Monday, September 2, 2013

Dhonnobad Bangladesh

One of my favorite novels of all time is Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The book is a collection of nine short stories about the lives of Bengali and Bengali Americans struggling to deal with their identities and relationships. One of the most powerful stories in the novel is the first one entitled "A Temporary Matter." A Bengali couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse decide to use the intimacy afforded them by a series of power outtages to confess to one another all the secrets they have held back over the years. Some of these confessions concern the mundane, others bear more weight, but over the course of five days they share these truths with one as another as a means of saying goodbye. 

I have been in a relationship with Bangladesh for 8 years. While we are not saying goodbye forever but we are parting ways for the foreseeable future. So these are my confessions, my goodbye to Bangladesh. 

My first confession has to be an open display of gratitude for the people and the circumstances that enabled me to come to Bangladesh. I am forever indebted to the generosity of the council behind Northwestern's Research Grants and to the kind donors (To Ann Keech and Ian Gellar here's your special shout out as promised!)and many others for funding this expedition. To my professors who inspire and continue to believe in me, I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to risk my diploma on a paper I had seemingly no authority to write, save for the fact that I was the only person you knew who had read The Big Necessity cover to cover multiple times. Thank you for believing in my passion and for trusting that a sociology paper on the sanitation crisis in Bangladesh was simply what I needed to study. And as always, to the WEAA who continue to support women's educational pursuits. To my parents for being the base I can return to time and time again no matter where I am traveling from. This journey would not have been possible without any of you.

My second confession is to openly acknowledge what a struggle it was for me to maintain this blog. It wasn't the act of writing I found to be so daunting, it was the feelings I couldn't bring myself to authentically convey. So here is essentially a laundry list of some of the emotional experiences I withheld for fear of judgement or disappointment. 

I made mistakes. I gave in to fear when I should have been more open. I didn't make enough of an effort to learn the language. A friend I made in bangladesh pointed out to me how good it can make people feel when you make the attempt, no matter how haphazard, to speak to them in their language. Even if the phrases are as simple as hello and thank you. It makes them feel good and it helps you begin to understand the culture. 
There were moments I hated Bangladesh. Not I kind of disliked it, not a sense of intense discomfort, but open hostility to the fact that I was there. Some of the most difficult moments I had in country were convincing myself to walk down the stairs of my apartment each morning. 
I was afraid to be honest in this blog. I was afraid that my honesty would be distancing and that it would be misinterpreted. So I withheld stories no matter how much they affected me. For example, there was an incident once where I quite literally trod on a beggar child. I was trying to get to the other side of the road and a group of beggar children followed my friend and I as we tried to cross. As I moved from the island in the middle of the road to try and and make a run for it, one of the children darted out from between my legs, and I just completely stepped on the kid. He got up and moved away like everything was fine but I felt so ashamed after the incident. This kid has a hard enough life without needing to be stepped on by the flustered Western woman. I felt like I had committed some cardinal humanitarian sin. Instead of just telling the kids to go away, that I had no money, I thought I could just convince the situation to normalize, and that they would just go away. But we can't wish away the things that makes us uncomfortable or challenge us. 

My third confession is more of a realization: At the end of the day just do you. My greatest moment from Bangladesh, and there were some truly great ones, occurred when I stopped trying to figure out what everyone wanted or expected me to be and I was just myself. There's a story from my first field visit that I never got the chance to mention in this blog. At the end of the visit, the members of the BRAC office are kind enough to provide visitors with lunch. As I began to eat, I noticed that everyone around me was eating with their hands, whereas I was using a fork and spoon. I asked my guide if Bangladeshi people typically ate their meals with their hands. She told me yes but that they gave me utensils because their Western guests seemed to prefer them. I looked down at my plate and back up at her and asked "Well, would you like to see me try" and I plunged my hand into that curry and rice and proceeded to make an utter mess of myself. There really is a skillset to eating Bangladeshi food neatly. I, however, do not possess that skill. My hands were covered, I had rice and curry all over my face, and everyone around me was hunched over laughing at my struggle. And it was one of the greatest moments I've ever had abroad. It's hard to stop worrying about what people will think of you but sometimes it's not so bad to make an utter ass of yourself. Because most of the best times of my life have been when I am acting utterly foolish.  

