The permanent expat – an honest perspective

As an expat I know that statistically there are not many of us here in Bangladesh.  Of those who do come many reside in the capital, Dhaka whilst others have pre-arranged lodgings further afield – ie in Chittagong (many female travellers work or volunteer at the Asian University for Women) whilst others migrate on to field based projects working with church related organisations, charities or NGOs doing important work with selected groups of Bangladeshi people in the more remote regions.  Many of those that do come for volunteering, travelling or paid work opportunities write personal blogs for pleasure, for reflection, for those back home and to document their journey and the cultural experiences they face.

I’ve read many such blogs and by dipping in and out of random posts it is interesting to see common threads dominating routine logs.  As expected many refer to those initial sensory experiences we all tend to remember when we reach a new destination ‘….as I stepped off the aeroplane I walked into what felt like an oven that was Bangladesh’.   This is often followed by the shock of insipid poverty and the inescapable disparity between the Prado drivers and their rickshaw slogging counterparts.  These bloggers, often young women, are generally affected enough to mention the need to adopt a different and more conservative wardrobe to reflect prevailing cultural sensitivities as well as to deflect unwanted stares.  Posts then dwell on weekend trips to Sylhet or Cox’s Bazaar, the eastern shopping, getting around by CNG (compressed natural gas vehicle) or by rickshaw and the sights and smells of the ‘developing world’.

All seem to follow the same trend.  Ultimately there will then be a post about a host or a hospitable Bangladeshi family who are quick to embrace the newcomers with plenty of home cooked food and the introduction of extended family members.  Many are also welcomed as an addition to the family after initial introductions – a gesture that is often well received by those who cannot escape the reality that they are often thousands of miles from home. 

However, for many individuals coming to Bangladesh this is where blogs start and end.  Individuals who are often posted here for periods of a few months fail to deal with the real challenge of social and cultural integration into a starkly different environment to that of their western home comforts.   I recognise the signs of the seemingly light hearted posts being tweaked so as not to worry anxious Mums back home and experiences of those being lost en route whilst not speaking the language has been airbrushed into an exciting adventure.  Whilst brutal, Bangladesh is not tourist friendly and foreigners, especially women need to use their common sense to keep safe.  Whilst some long-term expats may hold a different opinion it seems to me that short term visitors, once faced with the realities of Bangladesh and the overwhelming physical and mental adjustments that genuine integration would involve such individuals never really engage or embrace with Bangladeshi culture instead preferring to ‘adopt the costume’ but opt out of exploring the host mentality.

Sensibly, it may be noted that those ‘passing through’ may be said to have no real need or sense of obligation to integrate in any meaningful way as their return ticket awaits them.  But what about those who stay long-term? Particularly those who are married or who are considering marrying a Bangladeshi and living here?  For these individuals (including myself) whilst we have experienced a foreign upbringing many of us feel the obligation and indeed the need to UNDERSTAND if not embrace many of the cultural practices and expectations of our new host country.  In-laws and extended family members can have expectations that foreign spouses will  adjust and adapt quickly.  For some expectations may include the need to adopt a new religion (publically if not privately!), the need to find your role and place in a family hierarchy, to adopt the language and embrace national/new religious holidays with the excitement expressed by your new family.  Critically, in Bangladesh where arguably national and cultural identity is more structured and perhaps rigid in comparison with the diversity experienced in the western world which supports multiculturalism (in theory if not always in practice!) that it is easy for one feel isolated at times when the adoption of new practices and a new mentality is slow and the reassuring safety net of your short-stay return ticket is non-existent.  Like many short stayers I have managed to successfully adopt the ‘costume’ but am still making that critical mental transition.

Essentials for permanent ex-pats


 The most challenging factor to integration thus far has been the inability to learn Bengali as quickly as I would have liked.  Whilst most of my relatives and spouse’s friends speak English, Bengali is naturally spoken more frequently as a matter of habit. Often, quite unintentionally, I can be sitting with my family and still do not understand what is being said.  So much can be gained about the views and prevailing attitudes of a country by communicating with its people.  In not being prepared for the commitment to learn a new language a permanent expat will often struggle to fully adapt.  Without language a permanent expat will struggle to retain a certain level of independence.  Using transport, shopping, directing a new team of domestic staff becomes difficult.  Without language job opportunities are limited to those only requiring English speaking skills – co -orporate roles or those in an English Medium School setting.

Patience and ability to compromise

Spouses who stay may also need to be patient.  Here we work on Bangladeshi time.  In the west we are often raised to be individualistic – to nurture our own wants and needs.  In a South Asian context with this being a “high context” society needs and decisions are often met on a collective family basis which can be an adjustment to those with high demands.  An ability to compromise is essential – something that short term stayers will not have to negotiate.

