… or how much of my family in Bangladesh doesn’t give a damn about me.
I try and avoid writing about negative family issues because it kind of feels like I’m airing dirty laundry. Although I’ve tried my best to minimize how much I talk about this issue, the fact is the single biggest emotional toll I have had on this trip is discovering that most of my family here simply doesn’t give a damn about how I’m doing here or if I need their help. That’s not universally true of course. My grandmother has completely blown me away with her endless compassion and generosity despite her unemployment and her limited fixed income. But, as she often points out, “big wallets don’t always mean big hearts”. This also connects to what I’ve been saying earlier about many wealthy Bengalis living in an “aristocratic dome” (something thicker than just a bubble).
This ended up being a much longer article (rant?) than I imagined. So the complete article is after the jump.
I started thinking about this because it’s Day 15 of my illness – the unknown illness that has been with me ever since my return from the Chittagong Hill-Tracts. I took the embassy-approved doctor’s advice and waited a few days to see if my illness would get better or worse. Unfortunately, it’s got worse. To make matters worse, my grandmother (whom I normally rely on to borrow transportation) recently had to leave the city on some personal business. This left me having to ask my more well-to-do relatives for their assistance. All of my other relatives are either successful business owners and/or have a prestigious position in the government. Unfortunately, it seems, none of them were interested in helping me out.
The first person I decided to call was my aunt (the one married to the uncle who works in the judicial system). After explaining my situation to her and asking for help getting to the doctor’s office (on the other side of town), my aunt sighed and wistfully said “we’ll see…”. Unfortunately, she never got back to me. The next person I called was my aunt who lived just blocks away from the doctor whom I wanted to see. This aunt is a successful business woman who owns an English medium European Standard School in Dhaka. The success of that business has allowed her to buy an extremely fancy apartment in a part of town normally reserved for diplomats, ambassadors, and other foreigners. Unfortunately this aunt is a good example of well-to-do family members who are in a position to help… but decide not to.
One of the kids living in my aunt’s apartment is actually overseas – studying at a university in Australia. Since they had a spare bedroom, I had asked them if it would be possible for me to stay at their place for 48 hours. That way, I could be close to the doctor’s office and could get some blood tests and follow-ups done. They aren’t germophobes – they’ve helped sick relatives in their place before. But, it seems, they had no interest in helping me. “There’s no room” they explained. The vacant room, it seems, has been turned into a TV room and smoking room for my uncle and the family had no interest in giving that up. It’s hard to figure out how to react to something like that. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time a relative has basically suggested “there is no room… for you“.
One of my richest relatives is the eldest uncle on my father’s side. How rich is he? I sometimes joke that he’s richer than God. This uncle owns a 5 story mansion, a fleet of 7 cars and jeeps (all chauffeur driven), and has more plasma TVs in his house than an electronics store (including the biggest wall-sized plasma TV I’ve ever seen in my life). Also living in the mansion are his two sons. His eldest son is a successful lawyer in a fancy part of town and the younger son is now a successful businessman who runs all the operations for Pakistan International Airlines here in Bangladesh. My uncle also recently bought himself his own English newspaper here in Bangladesh. As a kid, I had affectionately given him the nickname of Uncle Scrooge – a reference to the Disney cartoon that I would watch as a kid. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve discovered this uncle is more akin to the Ebenezer Scrooge from the first half of A Christmas Carol.
I actually didn’t even bother calling this uncle for help. I’ve learned from my previous attempts at forming a relationship with them that they want nothing to do with me. During the water crisis, they begrudgingly agreed to let me stay for a week (and no more – regardless of whether water comes back at my place or not). My time there was one where I was constantly made aware of how distasteful they found me. For example, having lived most of my time here in Bangladesh in homes that have no hot water – I’ve learned to shower at midday or in the afternoon. “I won’t talk to you until your shower” my uncle flatly stated – and then added “the servants have learned to shower in the in morning, why haven’t you?”. They only thing they think less of other than my hygiene habits is my work here in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, they make my other uncle’s comments seem like high praise by comparison.
I realize that a lot of people coming from abroad don’t have local family to help them out. My friend Alicia, for example, got food poisoned and had to be rushed to the hospital within the first few months of arriving in Bangladesh. My friend Mikey is also toughing it out here in Bangladesh by himself. If he gets sick – he has to haul himself to the nearest doctor or hospital (that is if he’s even near a doctor or hospital). The thing is, both Alicia and Mikey knew they were coming to a foreign country and they would be toughing it alone. I came to Bangladesh on the assumption I would have a network of supportive family members. What I’ve discovered is that I have one or two generous relatives and the rest don’t give a damn. And, unfortunately, that’s a really lonely feeling.
Fortunately, I can end this post on a good note. While none of my family from the aristocratic dome have been interested in helping me, one of my friends from the expat bubble has gone head over heels to try and help me out. I’m staying with one of the teachers (Rick Davis) from the American International School in Dhaka. He lives but a few minutes away from the embassy-approved doctor. In a couple of hours I’ll be heading there for a much needed follow-up and blood test. Rick has also kindly making sure I get plenty of soup, juice, and vitamins. You really couldn’t ask for a better friend. A few months ago, Rick Davis was nothing more than a random stranger that commented on this blog – now I’m staying at his place and he’s helping me out of one of my toughest illnesses since starting this project.
This project is really powered by those who read and watch it. I’ve learned a lot about the kindness of strangers and am slowly learning about what kind of family I have here in Bangladesh.