Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A History of Kindness

He ran his fingers through his hair, shiny with grease, and brandished his practiced smile. Let me be your tour guide. Your bodyguard. Your little brother. Just follow me, I'll take you to the best shawerma places.

The teenager bounced along, constantly hovering next to Mike, protectively guarding us away from other begging children and shooing them along to find their own foreigners. He could hardly contain himself, his bits of English phrases spilling out of his lop-sided mouth and his hands always patting, edging, pulling, beckoning us constantly into dark alleys and overpriced cafes.

I hung back with our German friend, Nina, and watched. Even though I had flown into Bangladesh with wads of US dollar bills prepared to hand out to begging children on the streets, I was vastly unprepared for the overwhelming want. At every stoplight, hordes of the previously invisible swarmed the vehicles, peddling books/posters/maps/tupperware/giant baskets and cupping their fingers together at the mouth to indicate that they were hungry. I tired of putting my wallet back into my purse because I would be pulling it out again five seconds later. And beggars could be choosers. Often, the hand that took would shoot out again and ask for some more. A lot more.

So at the end of a sticky, dusty day, I ran out. Out of small bills. Out of patience. Out of get-out-of-skeptism-free card. And I watched carefully and felt anxious the more Mike clapped his hands on the little bodyguard's shoulders and asked about his family and laughed at his jokes. I mentally starting calculating how much each extra minute would cost me.

Am I a good bodyguard, no? You be my bigger sister, yes? 

And at the end, I steered Mike and Nina towards our actual destination, paid the little bodyguard, told him no, we wouldn't pay you three times more and relaxed.

Little bodyguard telling Mike about his music.

As I kneeled at the edge of my hotel bed that night, smelling the cheap laundry soap from the white-grey sheets, I realized I was in the box about the whole situation (re: "Leadership and Self-deception"). Even armed with good intentions and a seemingly bottomless wallet of small change, I did not pause to engage with them as people. I saw them as objects that constantly needed something from me and that by giving, giving, giving, I was merely fulfilling a social obligation and justifying a personal moral high ground.

When I paused to give freshly-picked strawberries and a little pocket change to the old man on the street in front of my China office, I felt genuinely happy and fulfilled. I talked to him about how nice the weather had been. I smiled and felt what it meant. But somehow, when I was in Bangladesh, perhaps because of unfamiliarity or a sense of being overwhelmed, I was acting charitable but not feeling charitable.

So that night, I prayed for true charity. I begged for an open heart. I pleaded to see the goodness of the people around me and let it change me.

The next morning, Mike and I cruised around on our rickshaws down the forgotten alleyways and looked out for good places to buy some local garb. Then, in the midst of a sweaty crowd of onlookers, in one of the densest countries in the world, our little bodyguard waved to us enthusiastically. Hey! Big sister, remember me?

Something whispered in my heart - This was the second chance you asked for.

I got off the rickshaw looked at him in the eyes, and smiled.

How's your family, little bodyguard?

Ah man. You're my family now. Come, come. I'll take you to buy a beautiful dress. 

They were forcing a little fluffy yellow chick to open its beak.
And they were dripping clear liquid through a plastic syringe into its mouth.
It was a street exhibition but I couldn't figure out what
 they were doing with the poor thing. 

Can't wait for spring so I have an excuse to put flowers in my hair again.

"Are you formed yet?" 
Bangladeshi tailors often marveled at my lack of curves.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Life Before a Riot

Vengeful batons. Crippling strikes. Decaying acid. Consuming fires.

That was the picture that our wedding hosts painted for us when we wanted to venture out to Old Dhaka - the poor parts of Bangladesh's capital . . . or rather the real parts. One of the wedding events was scheduled to take place in the safer diplomatic zone, but was ultimately delayed because of a concern for guest safety.

The hotel receptionist looked at our faces for once and dropped her carefully practiced smile onto the scattered notepads on the concierge table. You want to go to Sardarghat? No, no, no. Hartal - strike and permission to riot - starts at sun down. You read the newspapers? What happens if you get stuck when it all begins?

We would be back before sun down, I promised.

Mike and I hopped into the car, grabbed a shawerma at a stand with the least number of flies swarming around it, and headed into the gridlocked traffic. Cars in Dhaka crawled because even the wealthiest diplomatic zones were riddled with random pot holes. Many times, while bouncing along the uneven alley ways perched on a rickshaw, I had nearly bounced off and fallen into the 12 ft deep holes filled with suspicious curry/urine yellow rivers.

