When repatriation … isn’t

Foreigners love to talk about their cultural adjustment. If you’re lucky enough to have your international move supported by an organisation – a global business, NGO or embassy, perhaps – you will be bombarded with material, both before and after deployment, designed to help you ride the emotional waves of change. There’s a whole professional world of expertise devoted to making us pampered ‘expats’ feel more comfortable in a new place – understanding culture shock and emotional adjustment, learning how to enjoy the thrill of a sensory and intellectual overload while not letting it crush you with its phenomenal weight.

A favourite tool is the old U-shaped graph of cultural adjustment: the upturn of the honeymoon, followed by a sharp dip into frustration and crisis, resolved with recovery and finally evening out into a contented adjustment. Almost all the other foreigners you meet will be struggling with the same rollercoaster – rising, falling and repeating – and it’s easy to find a friendly local pseudo-therapist, or a sympathetic shoulder, attached to an arm carrying a beer.


But hidden at the other end of that graph, just off the page, is another U shape: it’s often just as hard to go home. ‘Nobody tells you about this part’, opines the Wall Street Journal, but they do. Reverse culture shock, the W-shaped curve, or the repatriation blues – whatever you call it, the internet is full of articles by bewildered, heart-achey expats writing about the joy, pain and isolation of returning home to a world that is familiar and loved, but somehow changed, alien.

Often, it’s the people who are still abroad that these repatriates turn to. As our friends in Dhaka disappeared back to Australia, Canada or the UK, the good-to-be-back radio silence and welcome-home facebook party pics slowly gave way to confused emails and skype chats, about how it’s suddenly impossible to buy clothes, because all you can think about is the people who made them. About how you can’t eat properly at expensive dinners, and how the nightly news about aid cuts and refugee boats leaves you reeling. About how your job feels trivial. About how you miss your friends, and the guy who sold you cauliflowers. About how you can’t sleep properly without the background beeping of traffic. About how you want to keep the connection alive, to the mad place that you had come to love. And in the midst of all this, how none of your friends and family have any idea of what you’re talking about, and how they wish you would just go back to normal, and stop eating with your hands.

I’m always surprised by how strongly supermarkets feature in these conversations. I would never have thought they are so defining an aspect of our comfort, or sense of belonging. But just as learning to shop is a major adjustment when you arrive in a new country, being confronted with the shops of your home country on your return is strangely shocking. The sheer abundance of food, imported from all over the world and available at any time of year, regardless of seasonality, is, weirdly, a stressor. When I heard friends talk about this I knew exactly what they meant – when I was home for a brief visit in January last year, I dropped into a Woolies with Mum and Dad on the way home from the airport. It was the really big kind – in a large regional shopping centre, where the floor space is cheap and the shopping trips equip a family for two weeks to avoid another drive into town. I was overwhelmed with the aeroplane hangar-sized space, packed with sumptuous, beautiful produce – cheese, avocados, juice, herbs – and the sheer number of breakfast cereals. As I wandered up and down the endless aisles with my empty trolley, hands hovering over the colourful boxes and fat loaves of bread, I felt anxiety creep up my spine. It was hard to know what to do: ignore the towering inequality that it all represented, shoving it deep down in my gut; lose my mind and buy everything in sight, hoping to guzzle and hoard it; or turn slowly around, walk back through the automatic metal gate, sit quietly on a bench next to the Donut King and try to hold back the tears.

Magazines and websites predict this pain and confusion, and publish helpful how-tos and tips on this process. They explain the initial shock that mutates into mourning and nostalgia; prepare you for the inevitable blandness of the everyday, the apathy of friends and family, the pangs of grief, the withdrawal into yourself; and offer hope that you will be fine, you will readjust to the place you call home.

But I’m discovering there is a gap in the conversation about culture shock and repatriation: just as often as not, you aren’t going home. We prepare ourselves for this upending and reestablishment, carefully reading about reverse-culture shock, only to find that we’re not moving back, but on. As international creatures, many of us find ourselves bouncing across the globe in search of a new job, taking on yet another new life. If you’re moving from a very different to a very similar culture, this might look like repatriation, fooling you into thinking you’re on home ground – like a chameleon wearing the skin of your family dog. But it’s not – the challenges of loss and leaving, and readjustment and recognition, are bound up in the unexpected whirlwind of a new layer of novelty. It’s a different world, one where the confusion of leaving a stressful, wild and mad place is replaced by arriving, not at home – where the volume of cheese is confronting but your parents are there to greet you – but in an entirely new, stressful, wild and mad place. It’s when leaving Oz in the Wizard’s hot air balloon lands you not in Kansas, but right back at the start of a completely new yellow brick road.

And it’s this that I’m facing now: the bewildering reappearance of dancing munchkins. In planning to be in the English-speaking world, I was preparing for the pain of coming ‘home’. What I hadn’t bargained on was the pain of not coming home.