My fourth confession is that, while I am indeed an actress and a writer, I have come to understand that I am first and foremost an advocate. I have no idea how these aspects of myself will manifest themselves over the course of my life. There is a smorgasbord of worthy causes to invest one's life in. But I believe large scale issues can't be cured until we address the fundamentals. Maybe it doesn't seem like much and it certainly isn't glamorous but I have a very simple thing that I intend to dedicate my life to: making sure every woman has a safe pot to piss in. To me the ability to use a toilet without fear of being beaten, assaulted, or raped is not just a basic human need, it is a fundamental human right. 

For those of you who have been reading along with this blog, you know the story of my disaster filled arrival in Dhaka; I struggled to convince the airport officials that I was staying in the country for as long as I was, I had to hide a painless yet gushing cut on my hand, and was temporarily stranded when the person scheduled to pick me up was a no show. And at that moment I asked myself "Am I sure this is the place I want to be?" So you can imagine my surprise, several weeks later, at finding myself standing inside the waiting area of that same Dhaka airport, preparing to fly back to the States, with a sudden aching in my heart. I didn't expect to be standing in that airport wanting to turn around, to go back to my apartment, to the family I had made. Back home. To Dhaka. What do you when you love the world you are going to just as much as the world you have to leave behind? How do you leave one love for another?

Never before have I been the one who left. And I do mean the one. Amongst my closest friends in Dhaka, I was the first one to head back to their respective point of origin. All of my other travels abroad have centered around events that came with a very specific expiration. We left as a group or in smaller packs. But I've never been the first one to hug everyone goodbye or the one to look back at the closed door for final last time. I'm not the one who leaves. But I did. This time I did and I undoubtedly will again. Such is the price to be paid for the life of a permanent wanderer. But I consider the difficulty in leaving to be one of the greatest rewards of my time in Dhaka. Dhaka is a difficult and challenging place to be. So to feel that urge to dramatically turn through the airport and run home to Road 24 is a testament to the power of the people I have had the immense privilege to meet while there. You transformed Dhaka into a place I wanted to stay. You let me into your world, you shared your lives with me, you gave me a home when I felt lost and homeless. I'll miss you. And I will miss Bangladesh. 

When I flew to Dhaka I was asked three times if I was sure that was the place I wanted to be going. It seems only fitting that my farewell ritual occur in three stages as well. There was a phrase I found uttering to myself over and over again as I made the long return journey. It slipped from my lips as the plane took off from the Dhaka airport. Goodbye love. As the cabin lights dimmed on my flight from Dubai, I whispered it to myself. Goodbye love. And as I passed through the final door out into the lobby of the Philadelphia airport, I looked over my shoulder, searching for a world I knew was thousands of miles behind me, and made one last incantation. Goodbye love. Goodbye Bangladesh. 

Thus my final confession is a simple one: I love Bangladesh. 

One of the few words I successfully learned and regularly employed in Bangla was the word for thank you: dhonnobad. And it's a good thing too because I have so very much to be thankful for. So with gratitude and awe I bid Bangladesh and the life I made there a temporary goodbye. And I do mean temporary. Because if I have one more mistake to account for it's to call this a goodbye. I'll find my way home again. Home to Edinburgh. Home to Beijing. Home to Katmandu. Home to Berlin. Home To Sydney. Home to London. Home to New York New York. Home to Philadelphia. Home to Dhaka. I'll find my way home, wherever home is.  It's easy when your home and your heart are scattered all over the globe. I'm not sure when or how I'll get there by I'll wander my way back someday. I always do. 

'Till next time love. 'Till next time Bangladesh. 

Thank you all so much and safe travels on all your wanderings. 



  1. Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find afer years of struggle that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us. (John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley)

  2. I enjoyed your blog and I could relate to some of it because I spent the last five months in Dhaka.