The most frequent question that my aunt asks me is: did you eat? This is followed by: what did you eat? As if to check that I was not lying. Since I live by myself in Dhaka, my relatives’ concern is if I eat or not, before they will even ask me how I am, or how work is going. When I meet strangers and they learn that I live by myself, I am always amazed at how many people will serious questions regarding my meals. How do you eat? Who cooks for you? Aunties will ask me this question with a smile that hides real concern. In the West where I suppose living alone is more common, I have never been asked this question. In Bangladesh, a different story. People are really, genuinely concerned about what goes into my stomach and if it is done often enough.
Likewise in Bangladesh, if you go to someone’s home or office, you are most likely offered something to eat, and also insisted upon. There is no refusing, unless you want to offend. This is not a matter of class or wealth. Two weeks ago, I was at a village in Bogra, in Northern Bangladesh doing some field visits for BRAC, and the women we visited at their tin-roofed homes insisted on serving us tea. One woman even forced entire bag of puffed rice to one of the students with us. The puffed rice lasted for days among a dozen people. In another village where I was working as a translator to a group studying microfinance in rural Bangladesh, a woman fed us her homemade sugar-syrup dripped cakes that she sold for 3 taka each in the market (we refused at first but it was too late, her husband was off plating it before she even finished asking/demanding out attention). I was at an urban slum recently in Mirpur conducting house visits with the same group of students and yet again, women were insisting that we enter, sit in their one bedroom homes in the slum, and drink their tea.
All of these women are poor, on the brinks of poverty, if not below poverty, insisting on feeding us drinks and snacks that they save up to purchase. They have barely any money to pay their rent, let alone send all of their children to school.
The same can be said when visiting offices. I cannot think of many offices that I have had to go to in Bangladesh for meetings and interviews where I was not fed at least tea; usually, biscuits and fruits follow. When I visited ASA, a microfinance lender in another remote village, after our meeting, there were plates of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas set forth by the maids. After visiting a milk chilling center in Bogra, we were directed to another room where plates of hot samosas and again, plates of fruits lined the table, along with tea made from the very milk they packaged for the cities in Bangladesh. At the Yunus Center in Mirpur, I was served Grameen’s Danon yogurt, tea, water, and vegetable crackers in their state-of-the-art conference room.
The hospitality of Bangladesh and the relationship that people have with food is fascinating. A country that faces increasing rises in food prices and with a large number of the population living in or below the poverty line, food is certainly an important commodity. Feeding guests crosses social boundaries. It is not about class, as I have said. It is about respect and showing gratitude for visits, no matter what they were about or how long or short. Furthermore, it is also about pride. And in a society where class and hierarchy defines just about everything, being able to feed (no matter what, black tea or meals) matters more than affordability itself.
Though we in the second generation often make fun of our parents who still hold onto this custom 3,000 miles away from their homeland (I am talking about those of us who are South Asian Americans), I am pretty sure I will be doing the same when I become an “aunty”. Already, when people visit my home in Dhaka, I start panicking, wondering what I have to offer for drinks and food (which is usually, nothing since I spend so much of my time at work or outside and thus, eating out). It is interesting how this thing we do with feeding strangers and friends alike has become ingrained in our culture beyond out great grandparents’ generation.