Thursday, June 30, 2005

Minnesota in the summer, there’s nothing like it!

Of course, I’m saying that now, but catch me again in the dead of winter when my toes are blue. Seriously though, it is so gorgeous here! The trees are so green and bushy (not all tall and spiky like those weird palm trees in the Desh), and the cornfields are knee high. The sky is beautiful BLUE and we had such a wonderful little thunderstorm yesterday.

Why am I gushing about Minnesota? Because I miss Bangladesh! Wahhhh! I miss my morning walks to the Nari Jibon office. First, I’d greet the guard with a hearty “Assalam Alaikum” and then say “How are yah?” to the brick breakers on the side of the road. My elderly rickshawallah would be standing there, outside of the gate, hoping that he could take me to the office (a two minute walk) for a hefty “baksheesh”. I’d chat with him and refuse the ride, but give him a twenty taka note anyways. Isaac would run ahead and I’d say “Don’t fall in the open sewer, and don’t step in phlegm.” He’d slow down until I caught up. We’d round the corner and buy our morning papers…a New Age for me, a Daily Star and an Ittefaq (Bangla version) for the women at the office.
Ignoring the stares of the men at the newsstand, I’d walk ahead and buy a bunch of bananas – those small kind that are sweet and tart and sooooo good – and a whole bunch of them could be gotten for 20 taka (35 cents!) I’d pass the little medicine shop with the small doctor’s chamber in back, and round another corner where I’d greet the guy who ironed my clothes. He was always happy to see me, probably because I always gave him an extra tip to do the job that I so abhor.
We’d hop off the sidewalk at that point, because they were tearing down an old building and there was no room to walk for all of the piles of rubble. We’d pass the man selling fruit on the roadside…the pineapple was so ripe that I could smell it as I walked by. I’d ask him how much he was selling them for (80 taka) and then would send Khala down later, because I knew she could get it for the fair price of 30 taka apiece. She’d take it to her friend’s house who lived nearby and get it cut for me. When she brought it to me, I’d say, “Oh, you went to so much trouble for me!” and she’d reply, “Can’t a mother do something nice for her daughter? It’s no trouble!” And I knew that she meant it!
The best part of the walk was always the moment I opened the office door and everyone would turn and smile to greet me. I would immediately be offered some tea, and Isaac would be scooped up by someone (whom he would immediately command to massage his legs), and the day would begin.

In Bangladesh, I was very sincerely and very deeply APPRECIATED, and that is very hard to give up. While I’m sure I’m appreciated here, it is in a much more subtle and even inconspicuous manner. A career in the social services, especially in the developing world, is not financially rewarding but it sure does a lot for the ego. What bigger high is there than knowing that you have made a difference in someone’s life?
I think I better kick the job search into high gear, and while I’m at it, I’m going to have to start volunteering somewhere. It’s time to crawl out from under my rock and reengage with the world.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

What it means to be a Fulbrighter.

“It is altogether unrealistic and probably undesirable as well to aspire towards a single, universal community of humankind with common values and common institutions… The rapprochement of people is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared or condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.” Senator J. William Fulbright, from remarks upon receiving the Athinni International Prize from the Onassis Foundations in Athens, Greece, April, 1989.

What it means to be a Fulbrighter…

Following are the comments that I made on the “What it means to be a Fulbrighter” Panel this past week in Washington D.C. I thought some of you might be interested to finally know what I did over there all those months.

In my experience, the Fulbright program is often misunderstood. In the US, my friends and family understood the prestige of the award, but when they heard that I was going to Bangladesh, they commended my “compassion” and “self-sacrificing attitude”. Many were happy that I was going to “help those poor people”. On the flip side, my friends and family in Bangladesh saw me as just another researcher, a young, idealistic do-gooder who would come to their country, get what I needed for my thesis or dissertation, and hightail it out of there once it got too hot-dirty-smelly for me to handle.

When I explained that the main goal of the program is a diplomatic one – to enhance mutual understanding, tolerance and respect between nations – I got a very different reaction. Especially in Bangladesh, when people heard that I wanted to learn about their country and culture, they were very happy to have the chance to share. I learned that they had a lot on their minds.

