“Assalamu alaikum. Ami Bangla bolte pari na.”
This is how I have started almost all of my interactions with people here in Bangladesh, whether it’s in the villages conducting my study, in the marketplace (so the shopkeeper is hopefully merciful with me while bartering), or in meetings with government officials and health care providers. It’s an interesting position to be in especially considering that the other language I speak fluently is Urdu.
Coming to Bangladesh, I admit I was a bit worried about my ability to communicate effectively with people and how my Pakistani heritage would affect my relationships here. Many well-intentioned aunties and uncles from back home advised me to go somewhere else for my internship because they thought people might take out their frustration and rage from wars past on me because I come from the line of their enemy. And being somewhat familiar with the history between Bangladesh and Pakistan, that would be completely understandable; yet, thank God, this has not been the case whatsoever.
Returning to my go-to opening line, the two sentences almost have opposite effects. When I say “Assalamu alaikum,” I clearly identify myself as a Muslim and feel that I establish a connection with the person I am speaking with: I am like you, I am friendly, you can trust me. When I say I can’t speak Bangla, I feel like I take part of that trust away because it so obviously demonstrates that I am not like the person I am speaking with. I imagine this is something I will have to continue to explore, live with, and work around for the duration of my internship with FCAB. Everyone I have met thus far has been incredibly welcoming (and eager to teach me Bangla), but I still feel badly about not being able to effectively converse with the people who are so graciously helping me and teaching me so much.
The past three weeks have encouraged me to examine the relationship between geographic location and personal identity. Depending on where I am and who I’m with, different aspects of my identity play a bigger role than others. Am I more Muslim in this interaction or more American? More Pakistani or more woman? Although it’s difficult, I am enjoying learning about the nuances in this realm of self-discovery and am thankful for the opportunity to do so in such a kind and encouraging community.