Saturday, October 10, 2009

a little lost, ironically, after an orientation this week

A good orientation last Sunday. It brought together most of the Fulbright folks who will be here this semester and for the year. Dr. Shirin Huq of Dhaka University spoke to us of the dichotomies: meek and arrogant, cheerful and depressing, honest and corrupt, hardworking and laid back, respect women but also view them as sexual commodities, transparent and complex, colonized and post-colonial, categorizing the country as a bundle of contradictions. Most of us have been here for a few weeks, a few of us, a little longer. Two of the after-college group got here only a day or two ago. Dr. Huq suggests asking for more input: get to know the music and myths. Understand that the warmth and hospitality can feel like interference. The people are loving and caring and ask lots of personal questions. Recognize that tremendous strides have been made in the past twenty years. She also suggests that it's really important to get out of Dhaka to see the countryside.

So my week started with a very well organized orientation which provided information on the people, the politics, the school systems and surviving in Bangladesh. I like to hear from the experts and get a little more sense of a big picture. Reading the paper here is like trying to put together a puzzle and you're only being given 2 or 3 pieces a day and no idea what the picture is going to be. I did talk to the political scientist later about books to read. Knew which article he was referring to on the front page of the paper that day.

After the health lecture I felt like I'd missed quite a few cues: fruits and vegetables have to be washed in bottled water AND soaked in bleach (small percentage of bleach)?! And I'm getting told this 2 months after we arrive? I guess mostly we've eaten fruits with peels -- bananas and oranges, but I haven't peeled the apples or tomatoes! There was also warnings against any salads in places we don't know or trust, and pretty much not to eat any street food! The doctor also said that malaria pills were not necessary in Dhaka, and I mulled that over.

Then there were two people who have been in Dhaka for awhile - Dr. Tony Stewart and Sara Baumann. Tony is a prof at NCSU and has a program here affiliated with one of the universities in Dhaka. His talk on culture shock was superb. Specific information like having your phone with you, charged and everyone's number in it, is absolutely right. He talked about developing a safety net of people who know you and know where you're going to be. He reiterated the suggestions about not using the anti-malaria pills and had additional health suggestions. But for me, the most important part was the mental health section. "When normal frames of reference dissolve" - this is culture shock. Maybe it starts with an absence of privacy or an inability to control your environment, or suddenly being dependent on others, or the absence of basic amenities: these things together and then little annoyances can become magnified. Warning signs include anger over the littlest things, weeping, feeling like it's a problem with you, isolating. Well, that's when you most need to call on your network of friends. Watch for the signs in each other, as well. Raise the issue, ask if they're having a bad day. Venting can give perspective. Sometimes that's when going into an air-conditioned room and reading might be good for a day. Or take a vacation for a few days.

He talked about other cultural phenomena - "bitarho" as a response (could be feigned or manipulated) over being slighted and how important it is to apologize. Understand that you didn't understand. Try not to put someone in the position of having to say no as the result is often saying yes and meaning no (hmmm, like my students who didn't say they couldn't/wouldn't come to the make-up class?). Mostly he emphasized treating people with respect.

Sara's talk, while enthusiastic and interesting, just left me feeling wholly inadequate. She's a current Fulbrighter, or was from last year and will be finishing in February. She learned Bangla, is doing a Masters in Public Health and knows everyone. Pretty much the epitome of what we could/should be doing. She's done lots of things that she said were out of her comfort zone (acting, tv shows!) and says to try to do something uncomfortable every day. I don't think I'd last a week! She did show a slide with a learning curve -- I'm still in the up swing and apparently around month 3 there's a real drop in enthusiasm followed by a plateau. After that there was a split: either it goes up until you leave or drops! Great.

Later in the evening there was a reception at Katie's house. She's the embassy person whose responsible for us. I had come across her blog awhile ago, and mentioned it to her, so it was interesting to see some of what she had written about. Good to talk to all of the Fulbright folks. The ones after college or in grad school have real challenges in setting up research projects. It's probably easier to teach since that's pretty straightforward. Good also to meet with the folks who brought their families. I thought Matan was going to join me there, but he'd gone home thinking we'd leave from there, and I was already at his school which was only a block from her house.

While I really like getting together, it was a week of one event after another. The next day was the "reunion" I wrote about, then on Wed there was a ceremony with the English Department and the Vice-Chancellor to accept book donations from the Indian ambassador and tea with him and his wife. Then the conference. So I definitely started to feel very overexposed. I'm not sure that I'm outgoing or social enough for this task or that I chat very easily. I think I adjust pretty well to situations not being what I expect, but I'm still pretty shy at the end of the day.

So, about that culture shock? I think we're going to plan a few trips. Matan has a week off of school in another week. I want to get a tour of Dhaka next weekend and then the weekend after that, or maybe Thursday-Sat, to go on a tour in the countryside. Got the name of the travel agent that Katie recommends. So that's the plan.


  1. You are brave and courageous. Remember, you're not just living the life for several months--you're making memories for a lifetime, some of which won't have much meaning for you until years from now.

    My Fulbright year in Central Europe didn't entail quite anything like the culture shock you're describing, in part because the culture of Central Europe, even the former Communist Republic we lived in, was not that far from our familiarity. I can only begin to imagine (in part from the vignettes you paint) just how far from the familiar Dhaka is.

    Don't let your energy fall after the plateau. And don't worry too much about comparing yourself to Sarah. It's all too easy to set ourselves up that way. What's important is for you to gain and give your best.

  2. Listen to Articulate Dad. Your culture shock is intense and you are dealing with more day-to-day difficulties than other Fulbrights there. As for Sarah, you have different personalities and, in addition, Public Health folks all seem to have hight energy.

    You have so much to offer and they are so lucky to have you! If I were there I'd help with laundry :) Hugs, Judith

  3. You got to all these receptions and meetings on time? Did I ever tell you about the time we showed up at 10 AM for something in France that was being held at 6 PM? Nothing to do but turn around and drive back home, trying again several hours later...your optimism and upbeat personality will mean rising on the curve instead of sinking. Prepare to set sail for the countryside and enjoy the tours. Take pictures, even of the chicken vendor...Love to my tallest Peleg nephew OXOXO Lily