With all the glamour of this globetrotting comes the weight of constantly being in flux – the cycle of alienation that comes with having an international career, or a partner with one. No matter what disguise it might be wearing, moving to a new place means we need to become part of it, contribute to it, show that we can adapt to it, and integrate into its ways and its rhythms. And every time we do this, we adapt a little differently than we did before. I might be better at making friends quickly, or be more prepared to make food from vegetables I’ve never seen before, but I’ve also toughened my skin, and set my jaw, ready for the rollercoaster to peak, and the drop to begin. Four months after our arrival in Dublin, I stare at the rollercoaster of the U-shaped curve and search for where I could be. I suspect I may have wandered off into a different part of the funfair entirely, and am spinning, my feet not touching the floor.

And while I spin, the home that we left behind two years ago recedes further into the distance. The friendships wear thinner, undernourished on a diet of skype and starved of daily silliness and normalcy; the places change, as old trees are bulldozed and new highways built. But I realise that the life I am memorialising no longer exists for anyone – friends and family have changed jobs, moved house, changed city, travelled, had kids. We are all travelling, all adjusting, all leaving something profound and precious and fragile behind. With every day, the wind shifts and blows us all onto a different course, and the people, the places that we long for and remember cease to exist. Every one of us is leaving something behind, and we can’t go back: I might not feel like this is repatriation, but really, there is no such thing.



Bombings at home and in France: it’s not about us

I haven’t written much lately – partly because it’s no secret that things here have been a bit dicey here in Bangladesh. Two foreigners were killed on the streets last month, and IS claimed the attacks. More secular writers, and now their publishers as well, have been killed. Various embassies have received intelligence that there are groups planning to attack any large gatherings of foreigners. We have been advised to stay quiet, stay safe, and stay out of public as much as possible. Life has been tense but uneventful, dangerous but boring. We don’t go out on the streets if we can avoid it and we don’t have a car available, so we have been spending most of our time at home or at work. We haven’t been directly affected, and we have just kept our heads down. It hasn’t been great blog material. But it has left me thinking.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and of the shock of terrorist threats to our little expat community here in Dhaka, there has been a collective tension and a collective grief. Living here, in a country that regularly experiences violence, the parallels have become stark to me: the reactions of expats here, experiencing terrorist threats in our adoptive home, and those of people in the west, who are responding to the terrible terrorism that they are seeing in a world – the white, developed world – that they identify with. In both cases, the curtain has been pulled back: we have seen how the other half live. The pictures we see on the news are no longer academic, they are suddenly real to us. We identify as the targets, we feel threatened, at the epicentre of the maelstrom.
We change our facebook profiles, write blogs about being fearful and traumatised. We pour out our grief and demand that people support us emotionally. We identify, and begin to wear the fearful mantle of the victimised. We are so used to being the centre of attention that we co-opt the drama – the bombing of Paris is about me, the stabbing of a blogger is about me, the rape of a Bangladeshi woman is about me. We take it all on ourselves. We become part of the tragedy.

And I have something to say about that.

It’s not all about us.
Unless we know and love the people who have been injured, it’s not about us. Unless we have witnessed the violence, it’s not about us. Unless we are directly affected by these events, it’s not about us.
We need to direct our energy to the people who are actually experiencing pain. Those who need our support. Those who live in Paris and have felt the shock of the blasts in their lives. Those who have grown up in Bangladesh and rightly fear to speak their minds about their own country, their own culture or their own government. Those who live in warzones and can’t leave. Those in the world for whom violence is a constant, looming reality.
Chances are, it’s not you, and it’s certainly not me. Of course we should feel our grief, our worry and tension. But surely we should nurse it quietly, and not shout our pain from the rooftops. Now is the time to be quiet, and listen. Don’t make it about you.

How much should I pay for a rickshaw ride?

Bangladesh is one of the few places left in the world where rickshaws are still ubiquitous. Where China, Vietnam and India have almost entirely moved on, their traffic choked with scooters, auto rickshaws, tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars, here, the air is filled with the bells and flapping gold trim of rickshaw pullers moving through the crowded streets in packs.

It’s summer now, and in the stifling heat and humidity I’m more aware than ever that every day I pay a man to put his body on the line to haul me through the streets on a sawn-off fixie bicycle, pedal by pedal. With two of us on the seat, often the rickshaw-puller’s body weight isn’t enough to push the pedals down, and he has to pull up hard on the handlebars to get traction. Sitting behind him, you see the sweat soak through his shirt, and sometimes a bony shoulder blade will poke through a worn part of the fabric. We’re out in the sun and it’s utterly exhausting work. While he wipes his face with the loose end of the tartan gumcha that’s tied around his head, I sit on the back, biting my lip and clutching my wallet, trying to decide what tip I should give him on top of the normal fare.

