Monthly Archives: May 2012

…Agoraphobia

Ok, so I’m not suffering from panic attacks at the thought of going outside, but I have certainly been “in” more than “out” since we’ve gotten back from Maternity leave, and those “out” moments have generally been at the American club, or the embassy itself. I’ve been to the Pizza Hut and the Nandos a few times as well. I don’t think I’ve actually been inside a store or restaurant other than those since we got back. I’ve been to the houses of 5 people other than ourselves. So, I certainly am acting like I’m agoraphobic. I am trying to decide if it’s a phobia or an apathy, a social withdrawal, or a lack of friends and invitations.

Regardless of what it is, it’s left me feeling pretty pathetic. And then, of course, silly for feeling sorry for my lonely self, when I could just go out and do something about it, right? Grr…. conundrums!

Perhaps its something else, I’ll call it oiko-pagtha (greek-ish for house and trap), the feeling of being trapped in/by the house.

When we first came to Dhaka, I was adventurous, walking hither and yon through the streets, out for hours in the heat on a search for acrylic paints, sim cards, sewing thread, cilantro, etc. It was somewhat gross, between my own sweatiness, the stink of the open sewer, and the stress of close proximity to millions of people with completely different attitudes toward personal space, but doable. Over time, however, I’ve become much more reclusive, isolated and insulated. I rarely step out of the air conditioning. I travel by car. I go to only a few places. I have become the insoluble expat that I never wanted to become. I am embarrassed of myself.

In the post research process, I wanted to live in a place where I could really immerse myself in the culture, and we rated posts with compounds and fishbowl communities low. When we were planning to come, I read all about the possible sites and adventures possible here (limited, yes, compared to some countries, but there are some). Where did that person go? Is it Dhaka or is it me? If I  am really trapped in my home, it is a prison of my own making, of course. But, is it too late to find a way out?

With less than 4 months to go, many other FS-types have a bucket list of things to do before they go “wheels up.” Am I even interested in a Dhaka bucket list (and what would be on it that I haven’t already done?)? Had the frustration with the traffic and the general inaccessibility of everything in this town finally done me in?

So, perhaps, both apathy and apagtha. A trap of my own making that I am am not yet motivated to break free of.

Advertisements

…Clothing Swap

Over the past weekend, I hosted a clothing swap party at my house. I was a little nervous about how many people might show up, since I’d gotten RSVP’s from complete strangers and people outside the embassy, but we had a completely manageable crowd that fit into our living rooms nicely.

If you’ve never been to a clothing swap, everyone brings the stuff from their closet that doesn’t fit right, or that they’d loved the idea of but never really liked on themselves, etc. At the swap, there are designated areas for tops, bottoms, accessories, shoes, bags, dresses, etc. I tried to include an area for more local fashions at mine, but there weren’t many and they got snapped up so fast that there wasn’t any need for a special space for them.

I had a ton of clothes that don’t fit well any more. Between the Dhaka 15, the pregnancy and the wistfulness that lovely things I’d once worn would someday fit me again, I was a bit of a clothes hoarder. So, in the spirit of purging, I got rid of all of that stuff. Some of it was pretty popular, so I was happy to see it going to new homes.

Since there aren’t many shops where you can buy western clothes here, it was a good chance to get some new things for the wardrobe, and have a chance to try them on first (unlike internet shopping).

I came away with a few blouses, 2 bracelets made for people with giant wrists (yeah!), and a lovely scarf. I was happy with how it turned out. Some people brought really fancy things, I guess I have high quality friends.

…Medicine

This is part of my hindsight series, on things I would have packed if I had known how useful they’d be. Medicine is, of course, available here, but is often tainted or incorrectly labelled. There’s a reliable pharmacy in Gulshan 1, and probably other places, but having a stockpile of over the counter drugs is helpful, especially on Sundays, when Gulshan’s shops are closed. If, however, you want medicine that would be prescription-only in the US, you can often buy it without a prescription in the pharmacies, just know the generic name for it and order up!

We’ve been blessed by the dreaded Dhaka-itis several times. It takes many forms. In the winter, when they burn the trash and a smoky haze settles around the city, many people develop a harsh, phlegmy cough. Thankfully, I wasn’t one of those happy few. In other seasons, Dhaka-itis might be more gastro-intestinal: you pick up giardia, salmonella, e. coli, and even hepatitis relatively easy here, though the last is predominantly a threat if you eat outside the diplomatic bubble. One of our community members is particularly prone to the tummy bugs, getting horridly sick every month or so. The Mr.A and I go for a 6-8 week cycle, I think.

