Since I drive to Uttara from Baridhara everyday for work, I have been able to observe the progression of decorations being put up on Airport Road over the last month for the 2011 cricket World Cup. My drive on the way to school and back always gave me something new to look at- colorful lights being put up on the lamp posts, enlarged versions of various flowers and animals randomly placed around the paths, new flowers and trees, balloons, and various billboards with photos of the country’s scenes and catchy slogans. Beximco endorsed a giant cricket bat- deemed as the largest cricket bat in the world– on this road, allowing for people to come by and sign it and to wish Bangladesh’s team luck.
Two nights ago past midnight my cousin and his friends came by to pick me up and we went to airport road to look at the scene around this bat. People kept coming and parking on the highway to sign the bat. There were no police or anyone nearby to monitor the scene. As usual, anything goes in Dhaka. While it was late at night, there were families, children, women and men there taking photos and signing the bat with markers and spray paint. Someone got out a huge speaker from their car and put on Bollywood music nearby that matched the energy of the night. There were names, wishes, even cell phone numbers and love notes on this bat in various colors and in both English and Bengali all over the bat.
My cousin’s friend got a hold of a red spray paint bottle from someone, climbed up to a box with the help of strangers, and reached the bat’s giant handle and spray painted our initials (“Oli” for me) in large letters as onlookers watched. Thus, as you pass by the road now and look at the bat’s handle, there it is, our initials permanently written in red.
It was refreshing to see places such as these where Bangladeshis can come together in one place and enjoy this moment before the World Cup. While I will be in Nepal for the beginning of the tournament, at least I was able to experience some of the hype and excitement. Sporting tournaments such as the various world cups have a way of uniting countries and instituting a new kind of nationalism. They are the one event where people from a nation can unite despite differences social classes, age, or sex. Recognizing with the nation is the minimum and the most important requirement. Most interestingly, you do not even have to be a fan of the sport itself. Identifying with a set region (its language, or history, the culture, and the likes) in this case becomes more important in this relationship- the sport, in this case cricket itself is just the catalyst.
The flower market in Shabagh, near Dhaka University is the largest flower market in the country. It is known for selling an abundance of roses, hibiscus, gada flowers (type of marigold), and some other variations- all beautifully decorated or bundled up for sale. Beyond the street of flower stalls is an area just under the bridge where from six o’clock in the morning until eleven o’clock, flower merchants sell these traditional flowers wholesale. The flower bazaar is open air and an exploration of red, yellow, white, and orange from an otherwise greysih morning. Many are already strung together in thread into necklaces (used in weddings) to bed decorations (chains of flowers used to hang over the wedding bed for the newlyweds). In just these five hours, owners and representatives from flower shops all over the city come early to this location to purchase such flowers in bulk to take back to their stores around the city to see for the day. Those who come early enough will be lucky to score the freshest and brightest of them all.
We reached the market a little before eight in the morning and we were overwhelmed by the smell and noises of the sellers and buyers. Men holding strings of gada would pass by me and stack them in a mountain of orange and yellow, standing over the pile, shouting out prices. Haggling for the best deal resulted in raised voiced and shouts but because the market was open for only a few hours, most just gave in and bought stacks of flowers before a competitor took them away. Nearby, women sat around together on the floor, stringing together giant, bright red roses and stark-white jasmine flowers together. The floor was splattered between dirt from the street and flower petals.
I asked one of the sellers if I could stand in his spot to take a photo with the piles of gada flowers which he happily (and in a confused manner) let me. After the photo though, I fell on the way back because the path was slippery from gada petals. It was embarrassing but I think the man selling the flowers almost expected it. At least I may have provided some entertainment for the day for the few that saw what happened.
The ride to Mymensingh in a rented tour bus with almost thirty other teenagers for four hours was an experience to remember, to say the least. The field trip began early in the morning where by 8 am students in the English Medium section in the 11th grade stood sleepily in the courtyard of Rajuk Uttara Model School, waiting for teachers and the principal to share some words of wisdom and warnings. We were to visit the Bangladeshi Agricultural University in Mymensingh where we were given a tour of their 400 acre campus and various museums relating to environmental studies and preservations. What should have been a three hour bus ride took almost five (naturally, as most rides in Bangladesh) given the traffic from Ijtema (a religious pilgrimage taking place in northern Dhaka).