Senator Fulbright was a brilliant man. He wrote and spoke extensively about world systems and dominance and power (read The Arrogance of Power – c. 1967). His theory was that world peace and cooperation between nations could only come about when we understood each other’s cultures. In today’s time of globalization and the war on terror, there has never been a greater need for mutual understanding. Fulbrighters are doing some very important work that will bring us one step closer to world peace. It’s diplomacy on the micro level – making friends one at a time – that will help us to have a tolerant world. I know that I made at least ten good friends, who will stand up for Americans when they are being bashed or disparaged. They will say, no, I have a friend named Katie, and she is not like that. Not all Americans are the same.

So the question is, how do Fulbrighters actually bring this about? Junior Fulbrighters are going abroad on the premise of a research project, and Senior Fulbrighters are going to teach a course in their given field. How does this foster mutual understanding? The answer is, Fulbrighters must go beyond their original plan. The research or teaching experience will be personally and professionally beneficial, but Fulbrighters have a responsibility to go beyond what is personally beneficial. The key is building community involvement and personal relationships. While living abroad, Fulbrighters become a part of their surroundings.

Some ideas of how to accomplish this:

1) Be Open and Flexible. Planning is good, but not always feasible when the plan must be executed in a different country. So far, every Fulbrighter I have spoken with has changed their plan in some way, big or small, from their original research or teaching proposal. Being willing to change and look for new opportunities can offer Fulbrighters a chance to find many ways to become involved in the community. It will also take a lot of pressure off. Beating your head against a brick wall is not only painful; it doesn’t make for good research.
2) Go Beyond Research. While you change and develop your research plan, look for ways in which you can give back to the community. Teaching English is always a good option. In the process of teaching, you will be talking about things like daily life, relationships, family and other important cultural aspects. I found that I developed wonderful relationships during my English classes.
3) Be Creative. Use the skills that you have to come up with interesting sub-projects. I went to Bangladesh to study public health, but I have a background in fine arts. I bought fifty disposable cameras before I left the US, and wanted to use them to do a photography project. I organized a group of women, and with the help of a photographer friend, we had discussions regarding the daily lives of women in Bangladesh. Through our discussions, we developed themes and discussed the differences between America and Bangladesh. After teaching them how to use the cameras, they went out and photographed their communities, homes and country with the hope of illustrating those themes. I now have a pictorial record of our conversations, which I hope to put together into a website and maybe even an exhibition that can be shown in the US.

Lastly, please remember, you will always be a Fulbright scholar, and your responsibilities do not end once you leave your host country. You should always find ways to share your experience with people back home. This is the other half of the puzzle. American people tend to be very insular, and we need to expose them to as much of the “outside world” as we can. Speaking for myself, I am proud to have this responsibility, and thank Senator Fulbright for his forward-thinking initiative.
May the world one day be peaceful, may we all just get along.

Friday, June 17, 2005

And now for your daily guilt trip...

Please check out this Dateline story about the garments industry in Bangladesh.

Then donate money to Kathy Ward, who is running an NGO to help garment workers find better jobs with better pay and better working conditions. Or, if you can't donate, tell everyone you know about it.

I'm not advocating boycotting the big discount chains, but I think it's good to be aware of the situation. The women that I worked with - people whom I am proud to call my friends - are directly affected by the activities of greedy corporations looking for a cheaper rate. It's just good to know.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies...

I've been really, really missing Bangladesh (especially after reading my friend Tanya's top 12 list of things she'll miss about "Amar Sonar Bangla"), so I decided to write my own list of things that I really appreciate about America, land that I love. I'm feelin' better already!

10. Supermarkets - where all kinds of vegetables are available all the time, whether they are in season or not.

9. Hazard-free roads. I no longer need to brace myself and shout "Oh my God" when I'm in traffic.

8. Breathable air. My lungs are in heaven.

7. Law and order. I never thought I'd say it, but thanks to the women and men in blue who keep our streets safe and our pockets un-picked.

6. Underground sewer systems. Need I say more?

5. Cockroach-free living quarters.

4. McDonald's French Fries...there is no substitute.

3. Privacy

2. Beer (It was available to me in Bangladesh, but social taboos in my in-law's house made it "neeshedh" - forbidden.)

1. Not being a single parent anymore. I knew I missed Masud, but I am just now realizing how much I missed Isaac's father.

I'm still trying to adjust to life here...taking it friend at a time...but it's still overwhelming.

