Thursday, December 11, 2008

One Month to go

Although I do believe it was the right decision for me to come to Bangladesh this semester, it still doesn’t make life here any easier. At least I have the luxuries of the city, but as I prefer walking to rickshaws to being chauffeured around, Dhaka’s dark side is inescapable. Some days I’m able to ignore the beggars, the staring, the catcalls, the near misses with cars and buses that have no qualms about hitting pedestrians, and even the constant and blaring horns from traffic seem a little more subdued. Most days the cold showers are fine, if not a pleasant relief from the heat.

Other days, when my ears start ringing and tears fill my eyes as I see babies too young to be on the street (but where else can they go?) and I can’t take the smells and the heat and being constantly surrounded by Bangladeshi men anymore, that’s when I miss home the most.

We don’t know how good we have it.

We can say we’re living paycheck to paycheck, but most of us, even if we lost our job, would still have some sort of back up, whether its relatives or a government program. Here, that infrastructure is not there (unless you are extremely lucky to have a wealthy relative). Farmers and their families live from flood to flood. Women live their lives, too often, from beating to beating. It’s hard to believe until you’ve seen and heard it, and still I try to convince myself “it’s not really that bad.” Yes, it is. People may be one step away from starving, but even small gains thanks to NGOs are not enough to bring rural families into the global economy, much less give their children a university level education.

Being exposed to so many contrasts has awakened my own identity as a middle-class Midwesterner. I’m here in the global South, in a country where the middle class is practically nonexistent, and I’m surrounded by other Westerners educated at East Coast Universities or in the U.K. This is totally foreign to me. Even though I’ve traveled to Europe, New Zealand, and now Bangladesh, I’ve spent the past three years and past three summers in Michigan, doing Michigan things, living my middle class life.

And you know what? I like it. I’m hopelessly in love with Michigan State University. The people, the research, the place. I am so ecstatic about spending another year and a half there and will appreciate it like never before. Where else could I have lived, worked, ate, and met (and shared a bathroom with) some of my very best friends—all in one building? Where else could I have began with no research experience and been published my very first year? Where else could I have taught a biology lab as an undergraduate student (and enjoyed it)? Where else could I have planned a statewide student environmental summit in the same beautiful building that is home to world-class scientists? But now that I’ve been through the ranks of science and research, I’m ready to make the switch to sociology. To my surprise, MSU’s graduate program looks increasingly attractive.

What would it mean for me to stay at my undergraduate school for another 4 or more years as a graduate student? Is this settling for less? Is this securing my position as an average scholar, destined to stay a middle-class Midwesterner? I suppose what I really want to know is if I can make an impact (big plans brewin’ the in the brain) and also be a middle-class Midwesterner. Perhaps I could do better, go somewhere with more academic prestige, but MSU has everything I could want in a graduate program, and they do it well. Their FEAST program in Sociology- Food, Environment, Agriculture, Science, and Technology, along with the graduate specialization in Gender, Justice, and Environmental Change, encompass all of my interests and the professors aren’t stuck in an ivory tower. It’s got interdisciplinary collaboration and local and global outreach- two things I would hope to do as a professor. MSU also has the largest concentration of Environmental Sociology professors of any other university. So what do you think? The identity crisis about this was last month (Dani, if you’re reading this, you were there); I’m ready to hear your opinion.


Since freshman year of college I have gone through my most rapid personality changes of my life. Part of me will always be that nice, shy, awkward, giggly girl, but through my friendships, relationships, activism, and general life experiences in the past three years I’ve developed what I can only describe as “fierceness.” I’ve found my inner Hillary Clinton, whatever that means to you. I’m unashamedly a product of second-wave feminism, ready to show that I’m just as smart and motivated, if not more, as any man. I’m self-confident in a way that is often mistaken either aloofness or egotism, causing inevitable, but often fleeting, self doubts. Despite this, I have battled the pervasive influence of disproportional anxiety about my future. With some help I have mostly overcome this hindrance, learning to take life for what it is and realize I can only control so much before just enjoying the ride. Instead of looking at my life like a path where I can control every step, it’s become a river where I can steer myself away from the rocks, but in the end it’ll take me where it wants. Without these revelations, I probably would not be here in Bangladesh, or at least I would be having a horrible time. This major change in outlook has led to other changes in my life, I hope for the better. Each awakening brings new clarity to not only my current situation, but also that even when I am happy and satisfied with life, I will always be changing. I can’t tell you if I’ll be different when I’m back from Bangladesh. I am what I am here, and I’ve certainly changed within the context of Bangladesh, but who knows how this will translate in the States.

