Can’t afford to dwell on the anger and hopelessness and fear because it won’t help anyone, but—
I hope your gods exist, Israel, and I hope they are watching. The whole world is bearing witness to your atrocity.
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ
In better words than I could ever hope to put it:
"My “articulate” answer never goes amiss
0:48 I say “father, this is the impending problem at hand”
0:52 And when I’m on the block I switch it up just because I can
0:55 So when my boy says, “What’s good with you son?”
0:58 I just say, “I jus’ fall out wit dem people but I done!”
1:03 And sometimes in class
1:05 I might pause the intellectual sounding flow to ask
1:08 “Yo! Why dese books neva be about my peoples”
1:11 Yes, I have decided to treat all three of my languages as equals”
“I know that I had to borrow your language because mines was stolen
2:55 But you can’t expect me to speak your history wholly while mines is broken
3:00 These words are spoken
3:02 By someone who is simply fed up with the Eurocentric ideals of this season
3:07 And the reason I speak a composite version of your language
3:10 Is because mines was raped away along with my history
3:14 I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us
3:18 That our current state is not a mystery”
During the last World Cup, I was illegally hiding in a building under construction, secretly fed by my students and snuck into an office to use the internet to work on my medical school application.
I had just gotten back from taking the MCAT in Singapore (undesirably exciting long story I’ll get around to writing down someday maybe) to the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, where I found out I, along with the rest of most of my coworkers, had been fired. (For the unstated reason of inciting student unrest and helping them protest unfair policies—the dangers of hiring people drawn to fostering leadership in women!)
All of my fellow teachers were out of the country on summer vacation—I was the first one back, there to move into a new apartment before I too would start traveling for the summer. But the new apartment would have been university housing, so now I had no place to go, and our old building was under construction, halfway demolished.
Part of the Singapore/MCAT fiasco was that my passport and a large chunk of money I had been traveling with was stolen, and the other half I had used to buy a new passport and travel fare, and without access to my paycheck or a current credit card (the mailing system never quite managed to deliver a new one from my bank in America and I didn’t think I’d need it for the rest of my stay enough to start an account there), I didn’t exactly have the option of paying for somewhere to stay. So I did the reasonable thing—lock the doors to my old apartment and hide out, not answering construction workers who kept knocking and trying to come in to start working on this side of the building, and eating whatever the roommate and I had left in the fridge uneaten for most of the year—once a day meals of frozen dumplings or spaghetti with ketchup.
The buildings nearby were also under construction, so hackable wireless signals dropped away one by one, and my laptop screen had decided to stop working unless I held it in place and jiggled it just so, hoping to get the right angle. So I would write parts of my personal statement or fill out forms blindly, then angle the screen to read over it to see if there were any mistakes. Luckily, I am excellent at blind typing.
At night my students would sneak me food from the cafeteria, and then sneak me into the office building (technically I wasn’t allowed to be on university premises anymore), so I could go online and work on the other parts of my application and communicate with friends abroad—I think I made everyone I have ever known that was willing edit my personal statement.
Bangladesh doesn’t have its own World Cup team, so the whole country participates in rooting for their favorite teams—there are flag wars, there are parades, there are members of the same family fighting over Argentina vs. Brazil. As the games went on throughout the night, I would be typing away in the darkened office (so the guards wouldn’t come to investigate and find me), and hearing cheers go off, not knowing which team accomplished what, but feeling that sense of communal exultation.
K’naan’s Waving Flag was on repeat in my headphones (when I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag), and in the process of articulating why I wanted to go into medicine for my personal statement, I started to feel and not just write the impact of what I was reaching for, and why. The working title of my medical school application personal statement became “they’ll call me freedom.”
It was for this community I belonged to in the cheers, the calling the people around me were trying to answer as part of a liberal arts college of students from over a dozen Asian countries focused on becoming women who are leaders in our “developing world.” It was the innovative brilliance that comes from trying to think without limits when looking for solutions to the world around us.
For my students who had started literacy classes in the slums. For the environmental awareness group we formed to make compost bins because there was no official waste disposal. Teaching dance as a way of gaining body confidence, teaching self defense because sometimes it’s necessary. Fundraising to buy a rickshaw for the homeless family living on the street in front of our driveway so they had a source of income (how proud I was that they thought not only of donating food and clothes, but also of a long term strategy that would continue to provide for the family!)
Perhaps most importantly, teaching each other to raise our voices and speak up for who we are and why we are in this state (see: thoughts on the term “developing”) and what we wanted to do about it, that the “developed world” could help with but not dictate or define.
I wanted this for us.
I wanted to grow up (a funny feeling when you’re 23) to be stronger, to be powerful enough to put weight behind these efforts the best way I knew how.
So it’s World Cup season again,* four years later, and this time I’m half MD, and possibly more importantly, a lot more of a whole person than the one who had to turn off so much of myself to focus on the practical for three years.
