If you look carefully at my right hand, you’ll see my fingernails are yellow. I have not picked up a ferocious smoking habit, nor have I resumed my natural fabric dyeing pass time (though I am extremely inspired to do so when I return to NYC), the yellow is due to the fact that I’m eating a lot of turmeric and I am eating it with with my hands–or my right hand to be exact. Now, almost a month into my Bangladeshi experience, I can eat in about twice the time it takes a native. The trick, I’ve learned, is to:
- kind of scrunch the food into a small pile and push it together a bit with your thumb so the rice, dal, and other good things come together,
- scoop a bite or two size of it into your right hand and raise it to your mouth, with your fingers pointed together (tai chi friends who may read this prattle: like a single whip right hand upside down! and, hi, i miss you!) and scrape your thumb against your palm and fingers to push the food into your mouth.
The last bit was a revelation and everything moved much faster once I learned how to push!
In fact, keeping interactions on the right side is a big thing here. Eating, drinking, shaking hands, giving money, handing someone something must all be done with the right hand. I am still adjusting to this and have probably inadvertently offended lots of people when my left came in to help get something done. I asked one of my friends if anyone is ever cursed by being born left-handed or is everyone right handed and it just takes some people longer to get with the program (haha). One woman told me that sometimes people are born left handed and they are trained to learn to write with the right hand. In fact there are children’s pants with a special pocket in the back for the child to put his or her left hand so they are not tempted to use it when eating, writing, or handing things to people.
In addition to eating like a Bangladeshi, I am trying to speak like one, too. Over the past weeks, I’ve been taking Bangla classes and recently came to a point in the curriculum where the sentence “I have a family” or “I don’t have a family” came up. This never comes up in English, but it’s a thing here, I guess. My sweet teacher asked me if I was married and I said “no” and she said, “OK, you have no family.” I suddenly felt like a character in a Woody Allen movie in an aside like he used to do in the 70’s and said, “Wait a second! I have aunts and uncles and cousins and many, many friends who I love with my whole heart and are family to me….so I do have a family…”, but this didn’t matter and still my response to that question was to be “Amar poribar nai (I have no family)”. You have to make it to say it in Bangla, I guess.
Switching to the other hand now, it seems like norms about women and their marital status in Bangladesh are changing. I picked up a report on child marriage in Bangladesh and was alarmed to read that child marriage still continues in rural areas. I was encouraged to read that mechanisms like birth registries that credibly establish a person’s age and public awareness campaigns are now in place to mitigate this issue, but it will be at least another 10 years before we will know whether these efforts will diminish this terrible practice effectively.
On a note that hit closer to home, when I went to the lowlands two weeks ago, my tour guide noticed my unadorned left hand and recounted the fact that women over 30 are pretty much destined to be single forever because men are waiting to get married and when they do get married, they want women in their early 20’s who need to be guided through life. He told me of a particular friend who was in her early thirties, had a master’s degree and had no prospects of marriage and probably wouldn’t. If I hadn’t needed his help to place me safely on a bus back to Dhaka, I would have quickly looked in my Bangla dictionary for some special words that fully reflected my POV on his opinion.
When I recounted this tale to my colleagues in Dhaka, they laughed and said that this was not the case in cities. Many women are pursuing education and careers and then looking into the possibility of marriage in (gasp) their ancient late twenties and early thirties. I certainly hope this is the case. The women I’ve met here are warm, inquisitive, eager to learn, and extremely clever. Sheryl Sandberg, opportunity abounds over here!