The “Expat Bubble” vs. The “Aristocratic Dome”

“What about the taxes?” asked one of the students. It was my last day of talks at the American International School in Dhaka. I was in the middle of recounting my experience doing Cyclone Sidr Disaster Relief. Everything seemed to be going well – but this question kind of threw me off.

“Uhh… taxes?” I asked. Before the student replied, I quickly gave him one good look and realized that he – unlike most of the students in the classroom – wasn’t an expatriate. Rather, he was among the small percentage of Bangladeshis that were actually rich enough to be able to send their children to this school. Judging by the expensive and fashionable Western clothing, perfectly matching accessories, and perfectly styled hair – he was from a rather well-to-do family.

“Yeah, you see,” he started to explain, “if local families wanted to give aid to the Cyclone victims using their own name – they weren’t allowed to do so. They had to give it to the military to distribute instead. And, anything we gave could be taxed. Don’t you think that’s a problem? A lot of people didn’t give aid because of that,”

I made a slight groan underneath my breath. Find out why after the jump…

When I was first contacted by teachers at the American International School, I was warned about something called the “expat bubble”. Being inside the expat bubble – even for a few hours – can be a very surreal experience. It’s like taking a plane trip and coming to America – all without leaving the city. Many expats even have access to special secure foreigner-only grocery stores fully stocked with all the luxuries from home. With various national clubs (with imported food), the American International School (with its imported tables and chairs), and expat apartments (stocked with imported goods) – one can almost forget one is in a foreign country.

The downside, some of the teachers warned me, is that expat families can be unaware of the hardships many people face in this country (especially the poor). Quite frankly, I didn’t really find that during my time talking to various expat students at this school. They seemed to be very grounded and well rounded people. Although highly sheltered and protected from the world that they were in – they had a general idea about the situation around them. I guess it’s kind of the same way someone in Syracuse or Los Angeles can be aware and concerned about the plight of those in the third world even though they are removed from the situation.

It’s the local well-to-do families that seem to be aloof to the plight of the poor – in an almost bizarre kind of way. If foreigners can live in a sheltered “expat bubble” than many local rich and elite Bangladeshis live in something akin to an “aristocratic dome”. To my surprise, many of the local Bengali students I talked to didn’t know the poverty rate of their own country – until I told them what it was. This would explain why so many well-to-do Bangladeshis – inside the aristocratic dome – claim Bangladesh “isn’t a poor country”. And this could also possibly be why, when I was in the middle of a talk about the death, destruction, and hardship that Cyclone Sidr caused to the rural poor of Bangladesh – I was fielding questions about taxes.

In all honesty, I didn’t know the specifics about this government policy. I knew the caretaker/military-backed government had changed some things – but that didn’t stop a lot of people from donating. My grandmother, for example, spent days and days buying food, rice, clothes, and other supplies – packaging them all up – before dropping them off at the government drop-off locations. She didn’t care whether or not she got credit for her charity or whether or not she would be taxed for her donations. It didn’t matter – there were people in need. Then again, my grandmother is probably as far away as you can get from the aristocratic bubble.

Some of My Grandmother's Cyclone Sidr Relief Supplies

As I stood in front of this student whose one set of clothes was more expensive than my entire grandmother’s wardrobe, I wondered why on Earth would his question even be a legitimate concern? It made sense to have a co-ordinated relief strategy. If various wealthy families just rushed to the disaster area with their own relief – it would compound the disaster. Even with the 70 blankets I brought with me to the disaster area, I had to confirm (through the NGO I came with) to make sure there wasn’t an over abundance of such items in that particular region. If they said there was – I would have had to leave them behind in Dhaka. And, if the government did indeed allow wealthy families to donate items without taxation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a few families to dump their old hand-me-downs as an easy way of getting a huge tax-write off.

I tried my best to explain that (believe it or not) his government had everyone’s best interests in mind – only to be interrupted by another local Bengali student. “That’s not how it works,” this particular student interjected. Yes, because – God forbid – anyone speak of anything but harsh criticism for the government in power. If anything, the recent devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis and the poor response by the Burmese government should be a clear example of how the Bangladesh government did many things right. I then tried to explain that that taxes might not be so bad given that a lot of infrastructure was lost due to Cyclone Sidr – and it would fall to the local government (and not foreign countries) to repair these basic services.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to pay taxes on this” he rebutted – I could see in the periphery the few other local Bengali students were nodding in agreement.