I’ve unpacked my luggage and I own two whiteboards and I regularly talk about my feelings, even when I don’t want to.
A little bit closer to making a difference.
*No, I’m not overlooking the human rights violations of what’s going on in Brazil to make this happen, nor am I supporting it.
ETA: I should maybe mention that after a week or so, the admin finally got to me, officially handed me my terminated contract, I had access to my money again, and one of my friends came back to the country, so I left my things with her before starting to travel throughout Bangladesh. The other teachers had to have their things shipped to them. I came back after traveling to pick up my things before moving back to the States when originally planned, by way of Europe (more stories).
I lost this when I originally posted the first photo, but found it just now in an old journal file and thought it was worth adding the words to the pictures:
was all set to hate the bus-ride up to nyc, and whenever i’m all set to hate anything is usually when it starts to turn out not so bad. the greyhound station in a2 isn’t much of an upgrade from some bus stations i’ve frequented in the slums of Dhaka—less flies, more air conditioning—unless you consider the safety thing. then it’s pretty solid. i digress—
in the process of finding somewhere to plug in my dying phone (3+ hours of rambling at indulgent friends because the bus was late) i met a girl with a mysteriously large cardboard box who knew the locations of the only functioning outlets in the room (behind the vending machine).
the box contained a bicycle. she was going to New Hampshire, then biking up to Maine for a party on the beach. she sat next to me when we got on the bus, i asked her to keep me from falling asleep and missing important stops, and we began what became a 20 hour conversation.
she had lived in L.A. last year, didn’t love it. the undergrad next to us with “Los Angeles” tattooed on the back of his neck felt the need to defend his hometown. we all talked about where we were from, where we’ve been, but surprisingly, not too much about where we were headed. LA-boy fell asleep.
bicycle-girl and i kept on.
where we’d been was easy—(“I hate buses—even after village buses in rural Bangladesh where my knees were closer to my chin, there were no windows, motion sickness was perpetual, and the dust of the road had to be washed off for a week.” "Sounds a lot like Nicaragua. Somehow it’s just more bearable when you expect it to be difficult and are too busy drinking in new things." ”Nicaragua? What was that like? I’ve never quite managed to make it to Central America.”)
where we were from (“We’ve been crossing Ohio forever, it’s like it never ends!” "I think the rest of the states go by faster, somehow. Ohio has its own gravitational well, because no one does anything but drive through here." ”I knew a guy from Ohio. He used to get really offended when I said ‘Ohio is the South’ and didn’t realize it was my equivalent of pulling pigtails or snapping bra-straps.” "Maybe he was afraid you were right." ”Compared to Michigan? Seems pretty pot-kettle.” "No one said the kettle wasn’t too insecure to see the black on pot.")
i confessed my fears of moving to her alma mater for medical school in a few months, having grown up and gone to undergrad in the rival town, (“I know stereotypes are silly but some part of me is afraid that they’ll all just be good-looking stupid people.” "Wow, that’s—I guess I’ve never looked at it from the other side, but it makes sense. At State the stereotype about Michigan is hippy, crunchy granola women." ”What, vegan nerds with unshaved legs? Armpit hair? Isn’t it funny how the people we have the most misconceptions about are the only people we have any conceptions about at all—the ones right next to us?” "Yeah, in the U.S. it’s ‘Damn Mexicans stealing our jobs!’ in Mexico, it’s the Hondurans—")
where we were going—that was where i fell in.
if you want me to fall in love with you, all you have to do is show me something you’ve created. writing, art, code—something you designed, drew, built with your hands—even the deliberate syntax of your speech if it stands out enough to be an art-form. if there’s any part of me that’s ever going to fall for any part of you—that’ll be it. that’ll be what pulls me in and makes me want to know you.
(“I used to always want to leave. Come home between months, a year, in Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, L.A., until I realized home didn’t mean where I grew up. I moved to Ann Arbor. I have furniture.”
"I think I might want furniture. Not worry that it’s just more things to carry or leave behind when I go. Sit still for a while, not forever, but somewhere you don’t have to leave until you want to.")
the sun was setting but the light felt like dawn, her hands grasping and soft and inexorable (like Diana’s, when i used to watch those first days, and wonder how she could let herself be so open—didn’t it hurt to be that earnest?—but it worked, didn’t it? my perpetual mockery thinning to transparent and my insides just as prone to puncture.) pulling words out of her chest and i stilled. the rest of the world blurred. i felt recognition, that sense of this, right now. this is important. remember this. later, when individual words fade, still remember how it felt: we understood each other.
we fell into pauses that i didn’t even notice at first—comfortable silences—i couldn’t remember the last time i had them, as meaningfully, or with someone so new. we talked about feminists, lessons from past loves, and the hesitancy with which we say “mud-huts” when describing where we’ve been, trying to get away from the connotations of primitivity, poverty, of ignorance.
at our stop in Toledo, a fellow passenger in cowboy boots and a leather jacket interrupted us while we were in line for the next bus to ask me: So do you prefer to speak your own language, or do you prefer to speak ours, American?
suspecting the man was mentally handicapped, i answered him politely, “I grew up in Michigan, and usually speak English.”
i remembered 5th grade and Candace Park ("You have barbers in Bangladesh??" “Duh, who else would cut your hair?” "I don’t know! I thought you used sharp rocks or something!") and how even though i knew she was only ten—but so was i, and i didn’t assume that people in Amazonian tribes cut their hair with sharp focks—it was hard not to project her ignorance onto everyone else i met after. maybe other people weren’t thoughtless enough to say “sharp rocks” but plenty of “intelligent” and otherwise perfectly rational adults have said worse things since then.
