My Misperceptions of Villages and Cities

Monday, June 18, 2012

 Last week, I returned from a rural village in Bangladesh to its capitol city of Dhaka. Left with my research and some photographs as the only "proof" of our stay, the view looks rosy: a bucolic local existence that city people harken back to. But there's a lot left to be desired. Too much has changed to make it the place that people remember leaving with trepidation as they sought their fortunes. I admit, I'm not the usual migrant - my view is certainly altered by the privileges I enjoy in the United States. But I also had some loyalties to the village and a general enjoyment of my stay there. I now believe, however, that my enjoyment masked a lot of the problems that would otherwise have called for critique. My misperceptions led me into a similar trap of nostalgia about what many people call their true home. Time to blast open that rural bliss.

When I say rural, I mean rural. There exists a great distinction between Bangladeshi rural and that of the United States, which had been my previous frame of reference before last year. There isn't consistent power. Flush toilets are rare and water is pumped from wells. Insects, lizards, frogs, and other animals rule the land just as much as any people. Babies run around naked, peeing wherever they'd like without diapers and with constant parental supervision (mothers and aunts mostly, but some men too). When they grow up, they run around in undisciplined roving bands as their mothers cook and manage house while their fathers work in agriculture or migrate long distances (to the cities, the Middle East, the US) for work. Many of them don't get through school and are illiterate throughout their adulthood - although this is changing slowly but surely with the government's focus on primary school education.

And you're nodding your head and saying: "Isn't that what the third world is like? Underprivileged and rugged and in need of some humanitarian aid, for god's sake? Why would anyone want to call that home?" But the fact is, many Bangladeshis do look upon this lifestyle as their home - they just look at a different part. They look at the fantastic greenery and the fruit trees and the beautiful thunderstorms and the slowed down lifestyle.

It's preferable to the city: dusty, loud, crime-filled, densely packed with people trying to establish their version of the capitalist dream. But half of it is fantasy. The other half keeps these people alive. Migrants and city-dwellers need to have a positive vision of where they came from so that they keep sending remittances. But all is not well in the countryside; as I've said, much of the fantasy of this place no longer exists and it takes an increasing effort to keep up the facade. Gang violence, drug use, smaller and smaller plots of land, stealing and petty crime - all on top of the regularly scheduled lack of social services, sexist treatment of women, and lack of education - have permeated deep into village life. The fact that it's not uncommon and yet people still see it as a shock remains to be understood.

It's like preserving a fly in amber. All the flaws have crystallized and, over time, new ones cloud the outside so you can't even make out what you had originally. It's like growing up and letting go of youthful dreams.

Tomorrow I'll talk about capitalism, Orientalism, and how global markets creep into all of this. For today, I sit heavy with the disillusionment and am trying to think of how it can be made better.