Making Amends

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Lalakhal, Sylhet

I’ve been thinking about how to make amends. In Bangladesh, my constant fear there was that my time would be ephemeral: I’d leave nothing, take nothing. What do I understand better now? What impact did I have? The answer to these is not nothing, but I’m still not sure what they are. My time there feels like a colossal failure of mutual understanding. The American Fulbrighters to Bangladesh, myself included, persisted in not communicating, not making the effort to understand each other, and not taking away any real, nuanced insights into our differences and similarities. And that was the result among a group that had the ability to communicate fully, in English and in detail.

In Dhaka, I felt adrift, essentially alone despite the crushing crowds. In Sylhet, I lacked the means to communicate effectively beyond superficialities and necessities. The fact that I could find glimmers of human connectedness and of our essential universality provided some solace, but in sum, my basic failure to understand or be understood still hangs around like a specter. When I think about making amends, I ask myself how much I’m to blame. Did I do everything I could? I’d like to think so, but I’m afraid the honest answer is no. Regardless of how much I’m to blame or how much the setting influenced my experience, I would like to make it up somehow.

I went to a Mexican ice cream shop the other day. The parking lot was dark. A man sat in the car next to ours. Another sat on the sidewalk in the chilly night. I ordered my ice cream and…totally screwed it up. I felt stupid flubbing elementary level Spanish. I felt suddenly different and out of place, like I was back in Sylhet. The next day I proposed to my boss that we do an “around the world” type program that would encourage our mostly white, upper-middle class listeners to get out of their neighborhoods and into places they might never otherwise go. But why?

Getting out of your comfort zone is something you hear about all the time, as if it was a moral imperative to do so every once in a while. Is it? Do the twinges of fear and discomfort and embarrassment of feeling outcast yield any real results? Do they lead to any kind of deeper understanding? Does the moment of disconnect, that moment of palpable difference, bring me any more empathy or understanding than reading a book with a Mexican immigrant protagonist from the comfort of my living room? What does feeling uncomfortable really yield? I went outside my neighborhood, but did I learn anything? Obviously I believe there are benefits to be had, since I’m keen on encouraging others like me to do the same, but I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why. Perhaps it’s about positioning yourself to be surprised.

Lying on my bed, blogging about my Bangladesh anxieties brings back vivid memories of my black bedsheets there, which were immune from the yellowing that infected everything white, and the sunlight streaming blue through my sky-colored curtains. A million miles away, and those anxieties still haunt me.

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