Dhaka, Dec. 20 – It is fair enough to claim that I am well travelled and exposed to different cultures and traditions but for the first time in my many errands in different parts of the world I feel like a real non-native.
It is my first time to be in Bangladesh, a South Asian state that was formerly East Pakistan until it claimed its independence on December 16, 1971. It is bordered by India on all sides except for a small border with Burma (Myanmar) to the far southeast and by the Bay of Bengal to the south.
Bangladesh has a population of about 160 million. Since I arrived in Dhaka – the capital and largest city – on December 05, I have been around different places and sites around Dhaka. Before my arrival here, I had some misconceptions, visual impressions and stereotypes of this country. So like I always do, I turned to the Internet to do a background check on Bangladesh. After my online briefs I thought I had acquired enough to equip me for my five weeks stay in Bangladesh.
What do you think of Bangladesh?
This question popped up as I was driven to my apartment. I rather did not respond. I opted to reserve my first impression of Bangladesh because I had arrived at night.
The strangest feeling for me here is the fact that I am a non-native. I am a black of African origins. Being black (African) is normal in my native country Zambia as the majority of the population are blacks. In Bangladesh, about 98% of the population are native Bangladeshis (Bengali), 2% are non-natives groups comprising whites, Asians and blacks. To some extent you can refer to this group as minority because the majority are native Bengalis.
Without being racist or racially prejudicial, Bangladesh has nationals who are either light or dark in complexion but these cannot be classified as blacks. They are natives too. There is a mistaken belief here that all black people come from Africa – African Americans or blacks from the Caribbean are thought to come from Africa.
This is somehow a fair misbelieve because in some places I have been, it is thought that all white people come from Britain or the United States.
What do you see?
I have tried to look in different places each time I am going to or from my work station at banglanews24.com – Bangladesh’s largest online news portal – I have seen fewer blacks than five since I arrived in here. This is not to say there are no black people in Dhaka. There are there but they are very few. They account for a very minimal percentage. Anxiously to know more about why there are few or no blacks on the streets of Dhaka, one person told me there are blacks of African origins who are mainly from Nigeria and Sudan. Yes I have seen fewer than five from a distance and waved at two since I have been here. I am yet to have a conversation with any of them.
Looking at who is staring
Throughout the time the days I have been here, I have received crushing stares, experienced looks and greetings I have never received in my many travels and stay abroad.
Some stares and looks at times make me feel uncomfortable because I literally notice how shocked or surprised on-lookers are when they see me. Some on-lookers turn their heads just take an x-ray look at me or initially suspend their walking spend to catch a glimpse. I look back then turn my eyes to the ground or look elsewhere.
What do you get from all this?
I have come to understand that being a non-native resident is not as easy as it seems. I came to Bangladesh with my own visual impressions, beliefs and stereotypes but my time in this part of the world has offered me an opportunity – an opportunity to feel and experience how different groups feel when they are in a situation where they stand out or they are not as many as the other group.
My experience here has taught me to put aside my beliefs, misconceptions or stereotypes and learn to understand how to treat different people with respect and treat them all equal.
We are one people despite the different cultures, traditions, beliefs and races. A willingness to learn and accept the reactions I receive from people here has opened up questions which would have remained unanswered if I remain to myself.
Hospitality, generosity and smiles
The best lesson I have learnt from my brief experience here in Dhaka, Bangladesh is that the people here are so hospitable and welcoming. They will always greet you, look you in the eye and smile at you. This is a total opposite to the situation in Hong Kong where I am currently staying and attending university.
In Hong Kong, few people will look you in the eye or attempt to greet you or answer back when you offer a greeting. The majority are usually more content and comfortable being glued to their electronic devices and seal their ears with headsets or ear phones. They will not even dare to say sorry when they accidentally bump into you. Accidental bumps and incidents are common in highly populated places. On a second thought, maybe this is also a unique way about Hong Kong – my second home.
Here the Bangladeshis like to interact with non-natives. They attempt to express themselves in English just to strike a conversation, know more about you or your nationality. Bangla or Bengali is the official language but some attempt to communicate in English. Their generosity is also another trait that is special about Bangladesh.
The other day, a friend said, “Bengali people like foreigners because they see the different side of the world when they see non-natives in their country.”
This experience came true on December 16 – surprising enough, it was a Friday before my birthday on Saturday, December 17 – when I went to this country’s Victory or Independence Day at the National Monument for the Martyrs of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, northwest of Dhaka. Despite the usual stares looks that I am now getting used to, I became an instant high profile figure – many people wanted to take a photo with me. I am not sure whether it is because I am black, my looks or the new hair style I am now dawning after close to 13 years of being a baldy. I was a mini-celebrity and this status came just hours before birthday in a foreign country. Although the photo requests were too many at times, it was an experience I will cherish and treasure for a long time.
The interactions, the smiles, the cameras, flashes and postures were so worth remembering why I should again come to Bangladesh. To top it all I had to do television interviews. Television journalists asked me what I thought of Bangladesh’s Victory Day and I offered my views – only this time I was not a journalist (interviewer), I was a source (interviewee).
Later when we went for lunch with comrades from the media outlet I am interning, one senior executive from Banglanews24.com joked, “If you had charged all the people that asked to take photos with you today, you would have been an instant millionaire.”
Next time you considering a trip abroad, mark Bangladesh as an option.