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.