So, you might think my advice would be to bring Immodium. But it’s not! A lot of these parasites, bugs, etc. need to be purged from your system, not held in. The doctor almost never advises Immodium (never has for either of us Adventures), but he does advise rehydration and Pepto. I thought we had a pretty good stock of Pepto (even though Mr.A. had never had it before!), and brought about 100 chewable tablets. It wasn’t enough for the 2 of us. So, in hindsight, I would have packed about twice the number. We bought some here and ordered some more from the states.

Oral rehydration solution is so necessary to public health here, that it’s available in all major stores and mini-markets for less than pennies. The embassy doctor dispenses it like candy, so we always have a few lying around. The taste is horrid and salty, so if you’re coming with kids, you might want to mix it in juice, or bring something like powdered pedia-lyte. They say the saltiness isn’t noticeable when you’re really dehydrated. I’ve been there, it’s true, it tastes good when you’re really really sick.

Our other #1 medicine has been Tylenol (paracetamol, acetaminophen). We bought an industrial sized bottle at Costco, and have gone through it all, even though we were gone in the states for 4 months. We get a lot of headaches, fevers, etc. We have Excedrin and ibuprophen, but turn to the Tylenol more often, probably because it was the only thing I could take while pregnant.

Allergy medicine hasn’t been as necessary as we thought it would be. There aren’t many plants here that we’re allergic too. But, Benadryl has helped me get through a very itchy night or two when the mosquito bites had been too much for me. (I’m like a mosquito magnet, though…). If you’re allergic to mold, you’ll need your medicine, as there is obviously a lot of mold in this very humid place.

Speaking of mosquitos, DEET helps. All natural bug sprays/lotions aren’t so useful, at least not for this magnet, but they’re better than nothing. You can’t mail these, or take them in the aircraft cabin, so plan accordingly. The commissary has some bug sprays, but not always the most intense kinds.

I also bought some anti-itch lotion. It’s mostly methol water, but boy, is  it brilliant. Those mosquitos really do love me. It’s a miracle I haven’t had dengue yet.

I also recommend cortizone (skin issues are common because of the water issues), flouridated toothpaste, vitamins and possibly an anti-fungal. We’ve not had any need for anti-fungals, but there are some men in the community who do, apparently, so if you’ve ever had issues, bring it.

Again, all of this is available, if you want to put in the effort to hunt for it, but if you’re packing your HHE and can find it readily at the grocery store, that will be way easier than traipsing all over town to 3 or 4 stores to look for something.

…Lingua Franca and Pax Romana

I’ve been musing about English today, inspired by a friend’s grad school work on language as a framer of the mind, and my own doctoral work on discursive democracy, so this post is outside my blogging norm, apologies to those looking for highlights from Dhaka….  

There are two grocery stores here which are right across the street from each other. Sometimes, I’ll give directions to one of them by referring to the other. Why? Because one operates under the name Agora, written in the letters English speakers are used to, but the other, Nandan, with its different selection of goods, is signed only in Bangla letters, and are therefore completely unintelligible to most people whose first language is English, or anyone who uses other non-Bangla alphabets. So, if I want to tell someone how to get to Nandan, I say it’s across from Agora.

One of the most convenient aspects of life in Dhaka, as compared to the life of an American in many other countries that do not natively use a Latin alphabet, is that English is so common. It advertises, it explains, it reports. To the ear, the English used can be unintelligible at times, particularly when the speaker is a street vendor or is speaking the Bangla-fied English hybrid that is popular among the younger set in Dhaka. However, the written version alone is enough to make shopping and navigating relatively easy (barring the insanity of traffic and other chaos).

English is, of course, the Lingua Franca of the day. Some day that honor may go to Mandarin, and on to another language, but English’s flexibility gives is a bit of an edge over some other candidates for the position. Of course, English is also notoriously difficult, because of its flexibility and its enormous lexicon viz. the other languages of the world.

Some jobs with the State Department (in embassies abroad) require what is known as a “5” in English (5 being the highest score possible on a DoS written or spoken language test for any language). It’s the running joke among language students that it’s impossible to get a 5, even in your native language. There is, unfortunately, no official DoS language test for English (that I know of), so we’ll never know if it’s really possible or not to get a 5 in English.

Where is this all taking me? First to that common complaint that Americans never know the language of the country they are visiting and expect everyone to speak English. Now, I agree, it is silly to expect everyone will speak English, and that shouting loudly will help non-English speakers understand you. But, in a way, the assumption is true. Many people around the world do speak English, or at least understand it enough to help you find the bathroom or buy a souvenir. English is the language which Germans and Spaniards use to travel in distant countries. We (the happy travellers) have been trained to expect that someone will understand English, if we look hard enough. More complicated words, and more modern words, are English, even if they’ve been adopted by the local language (e.g. Internet, which some non-English speakers don’t think of as an English word).

