Friday, September 22, 2006

A Lesson in Cultural Understanding

Monday, July 03, 2006

a lesson in cultural understanding

We are vey lucky here to have three staff in our home to help us to eat well, stay clean in body and clothing, and have the maximum time to study and learn Bangla. Two of the men who work here have been serving in ex-pats homes here in Dhaka for twenty-six years. Milan and Dada are Buddhist tribals from the Chittagong hill district of southern Bangladesh.

A third local lady, Tasleema, was also working here. Her job was simply to sweep the floor and wash the clothes, which in this house meant putting the clothes into the washing machine, and hanging them up after. The social structure here is like that. In a country the size of Virginia or Wisconsin there is more than half the population of the entire United States. There are 145 Million people in Bangladesh, 16 Million of which are living in all sorts of conditions in the capital city, Dhaka. To give someone a job, no matter how meager it is, is of great importance.

Tasleema is a poor Muslim single mother raising her daughter (single mothers are not something so normal here). We started having big problems with her this week not doing her job and overstepping her boundaries, even in the Bangladeshi context. Most of the other students in the house didn't really get that she was making a lot of fun with them, and taking material advantage of the situation, but in six years in India and plenty of student housing situations, I've been through this one before.

But I questioned myself. Was I reading the situation wrong? Was I reading it according the American culture? Was she overstepping the boundaries in Bengali culture too? Two mornings ago Tasleema burst into my room while I was preparing for school and dressing another student in a cotton Sari. She was crying holding her bandaged pinky finger telling a story that her husband beat her up and broke her finger. Firstly, this is all in Bangla, and since I speak the most Bangla in the house she had chosen me as the receiver of most of her communication in the house.

Something in my intuition was telling me that the story was not 100% truthful, and when I asked her what happened exactly she quickly changed her dialogue and began to gossip about the girl whose sari I was tying. A bit of romance was come up amongst members of the group, as can be expected from and American "summer camp", and Tasleema basically called this girl a slut to her face, all in Bangla since she knew she couldn't understand her. I got shocked and told her straightly to not say such thing, and she went out.

This is not exactly how i wanted to start my morning, nor am I the lord/lady of this house and in charge of its goings on. But on this day it was in my lap. I came downstaris to a verbal argument in the kitchen between the staffs and Tasleema. Her daughter was in the kitchen, and Tasleema continued with this story of having her throat cut, finger broken, and abdomen kicked. I would champion any woman in this situation, but again something was not sitting with me.

At school I approached our head professor for advice. They let me know that I was reading the situation correctly, and that Tasleema's actions were way out of bounds. I had only told them the half of it. Back at home in the afternoon, I talked with Milan and Dada our head keepers and cooks and they informed me of a lot more of the story. Tasleema has no husband and told them that a shopkeeper beat her up over a shop bill. They didn't know if that was true or not. Over the past week she had been subtly asking me for money and did the same thing to me in the morning. She showed no signs of any of the trauma she described.

The gig was up, and as bad as I felt I had to do the right thing and report her actions to our program president. This morning she was informed that her job was terminated and not to come back to this house. Of couse she did not take it well, burst into the house and was shouting and screaming in the dining room just before all the other students arrived for breakfast. I was sitting alone. It came into my lap after all. I had to tell her to keep quiet, that she didn't do her job well, and to get out. Wow, that was something!

If I feel bad for anyone in this situation, it is Tasleema's daughter, just in class six who is most likely malnourished, especially since Tasleema was stealing food from our kitchen, and maybe has a difficult time attending school. How to pay for books and school uniforms?

Situations like this show you who you are. Tasleema has never in her life seen wealth like the nine women who are living in this home. Are any of us rich by American standars? No Way!! But that fact that we have clothes, shoes, music equiptment visible in our rooms, go for shopping almost every day, eat big dinners, have extra money to spend, and throw things away when they break means that we are really rich! Money to burn!

I wasn't happy to deal with this situation, or take one for the team, but I am happy with myself that I dealt with the situation head on, and honestly. I trust I never have to deal with this situation again, but living here in such a poor country on the Indian sub-continent I won't hold my breath on this one. More soon---->

Four Winds,

Yoli aka Kurukulla aka France


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