Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bangladesh is Not the Country of Frogs
March 21, 2007

I normally carry small presents for children around in my purse. Today I had some little plastic frogs that Heather sent from the US and some plastic bracelets. At my Bangla class this morning, when I reached into my bag to take out my books, one of the frogs came out. Amina (my Bangla teacher) told me that the Bangla word for "frog" is "bang" (like the sound a gun makes.) She then laughed and said that many foreigners called Bangladesh "Bangladesh" which means "country of frogs"! The correct pronunciation is "BAHNG la desh" (more like "bong", the drum, than "bang", the sound a gun makes.) Bangladesh means country of the Bangla people. "Desh" is the Bangla word for country. People often ask me, "Apnar desh ki?" What is your country? So keep the frogs out of Bangladesh!

I Team Up with Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh
March 20, 2007

While I mainly use this blog to share interesting cultural stories, today I will give you a brief update on my Fulbright project. I finished the pilot test of my survey on March 9th and started the final survey last weekend. My research assistant, Sajeda, will continue the survey this Friday with two of her friends. I would go with her, but I will be attending a seminar at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) called "Architecture for the Economically Disadvantaged."

In addition to my survey, for the past several months I have been assembling an Advisory Board made up of prominent Bangladeshis and foreigners. The Advisory Board with act in a think tank capacity for the project - providing creative ideas and professional advice from their respective areas of expertise. So far I have managed to recruit a real estate developer with 18 years of experience building middle-income multifamily homes (he was is also the former president of the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh), a senior researcher at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Housing and Building Research Institute, the head of the Department of Urban Planning at BUET, the president of the Bangladesh Supreme Court Bar Association, and the head of the Bangladesh Code of Conduct Department and the Controller at H&M.

This week was a good week for me in terms of the Advisory Board because I also spoke with the guy who runs the Code of Conduct Department at The Gap, and I have been e-mailing with his counterpart at Wal-Mart. Both people are very excited about my project. Yesterday I met with Roger Bodary, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh. Roger is a great guy and our visions - sustainable, affordable housing on a large scale - are very much aligned. Roger has also agreed to join the Advisory Board and Habitat for Humanity will partner with us on the implementation of the low-income housing model that the Board collectively designs.

Since I separated from Nari Uddug Kendra, (Shefali prefers to put her energy toward raising funds for her own housing project that she has already designed) I have been looking for another partner who could help me with the implementation of my project. I am very excited to be teaming up with Habitat for Humanity because I really respect their organization (I was a volunteer for them in NY) and they have the resources to implement our program on a wide-scale. Plus, Roger shares my interest in sustainable ("green") building, which I find very exciting!

All in all, the project is progressing quite well and I am extremely happy with the amazing group of intelligent, passionate, socially responsible people that I have been able to attract to my project.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When the Electricity Goes Out, I Go Swimming
March 13, 2007

So I have decided that whenever the electricity goes out, I will either swim or meditate. Since the electricity is going out much more frequently now that the weather is getting hot, I should be in fabulous physical and mental shape very soon!

Today, I decided to swim and meditate at the same time! I went to the American Club for a very refreshing dip in their lovely pool. After I was done with my water exercises, I put a flotation tube (the kind that kids use) under my neck and another one under my lower back and just laid backwards on the water with my eyes closed. It was a very surreal experience! I felt like I was completely weightless, and since I was the only person in the pool, it was totally silent. If it weren't for the sun, I could easily have become completely disoriented. I do highly recommend water meditation though! Very calming!

Unfortunately, despite my 50 SPF sunblock, just a half hour in the pool has caused my freckles to come out in full force!!

Bengalis Have Three Calendars
March 13, 2007

Today in my Bangla class I learned the names of the seasons. There are six of them in Bangladesh: grismokal ("hot season" from mid-April to mid-June), borshakal ("monsoon season" from mid-June to mid-August), shorotkal ("autumn" from mid-August to mid-October), hemontokal ("late autumn" from mid-October to mid-December), shitkal ("winter" from mid-December to mid-February), and boshontokal ("spring" from mid-February to mid-April). The Bangla new year starts on April 14th. These seasons are based on the Bengali calendar; three different calendars are used in Bangladesh: the Gregorian calendar (what we use in the US), the Islamic calendar, and the Bengali calendar.

The first calendar used in Bangladesh was the Islamic Hijri calendar. This calendar is a lunar calendar; there are twelve months based on the moon's cycle in a year of 354 days. Taxes in the region were initially based on this calendar, but because the lunar year is 11 days shorter than the solar year, the tax period would move every year and it would sometimes not correspond with the harvest (which is when the people were able to pay their taxes.) Consequently, the Mughal Emperor Akhbar created a new calendar in 1584 based on the harvest schedule. In Bangla the name of this calendar is the fosholi shon or "harvest calendar." At this point, the six seasons were also introduced. The Gregorian calendar was introduced later by the Brittish and is commonly used in business in Bangladesh today.