Second, philosophically, language is also the tool which defines the way we think internally. Language learning is encouraged because it gives us insight into other cultures, which may be limited in their ability to conceive of certain ideas because there are no words or, especially, grammatical forms that describe the concept in their language, or which may have a deeper and richer conception of something than we do, because we lack the words or grammar. Some languages, for instance, have no poetry. Others are all poetry. In some, the fight for gender equality, or democracy, will be nearly impossible because the language has no ability to describe and account for such things.

But, English does, more or less. English language training to non-English speakers is a tool of spreading these ideals of the Anglophone world. Few learners will achieve the linguistic heights necessary to understand philosophy or critical theory written in English, but they do learn alternative patterns of thought, alternative pictures of how ideas are put together, along with the content material of the lesson. It is possible that English grammar trains the brain to think in ways that are more democratic, or more something, than some other language might.

Of course, I cannot claim that English alone would spread these ideas, but it might. There are many reasons we fund English education as a tool of diplomacy. But, questions of imperialism, colonialism, and outsourcing aside… If everyone spoke English, or some other common language, would we have a modern world Pax?

I think not. Like the tower of Babel, the attempt to achieve this global peace is impossible because of its hubris. Homogeneity is not the key to peace. Diversity and disagreement done in a civil (though not necessarily a quiet or orderly) discourse is a real, dynamic peace. Even among English speakers, we all speak a different, personal dialect of the wider language. Yet, how can we speak to each other if we all have different languages, words, and grammatical (mental) frameworks? Each time we speak, we develop a new language together; we share meanings and words, even if we disagree on the content, effects and ideas related to them. Then, we go out, discussing with others, creating new words and new meanings, changing the language we each speak, subtly refining our understandings of the words and meanings.

This only happens, of course, if we are allowed the opportunity to speak with others. As I alluded to before, in some cultural-linguistic groups, dialogue is restricted by having dialect or grammar particular to a social class, gender, or region. That, I suppose, might be the best argument in favor of English (and it’s relatively democratic grammar) education.

Thoughts?

 

…Solidarity and Honesty

The theme of the upcoming FS Blog Round-up is honesty. This is written in response to the theme.

My readers, predominantly my friends and family who know me in real life (as well as a strangely large number of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), sometimes ask me why I haven’t written on X, Y, or Z. There are a couple of reasons.

Re: X

I don’t like to take pictures of strangers. I especially don’t like to include pictures of people on my blog who I have not obtained permission, particularly of people who don’t know they’re being illustrated here. Thus, I don’t have many photos of local clothes, local people doing daily things, etc. Sometimes when I pass a particularly colorful, or particularly odd, or particularly pathetic (using pathos in its strictest sense) person or event, I think… mmm… this would be interesting on the blog. But, to me, it would just be a kind of surrogate voyeurism, so I don’t.  Other bloggers are braver, and willing to approach people to request a photo, but not me.

Re: Y

Stephen King criticizes writing workshops for teaching that there are two kinds of writers: those who write for and from themselves, and those who write to create an audience. However, there is some merit to the distinction, even if it creates really horrid literature. Bloggers are stereotypically thought of as the first, navel gazers who publish their narcissist musings. (Ok, maybe this describes the MySpace teen blogger best). There are also those bloggers out there who have a giant following, and make a living off of their crowd-appeal. And then there are those, like me, who write something rather bland, neither self-absorbed ramblings nor really gripping literature.

Why? It’s a combination of fearfulness and pride, I suppose. There’s always the fear of sounding like an idiot, of course. I don’t want my friends and family to worry about me, so I don’t blog about how often I get giardia or other debilitating diseases. I don’t want to expose too much of ourselves to those readers who are not of our friends and family, because “you never know…” (And, boy does the State Dept. drill the fear of internet security into us, paranoia of who might be reading) And, speaking of paranoia, I don’t want to talk too much about Mr. Adventure’s job and life in the embassy, because I don’t want to kibosh his career. In a job where security clearances and corridor reputations matter, the internet persona you portray can have real effects on both advancement and even retaining your job.

Re: Z

I’m not sure why I don’t write more about Z. I am thinking of taking my current job free-lance/self-employed when we move later this year, so I may start a whole ‘nuther blog and website when I do. I think I don’t write about Z because it is truly quite dull, unless you’re in the market for it, and then you’s want to know how much I charge, what my background is, and whether I’m any good at what I do. I am. But you wouldn’t know it from this blog.

