Oh, Bangladesh. To unpack this country is the stuff of lifetimes. But let’s begin with this: Bangladeshis are a curious lot. And there are a lot of them, as in 150 million or so, all living in a country the size of the state of Wisconsin.
Bangladesh doesn't get many foreign visitors, either. So if you do drop in and take a walk just about anywhere, chances are that you’ll be swamped in humanity. (God forbid that you actually stop moving, for you might not be able to move again.)
And people will ask many questions — that help them learn about us and that we believe say much about their culture. So we offer images of a few of the people we’ve met, the questions they’ve asked, and the way they’ve asked them.
1. Your country? Japan?
The Bangladesh version of “Where are you from?” echoes from rickshaws to shop fronts, from juice stands to lean-tos.
It took a while to get used to the drive-by nature of this question. People would emerge from out of nowhere, ask “Your country?” and disappear into the crowds even before they’d gotten an answer.
Bangladeshis would also often guess or offer “Japan?”
To which I wonder: Does this mean I'm turning Japanese?
Or maybe I just take a lot of photos?
2. What is your name?
“Audrey” confounds. A struggle for all to absorb and repeat her name. To make life easier next time in Bangladesh, she’s “Asmani.”
“Daniel” is also subject to occasional mangling, but is usually easy enough to yield sighs of relief.
Note to future parents: If you’d like to know whether the name you're considering for your child is travel-friendly, we're here to help.
3. What is your academic qualification?
Another result of British-dominated formal English instruction.
In a country like Bangladesh where education is highly valued and pieces of paper with acronym-laden distinctions are prized, this is an important “I'm trying to figure you out” data point. What you study and whether and where you go to university in Bangladesh (and often times around the world) sets a path for the rest of your life.
Our degrees in economics seem to be widely accepted as a “good degrees.”
4. What is your occupation?
Yikes. Good question even for the native English speaker.
Things like “blogger, writer, photographer, website developer” get blank stares.
After all this, we’ve realized that most Bangladeshis don’t really want to know what we actually do, but rather in which category we do it: NGO, government, military, teaching, business. Having said that, I’m still not certain in which occupation box we belong.
“Business,” however, gets nods of approval all ‘round and moves the conversation on.
5. What is your relation?
Husband. Wife. Married.
Looks of surprise. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that – particularly to Bangladeshis – we do look a bit alike. However, we suspect this has more to do with how we interact with one another and how we engage with people somewhat equally. In the local context – a conservative and predominantly Muslim one – we do not behave in public as a typical Bangladeshi married couple might.
While most people are excited and often relieved to hear that we're married, I’ve noticed more than a few disappointed faces amongst guys when they find out Audrey is not available.
6. Do you have children? How long have you been married?
Oy, vey. Can we just skip this one? What a tangled web we’ve woven here.
When Bangladeshis hear, “No children,” they’ll follow it up by asking the length of our marriage. In response to this, we’ve been reduced to fibs, shrinking our married life from over ten years to one or two years.
When people hear ten years married and without children, we become the object of their pity. A line of questions suggesting “Who is the problem?” follows, along with advice regarding fertility testing, impotence, home remedies and even surgical procedures.
In Bangladesh, the concept of choosing to wait to have children or choosing not to have children at all does not compute. In this, our white lie saves a bit of discomfort and confusion – that is, until someone shouts “Honeymoon!”
I don’t even want to think what they’d have in store for that.
7. Have you been to Cox's Bazar?
Cox’s Bazar, the site of the longest continuous natural stretch of beach in the world (120 km), is the premier vacation spot for Bangladeshis. Even Bangladeshis who've never been demand that we go.
If Bangladeshi people could put the same energy and focus into road safety that they put into promoting Cox's Bazar, perhaps I wouldn’t fear my own death on a road trip there.
8. What is your mother-in-law like?
Shanta, a woman who befriended us on a cross-country train trip, asked Audrey this one. It was one of the first questions she asked and she delivered it with a measure of urgency.
Shanta was relieved (as was I) when Audrey responded that her mother-in-law was very nice and that they got along well.
Why is any of this important in Bangladesh?
It remains common practice that newly married couples move into the husband's family home. The mother-in-law is like the queen of the house. She wields some power over the newlywed couple, including over some critical aspects of her new daughter-in-law’s life.
In this context, a woman’s relationship with her mother-in-law can be make or break.
An example of the power a mother-in-law can have: Audrey asked Shanta whether she planned to work after attending university and getting married. Shanta's response: “I hope so. It depends on my future mother-in-law. She decides. But I am lucky because she is kind. I think she will allow me to work.”
9. Do you have corruption in your country?
Asked rather naïvely by a young judge we met on the train.
We do have corruption in the U.S., it's just branded a bit differently and it's not quite as debilitating as the Bangladeshi variety.
To say that corruption is rife and possibly the single greatest issue affecting – and holding back – Bangladesh is not only our opinion, but also that of a wide swathe of people from across the socioeconomic spectrum. On this topic, Bangladeshis certainly seemed in agreement.
10. Are you Muslim?
Also a popular question. Approximately 90% of Bangladesh is Muslim. So Islam is one of the primary cultural influences on Bangladeshi society and culture.
Audrey was caught off-guard the first time she was asked by an older man dressed in traditional Muslim attire: “Are you Muslim?”
She answered, “No.”
“Oh, that’s OK,” He responded.
Refreshingly open: That anyone could be Muslim, and that someone in Bangladesh could also not be Muslim.
And that this was all OK.
What are some of the more unusual questions you've been asked in your travels?