The students were most excited about the journey rather than the field trip to BAU itself, as it was a chance to be out of the classroom and openly mingle, sing, flirt, take photos, and gossip. The energy and hormones from otherwise restricted group of 17 to 20 year olds was very much expected. The girls took the rare chance to style their hair, put on some makeup, and color their nails black while still adoring the green and white uniform. The boys came prepared with music and practices pick up lines. At some point I was asked to join in them in the middle of the bus where they simultaneously danced to popular Bollywood songs and sang Bangla songs unknown to me. No one wanted to sit down despite having to hold onto the seats as the bus bumped around the countryside. I was told of the various gossip- who dated who, who broke up with who, who liked who, and everything else that made me almost nostalgic for my high school days in Tucson. We stopped at one point for gas where despite my objections students bought me local snacks- roasted peas and spiced nuts, and salted pickled fruit. In just a few hours, I became instantly close to the students in this particular group from Class 11, Business Studies.
The relationship between teachers and students in Bangladeshi schools is one that I have been particularly keen to observe lately. The candid respect and care that many show to their teachers is uncanny. For example, students took the initiative in the bus to distribute snacks and made sure that we the teachers had it first. Some would come up to the front of the bus to check in on me and Farhana, the other teacher and my mentor for my tenure at Rajuk. They took the time to engage us in polite conversation, even though it was not necessary. Students let each other become natural leaders of the trip and make sure that everyone was in place.
I suppose this was very different from my field trip experiences in the United States were the boundary between a teacher and the student is maintained in many degrees. All this time, I thought that it was more in the United States that a teacher was able to have an open, friendly relationship with their students, but I see that it is not necessarily the case. While students here are afraid of their teachers, they also almost look to them as a parent and a friend if the teacher happens to be kind. The idea of respecting your elders is very much engrained in the culture in Bangladesh in all levels. This of course happens in the United States too, but I believe that the boundaries are more concrete in the relationships. For example, I would never ask my teacher in high school about their relationship status and share personal love stories, or give them a ride back home in my car when needed (apparently, common here), purchase them snacks, and check in on how they are doing during non-class periods. Here in Bangladesh, it has never occurred to me as inappropriate. Rather, it is a sense of a new kind of respect I am just not used to yet. Also, it is a testament to Bangladesh’s culture of hospitality, informality, and respect for the elder.
I spoke about this dynamic with my mother on the phone the next day who told me that indeed in Bangladesh, hospitality is something ingrained in people’s upbringing. She told me how when she was growing up, extended family, friends, and neighbors showing up to your home was the most common and expected. Entertaining guests was something you learn naturally from a young age. She claimed that since moving to the United States she has become more formal in her behavior. Calling before going over to a close person’s home was absurd. She told me that in schools, while teachers were strict, if a teacher ever showed some ador- a beautiful Bangla word that somewhat means affection- the students will give all they can to respect you and become close to you. She laughed and told me that in a school setting, students are used to the environment of discipline and studying, so even a slight ador is met with overwhelming responses.
The fisheries museum at BAU was impressive, unexpectedly. Having seen many museums in Dhaka since coming here, I was shocked to see how well sea animals and fish were presented inside the two story building. It was artist meet scientist inside, where wooden rods and various traditional fishing tools were used along with representations of nature to present various creatures to the untrained eye. Many of the fish were preserved in clean jars around a room, where I also encountered a very grotesque preserved bat as well (random?). Another room included computer modules, projectors, as well as instruments used to research fisheries with neat labels. Seeing the museum gave me a hope for the push currently taking place in the country for environmental preservation.
We also visited other sites and museums around BAU. In a particular garden, I got to taste baukal– a small green fruit that tasted like a more airy, crispier, subtle version of an apple. The fruit itself is known as a kul, but here termed baukul because it was made in BAU. The principal who came along to the tour with his wife also personally introduces me to plants and fruits that I had never seen or tasted before in my life. This example of the extent of the country’s fertility and vegetation was beautiful.
