Country profile: Bangladesh – A country whose population is so dense – “one person, in a nation of 164 million, is mathematically incapable of being truly alone” (National Geographic).
And in fact, Bangladesh is a country. Three recent NWCCI program alumni will tell you how surprised they were, to discover many people in their travels who thought that Bangladesh not only was not a country, but a part of India! The more they mulled over the thought, the more NWCCI’s three most recent participants from Bangladesh realized that there were plenty of myths and stories they wished to share or dispel about their country.
Jebin Tahera, Noor Anas Abir and Eshra Hassan describe their schooling growing up in Bangladesh a bit differently than some Americans might describe theirs. Classes are passed by “cramming” just before the exam without putting the knowledge into application, Noor Anas Abir says. In the U.S. they noticed, “you will have to know exactly what you are studying,” and be familiar with the material, Eshra Hassan explains. They often are not allowed much room for deviation or creativity from the syllabus, or even cognitive comprehension of the material. Jebin Tahera agreed, “we memorize everything blindly; rather than understanding the concepts.” “The main difference between Bangladesh and the US has to be application of knowledge. Most schools don’t have the resources to teach students how to apply the knowledge they have acquired in the classrooms.” Switching to the U.S system of teaching can take some time to get used to, but it didn’t take these three long to learn to excel in the American classroom.
They also noticed the lack of focus on creativity in schools. “Creativity is absent in most fields, [and] there is much focus on the science subjects and no attention on the arts subjects,” Tahera explains. That is something she wishes could change. She interned at Allied Arts in Bellingham, Washington during her time in the NWCCI program. It was a quick crash course on the importance of the arts in communities such as Bellingham. The nonprofit organization, whose goal is to “improve the cultural health and vitality of the community through community events involving visual artists and musicians […], focus[ing] on local artists, its extensive arts education in local schools and its public advocacy for the arts,” has been an internship provider for many of the NWCCI students. And creativity, Tahera explains, is something she hopes to persuade her community back home to explore.
Seeing how different education around the world can be, the three students agreed that education was one of the things they would most like to improve in Bangladesh. Hassan says that if change “began with the new generation, then the change will be more effective and successful.”
But such change is slow to implement – both women noted that equality still has a long way to go in Bangladesh. Women for example, attend school often only until they find a husband, and usually through arranged marriage. Once a woman is married, and sometimes at a young age, a woman’s professional dreams are given up to support her family. Tahera explains that she hopes one day the patriarchal paradigm can be shifted towards “a more feminist one.” She wants to remind people too, that being a Muslim woman is not the same as being oppressed. After taking part in a panel discussion for Muslim Awareness Week at Whatcom Community College, Tahera encourages that although people often want to group Muslim countries and ideologies together, people should not “assume that the religion of Islam oppresses women in Bangladesh and that all of them must cover their heads to be Muslim.”
A few quick facts about Bangladesh:
- Due to the country being so low lying and tropical, the ground in Bangladesh has never frozen. The coldest recorded temperature was 4.5 degrees Celsius (40.1 degrees Fahrenheit), in 2011.
- Over 98% of Bangladeshis speak the official language of Bengali. English is spoken as a second language.
- Islam and Hinduism make up the majority of Bangladesh’s region.
While most of Western culture is accustomed to having the freedom to marry whomever it chooses, Tahera describes that in Bangladesh the union is often more functionality-based than love-based. Before a couple may marry, their families must first discuss if the couple make a good union that will carry on the family name, if the man can provide for the woman, and if they are a good match. The NWCCI participants were surprised to find out how strange arranged marriage sounds to Americans. Of course, arranged marriage is quite normal for Bangladeshis. Anas Abir explains that, “a marriage based on love is not as popular in Bangladesh.” Usually,
“Parents decide who is going to be a life partner, and children obey their parents’ choice. I can fall in love, but I am not sure whether my mom and dad will accept that girl as my wife.” – Noor Anas Abir
But these traditions are slowly changing, and Hassan describes that both love-based marriage and arranged marriage exist. She says that a more modern approach to marriage in Bangladesh allows young people to first “talk with [their] family and try to convince them that the person [they] chose is perfect. If [they] are successful in convincing them, then there will be a big wedding.” She jokes, “or else you break up… or run away with your love.” Hassan admits,“to me, arranged marriage sounds very adventurous and normal;” it’s the way her own parents were married.
