In the past week, I have managed to flip off two Bangladeshi men who I was trying to tell “thank you” and “good job” to with a very American thumbs up. I don’t know why I’ve resorted to this mode of communication, as I wasn’t one to really whip out the opposable digit before, but to my detriment I’ve been very thumb happy here. Only recently did my brother kindly inform me that in Bangladesh, it’s the equivalent of giving someone the bird. While an unfortunate lesson to learn in this sweet country, it’ll be my little secret weapon when I get back to the states. Mine and all three readers of this blog (Hi, Mom! Let’s Skype this weekend).
As my Bangla is lacking (existence), I’ve had a lot of time to think about language here. And as someone who is planning to go to grad school to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, it’s something that should be on my mind. It’s been an invaluable experience to be reminded of the tremendous effect that being understood can have on a person — the connection that occurs and transformative power that is found and felt in a moment when one truly feels heard. And in turn, the awkwardness, frustration and loneliness that sets in when one is not.
On Sunday, I visited a remote village in Mymensingh, where I was asked to gather stories of how Habitat homes have changed the lives of those who have partnered with the organization there. Even though I had a translator present to help with the interviews, his English was somewhat limited and difficult to understand at times, leaving me to rely on short, simple words and a lot of smiling. The assignment was taxing, but worth the reminder of the actions, desires and challenges that unite us all, in spite of language and socioeconomic barriers.
I’ve found that phrases I’ve unconsciously collected through the years — “Use your words,” “Say what you mean, and mean what you say,” “Shoot the puppy” — have resurfaced in my daily mindset and approach to conversations here. Relax, PETA supporters and friends with furry loved ones. In journalism, “shoot the puppy” refers to painfully letting go of a part of your story that you love, but know is not essential to the piece; its presence would distract the reader or weaken the overall impact of the story, so you edit it out. It’s been fascinating to discover what I’ve managed to learn, communicate and understand without my puppy, Sarcasm, in Bangladesh. In the U.S., where I’m conveniently able to share an abundance of words with those around me, often very little is actually said in some ironically verbose conversations.
The other day, a coworker of mine at Habitat pointed out that the street kids in Dhaka, who tug on your shirt and heartstrings and mill about the cars and rickshaws begging for money, never really learn how to use or understand future tense. What they’re able to scrape together in a day, they have to use for food or other essentials in the same breath. They can’t save, because they run the risk of getting mugged. Planning or talking about tomorrow is a foreign concept; there is only now. A sad reality for sure, but one that those of us who live comfortably manage to forget actually applies to us as well.
For all, there is no day but today to say what you mean and mean what you say, so shoot the puppy and use your words.