Remembering who you are

With such focus on integration and embracing a new lifestyle (maybe because I am British?) it can feel that you question your own identify at times as a permanent expat.  Whilst experiences will differ from person to person and expat to expat many individuals can feel lost about the change to their environment and the effect that this may have on them as a person.  It is normal – especially as change can be felt on a daily basis and as stated, particularly during special occasions or dates of celebration back home (Christmas, ‘Kate and Wills wedding’ , the Olympics and recent jubilee celebrations) that are not followed with interest in Bangladesh.  At times it may feel that the adjustment is one-sided where all the negotiation of boundaries and learning is one-way.  It is not always plain sailing and often the experiences you have make you quite patriotic as you yearn for all things related to home.

That said long-term stayers can find support in each other.  There are facebook groups such as the “C3club” (cross cultural club Dhaka) a club especially for women married to Bangladeshis who are a group of incredibly supportive women who can laugh and share similar experiences especially of those first few weeks and months.  I remember this club being a lifesaver when I first arrived in Bangladesh as the women could relate to what I was experiencing. 

There is also another recommended line of support on facebook called “I married a Bangladeshi guy…” Whilst a small community at present it is still a useful way for new arrivals to connect and make friendships.  In time I hope my blog will be found by those moving to Bangladesh who I am keen to help where possible with their new transition.

I hope that this post has given you some insight into the challenges that are faced by those who come to Bangladesh and stay.  I’m sure that similar experiences arise in other cross-cultural transitions where at times it can feel like you have bitten off more than you can chew!  I’d be keen to know about the experiences of other westerners who moved to Bangladesh or other developing countries.

I genuinely respect those who come to Bangladesh (in the short, medium or long term) to see for themselves the country and whom experience first-hand the people that make Bangladesh the country that it is.  It is surely a life changing experience even more so for those who stay and who seek to make this their home. Like many Bangladeshis who travel to the UK to live l am proud that I am able to survive living in two very different cultural environments where the variation in culture and daily life is so vast.


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14 Responses to The permanent expat – an honest perspective

  1. Sue says:

    I can’t believe how far you’ve come Emma – from our many talks in ‘supervision’ about how your life was panning out and what you could do about it – to your new life. I am so proud of you, and just knew you could achieve what it was that you wanted so much………you just had to make that decision on your own – and you eventually did!
    I hope you remain as happy as you sound, good luck with the new baby……..want to see many more pictures!!

    Sue (Nield)

  2. Rainer Ebert says:

    Great write-up! Are you aware of a similar Facebook group for men who married a Bangladeshi woman?

    • Hi Rainer

      It is nice to hear from you. I am really pleased that my blog is finally reaching out to individuals living in or linked to Bangladesh.

      As far as I am aware there are currently no facebook or other meeting groups which support men in their transition into a new life in Bangladesh. I certainly think there is a need for such a group as I have no doubt that many men would face similar as well as other challenges following their move overseas. The C3 (Cross Cultural Club) is the larger of the meeting groups I mention and has a membership size of approximately fifty women though not all attend at scheduled ‘get togethers’ – I am sure we would be talking about similar numbers of men. I’d be really interested to perhaps sett up a group for mixed spouses/significant others who come from overseas. The C3 club presently does not invite Bangladeshi husbands/significant others to join their meetings – perhaps a new mixed cultural club would accommodate bringing their Bangladeshi partners so they could all share their experiences. I know my husband also had to face a lot of adjustment when I came to join him in Dhaka. It would be great to hear from you again if you or someone you know might be interested in forming a new mixed (male/female, foreigner/bangladeshi significant other) friendship group. I’d really like to be involved.

      Kind regards,


      • Renee Syed says:

        Hi! is there a way to join the c3 club now? I could not find the club on FB, and I would love to meet other expat women. I have been in BD with my husband for 6 years now, and can say it is very lonely since I have no expat friends, it is also very difficult to become friends with local women unless you are pretty shallow.

      • Renee I can completely relate! – please find me on facebook and I will add you. My profile name is Emma Clare Burton.

  3. ron says:

    you hit the nail right on the head..

  4. Ranjit says:

    Mrs C, congrats and best wishes for the coming months.

    i like your version of ‘honesty’. It’s comforting and happy… Unfortunately, adjustment is supposed to be one sided. I am three quarters white now!

