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Bangladesh: Confounding Expectations

December, 2010
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Before I set off for Bangladesh, I admit that I had a certain number of expectations in my head about how my habitat experience was going to be.  I envisioned a culture that was vastly different from what I was used to, which therefore meant it would be more difficult for me to breach the language barrier and connect with the people.sas-bang-1s

What I expected was completely different from what I actually experienced. I quickly learned that expressions are universal, and that sometimes words are really unnecessary when emotions such as friendliness, curiosity, and kindness can be so easily shown. As a result, it was surprisingly easy to work with the Bangladeshi men at the site. There was not much we could say to each other except for ‘How are you?’ and ‘What is your name?’ but we managed to convey what work needed to be done. There were a few laughs, especially when they picked up something in English that was way out of context, but they seemed to understand that we were just as happy to have them around as they were to have us around.

In many ways, I was able to develop new skills both socially and physically.  In my physical education, I learned that carrying objects using your head is much more efficient and much less tiring than having the weight on your arms. I learned that building houses is much harder work than laying down bricks. I found out how cement is mixed at its most primitive level, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the working attitudes of the people of this culture, because it was certainly a lot more work than I was ever used to.

sas-bang-2sSocially, I managed to express myself with my body language in ways that I’d never done before. I made friends with the little girls by teaching them simple clapping games and high-fives. When one of the grandmothers came over to talk to me, it took a lot of guessing and hand gestures to try and figure out what she was trying to ask me. In the end, I managed a stable conversation with her. It was almost thrilling to see how easy it was to connect with people across the world despite the language barrier.

There was one young woman who was about 17 who truly seemed moved by our presence. Her name was Jaida, and she was one of the more proficient English-speakers. I only had a few conversations with her over the trip, but it seemed that each conversation meant a lot to her. At the end of the trip, she had a conversation with me and my roommate, expressing her feelings of gratitude, which were both surprising and moving for me. I didn’t feel that I had done much in terms of work  compared with these people, but it was at this moment when I felt that I had truly engaged myself in an issue of global importance.


Perhaps us being there was symbolic for some of the villagers, i.e. they understood that some people in the world really did care about helping one another. It was maybe for this reason that Jaida felt obligated to thank us. She used a phrase that I will always remember: “I will never forget you, please don’t forget me.” With those words, I felt like I’d truly established a connection with Bangladesh. I plan to write to her soon.

Suffice it to say, my goals for Bangladesh were achieved and over-exceeded. I gained a deeper understanding of the culture, learned how to communicate effectively with people that I’d never met before, and ultimately, tested myself physically in ways that had previously been foreign to me. In my opinion, it was truly worth the time.

 

By Jacqueline Wittich,

Shanghai American School

 

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