But what does all this alphabetic nonsense have to do with the subject of this post?

Essentially, as a blogger, I got all verklempt this morning. A bit of a crisis/amusing-if-it-weren’t-real censorship issue arose in relation to a fellow Foreign Service Blogger, and I was one of the pieces behind the scenes that enabled a quick response. A solidaristic response, for wont of a better adjective. About a year ago, I started a Facebook group for Foreign Service bloggers (send me your FB account name if you want to join), I’m the admin now, but I’m kind of a behind the scenes type, compared to some of the big names out there in blog-dom. The group has been the most active FB group I’ve ever been in, and people are constantly in contact with each other, coordinating themed posts, suggesting topics, giving each other support both blog-related and life-related. It’s a great experience. There are members who write family blogs, craft and work blogs, and members who write blogs that challenge the status quo, both IRL and pseudonymously.

The group is, in fact, a tool of virtual solidarity, a way in which we who are so far-flung can actually live in community. FS bloggers share a social identification which unites us, a shared work, a shared lifestyle. We have different jobs, different statuses, different roles in our families and posts, but in our on-line community we’ve found an interconnectedness and a support network that was unexpected to me when I began blogging. We are free to be bold, edgy or bland, and we are free to speak those things which we can’t share with others outside the community. Which brings me back to Z. Before I became what was once known as a “trailing spouse,” I was a community theorist, an occasional consultant on community, a PhD in democracy, religion and especially virtual communities. Which you wouldn’t necessarily know about me from here, or from what I do on a day to day basis.

But, in all honesty, I am really proud of myself this week, even though I didn’t take a stand, or even a leap, and don’t really deserve to be prideful in anyway. I’m proud that online communities are legitimately communities (Yeah for Dissertation affirmation!), and that I was the impetus in starting one. Hopefully karma won’t hunt me down and throw lightning bolts at me for my hubris (to mix metanarratives on you).

 

…Appliances and Appurtenances

What is that thing? Foreign houses often have some unusual, to American eyes, objects and doodads in them. Here are a few that are in our house in Dhaka:

What’s the strange whirring noise in the kitchen? Why is there no room in the cupboard under your sink/next to your fridge/etc.? It’s your giant 110v power converter. There’s a fused switch somewhere to turn it on and off, ours happens to share a circuit with the 220v microwave, so there’s a lot of turning on and off. It’s great to have built in to the kitchen for all your American-scaled appliances. It’s not going to run your clocks right, and will still be “hard” on your heating elements, but you can use it for your blenders, etc. It’s just like the little heavy blue ones, but sturdier.

The water distiller, to keep your body free from Giardia and Cholera. Ours is on the laundry porch, because this beast is a heat-making machine. You’re supposed to clean it every 5 gallons. We use 5 gallons nearly every other day. If you don’t clean it, you get bacterial growth. We didn’t clean it. Oops. 3 weeks of being sick.

The ubiquitous squatty potty. Even when they’re clean, they don’t really look it. If you don’t know already, you face towards the water tank, not away. It works best if you’re in a skirt, or male, or naked. The bucket is to hold water and there’s a little cup to rinse yourself off with when you’re done, unless you have a spray hose.

The toilet hose. It’s not quite a bidet, but that’s the general idea. Also useful for washing the floor down, rinsing dirty diapers, etc. Comes in one temperature: hot. Luckily, it takes a few seconds to get hot, so you’re usually safe, just don’t let it run too long.

2 UPS batteries for the computers. Not shown are the voltage regulators, which look pretty much the same, but have a little display on the front reminiscent of 1960’s sci-fi computers.

One of three different dehumidifier styles in our house. This one turns back on after the power goes out. It also beeps to let you know it is full. That happens about 3 times a day now.

The door bell, which wouldn’t be too exciting, except that it’s an ADA doorbell, and will flash its lightbulb when the bell is pressed. If it happens when you are otherwise in the dark, it can be kind of surprising.

…Dry Goods

So, I wrote up a rant about cleaning supplies as part of my “hindsight” series, but it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. So, I didn’t post it last week, in favor of fulminating on the theme a bit. It’s still not ready, so this week, I bring you hindsight on… “Dry Goods”

What are dry goods? Back in the day, the term referred to fabric, garments, personal care tools, millinery, buttons, furnishings and fittings, etc. But, I’ll also include some of the craft, kitchen and bath items that aren’t consumable, because I’m a linguistic rebel like that. This will be a veritable ACME catalog of things.