I'm headed to D.C. this weekend for the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation for next year's class. I was invited to speak on a panel called "What it means to be a Fulbrighter". Once I get my speech written up, I'll try to post it to share with all of my blog readers. I suppose I should think about what I'm going to say, eh?

Friday, June 10, 2005

...jiggety jig.

Flying around the world is hard on the ol' bod. Due to the Fulbright program's "fly America" rule, we had to take Delta airlines from London (instead of our regular British Airways), and the seats were absolutely awful. Small, and packed in tight, they feel like they are made out of cement. I felt too bad for the people behind me to recline my seat, but unfortunately the person in front of me did not share my empathy. Isaac slept blissfully on my lap, unaware that he was causing his mother more discomfort than when he was born.

Anyways, I'm home now. I've been in a dreamlike state for the past few days. I woke up a few times wondering where the hell I was, and why didn't I have a mosquito net over me? The house is a disaster (no, Masud, that is not an exaggeration.) There are literally things sitting around that I left here nine months ago - ex.) there was some sour cream in the fridge that had grown hair and started to plan its escape route. My bra was dangling on the curtain rod in the laundry room where I had left it to dry. All of Masud's clothes were washed and neatly folded, but kept on TOP of his dresser instead of inside. Poor guy. He should learn how to open drawers.

I really miss Bangladesh. I think Isaac does, too. I have not spoken any Bangla for three days, except to talk to my mother in law yesterday. I miss the women at the office (who are still weeping at my departure, I'm sure.) I miss the azan (call to prayer) that reminded me to thank God for my luck at being born in the US, and I miss the sounds of rickshaw bells in the early morning. I even miss the throngs of people. I feel very ALONE here, even though my mom is here and I've seen some of my friends and family already. There is nobody on the sidewalk. Nobody selling fish or towels or offering to sharpen my knives. No random dudes belting out random Bengali tunes. Wait, I still have Masud to do that for me. Once he's recovered from the Chicken Pox, he'll be belting them out left and right.

Most of all, life is very mundane now. While I was there, I was doing something amazing every day. Now I'm doing laundry and reorganizing my house. Not so amazing. It's a little depressing. I went from Fulbright Scholar to stay at home mom. Sigh.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Last post from this hemisphere...

Well, folks, I have less than 24 hours in Bangladesh. Today has been a whirlwind of last minute shopping (panjabi for Isaac), apartment searching (for my niece), "hao-mao" crying (from all the people whom I had to say goodbye to), and baggage stuffing (repacked three times to make just ONE MORE THING fit). Tomorrow morning, promptly at 9 a.m., the procession of goodbye-sayers will begin.
I admit, I'm an emotional wreck waiting to happen. Even the little girl that works at the apartment where I live has been weeping all day. (She's worked here for about two months.) It is so wonderful to be loved so fiercely, but breaking away is exhausting. I had to actually offend some people in order to keep them from coming to the airport. I am getting a motorcade from the Embassy (which is good because I have six huge bags - none of which will fit in the GeoMetro-sized taxis.
I just keep thinking about the good potatoes and crusty bread, snap peas from the garden, and SALAD. Grapes. I haven't had a grape for 9 months (unpeelable fruits are forbidden). I'm craving grapes. Mom, if you read this, buy grapes on your way to the airport.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Almost, almost...

Only 4 days to lift off...I'm tearing up regularly now. I've been spending my last days in Bangladesh dabbing Caladryl on Page's sores, but I've ventured out a few times. Every time I see someone, I have to go through this long, drawn-out and torcherous Bengali goodbye. It usually involves lots of hand holding (actually, desperate hand grabbing), and the phrase "Ar ashben na?" (You won't come again?) Sigh...melodrama is not my bag, baby. But, as tedious as saying goodbye is, sometimes I get really sucked into it. I have used a good number of tissues, that's for sure.

I only have a few things left on my list - since Page can't go out, I have been putting them off. She is going to venture out with me tomorrow, though. We have to buy her a long sleeved shirt to wear to the airport. I don't think the airline will stop her from flying, but just in case, we're going to downplay the whole "open sore" spectacle.

I still have to say my final goodbyes at the office (sniffle), and I have the feeling I'll be dramatized to the very end. But I'll be going (coming?) home soon, which will be a relief. I'll be leaving my "colijar tukra" (a piece of my heart) in Bangladesh, though.