People who’ve just arrived or aren’t staying for long are often hesitant to take a rickshaw. Coming from a world where we outsource our underpaid labour to places where it can be hidden deep in the supply chain – the factory workers making our iPhones, the women labouring over our cheap jeans – this bodily effort can be confronting.

It’s one of the first questions people ask when you get off the plane – should I get a rickshaw? – or, is it an ok distance for them?

I encourage people to do it. ‘It’s their job, so they need rides to feed their families. The drivers need to make money. Plus it’s an environmentally friendly way to get around. Pay them well and make it worth their while.’ It’s more complicated than that, of course, but this is the best I’ve got.

The second question is harder to answer: ‘How much should I pay?’

It’s one that, after they’ve lived here for years, you’ll still hear expats debating – in restaurants, on online forums:

‘Local price is 20 Taka, but I’ve never paid less than 30 for that trip.’

‘I used to pay a local price, but I work in 50s and 100s these days – 50 for short trips, 100 if I’m going between suburbs.’

‘Yeah, well I never pay anyone less than 100 any more. It just seems unfair.’

‘What do you mean?? When you pay that much for a short trip you inflate the market horribly. It means rickshaw drivers cruise around, looking for foreigners and refusing to pick up locals.’

I feel like at this point I need to remind you of the exchange rate: 30 taka is about 50 US cents. 100 taka is roughly US$1.50. We’re quibbling over a dollar here, fifty cents there – for a 15 minute ride.

Making that decision is a kind of everyday dilemma. Do I want to deliberately overpay someone for their services, by three times? Five times? What if it’s hot? Or late at night? What would I expect to pay for something like this at ‘home’ in the developed world? It wouldn’t exist – but maybe $20? $30? … And does it matter to me if I pay the guy an extra dollar? I’m not earning ‘western’ wages here, but sure, I can afford it.

I walk away from the overpaid rickshaw puller feeling like a cross between Bill Gates and Mother Theresa, congratulating myself for an act of generosity so small it’s basically meaningless to me. Well done, Heather, well done. For today, you are a decent human.

It’s one thing when it’s your own choice, and you get this little self-indulgent moment of charity. But it’s another when you overpay and the rickshaw driver sees you for the wealthy sucker you are. Just paid 100 taka for a ride that should have been 20? Almost every time, the driver will look at you with sad eyes and say ‘ma’am…’ and shrug. ‘I am a very poor man’.

And he is. But I walk away feeling resentful, ripped off. As another blogger so aptly put it, small numbers seem big when it comes to poor people: when he asks for six times the normal fare instead of the three times I’ve offered, it seems outrageous. My face crumples into disdain and irritation.

But then I stop myself. It’s just another dollar fifty.

I’m not really upset that he’s scammed me. I’m upset because he’s taken the glow out of my offering; I’ve been reminded that my tip is meagre, just a drop in an ocean of poverty, and I have nothing to congratulate myself for.

So there’s no magic formula when deciding how much to pay for a rickshaw. I’ve been here for over a year now, and I’m still asking myself – how much is enough?

Deciding to stay

“I love it here. I can see why you decided to stay.”

The email I get from a new volunteer makes me smile. In a place like this, first impressions count: if you can see what Bangladesh has to offer straight away – the engaging work, the welcoming social scene, the buzzing energy and optimism – you’ll find your feet easily.

A new intake of Australian Volunteers has arrived, and the rest of us are moving aside to make way: April has rolled by and my assignment has officially finished. Which means we’ve been here over a year – and despite all the challenges that this crazy place poses, I’m still in Dhaka.

Out of the 13 people I arrived with, two had to go home early and two have now finished up and gone home, but the remaining nine are still here, either extending their assignments or staying for a job. It’s a common story: people linger here, unwilling to give it up. After one-year assignments, people say they just have one more great opportunity they want to see out before they leave – and then they stay for two years, then three, then four. So what is it that makes people stay?

The amazing job opportunities

This is a big one. With a huge development sector funded by various major national and UN aid programs, there are loads of jobs here, where you can be doing interesting, relevant work with some really smart, creative people. Bangladesh’s development sector is known for being at the forefront of new programming approaches and out-of-the-box thinking as much as it is for well-researched and established projects that make steady and positive progress. You can learn a lot here. For entrepreneurs, it’s a playground of opportunities, market gaps and enormous, growing potential. Social enterprise is booming, with small not-for profits and ethical businesses growing out of every over-dinner conversation.

With a relatively small local middle class and no tropical paradise environment to recommend it as a cushy posting for international workers, here you can really access amazing jobs that you would have to wait patiently for for years in other countries. In Bangladesh you don’t dip your toes in the water, you get pushed, head first, into the deep end.