Clothing

For women’s clothes, I thought I’d need more than I do, mostly because we have someone who comes in every day to do our laundry. I don’t actually want her to do laundry every day because it’s wasteful, but she doesn’t it anyway, and irons everything, even the underwear sometimes. I do wish I’d brought more underwear though, as it’s all starting to get bedraggled. The extra pack of athletic socks is still unopened, and I have WAY too many t-shirts. I do get to wear my favorite clothes all the time though, since they’re always clean.

There’s also those great charity sales, at which you can pick up cheap cotton knit clothing and the occasional other item (my hauls include: blouses, jeans, cords, jackets, sweaters, maternity clothes, baby clothes, polos, and heaps of shirts made of cotton knit in various styles).

Tailoring is cheap too, BUT. If you don’t have the right fabric, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is. So, bring some fabric. There are two kinds of fabric readily available here: cotton fabric of a quilting/craft weight, and silk. The first costs about $2.50/yd and the second is between $7.00 and $9.00/yd. So, not really all that cheap. Well, the silk is cheap, comparatively, but it’s mostly solid colors, or WEIRD. There is suiting too, in the men’s shops, actually, but if you want something particularly soft or stretchy, you won’t find that here. (Some tailors are talented in finding other fabrics, but it’s a bit of an ordeal where you give them a down payment, they go to the market downtown to get samples, you examine the samples and choose one or send them back for more samples, and only really works if you’re not really fabric picky. I’m really bothered by scratchy fabric, so maybe this is just a problem with me?) In sum, Nearly everyone agrees that fancy fabrics or stretchy fabrics should be brought in, if you want to get something fancy or stretchy made.

You probably will also want some kind of prototype or pattern/image to show the tailor to base your item on as well. Western clothes are not part of the women’s habille here, so you have to give them a lot to work with.

I wanted to have a western dress made of sari fabric, but that seems too avant garde for everyone I propose it too, so it hasn’t happened. Plus, many saris are just way more expensive than I thought they’d be.

I don’t have much to say about men’s clothes, perhaps the Penguin does, but he’ll have to tell me what for a later post.

Accessories

Bring hairpins, safety pins, and rolling pins (j/k). There’s loads of gold and pearls here, but nothing that doesn’t flash or glitter. The shoes are all TEEEEEENY tiny, extremely uncomfortable and glitzy. That might be good for some people, but my poor feet can’t take it. However, the streets are kinda mucky and/or dusty and/or fecal, so you’ll be trashing many of your shoes at the end of the tour, which may affect which ones you want to bring. You’ll also be fighting mold in your shoes, so YMMV.

Craft

If you sew yourself, or do any other craft, bring everything you’d ever think you need. Except, of course, the aforementioned quilting weight cotton. You can find that. I haven’t found a shop for sewing notions other than an hour away at the market for fabrics. The student shops in Gulshan 2 Circle sell single sheets of colored paper, but no construction paper, card stock, drawing, painting, artistic  or scrapbooking paper. They do sell acrylic paint in the basic rainbow and gold and silver, brushes and wall paint. There are no notebooks/sketchbooks other than very slim elementary school notebooks. No yarn (other than a tiny bit at that same fabric market, but its soooo far). There are no tools other than basic crayons pencils, sharpeners, and scissors, and all of those are only at the grocery store, Lavender. There are some twee stationary things at the Korean market, but I’ve been pretty unsuccessful at finding much of anything. I guess if you wanted to learn basketry, there might be some reeds in the marsh you could pick and dry, but that’s a bit extreme. There’s also a “mall” in Banani I’ve never been in because it looks like the #1 place to die in a fire or earthquake, there may be something there.

 

And, since the last two aren’t technically “Dry Goods,” I’ll just list the crucial things I’m remembering right now:

Kitchen

I really meant bring a rolling pin. No one here makes pies or rolled cookies, so if you don’t have one, you’ll want one. Oven thermometer (unreliable gas pressure). Kitchen scale. Parchment paper or a Sil-Pat (though saran wrap and aluminum foil are available at the commissary). Clear pitchers for water and juice (which are mostly available frozen). Smaller tupperware. Kitchen appliances that are NOT/NOT digital, as the power goes out all the time. You really want things that have dials and knobs, so that they’ll come back on when the generator kicks in, especially your slow cooker.

You don’t need a lot of plastic things, as there are tons of plastic vendors here, for trash cans, laundry baskets (in the perfect for we-do-laundry-every-day sizes), wash tubs, opaque pitchers, large tupperware, dish drying racks.

Bathroom

Shower Curtains and hooks (SOOO many bathrooms in every house!). More water pitchers, for purified water to brush your teeth in, you can get them here, but they’re pretty large. Anti-slip bathmats. First Aid stockpile! Bathroom scale.