I took one deep breath and gritted my teeth. I then pursed my lips and in the most calm school teacher voice I could produce said, “With all due respect…” I paused for a moment to try and make sure the next few words I said were G-rated. “If your biggest concern after Cyclone Sidr is paying taxes – than maybe you are better off than the rest of the people in this country.” The student started glancing away and started looking at the floor. I continued. “With over 80% of this country earning less than $2 a day – most are too poor to be taxed at all”.

“Yeah…” he said quietly. “I.. I suppose you are right”. As I turned away to answer the next question from another student – I heard the student next to him softly say. “Dude…you just got owned.

Pulling this country out of extreme poverty has little to do with popping the expat bubble, and has everything to do with breaking down the aristocratic dome.

26 Responses to “The “Expat Bubble” vs. The “Aristocratic Dome””


  1. 1 Laedelas

    Dude, nice response! It was wise for you to keep your anger in check, and hopefully this student got more than just embarrassed–hopefully he got his eyes opened as well.

  2. 2 Laedelas

    Dude, nice response! It was wise for you to keep your anger in check, and hopefully this student got more than just embarrassed–hopefully he got his eyes opened as well.

  3. 3 Laedelas

    Dude, nice response! It was wise for you to keep your anger in check, and hopefully this student got more than just embarrassed–hopefully he got his eyes opened as well.

  4. 4 girl-Jo

    well said, and i think that is the same for all South-East Asian nations atleast, and possibly for the entire world. There are lots of poor people in every developed nation of the world, yet many of them get overlooked as well.

  5. 5 girl-Jo

    well said, and i think that is the same for all South-East Asian nations atleast, and possibly for the entire world. There are lots of poor people in every developed nation of the world, yet many of them get overlooked as well.

  6. 6 Rhyan

    owned.

  7. 7 Rhyan

    owned.

  8. 8 Rhyan

    owned.

  9. 9 Lawrence Porter

    I was thinking the same thing! You def PWND him! haha

  10. 10 Lawrence Porter

    I was thinking the same thing! You def PWND him! haha

  11. 11 Owen

    What exactly was he meaning by “taxed”? The expression’s quite often used elsewhere to refer to any form of private levy by an unaccountable group with power. Do people in BD see the army as engaging in that sort of corruption? It seems possible that he was relaying an observation by the parents that if they gave to the military to distribute their donation would be “taxed” – ie the military would skim off a share for themselves that would go into private pockets rather than infrastructure or relief.

  12. 12 Owen

    What exactly was he meaning by “taxed”? The expression’s quite often used elsewhere to refer to any form of private levy by an unaccountable group with power. Do people in BD see the army as engaging in that sort of corruption? It seems possible that he was relaying an observation by the parents that if they gave to the military to distribute their donation would be “taxed” – ie the military would skim off a share for themselves that would go into private pockets rather than infrastructure or relief.

  13. 13 Shawn

    Hey Owen – good question. I should have been more clear. He was referring to regular taxes (income tax, sales tax, etc). In America, if you make a donation to a charity you can write it off on your taxes.

    If this student is correct – than the government didn’t allow such write-offs during disaster donations. And I can understand why the government would take such a stance. In an emergency disaster relief situation, it’s hard to verify what exactly (and the value of which) is being given.

    It would have been very easy for a rich family to give second hand old used clothes and then do a tax write off for brand new clothes (or worse). He was definitely referring to the lack of tax write-off options.

  14. 14 Shawn

    Hey Owen – good question. I should have been more clear. He was referring to regular taxes (income tax, sales tax, etc). In America, if you make a donation to a charity you can write it off on your taxes.

    If this student is correct – than the government didn’t allow such write-offs during disaster donations. And I can understand why the government would take such a stance. In an emergency disaster relief situation, it’s hard to verify what exactly (and the value of which) is being given.

    It would have been very easy for a rich family to give second hand old used clothes and then do a tax write off for brand new clothes (or worse). He was definitely referring to the lack of tax write-off options.