(“My mom works at Kellog. In Ecuador, my friend and I managed to tag along with a group of anthropologists who were going to meet an Amazon tribe. We got off the truck and this little kid came running out, in this Frosted Flakes t-shirt. Kellog. I felt like my life had come full circle. [..] before we left, they all went off for a while, and came back dressed in traditional wear. All the anthropologists and everyone started taking pictures with them—”
"—Facebook profile pictures!"
"For a long time, I had a hard time imagining Americans—especially the white middle to upper class Americans of stereotype—being in the third world situations. Teaching at AUW was the first time I saw Westerners in those settings, and though many weren’t enthusiastic about them, there were some who COULD deal with it.”)
i realized that in my head, despite all my academic dissections of race, I had paired people by colors and privilege to the extent that it was hard to imagine them separately, to imagine a white person being as comfortable in “poor” surroundings as a nonwhite person, completely bypassing the fact that the unfamiliarity probably has a lot to do with where a person grows up—that a poor white person may have more familiarity with poverty than rich brown people—and that other factors than race contribute to their behavior. no, in my immigrant mind, it had been divided along skin color because that was what defined my own existence.
and not only that—i knew, but hadn’t bothered to articulate before that lack of exposure and ability to cope with conditions may result from having had privilege, but privilege does not equate to superiority or entitlement. (the way in feudalism the concept of “nobility” ties owning land and titles with behavior—being “noble” and “good”.) it seems obvious, but to put it explicitly: being privileged doesn’t mean one is entitled to privilege. No human being is more entitled than any other. now it was suddenly important to say it with those words, after the white boy from Ohio who lived in India for a year and didn’t seem to realize his travelling didn’t make him an authority on the experience of Indians.
probably a classic case of internalized discrimination, but once pinpointed, it made all the difference to my worldview. i still feel a disconnect in being able to communicate my moderately privileged Bangladeshi context to my (predominantly white) American social and academic context, but i no longer feel as insecure, isolated, or defensive about it.
this is crucial because i often end up having to “represent” to a socioacademic world of incoming medical students whose facebook profile pictures are more likely than most to include poor African/Asian/Hispanic “ethnic” children they met while abroad doing “charity” work, of photography in respectable publications like National Geographic and the New York times that so easily pairs people into the same race/class/gender slots that i’m still shaking myself out of.
(Side note: this Where Children Sleep article has been making the rounds, and a friend finally helped me put into words what about it makes me uncomfortable—the reinforcing of class/region groupings with emotionally provocative images (good photography!) and no effort whatsoever to acknowledge the limitedness of the lens’ scope. Polarizing farther views already so pervasively present. Yes, this is part of the picture, but a shack shared by a family in Phnom Penh is not the same as a home of someone in the Kraho tribe in the Amazon, and their relationship to the children photographed in their large suburban bedrooms is not just one of economic difference that should incite pity as if the ultimate goal is for us all to attain these suburban bedooms.
at about 4am, an hour outside of New York, traffic came to a stand-still for two hours due to an accident. we took a walk between the cars. people came out to lie on their hoods, on the roof, even lie on the asphalt and stare at the stars in the nearly complete dark. at dawn we shared homemade fruit and granola bars (her vegan roommate) and smiled fuzzily at Amish girls who passed us at the nearby gas-station.
i’ve been enough people’s manic pixie dreamgirl to have proper derision for the trope—but maybe it’s all good since i’m waxing lyrical over this finite set in time, a closed interaction, an incident, not a stereotyping film-loop.
just one more thing on which we’ll grow.
Most of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother have been unspoken demonstrations—sometimes by omission, sometimes with direct contradictions to what’s said in words. It has taken many years to even realize this hidden language exists, let alone try to decipher it.
I noticed when my sixth grade science teacher told me that ladies speak quietly and sit with their legs closed instead of straddling their chairs, that my mother had said no such thing. I’m sure she expects that I know how to be demure when it benefits me, but I finished college by the time I heard her admit to someone else:
I wanted a daughter who could raise her voice and defend herself.
And so here I am. I know how to minimize unwanted attention, but I know even more to raise my voice for a world that doesn’t police my body and behavior while the men around me never have to think about it the same way.