You can do something really useful

The job thing is partly career growth, but a bigger chunk of it is the satisfaction of having something to offer. It’s hard to put a value on being in a place that needs your skills and puts you to work – and in a way that will make a difference to other people’s lives.

The social life

For a city of somewhere between 16 and 26 million people (depending on where you get your data), Dhaka can feel like a friendly little town. The same faces – both local and foreign – pop up wherever you go, and thanks to it being a fairly transitory crowd, people will welcome you with open arms. Bengali culture is incredibly hospitable and foreigners of all stripes are embraced in a frenzy of fried-in-turmeric food offerings and genuinely interested questions about family. You won’t be lost in this town.

Living as far out on the edge as you can without being bombed

Someone recently articulated this for me really well. ‘We love it here because it’s crazy. It’s unexpected and weird and challenging but it’s not really dangerous. Bangladesh is about as far out there as you can go without really going all-out.’ This is so true – it’s not Damascus, or Kabul, or Mogadishu, and not by a long shot. But you’re starting to creep out into the Big Unknown here. It’s not Kansas any more.

The plan

So where does that leave us? Ollie and I are probably going to stay for another year. I have a contract with CARE Bangladesh working on their Communications and PR until November, and Ollie’s still working at UNDP, rolling from human rights job to human rights job as they need him. We’re thinking about leaving in March… Unless, of course, there’s just that one last thing around the corner…

In the field: Kurigram after the flood

In September, the end of monsoon season, I went out into ‘the field’ (rural Bangladesh) to some of CARE’s beneficiary villages. Across Bangladesh’s riverine char regions, low-lying villages had been inundated by devastating flood waters. As the great Jamuna river swelled with rain and run-off from the Himalayan snow-melts, the farming community of Rahamatpur (in the Kurigram district in the northern part of the country) watched most of their land erode and disappear.

After almost three weeks of flooding, the waters had receded, leaving wide, muddy flats where there were once productive fields, grazing land and crops.  The high water mark is visible on the sides of flooded houses, and the crops that weren’t swept away show a deep brown line where the water has left them damaged.

I took a few photos while we were there. The villagers had been through a tough period but in between the short rainshowers, the sun was starting to show through the clouds.

A Crime Unpunished: An uncompromising documentary about Bangladeshi gang rape

A week or so ago, VICE News release a short documentary on sexual violence against women in Bangladesh. While it’s powerful and eye-opening reporting, offering a good insight into some of the social problems facing the country, I’ve hesitated over whether to post it here. The comments on the VICE page give you a good idea of why: a lot of racism and islamophobia comes out of the woodwork whenever violence against women in Muslim countries is discussed.

But this is a major problem for much of the subcontinent: Pakistan and (majority-Hindu) India also both have high levels of sexual and physical violence against women. Sexism that is deeply ingrained in traditional practices and a patriarchal culture lead to tacit acceptance of violence, by communities, local leaders and police.

And, of course, while rampant, this South Asian sexism is not qualitatively different to the sexism of the west. A few months ago I read an article on the online magazine Women’s Agenda, describing an Australian CEO who was stunned to discover that she worked with several victims of domestic violence. One in three Australian women over 15 will be victims of violence in their lifetimes. After looking at the evidence – the bruises on her colleague’s torso – the CEO reflected, ‘You think you know these people, but you don’t know who you’re sitting next to.’

And that’s why I decided to share this documentary with you: I’m not in Australia any more – so what is life like for the people I sit next to?

Nobody knows what proportion of women in Bangladesh are the victims of sexual and physical violence, as stigma leads to low levels of reporting. The 5th Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (2007) showed that 53% of women experienced sexual or physical violence from their husbands, but other sources estimate it to be up to 70%.

Majorities of both urban (60%) and rural (62%) males think ‘at times a woman deserves to be beaten.’ Half of urban males (50%) and two-thirds (65%) of rural males believe women should tolerate violence to keep her family together. Nearly one-third of urban men and over one-fifth of rural men witness their mother being beaten by her partner as a child. Unsurprisingly then, over 40% of perpetrators commit their first act of sexual violence before their 19th birthday.

Those statistics reflect something huge. Something deeply disturbing, but also denied and hidden. This report from VICE on gang rape in Bangladesh is important – have a watch.

The expat struggle

If you’re an expat working in a developing country, or you’re ‘at home’ and want to know what the daily grind is like, you need to see this:

The Expat Struggle

The woman who curates this tumblr is working in an African country somewhere, but it’s amazing how much of this stuff transcends borders and continents.

It’s hard to choose favourites, but these have got to be up there:

When everyone is laughing so I join to fit in

I don't understand what's happening

How every minibus acts on the roadI'm a bus

How I sometimes feel about my workHow I sometimes feel about my work