  15. 15 Shawn

    Hey Owen – good question. I should have been more clear. He was referring to regular taxes (income tax, sales tax, etc). In America, if you make a donation to a charity you can write it off on your taxes.

    If this student is correct – than the government didn’t allow such write-offs during disaster donations. And I can understand why the government would take such a stance. In an emergency disaster relief situation, it’s hard to verify what exactly (and the value of which) is being given.

    It would have been very easy for a rich family to give second hand old used clothes and then do a tax write off for brand new clothes (or worse). He was definitely referring to the lack of tax write-off options.

  16. 16 Promit Adnan

    Hahah! “you got owned”. Accurately put. The ‘aristocratic dome’ exists in every country, but to the extent it does in Gulshan and certain areas in Dhaka — is unbelievable when you think of the starking contrasts just meters away. How you end up getting kids like that — who cant even speak bengali properly let alone know whats outside their protected walls is… the definition of ridicolous. Alot is to do with the parents, who never take them outside their protected world. Not everyone of the well off are like that…but its saddening to know the kind of resources that are put into them (me included, although I’m living abroad), and the degree of knowledge and ability to takle real problems they come out of school with. I wish they had some form of scholarship system to offer Bangladesh’s brightest and best to enter that school, even if its just a few in return for agreeing they’ll do sth for the country afterwards. It would mean the difference of producing people who have no idea of whats outside the world with little or no intention of giving back, as opposed producing even a few talented and well opportuned individuals offered a chance of a lifetime to get somewhere in order to give something back, and who would do so gladly — bcs of the life they had before.

  17. 17 Promit Adnan

    Hahah! “you got owned”. Accurately put. The ‘aristocratic dome’ exists in every country, but to the extent it does in Gulshan and certain areas in Dhaka — is unbelievable when you think of the starking contrasts just meters away. How you end up getting kids like that — who cant even speak bengali properly let alone know whats outside their protected walls is… the definition of ridicolous. Alot is to do with the parents, who never take them outside their protected world. Not everyone of the well off are like that…but its saddening to know the kind of resources that are put into them (me included, although I’m living abroad), and the degree of knowledge and ability to takle real problems they come out of school with. I wish they had some form of scholarship system to offer Bangladesh’s brightest and best to enter that school, even if its just a few in return for agreeing they’ll do sth for the country afterwards. It would mean the difference of producing people who have no idea of whats outside the world with little or no intention of giving back, as opposed producing even a few talented and well opportuned individuals offered a chance of a lifetime to get somewhere in order to give something back, and who would do so gladly — bcs of the life they had before.

  18. 18 Promit Adnan

    Hahah! “you got owned”. Accurately put. The ‘aristocratic dome’ exists in every country, but to the extent it does in Gulshan and certain areas in Dhaka — is unbelievable when you think of the starking contrasts just meters away. How you end up getting kids like that — who cant even speak bengali properly let alone know whats outside their protected walls is… the definition of ridicolous. Alot is to do with the parents, who never take them outside their protected world. Not everyone of the well off are like that…but its saddening to know the kind of resources that are put into them (me included, although I’m living abroad), and the degree of knowledge and ability to takle real problems they come out of school with. I wish they had some form of scholarship system to offer Bangladesh’s brightest and best to enter that school, even if its just a few in return for agreeing they’ll do sth for the country afterwards. It would mean the difference of producing people who have no idea of whats outside the world with little or no intention of giving back, as opposed producing even a few talented and well opportuned individuals offered a chance of a lifetime to get somewhere in order to give something back, and who would do so gladly — bcs of the life they had before.

  19. 19 Owen

    Thanks for the explanation Shawn. In the UK the Gift Aid scheme is set up to allow the charity to claim back the tax paid on a cash donation. Certainly allowing tax credits on goods in kind would be open to abuse of the sort you mention.

  20. 20 Owen

    Thanks for the explanation Shawn. In the UK the Gift Aid scheme is set up to allow the charity to claim back the tax paid on a cash donation. Certainly allowing tax credits on goods in kind would be open to abuse of the sort you mention.