As an analytical and self-reflective person, I’m also aware of my own “shadow.” My shadow is not the Barack Obama to my Hillary Clinton, but rather how I react to being outshone. My shadow is the part of my personality that thrives on spite, jealousy, passive-aggressiveness, and schadenfreude (keeping with the German theme, think Jungian psychology). Though I get along with most people, in a few exceptional cases I’ve lost friends during or because of periods of intense personal change. Through these times my shadow was there, constantly threatening to get the best of me. During one of my most long and painful breaks I had to completely uproot a meaningful part of my life. In these moments the shadow is most powerful and can either crush you completely or cause you to act out violently. I’m lucky to have a supportive group of friends who were able to ground me and help me replant my roots, even if it must be on the periphery of something I once thrived in.

(Just so you’re not confused, let me sum up my slight overuse of metaphors today: I am a Hillary-Clinton-rooted-plant-hybrid, fighting with my shadow, while going down a river. Totally clear, right?)

Realizing that I’m up constantly against my shadow may be another obstacle in my path to become a better leader. I think of myself as a leader, but in moments of self-doubt I wonder, “What do I have to show for it? Where is my tangible evidence?” But leadership is not about making your own trail of Alexandrian conquests. A wise man once told me, leadership is balance between authority and responsiveness. With a pure authoritarian outlook, you have the great leaders who ultimately were overthrown because they refused to respond to changes in the political and social environment. With a pure responsive outlook, you have the bleeding-heart humanitarians who despite their good intentions, won’t help more than those within their arm’s reach because of their own fragility. The best leaders are a combination of both authority and responsiveness to their environment. I’ve certainly experienced my share of responsiveness here in Bangladesh. By trying to fit in and learning a new culture, I’ve also developed a bit of a hesitance to step on toes, even when it’s clearly within my right to do so. How far am I willing to go to assert my own authority? Unfortunately, as an undergraduate intern, probably not any further than I’ve already established myself. I’ll probably go a bit in the other extreme once I get home. I dream of regaining my full independence and bossing around men for a while. For now, that’s all I’m sure about.

A Village of Children

Squatting over a pit-toilet and swatting mosquitoes as the power cuts out and I’m left in complete darkness, I wonder what I’m doing here. I’ve gotten myself into kind of an absurd position where I’m taking on a big project for the world’s largest NGO, my supervisor is the Executive Director (2nd in command) of BRAC and also a social scientist who has extensively studies high yielding rice, and I have absolutely no social science field research experience.

During my final group interview I was surrounded by more than the usual group of men with a few women and children in the background. This was a village of children, at least twenty-five, all sneaking smiles and spreading ripples of whispers, “What is your name?” as I tried to maintain my professional composure. During a pause in the interview I finally turned around and said, deliberately, “Amar nam Marci, tikasay?” (my name is Marci, all right?). “Marci! Marci!” trickled through the throng. I had to stop the interview early because no one could control the tidal wave of energy emitting from the kids, demanding my attention. I got up and was swarmed by giggling children, elementary-level English phrases, echoes of my words with exaggerated gliding vowels (“Oakayyyy!”), and declarations of love. A mother invited me to her house where the children shouted instructions in a mix of English and Bangla, “Boshun! Sit! Pani? Water?” After a few minutes of madness, I said, “Ami jai, sorry” (I have to go, sorry). The children sent me off with a chorus of cheers, clapping, and goodbyes. I jumped onto the back of my motorbike and rode back to the BRAC office, taking in the beauty of the moonlit rice paddies.

From the miserable start to the delightful finish, my trip to the field has enriched my time in Bangladesh and fulfilled my preliminary research goals. Returning to Dhaka has been bittersweet, but it’s nice to be back in my own bed (cockroaches and all), back to my usual rickshaw route, back to my familiar foods and friends. I’ve discovered that while I’ll never be able to do exactly and completely what I set out to do, I can at least steer myself in a positive direction and then go with the flow.

My life in Bangladesh, though constantly changing, has now achieved a serendipitous and ironic rhythm, hitting me at the most unexpected moments with the most wonderful surprises. It is only fair that I must experience the lulls, depressions, and outright miseries before I suddenly find myself going the opposite direction. As any spiritual self-help book will tell you, negative energy attracts more negative energy. Positive energy attracts... a crowd of cheering children!