After a lunch of rice, chicken roast, salad and eggs, a soccer match started outside among the boys. The girls played a game of pillow passing where prizes were given, and the members of the winning soccer team were also given prizes. There was a semi-formal formatted ceremony near the end in a dining hall where such prizes and gifts were given to participants, winners, as well as teachers for coming and helping.
I realized that study tours were literally designed as a way for students to bond with each other as well as the teachers. I liked this idea of it being not just an academic tour but a social one, and much needed as well. It was a break for the students in what is otherwise a life of studying and restrictive activities. I was really appreciative of the idea and the thought behind it all.
Chatting about the unfortunate experience me and Tarfia had at lunch yesterday at Nando’s (Gulshan 1) where my simple order of vegetables and rice and her chicken wrap meal went very wrong. We had a not-very-exotic spicy mouth, a heart burn, chest pains and watery eyes. And we thought it was going to be a safe, simple lunch out in the city at a place that specializes in grilled chicken.
Tarfia: Do you know why that meal thing at Nando’s sucks so much?
Tarfia: Not just Nando’s, but when that happens in general?
Because you feel like both a failure and a victim at the same time
IT’S SO COMPLEX
me: it is. so complex. omg.
I mean, it is so simple and so sad.
Tarfia: of course
me: And like, you have such high expectations and the venues are so limited. And then it just comes crashing and you don’t want to admit it but then…you have to
and it just…sucks!
Tarfia: I know. And you kind of did it to yourself.
me: (sad face) I don’t even know how to start writing about it.
I don’t know how to undo it.
Tarfia: undo the bad meal?
me: Undo the I-did-it-to-myself part.
Tarfia: That’s the thing
You can’t. You just have to find a way to safeguard yourself from it in the future. Give yourself positive reinforcement.
me: I have nothing positive right now to reinforce myself with. Also, I don’t remember the last time I ate at home. Is this bad?
Just an hour drive outside of Dhaka we visited the former ancient capital of Bangladesh. It was just a couple of weeks ago and really, very cold and foggy as you can see.
Last Thursday, I was leading a tenth grade class where I spoke a bit about globalization. I presented the sentence, “The world is becoming more global”, and asked the students to discuss and talk about this statement and what it means in Bangladesh. First, the students decided that it also made sense to say that the world was becoming smaller, in additional to global. We listed several factors of America, for example, that are present in their country as a result of the world becoming globalized: KFC, Jeans, Burgers, Music (Eminem, Linkin Park, etc.), the microwave, etc. Following this, I asked them to think about what Bangladeshi influences may be seen in the West, which in general was agreed to be none. Rather, we saw how their neighboring country, India had more influences over the world than Bangladesh (they talked about Indian stars being part of Hollywood as an example). This was followed by talking about Bangladesh’s concerns and development. There was a lot of pessimism in the class about their country and how it “can’t go forward” and thus become part of this statement about the world becoming more global.
The discussion turned towards foreign policy and if Bangladesh should be concerned about the outside world, like the United States. I asked them to get into groups to discuss for two minutes and give me an answer. It was overwhelmingly agreed by the students that before Bangladesh can contribute their culture to the globe (as part of globalization), the country needs to develop. People need to be more concerned about their own country and its well being rather than what is going on outside because there are too many pressing issues that needed attention. Some of these issues were listed as corruption, the environment, poverty, children’s education, and the economy. Bangladesh simply could not participate in international relations unless it took care of such domestic issues. The students were very serious in discussing this matter. I was actually a bit surprised that they had such strong opinions about their country and why they are able to take in Western influences, but could not contribute back. One student said that before fuchka (a popular snack in Bangladesh, where flour and spiced shells are filled with chick pea beans, tomatoes, onions, and spicy sauces) can be seen in fast food chains in America, Bangladesh needs to eradiate corruption in general elections.
I also asked the students whether they thought that these Western influences were a good thing. Some hesitated but overall agreed that no, they would rather be Bangladeshi and hold onto their Bangladeshi roots. Everyone agreed that they wanted to go to the U.S. for higher education and come back to their country. This was really interesting since from my personal observations, it seemed like this new youth generation wants to be Western. They are adopting the American English accents, they prefer to eat French fries and burgers these days, and wearing American band t-shirts are cool. They are eager to associate being modern with being more American.