“Your family finds someone for you and you meet that person once or twice. Then you have to decide if you want to spend rest of your life with him/her. If you say yes, then you get married with someone whom you meet only twice. If you say no, then either your family emotionally blackmails you (because they think this guy/ girl is perfect for you) or they resume searching for your ‘perfect match’.” – Eshra Hassan
Perhaps Bangladesh is not a country that comes to mind to Americans when they think of immediate stereotypes because much of Bangladesh’s culture is not as commonly shared in the media with Western culture, but for some of the countries that NWCCI participants come from, it is!
In fact, many associations come to mind for citizens of the countries surrounding Bangladesh, such as Pakistan and India. NWCCI alumnus Raju Pulivandlas from India wrote a blog about how his perspectives about Bangladesh changed greatly as he became friends with students from there, in fact, he had never met anyone from Bangladesh before. Pulivandlas explained that his new-found Bangladeshi “sister” Lutfun was extremely kind and caring.”I won’t forget the love and care she showed me when I was suffering with fever: medicine, scolding and hot Chai.” After getting to know the people from Bangladesh, it doesn’t take long to see that the country is full of rich culture, hospitality and age-old traditions.
While discussing these topics, students reminisced over the customs and food at home…the biriyani, the fuchka and beef curries! Hassan, who is very passionate about food and experiencing new flavors also excitedly talks about the food she encountered in the U.S. (especially in New York, like Gyros, hot dogs and kababs). Tahera loved the American pizza, but says she would like to introduce her beloved Bangladeshi spices used in their curries to the U.S., “because it makes food taste so much better!”
There are many traditions that the Bangladeshis were surprised to realize that they greatly missed while away. Anas Abir had not previously thought about how seriously his country takes hospitality. It holds a unique focus on this custom that Anas Abir realized was not the same in parts of the rest of the world.
“No matter how poor you are, [even if] you don’t have money to afford food for you and your children, when a guest arrives, he/ she will be treated well, with [plenty of] food and good care.” – Noor Anas Abir
The unique beauty of Bangladesh lies not only in its culture, people and traditions, but also in its landscape. Some Bangladeshis never get to see the country’s beauty – some never have the chance to travel far from the capital. Tahera remembers her first trip from the city to the Sundarban Forest, which is home to the largest mangrove forest in world. It is tucked away between two of the world’s most densely populated countries: Bangladesh and India, and home to the endangered Bengal tiger. Surrounded by lakes and swamps and the outskirts of the city of Khulna are home to ocean beds and shores so majestic, Tahera explains, “It will take your breath away!”
One of Anas Abir’s most cherished memories is that of the traditional folk songs. He enjoys singing, and explains that songs are rich with inner meaning, “even explanations of the meaning of life,” if one is patient enough to decipher them. One of Tahera’s favorite things about home is her country’s traditional clothing. Men are dressed in brightly colored punjabi and kabuli and women are usually found wrapped in brilliantly colored salwar kameez and sharee, that she wishes she could introduce to the world; “full of color and very exotic!”
“I would like to introduce more foreigners to how to wear it and flaunt it. The material is unique and I am sure that it would be appreciated!” – Jebin Tahera
During Hassan, Anas Abir and Tahera’s 10-month program in the NWCCI at community colleges across Washington State, they realized not only some things about themselves, and American culture, but also concepts they would like to implement in their home country. Volunteering was a new concept for Tahera; “schools and colleges do not offer credit to individuals who have volunteered or want to do that. I would like to implement that in Bangladesh. It will bring the community closer together and I know it will benefit the less fortunate people in my country as well.” Anas Abir hopes to help better educate people about how to speak up for themselves, implement ways to improve employment opportunities and health facilities. He explains that he gained great leadership skills in the CCI program and plans to use those as he tries to solve environmental and social issues in Bangladesh. His current project is to create environmental awareness videos to share via YouTube that will reach out to young people to help promote sustainability and awareness. Eshra discovered her own wanderlust while traveling across the US from Seattle to DC and other destinations around the US and hopes to “influence other people to travel more outside [their] country or continent. Travelling can give you more practical knowledge than any book can ever give you.”
By Kaysha Riggs, NWCCI Coordinator
The NWCCI program is part of the Community College Initiative, an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The opinions expressed in this blog by writers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Northwest Community College Initiative program, Edmonds Community College, Whatcom Community College, Pierce College, the United States Department of State or any employee thereof. NWCCI and Edmonds Community College are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied by the students or bloggers.