Next month marks the first anniversary of my arrival in Bangladesh. Apart from the language difficulties which are of my own making (my bangla lessons slipped since starting work!) I think I am able to say that I am more than just a freshi bideshi!
It has been quite a year especially after normal life resumed following our move to Dhaka. I am still learning to balance being me in a culturally very different environment but as each week passes I feel a little more comfortable in my own skin.
In this post I wanted to explore some of the ‘dos’ and the ‘don’ts’ of living in Dhaka – reportedly one of the world’s most difficult cities to live!
Do approach expat strangers!
Unlike London and the veil of stand-offishness that increases as you head into Fenchurch Street railway station foreigners are encouraged to make eye contact (shock horror!) and approach strangers in coffee bars. Having routinely adhered to the head down, no interaction etiquette of England’s capital it is strangely pleasant that expats are genuinely friendly to one another from the initial ‘hello’ and that life stories as well as numbers and email addresses are exchanged without awkwardness during that first meeting. This took a bit of getting used to especially when people called back when they said they were going to just to check in and make sure that I/we are OK. How very neighbourhood watch!
Already I have met a broad spectrum of people – Bangladeshi nationals, politicians and civil servants from every sector as well as a raggy-doll mixture of expats including kind hearted NGO/charity workers, highly educated (and highly paid!) consultants for international organisations and overseas governments departments, garments buyers, journalists as well as diamond buyers! You never know whose path you will cross….
Do get a whole new wardrobe!
Shopping in Bangladesh is a unique experience. With no high streets or identical out of town shopping complexes shoppers often mix short shopping trips to known boutiques or create their own clothes using local tailors. Bangladesh does have one or two chain stores ie Aarong (http://www.aarong.com) and Jatra (my favourite!) (http://www.jatrabd.com) whose goods are considered as akin to famous national brands. A sale in Aarong can send many a bangladeshi woman’s heart a flutter. There are two stores in Dhaka including their flagship store in Uttara , one in Chittagong, Sylhet and a few others in well populated towns across Bangladesh. They sell clothes and accessories for the whole family as well as home accessories. Jatra, a shop that portrays itself as a very ‘desi’ store linked to rural communities that produce their goods does not actually seem to be fair trade. The good quality clothing and home wear items are a delight to those desiring western styles with eastern flavour. Items at this store cost a little more due to the relaxed shopping environment but the price is still comparatively reasonable when compared to similar fashion houses in the UK.
Otherwise, women not requiring a ‘brand’ tend to browse and purchase from smaller outlets which stock sarees and salwaar Kameezes either stitched (ready to wear off the peg) or unstitched (ready to sew for those who exceed the average 32”/34” deshi’bust size!) whose fabric, design and price range enormously. As a white foreigner expect to pay more (see below). I have also heard that rich local ladies have special bespoke exclusive “boutiques” where the materials are sourced from more “expensive” destinations, i.e. Pakistan and India.
For those with a creative streak or at least a good template more determined women haggle for fabric and head to their favourite tailors who can custom make bespoke outfits for next to nothing. Even at foreigner rates I do not expect to pay more than about eight to ten pounds for a unique and flattering top including the materials and the work done by the tailor. To stitch an unstitched salwaar kameeze (long top and pants) costs about 300 taka or two pounds fifty pence. As such shopping may take a little bit more time and effort but it is sure worth it when you are modelling your new outfit and can proudly announce “I designed it myself!”
Many expats here are linked to the international garments industry. I have personally met buyers from Next, Marks & Spencers and Walmart (USA version of ASDA) and there is a H&M garments sale locally on the 1st March where seconds that did not quite make it are sold off at 150 taka per piece (about one pound ten pence). There are also random shops like Artisan and market sellers who sell rejected factory items at next to nothing. With patience many items from home can be found but you need to be prepared to search and to haggle!
Do eat out (but be careful!)
