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     Volume 6 Issue 37 | September 21, 2007 |

   Human Rights
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Up Close and Personal

Andrew Morris

It's late morning. I've just finished running the workshop and feel it's gone quite well. The group seem energised and motivated, and so I am pleased when one of them, who I've not met before, comes up to me afterwards, smiling and looking eager. 'You are a good teacher', he enthuses, but then a look of puzzled bemusement crosses his face and he hesitates: “even though you have not brushed your hair”.

Surprisingly, I am barely surprised by this, even though it's something you would never hear in a lifetime back home. It soon dawns on the foreign visitor to Bangladesh, (and indeed to China and pretty much any Asian country) that the idea of 'personal comments' or questions doesn't really exist here.

Later that day, my wife visits the office. A senior colleague is introduced to her, and told she is also a consultant. Of far more interest to him though than mere professional background is his next question: “Do you have children?” And then, of course: “No? Why not?” We've also frequently been asked “Do you have difficulties?” I sometimes wonder what would happen if I burst into tears and said that, yes, there had been a problem ever since I was struck in an unfortunate place by a cricket ball. Would people then be embarrassed?

That evening, I meet someone I haven't seen in six years. Her first observation is: “Are you ill? You look tired! Have you lost weight?” Except the word she actually uses is “Have you reduced?” For a moment I panic. Is she implying I've shrunk? Become less of a human being? Then I remember this is just a local linguistic oddity and so avoid an existential crisis.

There is no concept of such comments being offensive, or of hurting feelings: these are the facts, and they can be openly stated. The upside is that people seem equally happy to take it, so that I find it quite enjoyable occasionally to pat some of my more well-padded male colleagues on the belly and encourage them to reduce too.

Essentially, everything here is in the public domain. Your personal information belongs not only to you, but to your family, your neighbours and the wider community. It starts with your appearance, but seems to extend too to your religious beliefs, and of course to questions about your salary. Except of course for one universal taboo: if you are a woman, even here, your age is out of bounds. Some things never change.

And what's more, where there's a moral element involved, such as having children, then everyone is happy not only to comment but also to offer guidance and put you back on the right track. In fact the whole thrust behind all these observations seems to be a sense of people trying to help you. It's the duty of the community to keep everyone in broad conformity, to point out your defects and help you look right, act right and fulfil your responsibilities.

So I wonder if this admirable spirit of frankness therefore entitles me also to make jolly remarks to people, such as the elderly gents I meet whose white beards are dyed with henna into an implausible fiery russet. “Professor, was that shade of orange really what you were after?” Or to those who have bald spots, and even, in certain sad cases, a rather obvious and ill-fitting hairpiece. “Sir, you seem to have a furry object on your head. Would you like me to remove it for you?”

But something holds me back. We were brought up not to stare, not to comment. “That's rude”, our parents would scold, “You can't say that!” And how deep-rooted those childhood lessons are.

All the same, after so long here, I am sometimes at a loss to decide which is the more natural approach. Appearance is fairly obvious anyway, so perhaps it's fine to comment? Similarly with having children why on earth should this be considered a personal matter? And let's share financial facts and religious views while we're at it. We live such atomised lives back home, each in our own castles: each of us sealed off behind a fence marked “Private! No trespassing!”

Then again, it's sometimes a relief not to have to justify your appearance, life choices and entire existence to anyone who happens to take a casual interest. So maybe I won't change my mind just yet, after all.


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