Attack of the Tikatika

I was having the best kind of sleep there is: the night’s rest between illness and health. The sleep where you wake up so alive that you forget last night’s professed battle with death. On this night just before sunrise, a gentle tapping on my bare shoulder awoke me prematurely. Instinctively, I brushed it away… no, it’s not a hand; no, it’s not another greedy mosquito… instantly I sprang up with surprising vitality, given the early hour and my lingering illness. From my bedside I glared down at the mass of spindly legs and a thick nutty shell, a miniature runway model with a mammoth, seemingly impractical jacket that overwhelms both her bony legs and beady eyes. In the first few minutes of being awake, my mind and body dismiss any attempt at context, causing the smallest menace to become a Goliath. Then I started hyperventilating. Soon the tikatika registered his vulnerability in the light and began the classic bumper-car movements across my bed. I grabbed a broom, but this was a half-hearted gesture. My mind jumped to the belly-up tikatika in the kitchen last week, oozing from the impact, ants marching to and from their day’s feast. The memory of poor Gregor in Kafka’s Metamorphosis has also had a permanent effect on me, and causes my chest to tighten a little. Exploiting my hesitance, the tikatika scuttled under my bed, a smart move. Too much dust and other pests for me to bother; I’ll deal with it in the morning.

I read for a while, finishing a novel on Bangladesh’s War of Independence. A little more sleep would be nice… if I leave the light on he won’t bother me, like when I saw him scouting out my room last night before he ran out the door. Back into the deep sleep.

My alarm clock rings and again, instinctively, I brush my limbs to check for any pests who dare breach the privacy of my skin. None. I lift the pillows, aware that the tikatika must be somewhere. Suddenly he flies (how could I forget, they fly?!) from the ceiling and plops down where my head had lain moments before. Clearly this was a pre-calculated move. The knowledge that he was up there while I slept, watching me like some arthropoid pervert, further incensed me. The war is on. This time I maintained eye contact as he sat contently, twitching his antennae like a comedian with overactive eyebrows. He’s teasing me. With clarity and deliberateness I grabbed a glass from my nightstand, luckily leftover from washing down last night’s cold medicine. The first attempt ends badly; I stop midway through the swinging arch of my arm because the last bit of water has unexpectedly jumped out, now taking my full attention as I follow its tragic trajectory. It lands in an unfortunately conspicuous location on my bed, but far from the tikatika. The tikatika remains unfazed. Why should he be afraid? His kind will be around long after we’re gone.

The second attempt is a success. I clamp the glass down around him while he futilely scrambles up and down, as he will for the last 4 minutes of his life. Now what? There’s an open window down the hall, but what’s to stop him from returning? Shall I find some sacrificial grounds, say a prayer, and squash him there? No, I stick to my tried-and-true insect exile, the toilet. No blood on my hands and assurance he won’t be back. I was heading there anyway. The tikatika is the second occupant of the toilet today, not even worthy of his own flush.

Being the hypersensitive and over analytical person I am, I reflect on my own transformation from the vegetarian, peace-loving, naturalist into a cold-blooded killer. I’ve waged attrition against ants, I take pride in my one-handed-mosquito-grab, and I’ve even mercilessly murdered mice (though, I tell myself, as painlessly as possible). I’ve seen enough Discovery Channel to know that not all animals are herbivores, and that killing is a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. But as humans, what is “natural” and what is not? Do we have the right to judge?

Is there a connection between violence towards other species and violence within our own? In the past women and racial minorities were seen as subhuman, and this simple distinction was used to justify years of violence and oppression. I’ll surely be discussing this further in later posts, but consider for now the pervasiveness of violence in our culture—not just on the “streets” but on our plates. And remember what the Hutu extremists called the Tutsi in the Rwanda genocide. They called them cockroaches.


October, you have finally graced us all with your presence. Ramadan is ending, fall is beginning, and only two more months left in Bangladesh. Two more months to continuously straddle attempts to survive and enjoy this country. But I realize that no matter what my emotional state when I leave Bangladesh, I have already learned much about not only about development NGO work, but also where I want to be in life and how I’m going to get there.

A consequence of my scattered academic, political, and social interests is that I’m in a constant state of identity crisis. Who am I today: feminist? environmentalist? scientist? Despite my ever-changing perspective and persona, my goals remain the same. I want a world where children don’t have to sleep on the street and beg for money. I want a world where women are valued and autonomous. I want a world where we recognize the toll we’re taking on the environment and the toll it’s taking back on us. I want, simply, global change.