  5. Sabina says:

    Hi, I guess I’m in someways experiencing the opposite side of the coin from you as I am a Bangladeshi woman married to a westerner and living in a western country for sometime now. While I understand that it is difficult for a westerner to adjust to a country like Bangladesh (my husband lived in BD with me for a year) because it is so underdeveloped compared to western countries, at the same time my transition has also been difficult although most people in my new home country assume that I must be ecstatic to have had this opportunity to “improve” my life by emigrating from a “third world country.” I would like to challenge your notion that in Bangladesh national and cultural identity is more rigid in comparison with the diversity experienced in western countries. I agree with you that it is structured in Bangladesh but it is just as structured in the West. As a muslim woman I can never really publicly express who I am because most people right in front of me (coworkers, acquaintances, etc.) will say negative things about Islam and muslims, portraying us as violent, fanatical, and backward people. Even my husband’s family who know that I am muslim harbor these types of sentiments and it comes out often in implicit statements during family gatherings. And there is always the sense of superiority about how Christians are the chosen people and Jesus is the only way to heaven. In terms of your comment about language, you are lucky that almost all educated middle class Bengalis speak English. I can guarantee you that no one here speaks Bengali except for when I visit with Bengali families and so to my great sadness my children are growing up with little Bengali even though I have tried to speak to them in Bengali from the time they were little. But having one parent be an English speaker in an English speaking country is a loosing battle for me. This will never be a problem for you because your child in Bangladesh will learn English in school, will have friends who speak English fluently, and she will grow up watching English movies and cartoons on TV in Bangladesh. When my husband’s family and my own family come to visit at the same time, we are forced to all have conversations in English because otherwise it is considered rude by my in-laws that we are not being inclusive. After all my family speaks English, so the expectation is why shouldn’t we, right? In terms of religion, Eid is no longer the joyful experience of my childhood and I have not been able to share what Eid really means with my kids. Eid is not a public holiday here – it’s like any other day when I go to work and my kids go to school (the other option is too pull them out of school). Christmas by its omnipresence anywhere and everywhere is the main holiday for over two months during November and December where we are constantly bombarded with holiday related songs, celebrations, stories, movies etc. And that’s ok by me because I understand that Christianity is the majority religion here but the only reason I mention it is to challenge your notion that the west is not as structured in its cultural and national identity and is more diverse compared to Bangladesh. Your point about the need to “compromise” is something that I do everyday in my western existence – I never discuss publicly that I am muslim because I do not want to get the derogatory looks or questions. I am so tired of explaining to these people that Taliban does not equal all muslims or Islam that I have decided that it is not worth having the conversation because I am tired of explaining who I am or justifying my religion to westerners. The pressure to integrate and embrace is much greater in the west because if you do not integrate you cannot move ahead in professional life or in your personal social life. You will always be relegated one of those people who are “fresh off the boat” and live in the fringes of society. The pressure is much greater because there is little here in terms of Bangladeshi culture that I can offer my kids compared to the daily onslaught of western culture that my kids experience through the media (western media is also omnipresent in Dhaka but you cannot say that the opposite is true here), through society and through their everyday lives. I have had to accept that my children will never really truly be Bengali.

    • british born bengali says:

      totally agree with you. westerners think they have to mould a lot to bangladesh compared to the west, but truth is they dont really understand multi culturalism its still a relatively new thing to them while in bangladesh their has been hinduism chakmas and buddhists for millenias.

      im sad to tell you that your children will probably grow up barely muslim, and probably even ashamed to practise their bengali/muslim culture.

  6. Zawad says:

    This was a warm, insightful, and generously honest read.
    My wife is Australian, and she’s moving to Dhaka for a year around the end of the month, before we both move back to Melbourne.
    I have to say, culturally, even I found the transition somewhat taxing (verging on disenchanting), given that I’ve lived abroad for the past 14 years. (And I was actually born and raised here!)
    So I occasionally worry about the perspective my wife might have nurtured in her very short three week maiden trip last November. At the end of her three week trip, we decided we wanted to move here for a year. To truly experience… “Dhaka”.
    She’s warm, kind, generous and genuinely excited about this move. It will be lovely adventure, I’m sure.
    It was nice to know that there are groups that might be a source of support for her,
    I might even encourage her to look them up.
    I wanted to take a moment to thank you for this delightful little piece and wish you all the best with all your future cross cultural endeavors.

  7. Debbi says:

    Such interesting reading, thank you. I did enjoy Emma’s blog and all the comments that followed. Just to reassure Sabina, while volunteering in Bangladesh, I met a lovely British young woman of Bangladeshi parents who had been raised in Britain. She decided in her late twenties to give back to the country her parents had come from and returned to volunteer her law skills in Dhaka. Although she was raised in Britain, she had travelled with her family back to Bangladesh as a child on holidays. She was enjoying the transition, by living in the culture, practicing her language skills, she was really doing well. Your children may one day do a similar thing, so enjoy where you are now and prepare them through positive comments and stories of life in Bangladesh. I am a Canadian who volunteered in a nursing role in Dhaka, and I will be returning again. My husband and I have travelled extensively, and initially Dhaka was a bit overwhelming, but we quickly warmed to the people and the life in the country, we travelled around by boat, car and train, enjoying so many aspects of the culture and the people. We’ve been expat’s before, living for a longer period of time in the Middle East, so I understand the conflicts of expat lives…. but both you and Emma and the others are seeking out new experiences, bravo for you!

    I had no previous connection with Bangladesh, and I was only there for a month, so not really an expat, but who knows, I just might stay longer another time…. I am bringing 3 colleagues with me this time, so I am sharing all the positives about the people we met along the way.

  8. Tom says:

    Great article! 🙂 very insightful.

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