Over the last month my family and I have been travelling around the country, seeing friends and family, as well as giving presentations about Bangladesh and our work there. We have been blessed with wonderful hospitality from those who have put us up and also by the chance to properly introduce our two children to some British culture. They have lived in and visited Bangladesh for so long now that, in some ways, our son is more deshi than bideshi and only has a limited knowledge of his own culture. He can sing, in Bangla, all of Amar Sonar Bangla, the Bangladesh National Anthem, and understand much of what it means, whereas I doubt he even knows we have a national anthem in the UK at all (let alone be able to sing any of it).
So, in between meetings and presentations and catching up with people, we have taken our two to castles, cathedrals, colleges and more in various places. This has pleased our daughter no end as she loves history – especially that of Medieval England – and has only been persuaded out of these places because she found the gift shops – with lots of books, cds, leaflets, stickers and more books – giving even more information about the places she was just gazing at. How we are going to get this stuff back to Bangladesh is anyone’s guess.
In doing all of this, I must admit I have found myself rather absorbed with the history and culture too. I was astonished just how I found the castles interesting – considering at least one I had visited before and not found very special in the past – and how I loved the wonder of what I was looking at. Considering the poverty we see and live with in Northwest Bangladesh, and the indignities good people have to live with there in comparison to the rich, sumptuous lifestyles of the West, I expected to be horrified by the vanity and wealth, not finding myself admiring the beauty.
This, of course, set me wondering. Why am I enjoying England more now than ever before when I have every good reason to dislike it a great deal more?
At the moment I have two tentative answers to this. There may be more reasons and I may eventually come to change my mind about these (watch out for what I write when we finally go back to Bangladesh!) but for now these are my thoughts:
Firstly, I think it is impossible to live in Bangladesh and not be so affected by the culture there that it throws new light on your own. Actually, it’s not impossible. I’ve known a few people who lived there and never left their own culture. But it should have been impossible had they lived outside of their ex-pat lifestyles a little more. The people I respect the most that have lived and worked inBangladesh for many, many years all say the same thing:
It’s not what you give to Bangladesh that matters. It’s what you learn.
Even in my short time there I know this is so very true. There are many aspects to this but, at the moment, the one foremost in my mind is that living there has given me a better understanding and appreciation for my own culture. Instead of feeling disgust and anger at the vainglorious nature of these sites and monuments, I feel proud of a people that could create these amazing buildings and art works and scientific achievements. Not everything the British have done over the centuries was wrong, stupid or pitiful. Some of it was incredible, majestic and utterly beautiful.
The second reason is less lofty and certainly not so proud.
Whilst my love for the culture and history of England has grown immensely, I can’t say the same for my attitude towards the people. My friends and family, of course, I continue to be proud of and adore. The people of Whitehaven, where we live and where my wife grew up, are also amazing although it pains me that few realize it and most of those that do only do so years after moving away from the place. Individuals we meet along the way (who I like to think of as new friends) also inevitably prove to be lovely.
But The People – as a mass society – continue to make me despair. The riots in London – resulting in friends from Bangladesh, of all the places, to phone, text and send messages of worry on facebook – were far from our proudest day but they are merely symptoms of a more horrible disease in society. It is a society that has become so individualised that any sense of responsibility to others has almost disappeared completely. Yet the people – from the poor to the very wealthiest – cry out with loneliness, shame and lack of purpose time and time again. The riots brought this strongly to the nation’s mind but so should the alcoholism, the teen pregnancies, the violence on the streets, the crime and the problems in the schools. There is a terrible sickness here that shows no signs of relief.
So I hide in the history of the great and glorious. I bask in the mighty fortresses the British made centuries ago. But most of all I delight in places that are kept going by hundreds of ordinary people who care about their preservation and feel a sense of responsibility to make sure they remain for the next generation. In these places I can pretend that Britain is on the mend because I see the potential for it. But, alas, castles and cathedrals and their like are few and far between. The number of people helping must run to thousands but we need millions to make a difference to the country. I have no idea whether things will get better or get worse. For now I’m just content that we still have places like Gloucester Cathedral, Muncaster Castle and the Cambridge Backs (just some of the place we have visited this summer) to remind me that we still have a heritage.
While we have a heritage we have a past to be proud of and a hope of a future.