is the concept of personal space here is not what I am accustomed to, nor are the kids accustomed to. There’s a balance between being assertive with respecting one’s body and being openly dismissive of a common cultural norm (of how adults and children interact). It’s an ongoing struggle.
5. Good lord, the food. THE FOOD. And the tea. How on earth did I eat before coming to Bangladesh? I don’t think we have had a bad meal since moving here. Everything tastes so wonderfully vibrant and delectable. I am loving how spicy the food is (the kids are slowly adjusting), and tea! I’ve always liked tea, but I absolutely love the tea we got in Srimangal before we left. I haven’t missed coffee much at all, because… tea!