Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on 29 October 2010.
This piece explores the experiences of foreigners in Bangladesh.
We were returning to Gulshan past midnight when a police officer stopped the car at an impromptu checkpoint. He barely glanced at me, a white bideshi or foreigner, before barking at the other passenger: “Tumi Bangalee? Purse khole dao!” Finding nothing after she dutifully opened her handbag for inspection, he wordlessly waved us along. My friend shook her head, angry but resigned: “Yes, I’m Bengali. But what would he have done if I had shown him my Australian passport?”
Just some routine racial profiling. It’s as unremarkable as being escorted to the front of the long boarding line on the flight to Dhaka from Dubai ahead of all the migrant labourers, as I was. It’s as ordinary as the H&M garment sale “For Foreigners Only.” It’s as forgettable as the Halloween party at a private foreigners’ club where someone won first prize for dressing up as a Rapid Action Battalion agent (accessorized with black do-rag and Oakleys, but without costume blood from all the extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by the RAB).
The power of these moments is their ability to normalise one of the biggest non-secrets in Dhaka: foreigner/white privilege.
Let’s be clear: whiteness is an invented and contested category. “White” and “foreigner” are not interchangeable. Returned and expatriate Bangladeshis and other South Asians occupy complicated social spaces and are generally, but not always, excluded from the bideshi status. Diplomats, aid workers, businesspeople, academics, and tourists live and work in different ways. Notions of privilege, bias, or oppression are thus specific to personal histories and contexts. Arguments premised on the dichotomies of foreign/local and white/non-white risk perpetuating the dangerous fallacy that such neat dichotomies actually exist. People are always more complicated.
Let’s also be honest: these dichotomies have social currency. The line separating the “real” from that experienced as real can be thin-to-nonexistent. One of Bangladesh’s most influential public figures has lived abroad for half his life, with an extraordinary list of foreign degrees and fellowships to his name. This past summer, he remarked to me scornfully: “Bangladesh is the only country in the world where I feel like a second-class citizen. Here, you are discriminated against for being Bangladeshi. People pay you better and treat you better if you have white skin. To the extent that people treat me with respect, half the time it’s because they mistake me for a foreigner.”
Traditions of hospitality do elevate the guest to a privileged position. But interns and students are often treated as senior to Bangladeshi specialists. A foreigner managing a mangled “kaemon achen?” is applauded for being “fluent” in Bangla. Entire meetings get rendered into English for the benefit of the sole bideshi in the room. But what happens when audience members whose national “development” is at stake and who will stay in Bangladesh long after the contract bideshi leave, sare unable to participate?
You don’t have to look too closely to glimpse the money and power at stake. A few years ago, I asked a US Agency for International Development official why he purchased a used but still gleaming BMW SUV for driving around Dhaka after a hard day’s work ‘developing the poor’. He didn’t hesitate: “I got a good deal; I couldn’t have afforded this at home!” Another development officer laughed sheepishly as she explained that while she wants to meet development goals, she doesn’t want to work herself out of a job and lifestyle she loves. And no expat gathering would be complete without a round of complaining about Bangladeshi people followed by collective swooning over the fabulousness of having a cook, driver, maid, nanny, and gardener.
Global marketing machines leverage colonial legacies to turn the formula that ‘white = beauty and worth’ into wildly successful business. From Dhaka billboards to village teashops, ads for skin-lightening products present fair complexions as ideal for women and men. So as some lighteners give some Bangladeshis mercury poisoning or kidney damage, white foreigners of average attractiveness back home can suddenly find themselves scoring a modelling gig.
But foreignness also entails relentless staring and invasive questions from strangers. White women are beautiful but loose, or promiscuous and immoral, and problems finding housing and often-daily sexual harassment are exhausting (of course, Bangladeshi women endure this as well). When combined with the challenges of living in a poor country and unfamiliar culture, a refuge can become necessary. But emergent hierarchies of race and nationality another Bangladeshi friend referred not-so-jokingly to Dhaka as an “apartheid state”cannot be the answer.
This isn’t about proscribing a “right” or “wrong” way for individuals to live. Foreigners eating dal-bhaat and sipping cha while sitting cross-legged on a madur aren’t entitled to smugly call their lifestyles “authentic”. And there exists a set of globalised leisure behaviours enjoyed by anyone with financial access to them. Indeed, the wealthiest Bangladeshis arguably exist in a sphere of power and influence all their own.
Let’s instead start deconstructing expectations, assumptions, labels, and the role of power and money. Who is a foreigner? What makes someone white? Who is Bangladeshi? Who is Bengali? What identities are privileged and why? Is privilege more about class and a general deference toward the extremely wealthy which includes super-rich Bangladeshis zooming around Dhaka after midnight in fast cars (new, not used BMWs)? What produces a system where Bangladeshis can face social or professional discrimination or disrespect for no other reason than the fact of their Bangladeshi-ness?
These issues transcend the endlessly awkward issue of who deserves access to the tennis court or poolside bar at the members-only American, British, Canadian, Dutch, German, Gulshan, International and Nordic clubs. These questions affect who gets escorted to the front of every queue, who gets paid in local taka versus dollars or euros, who gets harassed by the police, and who ends up feeling like a second-class citizen.
Many Bangladeshis depend on foreign development money, and many probably can’t afford to alienate foreign/white-funders and diplomats by criticising foreign/white privilege. As a Bangladeshi development consultant who read a draft of this article commented: “Very, very true. But we couldn’t have said it.” Let’s all risk engaging in introspection, dialogue, and the forging of new partnerships in order to bring critical conversations about privilege, belonging, race, money, and power out into the open.