Part of the reason I’ve spent the past summer and this semester working with NGOs and activists is to find my “window” through which I’ll take on the world. What I’ve learned from working with BRAC is that there isn’t a best way to tackle these issues. Bangladesh needs agriculturalists, sociologists, doctors, teachers, environmentalists, and economists, but it needs all of them working together. It’s all about perspective.

In my youth I dreamed of myself as a “Renaissance Man” (er… woman) like Thomas Jefferson. Now this seems like an impossible dream. I barely have room in my schedule for required electives. And who wants to spend 20 years in graduate school becoming an expert in every field? I feel like the world doesn’t have room for people like me: people who can’t spend 9-5 working on a computer, working in a lab, sitting through endless meetings. For now I’m maintaining a balance of calculated self-improvement and following my instincts and passions, trying not to spread myself too thin between different fields and causes (so far not succeeding). I’m hoping that when the time comes, there will be a place for me where I can be both productive and satisfied. Forget looking for my window; just let me run around outside for a while.

Why I love Velcro

Last night I almost got mugged. Or maybe I survived an attempted mugging. The correct lingo eludes me. I’m not trying to scare you, because I still live in one of the safest neighborhoods, but I stick out like a luminescent ATM machine in the dark night. This was undoubtedly the scariest moment I’ve had here, but once the adrenaline passed, I find it makes a good story. Lastly, I feel kind of badass saying that I single-handedly fended off a mugger.

In retrospect I should have seen it coming. Not physically, but as I left the American Club at 9:30pm (I didn’t want to stay too late, because Dhaka is pretty sketchy at night) I even discussed with my friend how vulnerable we are as white women in Bangladesh. First because women aren’t usually out on the streets and second because I see approximately one other white person a day. Perhaps over confident after spending a month here with no security issues (and forgetting that I usually have a male friend walk me home), I hopped on a rickshaw and we started the ride home, which is only about 10 minutes.

As we entered my district, I looked helplessly at the women and children huddled on the side of the street. During the day I try to convince myself that people begging have a home, have some money, that they just convince their children it’s a game to see who can get the most taka (money) from people. But at night, there’s no denying that these people are homeless. A child curled up to sleep on a newspaper as men leave the mosque at night. Babies trying to cling to their mothers or siblings, all of whom treat them not as babies should be cared for, but as another tool utilized for begging.

Distracted by these thoughts and also the surprisingly nice weather—the perfect temperature with a gentle breeze—I gasped as I felt someone grab onto my messenger bag which I stupidly had put on the side of me facing the street. First I thought it was just a child climbing onto the rickshaw, but as I looked over a car had pulled up beside us. They probably saw us drive by, with me sitting like a little-happy-go-lucky foreign woman. I had heard about people in cars/motorcycles stealing purses from people on riskshaws before. You’re better off just putting the bag between your legs and hope for the best, because the last thing you want is a car to drive up, grab your bag, and pull you along with it (it’s happened before). The next few seconds were a blur of me clinging to my bag as the car started to speed up with their hands still grabbing my bag, and my rickshaw driver helpless to do anything. But they lost their grip no my bag and sped away in their car that would suggest they don’t actually need the cash, and my rickshaw driver shouted a little at them and asked if I was OK. The next few minutes were the worst because I had no idea if they would come back, if they had followed me before and knew where I lived. Fortunately we were close to home, so I paid my driver, told him to be careful, and stepped into my gated house, finally able to calm down a little.

In the elevator up to my floor I looked at myself in the mirror and at my bag, which looked like they had torn the cross-strap (the hefty shoulder strap was still on me). Actually, the cross-strap is attached on one side by Velcro, so it was only the Velcro that had come undone. I wondered if that’s why they lost their grip—which is serendipitous because I usually wear my bag with the cross-strap facing my body so that people can’t grab onto it, but today I put my bag on backwards by accident and decided to keep it that way. Still in the elevator, I laughed out loud and cursed the bastards for trying to steal my bag. I tried not the think about what would have happened if they had grabbed the shoulder strap. A rickshaw is no match against a fast foreign car, but thanks to my Velcro strap, like a lizard’s tail that comes off when stepped on, it was just a small scare and I’m a little wiser (also I highly recommend Timbuk2 bags).