The classes are only forty minutes long so I could not press them more on the subject, but after class, two of the students came into my office to talk about what had happened. They wanted to talk to me in private and seemed to be nervous. They told me that the class sentiment was false- they do want to become Western and love to participate in wearing Western clothes and eat fast food. They want to go to American not just to study but to get out of Bangladesh and experience “freedom”. It is very much part of their culture. One of them said that she was afraid that in a few generations, Bangaldeshi youth will no longer be, “Bangladeshi”, but being Bangladeshi will mean being more “American”.
The class was fascinating because these students- aged around 15 to 16- never get a chance to talk about these topics in school. They are highly intelligent kids that are engrained in a memorization culture where they are following a national curriculum and studying various subjects in a factual format. But they still had strong opinions despite spending so many hours of their daily lives in school studying and putting on a serious face about scoring well on national exams. Critical thinking- a popular sentiment and highlight of the American education system- was something that I thought that I would struggle in installing. It seems like students are eager however to be challenged in this way, while at the same time nervous about being right and not wrong with responses.
Leading the class itself required some special attention. It really is hard to get them to start talking, or get more than just the few energetic ones to talk. I have to remind myself that they are young, but not too young and do have the ability to express opinions. I think a new challenge is trying to convince them that it is okay to have differing thoughts and it is appropriate to debate, disagree, and just talk about what you think openly.
The winter months of December, January and February are known as the wedding season in Bangladesh. It is mid January now and I am still trying to de-tox from the experience. This season, some of my closest cousins got married. I have to say that while it was fun, it was also hectic and stressful when the person getting married is a close one. While I have never been to an American wedding but know enough to draw some comparisons (other than the obvious such as the clothing, the number of events and traditions involve din a Bangladehsi, Muslim wedding), there are several aspects of the wedding in Bangladesh that must be noted. Some observations:
1) The bride or groom does not have the otal control.
- In fact, it is the aunts, cousins, and siblings that basically take control of the situation. They decide on almost every aspect of the wedding, from what the cousins will wear, color coordinating everything, decorating the dalas (the baskets that deliver the other sides’ things as each side buys the wedding clothing and related items for the other), delivering gifts, coordinating the grand entrances, planning the entertainment, and basically making sure that everyone is having a good time at the events. Cousins and siblings are especially important as they symbolize the support of the bride or groom. They must work to impress and deliver. I was surprised at how little my various cousins (including a bride, a groom, and a bride to be for her engagement party) had to say when we were deciding on the colors and how to arrange flowers and everything. This is very different from the U.S. where the term “Bride-zilla” is used freely to discuss wedding planning.
2) The more colorful, sparkly, and gawdy, the better (while still trying to be fashionable and say that you want to be “classy” and “different”).
- The dala especially symbolizes this concept as they are decorated with shiny paper (you want to use them to line the base of the baskets because it reflects everything), the lace trimmings, gold glitter, plastic flowers and real flowers, and other appliqués. You must be a master with the glue gun and getting burned is part of the game (hence the tiny scar on my left hand). We have to make sure that everything is wrapped, spread, and cut carefully. And you literally buy everything for the other- my male cousin got underwear, socks, cologne, toothbrush, soap, shoes, etc along with the suit and formal wear. One of my female cousins for her engagement party received similar along with the sari which are always spread out and pinned in the basket.
3) You are supposed to compete with, and tease the other side.
- At the events, cousins stick together to attack and make fun of the other side. My sister and the sister of the groom and another cousin of mine arranged a song that made fun of the cousins from the bride’s side for example. Nothing like a dose of healthy competition among new families.
4) Nowadays, brides do not cry.
- As the number of “love marriages” increase and “arranged marriages” are no longer limiting, the new trend is getting to see the bride and groom actually enjoying themselves in the wedding. Increasingly, I love that they get involved in dancing at their holud, and smiling at the cameras. While tears are still part of the process, it has definitely decreased from even the previous generation.
5) Criticizing and getting angry and gossiping are all part of the wedding- one cannot escape it.
6) Smiling is an art form.
- The number of photos taken of a family member, especially cousins is almost as much as the bride nad groom themselves and thus smiling and posing is something you just have to master. I do not think that my jaws ever got so much exercise before.
