Phenomenal Woman

We are settling into life, or so it seems, until things get tossed upside down. The kids started school last week in the beginning of October. Two days later, they were on vacation for Eid. We decided a few weeks back that we’d take a quick trip out of town for our first traveling adventure in Bangladesh – to Srimangal, the tea capital of Bangladesh. We stayed at the Nishorgo Eco Cottage just outside of town. This entire trip was made possible by the amazing Mahmud of Trip To Bangladesh. The Lonely Planet calls him the Guardian Angel of Bangladesh and it’s true – he is! On a whim a few weeks ago I contacted him to see if he knew someone who could help transport a crib we bought from Lisa. Well, he does, and on a Saturday afternoon, he had a trusted friend book a flatbed rickshaw and it arrived, safe and sound, up at our place in Bashundhara. Mahmud hired Liton Deb, a native of Srimangal, to be our tour guide, and he did a fabulous job. Our first day there was the last day of Dirga Puja, a Hindu holiday, and we got to experience a parade, where the floats took top notch, and second to that was the spectacle of the YuBurs on display.

Shaking hands with other boys

Float

During our visit we also hiked and walked around the Lawachara National Forest, visited a pottery village, drank seven layer tea, visited a zoo, celebrated Eid with several Muslim families, and then ate a hearty Hindu vegetarian lunch – we did all the things and more. It was a really great time away from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka. More photos can be found at my photography page:

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This week we are heading back into the thick of things. Today is Saturday and while in the US, it’s the middle of the weekend, today is functionally our Sunday. Because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, the work and school week is from Sunday through Thursday, so tomorrow morning we are back in the thick of things.  Today I have been working on research writing/IRB stuff for the dissertation, which is the first time in a long time I’ve had a chance to sit down and do any of my work. I knew coming here would mean a timing setback but as is the case with most things, who knows exactly what that impact will be until you land? I didn’t anticipate that the kiddos’ schooling would take so long to resolve (but praise jeebus it is resolved) and how long it takes to do things here. It’s just the way it is.

Several times these last few weeks, in response to the question of where I am from and how I got here (“I’m from America and my husband got a job at a university!”), people have asked me what it is I do all day. “Are you just a housewife? What do you do?” Such a loaded, innocent, destructive question. It’s a bunch of misunderstood identities rolled up into a seemingly innocuous question. My first instinct, the one that shouts out with all the Tiger Mom I have in me, wants to answer,

“Hell no, I’m not just a housewife. I am working on my PhD and one day too plan to be a professor at a university somewhere. I am not a housewife at all!” And there’s nothing wrong with being a house wife either! It’s not like I don’t already know and appreciate that, but wow, just a complicated question.

Then there’s the part of me that is struggling with my new role as a “trailing wife.” That phrase is fraught with issues of its own. I am not a trailing wife. I am not just following Josh around blindly, relying on him to survive. I am here of my own accord – when Josh was offered the position, I told him and urged him to take it! Family Adventure We Cannot Pass Up! We went into this committed 100%, the both of us, to having an amazing experience. I won’t lie – it has been hard, to be an expat woman in Bangladesh. I am not allowed to work in Bangladesh because of the visa I entered on, and I can’t even  have a joint bank account with Josh. I am listed as his beneficiary should something tragic befall him. I do have an ATM card, so there’s that ;) Assumptions that I am by and large no longer accustomed to in the US I have had to encounter somewhat amusingly and somewhat harshly since. I took the kids to buy a printer, and as I decided the model and the type I wanted, the salesperson kept trying to dumb things down for me and as they packed it up, asked me, quite concerned, whether or not I would be able to install the ink cartridges on my own. I had to laugh – in college my first work study job was maintaining a computer lab and servicing the printers as they needed more ink and laser toner cartridges. I teach college level technology classes. I think I can install a printer on my own! But of course, this person in front of me didn’t know that.

If something like that were to happen in the US, I’d be more than happy to spit out a series of colorful metaphors about how women are treated and how one should not make assumptions about skills based on gender and sex. I am ALL FOR a public dressing down of asshats – and in the US I would consider someone who said this an asshat. But here, I don’t. I bite my tongue a lot, as you can imagine, because I can’t spew out all of my frustrations at this salesperson. Beyond my identity as a woman, my glaring, public persona is “foreigner” and I am keenly aware that I don’t belong and more than I have ever felt before in my life, I feel exoticized in an uncomfortable way. As a foreigner, I am certainly not going to lecture a salesperson here for those assumptions. But man, it is eating a gigantic slice of humble pie, being here. Beyond the obvious financial disparities, the cultural disparities and most of all, the educational disparities are still quite significant. I’m sitting here, just about halfway done with a doctoral degree, when many of the women around me have finished maybe through grade 8.

In the US I bristle greatly at the seemingly innocuous and yet highly distasteful question , “Where are you from?” I never know what answer to give, as a Chinese American. Does the questioner want to know where I grew up? What high school I graduated from? Where my parents live? Do they care that I was born in Illinois and lived all over the US? Or do they just want to keep asking me to figure out what flavor of Asian I am? In Bangladesh, it is much different. Because the population is much more homogenous than the  US, our family REALLY stands out here. When someone screws up the courage to use their English to ask where I’m from, I say America – and here’s the kicker:

THEY BELIEVE ME.

They nod their heads when I say, “America” and they believe me. If they know a friend or family member who’s been to the US, they’ll mention that or they might ask how far away California is from Atlanta – but they believe me. If they’re interested in my ethnic heritage, they will ask pointedly as well. In Dhaka, I do realize that our family presents as a conundrum. In every day life, one doesn’t see tall White guys among the shorter, darker Bangladeshi men and women – so Josh visibly sticks out. Nor do you see Asian women out and about with White men, and our kids, by virtue of having a striking set of genes in their gene pool, stick out. The questioning doesn’t bother me as much here – probably because everyone already knows that we don’t belong and are foreigners. In the US, the assumption is already that we don’t belong – when we do.

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I have been, as you can imagine, thinking a lot about how this all works, being a confident US-born-and-bred Chinese American woman living in a country where women play a decidedly different role in society. We are hiring for a nanny position here (see above, dissertation to write!) and this experience has been both weird and humbling and quite uncomfortable at times. I’ll write about that process more later. I don’t know how this all works – but I do know that all of the ideas and beliefs (quite firm, I assure you) that I had about feminism and what being a woman means – alllll of that changed abruptly on September 2 when we landed in Dhaka. I only wish it didn’t take an international move for me to really critically analyze all of this. But it did, and I’m here and my brain is a complicated thinky mess. As it should be.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
– excerpt from Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”

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