Discovering "Southern Hospitality" in Bangladesh

Our WorldTeach volunteers around the globe have experienced surprisingly cordial receptions and heartwarming generosity from their host communities, and Bangladesh is no different. Below, WorldTeach volunteer Michelle Kaczmarek writes about Bangladesh's own brand of "southern hospitality."

Something I am still figuring out, but have already reaped the benefits of is this notion of Bangladeshi hospitality. While I have yet to prove whether or not this is country specific or may just be a characteristic of this general region of the world, it has become something that not only has made me feel at home but has really appreciate the country that I decided to spend a year in.

Perhaps it could even be an attribute of countries in general who have yet to adapt to the cold shoulder of capitalism, however, I like to think it is a trait that is particularly Joy Bangla. As I have become closer to the people in this country and have started to enmesh myself in the local scene a.k.a. venture outside the walls of my apartment and make friends1, I still can not hide my surprise at the treatment I have received by people who most of the time barely know me and yet feel inclined to treat me as family.

It started with an Iftar meal with some shop owners at Mimi Mart. Then it continued with our Bangla tutor, Facebook, chats about family and cooking lessons (although this one might not really count because she was on our payroll). Later it escalated with a trip to Silhet and Srimangal where our tour guide not only befriended us (to the point that he later travelled from this faraway province to visit us for the day down in Chittagong and maybe, maybe looked into some job prospects after it all), but a university employee's family also took us in and served us an entire Eid meal. It may have been hard to draw the line there, but at least the intentions seemed to be in the right place. Probably, most memorably, I remember the glow of local charm because of another Eid invite from our favorite waiter from our favorite local restaurant. Now, this most definitely is something that would not occur in the states. No matter how many times my family went to Casa di Pizza and ordered from Mary, we never visited her home. And even though our local sushi friends may notice when the absent member of the family (that would be me) is home for break, they have yet to cook us a Japanese feast in their home.

See, this invite, mind you it came from some one we first knew because he waited our table, not only was for dinner, but it came to include an entire day out in his village. He had his brother-in-law pick us up at our house and he drove us to their village that was more than an hour away. He then preceded to introduce us to his entire family, not to mention the rest of the village. We had tea, superb meeshti, fresh fruit, and some of the most amazing pasta with tomatoes and a secret ingredient that I will guess at: ketchup (they did know we were Americans). We were given a tour of his house, his father's house, and all of the family quarters. Then, after all of this we visited the homes of his childhood friends where we received more tea and food, and then were invited to come back any time, only this time as their guests -- this was an offer that took place within minutes of meeting us. And, they were serious, this wasn't just the American formality of politeness, because Bangladeshis rarely do this, at least to my knowledge. They seem to always mean what they say, which sometimes can cause complications because when we don't do this, they really can't understand. At this point, we haven't even hit lunch yet. After all of this running around, they took us to visit the beach and pointed out the shipyards and explained the planting process for rice. Only after this and a photo shoot did they take us back to lunch which was really too much. Daal, chicken, veggies and a lesson in how to properly eat with our hands. But that wasn't the end, because then we went on an excursion to a local Hindu temples and we arrived home at dark -- at last.

[photo courtesy of Jess Barrow]

Currently, I am contemplating the ways to repay these effortless welcomes, and coming up with nada. One of the woman at the university who cooked a feast a weekend or two ago and then lent us her in-house tailor for our saris and shalway kami comes around every now and again to say hello; (before this feast I had yet to meet her) but besides inviting her to come share tea with us or asking her how work is going, I'm not quite sure how to go about reciprocating the filling kindness she has showered upon us. Our waiter who just this last week organized a doi phuchka field trip definitely deserves a home cooked meal, but I am pretty sure nothing coming out of my oven can compare to anything that was on the table in his village. Do we invite his whole family, or just his wife and him, the baby, the grandfather? And even though I extended an invite to Chittagong to just about every house that opened its doors to me in Dhaka, its just an encouragement and hopeful invitation at this point. We don't have a spare pillow let alone a bed, or food.

WorldTeach has recently opened its newest summer program in Bangladesh, focused on teaching the arts. It departs in late May 2011-- check it out!

[photo courtesy of Jess Barrow]

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