July 20, 2013
I’ve never been a part of an ex-pat community before. It is a strange but very exciting thing to be a part of. Back in the US, I would never just go up to someone a start a conversation with them. Some of my friends have amazing social skills and would be able to do that, but for the most part I can’t really just go up to anyone in a restaurant or on the streets and start a conversation with them; I would need a reason like “we are going to be sitting next to each other on this plane for the next six hours” or “I have that same shirt from that obscure almost non-profit company that supports arts programs in Boston Public Schools.” But in Dhaka, it is different.
There is this mutual understanding of struggle. An understanding of “yeah, you had no idea what you were getting into either” or “I over pay for rickshaws, too.” Everything unpleasant about Dhaka becomes something to bond over, and it gives ex-pats an affinity for each other. Regardless of nationality, any country—even other third world countries—don’t prepare anyone for Dhaka; as a result, being hopelessly lost, frustratedly talking to vendors in English, and getting cheated end up uniting people from all across the globe. The other day I was in this hole in the wall Thai restaurant and behind us (me and my friend Kazmin who is Bangladeshi) were two girls speaking in English. As we were leaving, I stopped by their table and asked if they were American. They smiled and said they were Canadians and specified Montreal. Being based in Boston, I instantly had a connection with them, but even if I hadn’t I could have talked about anything Dhaka with them. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
My first month here was relatively lonely. It is a good thing, though, because almost everyday I would walk around Gulshan and Banani and just get used to the culture, the layout of the neighborhoods, and a few hotspots. But in my desperation, I found a few blogs from locals and ex-pats under the Bangladesh Tag. I messaged them all and one replied. She told me about an ex-pat Facebook group, where she hangs out, and who she is taking Bangla lessons from. Two days ago, we met in person at a restaurant for Iftar. So much for the advice “don’t meet people on the internet.” But my breach of internet safety was well worth it: we had great conversation, ate great food, and shared different parts of our respective experiences in Dhaka. I have found that foreigners give other foreigners tips and advice on where to go and where to avoid, because facing this city and culture without it would be much harder without it. I recommend checking out her blog juliaphipps.tumblr.com: she has had some very unique and meaningful experiences here. And at the very least she has pictures.
One of the most meaningful things we talked about, though, was whether or not people get disenchanted with the city. First off, one of the best things about ex-pats here is that they are all super interesting and accomplished. I mean who comes to Bangladesh? The people who come here are very worldly, adventurous, and come from very different backgrounds. Most of them are diplomats, work for non-profits, or conduct research—very legitimate stuff. I actually enjoy that I work for a school, because I have stuff to say about Bangladesh that people don’t seem to have heard before and I’ve met a lot of awesome people, both ex-pats and Bengalis. But secondly, the people who come here get shut down so often. NGO work is difficult and bureaucratic. Volunteering in a country that struggles to accommodate volunteers is not easy. Every problem in Bangladesh seems to contribute to the other problems, and the immense scope of the problems is disheartening. In addition to the lack of luxuries afforded in developed nations, it is easy to see how adventurous and ambitious people get disheartened by the pace that things happen here. It is sad but understandable to see some ex-pats who have lost their enthusiasm for Bangladesh. It is rare that people stay longer than a year or two here. It is extremely rare to meet someone here who has been here longer than 4 years.
I chose the title of my blog ZaminZamout because of the pun with my name. But I have discovered a sad suggestion to the title that isn’t all that inaccurate. The suggestion that I just enter a place and then leave, be it Bangladesh, Boston, or international service I may do in the future. It sounds like an epigraph almost, after all, we all enter and exit everything we do, but the title of the blog, a blog that thus far has been a travel blog, brings focus to the entering and the leaving, as if I’m trying to enter and get out of the country as fast as I can. I’d like to believe that this isn’t true, that Bangladesh isn’t just another notch on my belt. But I should probably just get over myself.