- Your eyes have to get used to and bear the light of the cameras and videographers. It is the closest to feeling like a celebrity when there are dozens of photographers asking you to look at different directions and you are smiling and posing the entire time on the stage and off the stage.
7) Breaking your heel while trying to steal back your cousin’s show on the wedding reception day is acceptable. In battle, anything goes even if you have your hair done and are wearing a sari pinned with fifty safety pins, and are supposed to look graceful.
Today, it only took 45 minutes to drive over to Rajuk, most of which was spent me listening to my ipod while my driver blasted his favorite Bangla songs on the sound system. After arriving here, one of the teachers asked me what I had for breakfast and my answer of instant coffee was not good enough. I was told by her (or rather, demanded), that me not eating properly in the morning will result in having a talk with my mother. She also asked me why I was missing my sweater. This is one of the things I immediately lover about working at Rajuk- the open friendliness shown by my colleagues, some of whom have taken on the role of taking care of me. The campus is enormous- there are around 4,000 students combined. There are two shifts because of the large number of students- the morning shift and day shift. I was already lost in my second day when I was unsure of near which one of the four sets of stairs the office was close to.
The last two days were spent going to a few classes and doing a general introduction of myself to the students. I was insistent on this because I know that there is already some curiosity stimulated on campus by my presence amongst the uniformed students and teachers. I usually entered a class, and explained where I was from and what I would be doing, and asked them to ask me any questions that they may have. This process would sometimes be followed by silence because there is the initial hesitation but ultimately it proved to be a fruitful experience where I was able to get some laughs out of the students. In the 12th grade class yesterday, I made the boys in the back move up front to the empty seats and made each and every one go around and introduce themselves I made one male student sing two songs in the class, which was amazing because he exemplified a talent often unable to show off because of the culture of studying. I was also invited by some of the students to play basketball with them, which sounded like a challenge. The female students in the classes I visited so far showed me some of the best smiles I have seen so far. In one 10th grade class I bonded with the students over Movenpick ice cream. It was refreshing to see these reactions because I know that students at Rajuk are some of the most serious in the country, having scored the most percentage of highest marks on the national exams consistently over the years.
Rajuk has both English medium as well as Bangla medium sections, differentiated by the color of their uniforms. The Bangla medium students wear blue, and the English medium students wear green, and everyone wears maroon shoulder patches which represent the school and which year they are in depending on the number of stripes. The boys wear slacks and button down t-shirts followed by matching sweaters given that it is winter here, and the girls wear the common salwar-kameez that you see uniformed around the city. They are not like the ones I wear in that these dresses are perfectly fitted and attached, crisp, and monotone. I am fascinated by the uniforms because they are supposed to show discipline. At the same time some of the students have complained that they are not able to show off their style and individuality. Interestingly the boys complained more about this than the girls. However, one shy student told me how it was a relief to have the uniform because she does not have to worry about what to wear to school and not “having enough”. It allows students to take each other on face value, I suppose. In fact I wish I had worn uniforms when I was in high school.
The way that the students personalize their uniforms is fascinating, especially with the boys. The winter time allows for more opportunities as they are able to wear sweaters and scarves which again I see the boys taking advantage of more than the girls. I have seen a boy with his shirt collar popped, some with brightly colored scarves, and of course, the gelled, half spiked hair that is appropriate enough for school but different enough to get noticed. The two genders do not generally mix, whether in the classroom and sometimes, during the tea break. I wonder if this is because of the school setting which tends to be on the conservative side, or because they are not used to it.
Today I led conversations in one of the 7th grade class where there were almost fifty students. I asked everyone to go around and tell me their name, where they are from in Bangladesh, and something interesting about them. Many of the responses included loving food, being funny, math (!) and their favorite soccer team, to other interests. One of them has already promised to give me a parrot for my birthday from his collection of twenty two at home, many of which he apparently keeps in his bathroom. After class and the end of the morning shift, two of the girls from that class came into the office shyly and asked if I would become their new substitute teacher. It was adorable.
I am excited to meet more of the students and see what I can uncover about this generation of Dhaka. It seems like there are many layers that need to be broken into before this could happen, and I really have to think about how to do so this week.