Dhaka has once again topped the polls as one of the worst cities to live worldwide, second only to a war torn Syria (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit report of 2015). For foreigners living in Bangladesh placements here have earned a number of accolades – many are familiar with the term ‘Dhaka blues’ to describe that temporary rundown feeling that can ensue on arrival back to the capital. The intense heat, pollution, traffic jams and noise all served up with the slower (not in a good way!) pace of life needs time to adjust to. Others have joked that a stint in Dhaka is known as the ’10 kg placement’ where foreign workers traditionally put on an average of 10 kg in weight. Whilst that in itself does not make Dhaka unlivable it does go some way in illustrating the more sedentary lifestyle common Bangladesh where physical activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more difficult – public spaces for exercise are unsuitable, club/gym membership fees are high and poor traffic systems make it unascertainable whether you actually will make it to that aerobics class!
These impracticalities no doubt make Dhaka an intense place to live and foreigners also have to grapple with the perceptions many uneducated Bangladeshis have of us as we go about our lives. Many perceive westerners to be super rich and blatantly overcharge on negotiable purchases and services – in my experience up to 400% of the original cost price. In relative terms I guess I might be wealthier, particularly if education and life experience can be quantified, but on a modest salary, even no salary at times, it can be difficult to challenge imbedded perceptions. As a western woman I also face a lot of unwanted attention and staring mainly from Bangladeshi men. In this situation, at its highest, there is a discernment that I am interested in a “relationship” and, at its lowest, that I am able to resolve technical visa queries or have a good old chat about Uncle X,Y,Z in the UK. Sadly there is a rife perception that foreign women are sexually liberal, available and interested, an issue that western men do not seem to experience. My instinct is that this largely as a result of how western women are sexualised in media sources accessible to the majority of Bangladeshis; especially Bollywood music videos where scantily clad white women gyrate around lead characters. In my experience foreign men have a much easier time of being left to ‘just be’ though, no matter how covered I am, in conservative western attire or local Salwaar Kameez, I am available for observation, conversation and more.
With a variety of difficulties then foreigners who succeed in Bangladesh, I believe, have to be creative about what it means to be happy and, in turn finding ways to be happy. It is something of a eureka moment that I have had in recent weeks after three years of struggling in Bangladesh in one of the world’s most unlivable cities. In the west we rarely think about happiness in terms of internal happiness or the happiness of our existence. In the UK it is common for us to look outside of ourselves for potential sources of happiness – what we can buy that will make our lives better and make us happier, where we can go to entertain ourselves and keep us happy. These are messages that we grow up with and share with friends and family all looking for the same pathway to happiness. Indeed these foundations for happiness are only temporary; as soon as you have that new gadget there is another to buy that is even better. But with so many new sources, new opportunities for happiness we can continue happily in this state of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.
In a developing country like Bangladesh I have been handed the opportunity to relearn and retrain myself about my own happiness. With few shopping malls, little to buy and with unwanted attention when outside I have needed to find other solutions, other sources of happiness that come from inside me. A close family friend recently introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, a way of thinking that teaches us to have awareness of the things around us and to live life in the present as if it really mattered. By tuning into our surroundings and really noticing things, both the beauty and the chaos, I have begun to feel a sense of calm, a sense of gratitude for being alive and sense of genuine happiness. I don’t think I have ever, ever felt this way before.
So how strange and ironic it is then that in the second most unlivable city I have genuinely discovered a purer, rawer form of happiness. Maybe I should be grateful that it is so unlivable. Before my move away from the UK in 2012 I was comfortable enough never to really question the true sources of happiness. A mundane life can keep us from really knowing and waking up to ourselves. For this reason I am truly thankful to Bangladesh for giving me some insight into myself, my capabilities and my happiness despite playing host to one of the most challenging, most unlivable capital cities in the world.