We’ve been back at LAMB exactly one week and we’re currently living in a strange (and yet familiar) mix of being settled and yet nothing is sorted. By this I mean that our bags still lie partly unpacked, many of the house things (including my study books) are still in the gudam (a kind of small storeroom) and, because of ill health that put my wife out of action for most of the week and had me looking after the kids completely, we’re behind with both our jobs and our studies. But – and this is an important point – we’re home. And in that way, we’re settled.
On one hand, its like we’ve never been away. Everyone from our friends and colleagues to the milkman and newspaper man seem to have just got on with life with us as though six months never happened. The paper landed on our floor the very next day we arrived and the milk was put in the pot we leave outside, both without ever talking to the men themselves. Our friend who gives us language lessons turned up at the old time on the first day expecting to give a lesson when I was still trying to figure out which bag contained my clothes! I thought I would get at least a week to sort out ourselves out before we got everything ‘back to normal’ (whatever that means).
In a different way though, I am surprised how much I noticed things which are very different between this culture and my British one which I have already known and got used to long before: The feel of food in your fingers as you eat with your right hand; the noise from tractors and buses blaring away as they speed down the dusty road; the sight of starving children weaving between cars stuck in traffic jams begging for loose change in Dhaka; and specifically, I seemed to have forgotten, not so much that Bangladeshis stare at you and watch what you are doing whenever you are out, but how it feels to be stared at. Normally I ignore them, but this week I’ve really been aware of it.
What’s odd about that is that I’ve taken on a little of this manner myself because I’ve grown to like it. Although I didn’t stare at people back in the UK (which would be quite rude), I did take much more interest in what was happening around me. This is very counter-cultural. We Brits still prefer to sit in a packed train surrounded by others and not utter more than a polite “excuse me” to someone we’re sat next to when we want to leave and you avoid eye contact as much as possible. Waiting rooms for doctors, hospitals, dentists or even school offices are some of the quietest places on earth I think, because we Brits keep ourselves to ourselves and expect others to do the same. Not so the Bangladeshis. They watch anything interesting going on and, in most places anyway, a white guy with his family is definitely interesting.
So I have begun to look at people as they do and found that life is rather fascinating when you do so. Again, as I’ve said so many times before, I think this people-watching is a sign of the need for relationship that exists in Asian culture. A curiosity about those around you keeps you part of the community. Whereas in Britain, countless numbers of people live next door to each other and know nothing about one another. We ‘respect the privacy of others’ and expect them to do the same but I do wonder whether really this is because we fear relationships in the West and have lost the urgency to be part of a community. Even if we belong to clubs or churches, or just go to the pubs with our mates, we tend to do these things on our terms and withdraw when we’ve had enough.
You don’t need to come to Bangladesh to begin to believe this criticism of Western thinking. In 2009 Bruce Willis starred in a film, The Surrogates, which gave voice to the fear of where this could go in our current Internet age. In the future society envisaged by this film, every stays at home but links their minds up into android bodies. They go about their ordinary business but if one is run over by a car there is no problem. The real person is safe and they just get a new’body’. When it all goes wrong, Willis’ character finds himself having to use muscles which have wasted away from years of sitting in a machine and suffering agoraphobia as he really steps out in the world for the first time.
Just like Huxley with Brave New World and Orwell with Animal Farm and 1984 were warning us of the danger of the letting the state decide on morality so, this story warns us of the danger of getting all our need for human interaction from the safety of a computer screen. We failed to take Huxley and Orwell seriously and now live in a ‘Nanny state’ in the UK. It is only a matter of time before it becomes little more than a police state – albeit it not in the guise those authors were expecting. I hope, similarly, that we don’t lose the ability to really interact with others as The Surrogates predicts.
With that in mind, I’m off to go out to a tiny village outside of LAMB to see my adopted daughter who is very nearly ready to give birth to her first child. It is an exciting time for me, not just because this will be the first time we have seen her in six months and see her ‘bump’ but also because that village – with all the mud huts and simplicity of life – is one of my favourite places on earth. There are no computers there, no laws and rules and ‘health and safety’. There’s just people – not perfect, not saints and some strong, some weak – who live and work as a community and take an interest in each other. And long may it continue.