Street food aside (though some of my ‘deshi friends swear by it!) eating out and enjoying excellent food can be experienced on a budget in Bangladesh. From traditional Indian style cuisine at Sajna’s in Bonani or Khazana’s in Gulshan 2 to Chinese at Golden Rice in Gulshan 1, through to Japanese at Samdados, thai at Soi 71 al in Gulshan 2 through to wonderful burgers, salads and steaks enjoyed poolside at the Splash restaurant at the five star Westin Hotel Dhaka. Clearly you are spoilt for choice. Apart from the Westin (limited to special occasions) you can expect to eat delicious, high quality and filling cuisine for about ten to fifteen pounds per person including drinks. The quality of the food far exceeds the chain eateries in the UK and the US which, let’s face it all have very predictable menu choices. I have also had the opportunity to try foods that I would not routinely try – favourites include the chilli cheese paneer with butter Nan at Sajnas and the Dal Mahkani in Ajo’s cafe, Dhamondi . Luckily the list of ‘must eat again’ foods keeps on growing……….
Dhaka now boasts a range of starbucks equivalent coffee houses for those in the need of good coffee and wi-fi access. Of course this does not beat the comfortable side street cafes or those which offer fantastic views from the 7th floor but it is good for Dhaka days when the city seems too much. North End café (run by a traditionally US family) serves brownies, cinnamon whirls and carrot cake muffins that are second to none and gives you a taste of home as you curl up into the sofas.
Deshi’ Street food can be hit and miss and often depends on the hygiene practices of the particular eatery. I have enjoyed wonderful samosas and shangrias (pyramid like samosas!) as well as rich, delicious Bangladeshi sweets that leave you wanting more but to be honest I have tended to play it safe. Some expats seem to have stomachs of steel whilst others have been instantly struck by typhoid and have been ‘off road’ for days. Raw foods that are likely to be washed in unfiltered water should not be consumed by unaclimatised foreigners and common sense should dictate what risks are reasonable to take.
Do get on your bike!
Whether by rickshaw or push bike Dhaka can be enjoyed most by cycling. Whizzing through the traffic jams, through back alleyways and over unsavoury manholes can be thrilling if not nail biting at times. Sitting on a rickshaw on the way home in the rain is one of my happiest memories in Bangladesh so far. However, those wishing to travel need to be ready to jump off at any second. Rickshaw-whallas often break quickly or take sharp turns as they race against mega buses and middle class owned Corolla cars that fill up the roads.
Each rickshaw is designed and decorated by their owners – colourful paint works of famous bollywood actresses sit alongside bloody images of the 1971 War as well as local flowers, trees and animals set in nature. Often Wallahs paint their name and number hoping for regular customers who will ‘dial a ride’. All Bangladeshi’s love their mobile phones!
One of my more adventurous Bangladeshi friends belongs to a very active cycling group called BD cyclists. As push bike cycling can be dangerous on busy roads keen cyclists join weekly to explore Dhaka and beyond on routes specially designed for beginners, moderate as well as avid cyclists. The group has approximately two hundred members making the pack of riders a safe number on what would otherwise be precarious cycling conditions. Trips are designed to incorporate both on road and off road cycling. Professionally run, cyclists have to put safety first – their motto is simply – “no helmet – no ride!” This is a great way for deshi’s and bideshi’s young and old to keep fit and keep a pace with their ability level.
Do have an open heart and mind…
The British in Bangladesh have a tendency to be well regarded by Bangladeshi’s as being tolerant and open-minded. We are laughed at with our poor bangla and pitied for our bland food choices but generally British ex-pats are acceptable bideshi’s.
An open mind and heart are a necessary must in such unfamiliar surroundings. I will always be something interesting to stare at as I go about my day to day business. A white lady is still an unfamiliar sight particularly outside of Gulshan and Baridhara Diplomatic Zone. However, whilst it is easy to get frustrated at the unwanted attention there are unexpected moments that can be enjoyed so long as you are willing to keep that open mind. On a family visit to Cox’s Bazaar our car turned off to explore Inani beach (one of the lesser known beaches in the area). As we marched off towards the bridge that connects one sand bank to another I used my best bangla to introduce myself to some local street boys of no more than 7/8yrs old. I told them where I was from and in a giggly state they told me their names. I told them my name and they told me that the cigarette packets they were holding were used for card games. It was a moment that could only be enjoyed with an open mind.
