Friday, August 3, 2012

Back from Bangladesh

 I feel as if I laid down on my bed at BRAC Inn, closed my eyes, and just now woke up to find myself flying home to Minneapolis. I have experienced so much learning, hardship, and growth, yet every experience feels so distant. More than ever before, I feel like I dreamt the whole thing.

I began my travel process Thursday evening and stayed with my New York bound Bangladeshi friend. Her family kindly hosted me for the night and brought me to the airport. Thank goodness I accepted their invitation because I always underestimate the inconvenience of a language barrier. With them, I also had access to the VIP lounge where I could stream USA’s Gabby Douglas winning the Olympic gymnastics all-around final!

Per usual, my flight took off an hour and a half late, accommodating for Bangladesh time. I couldn’t help but notice hundreds of bug-eyed Bangladeshi men with pink packets reading “Bureau of Man Power.” Because of BRAC’s Safe Migration Program, I knew that a large number of Bangladeshis move to the Middle East for work and send money home to their families. Just as I was embarking on my long awaited trip home, these men were leaving their homes indefinitely for a life of work they know little about. Luckily, organizations like BRAC can help these workers understand their rights and obtain proper documentation. Part of me has always been so grateful to live in the United States, but especially today, I felt just how great this gift is. Both my country and the circumstances in which I was born make me a very lucky person.

View from BRAC's rooftop.
During my flights home, I thought a lot about the country I was returning to. Especially while flying over the dramatic landscapes of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, I couldn’t help but feel confronted by my American identity. When I had called myself American just months prior, I had a very narrow understanding of what that means. Sitting in the Chicago airport, I took in America for the first time in two months; here I felt the appeal, immense freedom, and limitless nature of the place I call home. I smiled looking back at the long customs line behind me, filled with faces of all colors, shapes and sizes. For the first time in months, I saw more bare legs than body on women – I even spotted a girl with a some butt cheek hanging out of her shorts. Although slightly disgusted, I found it more remarkable than anything. How can two such wildly different cultures exist on one planet?

So that, I think, is precisely what I take home from Bangladesh: the knowledge that two such wildly different cultures coexist. On my last flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, I had a strange moment. I looked around at the passengers, assuming most were American, and for the first time in my life truly realized how small the United States of America is. Before Bangladesh, my entire world was America. I knew another world from mine theoretically existed, but now I have lived in it.

When our flight attendant spoke to me in a thick Spanish accent, I immediately wondered about his background and what brought him here. Two months ago, I would not have blinked over an American with an accent. I have gained a greater curiosity for culture and travel. I have a greater wonder of the world and a better sense of self. My world has grown in size and dimension, and I can’t wait to explore more of it.

So long BRAC and Bangladesh! I will miss you both!

The Fast and the Furious

Last week, I attended two iftar dinners: the meal which breaks the daylight fast during Ramadan. In spite of eating breakfast and lunch, I managed to eat more than everyone else at the iftar dinners, making me feel slightly gluttonous. This Tuesday, one of my Bangladeshi co-interns planned to host all the interns at her home for an iftar. Because of my remorse from last week, I decided I would try fasting. I also wanted to understand just how great it feels to gorge all night after starving oneself all day.
A typical iftar feast complete with fresh fruit, fried vegetables, rice, mishti (sweets), and so much more.
Surprisingly, I made it through the entire day without much pain. While the time did pass more slowly, my stomach only grumbled once. To truly test myself, I even sat with the other interns while they ate lunch. I didn't even have the slightest urge to grab their food or drinks. So I successfully went without food or water for 17 hours. 

When the time came to break the fast, I was not dying to eat something because I was hungry. I was dying to eat because I had not allowed myself to all day. Simply having the freedom to eat excited me more than satiating my appetite. I furiously tried every dish on the table, unable to stop myself from indulging in Bengali food that would soon be gone. After dinner, I was absolutely stuffed, more stuffed than when I had iftar after breakfast and lunch. 

The month of Ramadan is incredible to me, particularly when I compare it to the American holiday season. A daily shock to the metabolism causes many to gain weight during Ramadan, just as Americans gain weight during the holidays. However, Americans do quite the opposite of fasting. After surviving the fast, I felt a strong sense of pride in my self-control.  I wonder if this is where the holiday spirit during Ramadan comes from; everyone feels the pain of fasting during daylight for an entire month together, which creates a strong camaraderie. From my perspective, the Muslims almost earn their holiday spirit.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Meeting the Knight

The room was tense, our hearts all racing, waiting in anticipation for Sir Abed to emerge from the other side of the chunky wooden doors. I hadn't been this nervous since SCIAC diving finals in February (which pale in comparison to the olympic performances I have watched this week). Even when I met Senator Stabenow last fall, I didn't feel the same sense of rigidity.

When Sir Fazle Hasan Abed entered the room, I was startled to see everyone stand up and frantically joined the group in welcoming our guest. His warm demeanor set us at ease. He asked us to all introduce ourselves and explain what we had done for BRAC during our internships. When I told him I went to Claremont McKenna College, I was relieved that he recognized my institution and named the alum who awarded BRAC $250,000 just five years ago. When he asked me if I knew the Kravis Leadership Institute (KLI), I explained that I found out about BRAC through the KLI.

Sir Abed gave us the general BRAC spiel describing the improvements in life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality rates, agricultural productivity, education since 1971 in Bangladesh. Our talk became more interesting when he opened the floor for questions. Many of us were more interested in his life as a leader so he talked about his changing role as an entrepreneur at BRAC.

When Sir Abed first started post-war rehabilitation work in Bangladesh, he thought his work would only last temporarily. Soon, he realized that his development work in Bangladesh would have to be longer term than he had expected in order to have a lasting impact. Forty years later, he still has visions for BRAC to grow and improve. Sir Abed was not shy to mention BRAC's shortcomings. In fact, he prides his organization on its ability to learn from its mistakes. Sir Abed specifically mentioned nutrition and agriculture as areas where BRAC can do better.

As most high profile celebrities, Sir Abed had just enough time to take a group picture with us before he rushed off to his next appointment. Despite Sir Abed's fame in the international development world, this was the only moment in our meeting where I felt the celebrity urgency. Otherwise, our speaker was quite honest and down to earth, soft-spoken and humble. BRAC certainly reflects the modest nature of Sir Abed, its leader.

Summer 2012 Interns with Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Also, shout out to USA women's gymnastics! Way to go olympic champions!