I turned 21 yesterday. Fridays and Saturdays are weekends here, but after four days of hartals in a row, the school was open. Service has been one of the best experiences of my college career. I have formed great relationships and learned a lot about Boston through it. As a result, I have been searching for service opportunities here, but they are hard to come by. There are volunteer positions open at firms and companies (called internships, amirite?), but those are full time and not service; it’s working for free. But through the network of expats (a friend of a friend of a friend), I found an orphanage that is desperately in need of math teachers. It isn’t a full time position, but rather it is on the students’ weekend in addition to their schooling to help them with math, which they have all failed. So, now I volunteer on Fridays from 8:30am-12:30pm.
It is similar to my service in Boston in many ways (on Friday, 4 hours, referred to as “the shelter”), but it is a much more stressful position. Back in Boston, I essentially go to the shelter to hang out with my friends. A group of old ladies, a few other volunteers, and I have become good friends over the past two years. The most important thing, though, about my going to the shelter is the consistency. Some days there will be groups of people who are volunteering, and there will be less to do, but other days I will be one of two volunteers and am running around non-stop. I’d like to think my presence is very important, but if I don’t go one or two days, the shelter would still be running. The people would still get fed. It would be more difficult for the staff to get it done, but they’d manage. They have to.
At the orphanage, this is not the case. If I don’t show up, those students won’t get taught. Those students have failed their math exam to advance to the next level in their respective schools twice. If I don’t show up, they’ll fail again. I’m framing it as if I’m this great hero, and I don’t mean to do that, but there is a responsibility that I have now that I’ve committed to these kids. If I don’t show up, they could drop out of school, end up back on the streets, and live their lives as beggars and rickshaw pullers. I would not be solely responsible for their successes or failures; there have just been an endless series of factors that have led to these children staying on the lowest social rung, but that is what we are trying to fight. This is what makes it difficult and stressful: the consequences of me doing my job poorly.
Not to mention, the disorganization. We showed up to the shelter, and it took us about thirty minutes to collect the students who we were teaching in a room. Then it took us another thirty minutes to break them up into different levels. Then in my class (I’m taking grades 8 and 9), it took another thirty minutes to find out what they know, and what they need to be learning. We have no copy of the test, no idea what they need to learn to pass the test, no idea of whether what we’re teaching is relevant or not. The only thing I know (or think I know) is that I should be teaching them Algebra. That is a pretty big and non-specific area of math. I spent the day teaching them how to solve equations with a single variable. Half of them knew how to do it, the other half didn’t. I am grabbing the book “Algebra for Dummies” soon and I guess I’ll just go through that to try to teach them whatever I can. The problem is that as I try to teach them, hanging over my head is the fear that they don’t need to be learning this stuff to pass the test. Although, I am generally against teaching to “the test,” in this case it is my primary concern. I have a small 2’ x 3’ chalkboard, with chalk nubs to work with, but I’m managing. And now that I have a better idea of what I am dealing with, hopeful this week will be more structured and productive.
The orphanage is a great place, though. It is a bright blue building, with kids running all over the place. Older kids, younger kids, boys, girls, babies, toddlers, teenagers. The place isn’t depressing; it is full of life. The students are curious, respectful, goofy, and they all help each other out; they are each other’s family. And they aren’t dumb at all, they just haven’t been taught.
Most of my service experience has been dealing with adults. I actually chose the homeless shelter in Boston, specifically because it deals with adults. It isn’t that I dislike kids, it is just that when I see adults in bad situations, I don’t consider them to be people who failed, I consider them people who were failed. There seems to be a focus and willingness to help children, but the failure of those efforts results in consequences. Those kids grow up, and then less people are willing to help as if they are a lost cause. Adults can experience social mobility. It just is really hard. With kids, there is more optimism. There is a vivacity to the orphanage that the homeless shelter lacks. And the stories that come out of people who volunteer at schools and after-school programs back in Boston are hilarious. “You won’t believe what this kid did today!” “One of my students said/asked this!” The average story that I have is “the transgender guest hit on me again.” Flattering, but not as funny as the reason why little Jimmy and Timmy were fighting that day. Working with kids both in the school and the orphanage now is a fun and refreshing change.
On a final note, on my way to work today I saw monkeys just chillin’ in the street. Dozens of them. It was great. And my mango count is at 48 now.