Because the Bangladeshis have three different calendars, they also have three different years. In the Islamic calendar, it is the year 1428. Year "1" is the year that Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina. The Islamic calendar is still used in Bangladesh for religious holidays. If you remember, when I first came to Dhaka it was almost Eid and Eid was delayed because the clouds covered the moon. According to the Islamic tradition, the new month does not start until several reputable men are able to see the start of the new moon crescent. This means, that if there are clouds, or the sky is too bright to see the moon, an additional day is added to the preceding month. This makes it almost impossible to predict the calendar in advance which is why people here do not know the exact days of religious holidays until the moon is actually seen in the sky.

In the Bengali calendar, it is the year 1413. Although this calendar was not started until 1584, the Mughal Emperor took the years from the previous calendar system which was aligned with the Islamic Hijri. Because the Hijri lunar year is shorter than the Bengali solar year, the Bengali year is now out of synch with the Hijri year.

And, of course, it is the year 2007 in the Gregorian calendar! My Bangladeshi diary has the dates and years for all three calendar systems in it. Today is the 29th day of the month of Falgun in the year 1413 of the Bengali calendar; the 23rd day of the month of Shofor in the year 1428 in the Islamic Hijri calendar, and the 13th day of March in the year 2007 in the Gregorian calendar...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hamida Discovers Air Conditioning
March 11, 2007

Today as Hamida was cleaning my office (where I was working at the time) she got a funny expression on her face and then asked me where the cold air was coming from. I laughed and pointed to the air conditioner. She looked at me in amazement and said, "Really? It is very cold!" It was amusing to me that she didn't know what an air conditioner is! Several of the stores here have them, but I guess that those are not the stores she can afford to shop in...

And now for some good news for those of you who have been hankering for some more photos. My friend Abeer was kind enough to take some pictures of my apartment when she was over the other day, so, with her permission, I am putting them into this blog for your viewing pleasure...

my very blue bedroom
(note the "American style" mosquito net!)

my banana milkshake yellow living/ dining room
(I designed the table and chairs myself!)

and the moment you all have been waiting for...
my very pink drawing room!
(this is actually only the back half of the room, however, so you can only get a glimpse of the pepto-bismol paint just above the window...

I ordered some coffee tables and small TV stand/ cupboard, but they are still being made, so I will post another picture once the room is more finished...

I Start My Survey
March 9, 2007

I did a pilot test of my survey today. My research assistant and I went out to Mirpur (a neighborhood near many of the garment factories) to administer the survey to a few women in order to see if the questions work. As soon as we got out of our CNG, we met a woman who was walking home. We offered to pay for a rickshaw for her if she would take us to where she lived (since we didn’t know exactly where the garment workers’ homes were.) She agreed and we set off down winding dirt roads until we came to an area with many small, one-story semi-pucca (cement walls and tin roof semi-permanent structure) dwellings. We got off of the rickshaws and she took us through a very narrow corridor (I only had one inch of space on either side of my shoulders) to a row of houses. We went inside her house to administer the survey and, of course, immediately several of her friends and neighbors came to see what the foreigner was doing in her home.

She lived in a larger complex with several rooms in it – three rooms were rented out to four women each and the other two rooms were used by the family who owns the house (the bariwala, or landlord). I created the survey to determine three main things: 1) what the income and expenses are for the garment workers; 2) who these women live with and how their money is handled within their household; and 3) what their living preferences are (i.e. if money were not a factor, would they prefer to live alone in studio apartments? with extended family in larger apartments? with their friends?) Though there has been a lot of research done on the garment workers, I was not able to find any recent studies that answered these questions, so it was very interesting for me to learn that the garment worker that we followed lived in a five room house, but that only one of the rooms was hers and that she shared it with two friends and her niece (who was only a couple of years younger than her.) Those four women constituted the “household” as they pooled their money together and chose to live together as a unit of four.

These women shared a bathroom and a kitchen (both of which were outside) with the other people (12 total) in the house. There was only one queen-sized bed that all four of them slept on. (Remember how when I bought my bed the store owner asked me how many people would be sleeping on it and he told me that it would fit five people?!)

We only wanted to interview one person per household, since most of the data would be replicated for other household members. Because there were a lot of spectators, however, we had several other women that we could survey. One of the women actually followed us around for all five interviews! Apparently we were the main attraction that day!