  21. 21 laila

    I know what you are talking about, my cousins in BD have the exact same self-centered attitude, and “attempts” to be westernized (funny thing is most westerers care about poverty more than they do).It is mainly because these kids are taught from when they are very young that they are special and superior to the poorer working class. They never have to work for anything, because they have a “servant” to do every single task imaginable. In America atlest, we learn to work for what we have, and yes we even clean our own houses and do our own shopping (shock to many rich bengalis). This concept is not applicable to the aristocratic dome whatsoever. Everytime I go to BD, I am surprised to see how much focus on social hierarchy exists, like how being nice or friendly with poor people is looked down upon, and how the servants are treated so harshly by members of my own family. If you watch Bengali tv, it seems like BD is the richest country in the world with no poor people in sight The upperclass really doesn’t care because they think for some reason, that they deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor.

  22. 22 laila

    I know what you are talking about, my cousins in BD have the exact same self-centered attitude, and “attempts” to be westernized (funny thing is most westerers care about poverty more than they do).It is mainly because these kids are taught from when they are very young that they are special and superior to the poorer working class. They never have to work for anything, because they have a “servant” to do every single task imaginable. In America atlest, we learn to work for what we have, and yes we even clean our own houses and do our own shopping (shock to many rich bengalis). This concept is not applicable to the aristocratic dome whatsoever. Everytime I go to BD, I am surprised to see how much focus on social hierarchy exists, like how being nice or friendly with poor people is looked down upon, and how the servants are treated so harshly by members of my own family. If you watch Bengali tv, it seems like BD is the richest country in the world with no poor people in sight The upperclass really doesn’t care because they think for some reason, that they deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor.

  23. 23 laila

    I know what you are talking about, my cousins in BD have the exact same self-centered attitude, and “attempts” to be westernized (funny thing is most westerers care about poverty more than they do).It is mainly because these kids are taught from when they are very young that they are special and superior to the poorer working class. They never have to work for anything, because they have a “servant” to do every single task imaginable. In America atlest, we learn to work for what we have, and yes we even clean our own houses and do our own shopping (shock to many rich bengalis). This concept is not applicable to the aristocratic dome whatsoever. Everytime I go to BD, I am surprised to see how much focus on social hierarchy exists, like how being nice or friendly with poor people is looked down upon, and how the servants are treated so harshly by members of my own family. If you watch Bengali tv, it seems like BD is the richest country in the world with no poor people in sight The upperclass really doesn’t care because they think for some reason, that they deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor.

  24. 24 joan

    Hey Shawn,
    I’m happy you’re still back there where the real plagues are these kinds of people. They’re worst than Malaria itself and could kill thousands just by stealing international aids or expropriating families to build manufactures or….golf clubs.
    I was raised inside this bubble in Madagascar but my parents where smart enough to keep me in touch with the real world and wanted me to have my eyes wide open to everything around me all the time. BUT…each time I get back home, I get most of the time ashamed of my friends behavior not to mention their stupidity.
    Keep up the great work!! We are not changing the world we are just doing our best !

  25. 25 joan

    Hey Shawn,
    I’m happy you’re still back there where the real plagues are these kinds of people. They’re worst than Malaria itself and could kill thousands just by stealing international aids or expropriating families to build manufactures or….golf clubs.
    I was raised inside this bubble in Madagascar but my parents where smart enough to keep me in touch with the real world and wanted me to have my eyes wide open to everything around me all the time. BUT…each time I get back home, I get most of the time ashamed of my friends behavior not to mention their stupidity.
    Keep up the great work!! We are not changing the world we are just doing our best !

  26. 26 joan

    Hey Shawn,
    I’m happy you’re still back there where the real plagues are these kinds of people. They’re worst than Malaria itself and could kill thousands just by stealing international aids or expropriating families to build manufactures or….golf clubs.
    I was raised inside this bubble in Madagascar but my parents where smart enough to keep me in touch with the real world and wanted me to have my eyes wide open to everything around me all the time. BUT…each time I get back home, I get most of the time ashamed of my friends behavior not to mention their stupidity.
    Keep up the great work!! We are not changing the world we are just doing our best !

  1. 1 The Kindness of Strangers… | The Uncultured Project
  2. 2 The Cult of (False) Powerlessness | The Uncultured Project

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