Pictured with the friends I made on Inani beach
Don’t expect, expect, expect…
Coming from the West I have discovered that I have a natural, inbred impatience. I have high expectations and tight deadlines which I have learnt to meet through rigid self-motivation. Bangladesh operates on a softer, slower mode where things will happen….in the end! Those expecting the efficiency of the west will be disappointed and frustrated especially in the workplace where the pace in my former office (I worked in social work at a Hospital Assessment Team in Essex) ranged from manic to super manic!
I have also learnt that I should not expect to be treated like a local. Not only will white, foreign people (particularly women) get unwanted glances and attention they also fight to challenge the status quo that women of a certain class tend to maintain a largely indoor lifestyle. Sadly all identifiable expats are the targets of persistent and often aggressive beggars who pester for payment and are not afraid to reach out and touch you to secure your attention. I don’t mind being hassled but unwanted poking crosses my line of acceptability. Anyone who tries this on me will hear me assert “tumi amake dhorbe na!” or “don’t touch me!” followed by one of my dirty looks!!
Non-fixed price market stalls and shops will also take advantage of ex-pats who it is assumed all enjoy luxurious foreign salaries complete with travel allowance, living allowance, food allowance etc. which I am certainly NOT in receipt. One day, in need of a plastic jug the very same plastic jug was quoted at 400 taka then 300 taka then 150 taka before we finally bought it elsewhere for 100 taka (Nufel went on his own!). Sadly I have to accept and EXPECT the inevitably there is an unofficial ‘white tax’ that seems to operate. Now, I either send Nufel for negotiable items and fend for myself in the fixed price supermarkets or pay the extra where I want to exercise my choice. Sometimes a girl just misses good old Marks & Spencer!
Don’t compare the UK with Bangladesh
I have learnt to develop a sophisticated split personality according to my current address. That is not to say that I cannot be me just that I have to accept and assume two very different cultural identities according to when they are appropriate. My life in the UK is well known by all – shopping, eating out, trips up to London, the seaside and freedom of roaming in my car. A largely independent lifestyle. In Bangladesh my life is unavoidably more dependent on others. Helpfully we have a driver and assistants to help us at home which makes life easier but one’s ability to just go and wander off is just not possible in this hectic city. I try to enjoy the pros and the cons of each city and I am proud that I can successfully adapt fully into two different environments – something that immigrants in the UK do every day. Strangely as a British citizen I am treated with curiosity as a some sort of minor celebrity in Bangladesh – if only they knew I come from Basildon! It makes you realize what a bad press immigrants in the UK unfairly receive when they are just looking for a better life.
And finally……Don’t upset your in-laws!
Family dynamics operate differently in Bangladesh. Generally I have found that families tend to be physically and some say emotionally closer and many live with family members in the same block or work with relatives in family businesses. Parents expect to contribute financially towards their off spring until well into adulthood when they finally become self-sufficient. Obligations towards family members seem to be subtle but strong – there is more of a collective thinking when decisions are made which is unusual in the UK where we all thrive to be individualistic and independent. Elders tend to fend for their children until the favour is returned in their old age. Unlike the UK elderly family members migrate to relatives’ homes to be cared for on a full time basis. Care homes are virtually non-existent in Bangladesh where still a largely unemployed female population has the time to carry out a nursing role. Bangladesh seems to be akin to an England of pre- World War One. As the cost of living inevitably increases I wonder for how long women will remain home makers.
Regardless of the do’s and the don’ts Bangladesh is developing at a vast rate. In the environment I live it is not the horror westerners experience on their TV sets come comic relief. However, sadly Bangladesh does not seem to be coping well with the rapid pace of its own progress, the infrastructure is inadequate and in some ways Bangladesh is a victim of its own progress. There is an expanding middle class and plenty of money amongst these individuals but it is not spent on the greater cause of poverty reduction. Instead individuals are more concerned about increasing their own wealth, buying more property and cars or spending the money overseas. The divide just seems to perpetuate the extreme inequality that exists.