Unfortunately, at our third stop, the bariwala came into the room to see what the excitement was about. She was a very stereotypical bariwala – overweight, nosy, and answering everyone’s questions for them. I was glad that we encountered her on our test, however, because I am sure we will run into more individuals like her when we conduct the real survey. Since my research assistant, Sajeda, administers the survey (it is in Bangla and is verbally administered because most of these women can’t read), we decided that next time when we go, I will bring a camera (Sajeda has a camera that works) and I will tell the disrupting person that I want to photograph her. That way we can get her out of the room and the women will be free to answer the questions for themselves.

Overall the test was successful. We found a few questions that we needed to re-word, added a few more multiple choice answers, and added a couple of additional questions.

One more interesting thing that I learned today was the real reason that none of the landlords in Dhanmondi would rent to me – Sajeda finally admitted that it was because I was a single woman! She was doing all of the translation for me, so I didn’t understand most of what the Dhanmondi landlords were saying. My Gulshan bariwala actually told me this week that he didn’t originally want to rent to me because I am a single woman, but that he liked me, so he decided to rent to me anyway and that now he is glad that he did. I thought it was because I was a foreigner, but my two married friends (who are also American) were able to get an apartment in Dhanmondi easily! And I thought being a foreigner put me above the discrimination!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Biplob and Ershad Admire My Pink Palace
March 8, 2007

Biplob and Ershad, two very nice guys who work in my building, helped me carry some (rather heavy) items up to my apartment today. As a reward, I gave them some of the Nestle Toll House cookies that I had baked a few days before. We sat down in my drawing room and they admired my bright pink walls and my bright orange sofas. Ershad told me that he has been in everyone’s house and that he doesn’t like any of them except for mine. I chuckled. The bright colors must be a very Bangladeshi thing because Biplob has also told me on numerous occasions that he loves my bright blue bedroom too!

While they were there, Ershad helped me put up the last of my hooks (which I was having difficulty with) in my drawing room. The hooks are to hold the bright magenta, patterned fabric that I am hanging from the ceiling in order to shrink the room a bit and make it cozier. The room now looks like a big, pink tent. I like it though! It is definitely a unique room! My friend Abeer asked me if she could bring her computer over here to work. She is a writer. Perhaps she finds the pink inspiring…

I Get a Room for My Shoes
March 7, 2007

My landlord was kind enough to drop off a new desk and a shoe rack for me today. The shoe rack is actually quite large, so I didn’t have room to put it in my bedroom. Putting it in the study didn’t really make sense and I didn’t want to ruin the Zen of my meditation room by putting it in there. Consequently, I put it in the little room in front of the servant’s quarters. So now I finally have room just for my shoes! If only I could now find a shoe store here that carries my size…

Only Men Get Married in Bangladesh
March 6, 2007

Each of my Bangla lessons starts with a typical local dialog. The conversation illustrates new words taught in the lesson and demonstrates a bit of the local culture. In today’s lesson, a foreigner went to visit a Bangladeshi’s home. My teacher, Amina, said that today’s lesson was a “culture shock” lesson.

Culture shock item number one was that the Bangladeshi asked the foreigner what his salary was. Apparently this is a very normal question. My American friends and I always joke that we are becoming Bangladeshi because we have started asking each other the price of everything. Here if you are out, even talking to strangers, and you mention that you just bought something, their first question will always be, “what did it cost?” In a city where you are always looking for the best deal, this has actually become quite normal. Now even the foreigners readily talk about how much they paid for certain items. By telling the price we are either a) bragging to our friends that we were successful in our negotiation and got a good deal or b) we are asking our friends if they think that we got ripped off. Often we think it is “a” but then we discover it is really “b” when we find out that someone saw a better deal somewhere else – this especially happens when we discuss prices with Bangladeshis.

Another interesting cultural difference is that Bangladeshis always state their salary by their monthly income instead of their annual income like we do in the U.S.

Cultural shock item number two, which was not really a shock for me at this point since I have been here for almost five months already, is that if you are single, everybody asks you why you are not married. At least during this lesson I learned how to say, “Because I have not found a suitable man yet!”

Culture shock item number three, and this really was a shock to me, is that only men get married! There are active and passive forms of the verb “to marry” in Bangla and only men use the active form. Women are married by someone. My feminist hackles definitely bristled when I learned that one!

I think that learning languages is very interesting because how different thoughts and concepts are formed and verbalized provides a fascinating window into the culture. The fact that men marry and women are selected and married by the men definitely reflects the male-dominated nature of their society. The fact that more women are starting to use the active form of the verb “to marry” (I asked my Bangla teacher about it), however, indicates a new shift in the male-female dynamics.