Apparently, a guy once become famous for trying out all
 the most dangerous forms of transportation around the world.
 Dhaka ferries made the list.
 They capsize.

You may not have clothes, but you can
 always make a boat out of trash.

The heart of Old Dhaka was thumping constantly with angry rickshaw horns blaring, men shouting while balancing thirty watermelons in baskets on their heads, and ferries bellowing their impatience to cross the diesel-black waters. We breathed Dhaka in the oil-fried fritters, the lazy entrails of incense on Hindu Street, and the pervasive stench from the freshly decomposing trash.

We knew we were spoken about in rapid Bengali because of the finger pointing, the confused looks, and the occasional jokes in broken English. When I was buying neon holi powder in a small corner store, laborers crowded around Mike and pointed to me and asked him about his "Chinese housewife." Whenever we insisted that we were just friends, they nodded with mock seriousness and jabbed his side, smirking ahh special friends. 

Buying holi powder so we could recreate the color
festival on a lazy afternoon.

Armed with only five Bengali words and a comedic bargaining act,
 I teased, I entertained and I got the price I wanted. 
You couldn't out-bargain a China girl.

In contrast with the wealthier zones, where cars were perpetually at a standstill and ladies chattered as they strolled into beauty parlors, Old Dhaka was the nervous cousin who couldn't stop twitching because he was always anxious about something he had to do. But the general frenzy entered a fever pitch when the sun started to set. Rickshaws competed even more aggressively for moving space in the densest city in the world, trapping us at one point in the middle of an unholy triangle of three rickshaws, unable to move until we physically pushed aside a rickshaw and carved our way out.

I was bold and felt the strength of my youth when I laughed at the receptionist's caution. But I shrank a little bit as the sky grew dimmer and unconsciously huddled closer to Mike. I pulled on his sleeve and asked if he noticed it. Noticed what? I motioned, sweeping the street with my arm, where are the women and children?

The men stayed tense on the streets. They were no longer joking.

It was time to go.


I wondered if some of my friends would still treat me as an equal if I didn't hail from a similar economic background. Some had commented, bored, about how inconvenient the hartal made everything. They raised their eyebrows when I was eager to see Sardarghat. Why? That's just where the poor people live.

On the banks of Sardarghat

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bengali Bridesmaid

"Hi, I'm Sisi. I ate lunch every day in high school with Arusha. Congrats on marrying such a fantastic girl!"

I met the groom two minutes before he was wheeled into the conference hall on a bejeweled rickshaw, waving to the sea of Bangladeshis snapping photos of the patched-together wedding procession of foreigners from eight different countries. 

I picked up the framed wedding gifts, tugged at my sari once again, and put on my camera-ready smile.

Mike and I had flown in that morning to Dhaka and were immediately swept up in the tide of wedding preparations. The wedding celebrations spanned a week and as a bridesmaid who was totally clueless about the cultural nuances of each action, I followed meekly along, trying to reenact a National Geographic episode on Bengali weddings.

Three hours of primping/pulling/fussing/ tugging in 
a Bangladeshi beauty parlor was quite overwhelming. 
At least I wasn't the bride - she took eight hours to get ready.

The bridesmaids, decked in traditional rose red sarees, flowed in after the groom, showing off the gifts of patent leather shoes, 6 m long turban, Armani cologne, and other fancy trinkets that the bride had lovingly prepared for her husband to be. The groomsmen, looking smashing in various shades of green, strode in with their heads held high. The party dress code was set according to your relationship with the bride and groom so guests instantly knew which side of the family you represented. Since the Belgian groom did not have a lot of friends who flew out to attend, we pretended to be the groom's best friends to fill the ranks in the family photos.

The usually passionate bride entered the room
under a demure guise and a roof of stringed sparkles.

Getting bang(l)ed up. 
I nearly cried at night rubbing lotion onto my wrists
 while writhing out of these sparkly bangles.

Painted their faces with turmeric paste for good luck.
As friends, we made sure that they got majorly lucky.

Our gang. 
Eight different nationalities. 
Yet we're so good at partying together.

Quick tutorial to Bollywood dancing?
Screwing the light bulb with your right hand
while petting the dog with your left.