International House of Iftar

As my fellow interns return to England this week for classes, I am left with two more months to fill with research and adventures. Truly, one of the most rewarding aspects of being in Bangladesh these past three weeks has been getting to know these amazing people I have the pleasure of calling my peers. Not only have I enjoyed their company, but I’ve learned about tackling the world’s problems from different perspectives (economics, education, human rights). In three weeks the intense conversations we’ve had and absurd situations we’ve been in have brought us together in ways that we’ll never experience again. Living and working in Bangladesh has changed us all in completely unique ways, and I’m glad to have shared some time with all of you.

The departure of my intern friends is sad, but the nature of a 3-month internship is that you enjoy the time you have with people. Shouldn’t it be that way for life in general? Sometimes I forget this. Anyway, old friends depart and new ones appear in your path, or are randomly interrogated by me about the legitimacy of the American Club and coincidentally happen to be a fellow biochemist. Imagine the frustration of trying to do gel electrophoresis when the electricity shuts down twice a day, or when you are lacking crucial reagents: “A friend of a friend is bringing some methanol from Chittagong next week.” Sketch.

So enough of the sappy sentiments. High points of the past week: talking about women’s empowerment with a group of women agriculture extension workers, cooler weather, cheap pearl earrings and movies (one dolla!), a three-hour lunch at the American Club and relaxing swims and an evening out at the Bagha Club (ending in a bizarre game of darts where a drunken Scot decided on the rules and my only instructions were, “Hit the small seventeen!” which I was told about 12 times and while being conditioned to respond to simply “M”), and meeting more Bangladeshis. We had a cross-cultural going-away party for my friends, which we brilliantly named “International House of Iftar” and we all prepared our favorite food. This included veggie “fajitas,” bruschetta, mango-pineapple salsa (prepared by yours truly and surprisingly embraced by Bangladeshis, but this should come as no surprise based on my family’s fondness for fruit salad in hot chili sauce), and our favorite desserts (we managed to veto the British “puddings”) of chocolate cupcakes, cookies (from the American Club, since we don’t have stoves here), and of course jilapi.

Low points are continued bug bites, a rickshaw ride from hell, coming down with the flu for a day, getting increasingly frustrated with American politics, being extremely sad about missing out on PowerVoting and other activism but so happy for its success, anxiously deliberating graduate school options, and boredom at work. As promised last week, here’s the down-low on my internship:

The purpose of my internship is to write a report on the socioeconomic impacts of hybrid rice, which has much higher yields than traditional rice (rice is a staple food of Bangladesh and rice farming is one of the most common occupations here). I’ve done some preliminary interviews with researchers, seed distributors, farmers, and agriculture extension workers but in two weeks I’ll be doing extensive interviews with farmers and their wives in an area of Bangladesh that was hit by Cyclone Sidr last year. BRAC distributed hybrid rice seed to farmers there as a relief effort but this has caused some controversy, since hybrid rice is more expensive, can’t be replanted, and is rumored to decrease soil fertility. I’m also interested in how this is affecting rural women, who do all of the post-harvest work (though based on my interviews so far, women are the ones who actually convince their husbands to grow hybrid rice- they are the confident, socially astute mediators between the worlds of male-dominated research and male-dominated field work). I’ve gotten myself into kind of an absurd position where I’m taking on a big project for the world’s largest NGO, my supervisor is the Executive Director (2nd in command) of BRAC and also a social scientist who has extensively studies high yielding rice, and I have absolutely no social science field research experience. But my confidence has been increasing as I realize how much background research I’ve done in the past few years, how I have great resources back at MSU to help me, and lastly how I was chosen for this position and that I have the motivation to do the best I can. My own eagerness to get into the field almost resulted in me being sent to a coastal town, a 9-hour drive (minimum) and 3 ferry rides away (which aren’t known for being the most reliable form of transportation), for a week with a “translator” who actually can’t speak English. I had to bail last minute, prolonging my boredom at work, but I would have accomplished nothing without the ability to communicate. If nothing else, I will leave here having learned something- whether it’s what to do or what not to do- about social research.

Last thoughts of the day:

It turns out Bangladesh is only the 10th most corrupt country. Something I’ve learned while here is that although Bangladesh is in the need of serious institutional reform in all aspects of life (politics, education, health, environment), it could be worse. We decided there were probably about 10-15 countries that were worse to live in than Bangladesh, in terms of violence, instability, and standard of living.