As I walk outside my apartment building in the evening, I see the Lexus SUVs passing rickshaws, men in sarongs passing men in business casual attire, and merchant stands selling goods by kerosene lamp next to mega grocery stores. It’s been two months since my arrival in Chittagong and I sometimes still feel mystified. I can’t help but smile at the complex yet beautiful blend of what we, as Westerners, call “modernity” and traditional Bangladeshi culture. And every time these scenes present themselves to me, I appreciate, try to understand, and love the city of Chittagong more and more.
I’ve come a long way from my college life in Washington, D.C. and my lazy summer in Delaware. After graduating from college in May, and living at my dad’s house while babysitting, my once fervent wish of working at a women’s organization abroad seemed more like a foolish thought than a real possibility.
But once I touched down in Chittagong, Bangladesh two and a half months ago to work at the Asian University for Women, I realized that I was actually pursuing my dream. What also hit me were the sourest smells I’d ever smelt, the lowest slums I’d ever seen, and the loudest street traffic I’d ever heard. Driving from the airport to my apartment building with ten other volunteers, I realized I was far from the U.S., both in distance and culture. For the first two weeks or so, my hesitation to accept Bangladeshi culture persisted, as I could not seem to understand their lifestyle, which was so different from my own.
But as the old adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t trust first impressions. Now as I wake up to the bustling street sounds below my apartment building and I look through my mosquito net out the window, I see the sun through palm trees and the exotic birds flying past and I am starting to understand and embrace Bangladeshi culture more and more. Chittagong. a port city set on the Indian Ocean, has a long and colorful history and an even more colorful city life. Between the extreme sights, sounds, tastes, and smells—all manifesting in both pleasant and not-so-pleasant sensual experiences—Chittagong is lively city that has exceeded my expectations.
I am now intrigued by and want to interrogate continuously why I initially reacted so differently. Obviously, much of it stems from my upbringing in America and my expectations of high standards in all parts of life.
Instead of jumping to the simple and ignorant conclusion, “Well it’s a just developing country after all,” I realize that Bangladesh’s long colonial past in conjunction with its 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan created a country of paradoxes. But Bangladesh has not let its culture be completely defined by these hardships. Along with its sour smells, constant loud sounds, and crumbling sidewalks, Bangladeshi culture thrives in Chittagong. Foul smells are typically followed by the sweet smells of baked goods, loud traffic is interrupted by beautiful calls to prayer five times a day, crumbling sidewalks become less noticeable with every passing fragrant fruit stand and friendly children greet me giddily with “Hi, hi, hi” on my walk to school. The positives are defeating the negatives, and it’s my guess that they will continue to do so.