Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let's Talk About Sex, Bideshi

Enjoying a stroll in Bhawal National Park outside of Dhaka, Kristel and I were hailed by a man who had been busily photographing his partner when we walked past. “Your country, please?” he called out to us, the usual opener for most conversations with the Bangladeshis we meet. Normally, the conversations don’t extend much beyond our responses to this question. Not this time. Abandoning his girlfriend, the man introduced himself as a naval officer enjoying some time on leave from his post in Chittagong. When we mentioned that we also lived there, it was if he had discovered some long-lost relatives, and any hope we had of making an early exit quickly evaporated. After asking how long we had been in Bangladesh and how long we would be staying, he quickly moved on to matters of greater interest to him. “So, how long you two together?”, he asked, and we described how we met in Nigeria, which was probably a case of supplying too much information, but it’s become our routine answer whenever someone asks how a Canadian and a Dutch citizen managed to meet. Nodding his head as he listened, the man then asked, “And how many times have you copulated since then?”

I must admit, I didn’t have a routine answer for that one. In fact, the last time I’d heard the word “copulate” was during my grade 10 biology class, when its mere mention elicited giggles from me and the rest of my hormone-enslaved classmates. Sensing that the same response would probably be inappropriate here, I quickly racked my brain for the best possible reply to his question, one that wouldn’t be too outraged (“That’s none of your business, sir! Pistols at dawn!”) or bawdy (“We’ve lost count, know what I mean, eh?”). Finally, I settled on the universal response to an awkward question. I pretended I hadn’t heard it and moved on to discuss the weather (“Yes, it sure is hot today”). Of course, given the question, it might not have been the best move to discuss how hot we all were. Anyway, after a less than skillful segue into our opinion on Bangladesh and how much we enjoyed being here, we agreed to pose with the man’s girlfriend while he took some pictures of us. I can only imagine the stories that will be told when they’re displayed. “And these two bideshis, they didn’t even know what “copulate” meant!”

We were cautioned during our orientation training that we could expect some rather direct and unexpected questions during our time here. Our status as foreigners, or bideshis, makes us objects of curiosity for the people that we meet, and they tend to want to find out as much information as they can in a short period of time. This requires the discarding of the usual conversational pleasantries in favour of beginning the interrogation early. The rather disarming thing about this is that the questions are asked in the same friendly, matter-of-fact way that one might be asked one's educational background or how many times that one eats rice in a day. Questions about sex are meant to be answered with the same lack of concern that one would have in discussing sports or politics. And in asking these types of intimate questions, Bangladeshis may think they are doing nothing more than holding a mirror up to the foreigners and letting us fog it up with our own salacious details.

Though it’s perhaps too simplistic to say that all of the impressions of foreigners held by Bangladeshis have been the result of movies, television and other popular media, these sources of entertainment must have a considerable influence on the way people from “The West” are perceived. (I know that Westerners form only a small subset of the larger group of people from foreign countries, but for the purpose of this discussion, I make them the focus). Bangladesh finds itself well-supplied with the latest movies and television shows produced mainly by American studios. Though the more subtle and intelligent offerings are available (in pirated form, naturally) in shops throughout the country, the majority of the films and TV shows for sale are of the action-oriented, sexually-charged variety, where plenty of skin is shown and the good-looking leads always get it on at some point. Likewise, the television networks here provide their viewers with American movies around the clock; these are perhaps a bit more sedate to appease the local censors, but they still emphasize buff bods and liberal attitudes toward sex. On a recent visit to a village in the Rangamati community, I was surprised to enter one of the homes and find two men watching Wrestlemania videotapes. The usual lowbrow antics were on display, as was much of the girlfriend of one of the wrestlers, who, of course, ended up in the ring for the finale. As I watched the two men who were transfixed by all of this nonsense, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they think this type of entertainment is representative of Western society. I’m sure they recognize that not all of us walk around half-naked and hit each other with chairs, but even if they think that this our preferred spectator sport, they must think we’re up for anything.

So, it should come as no surprise when we’re asked rather frank questions about sex. The timing and location for receiving these questions can still throw one for a loop, though. The other day, one of my colleagues came into my office with a dictionary. “Can you help me, please?” she asked, “I need another word for this.” Looking at where her finger was pointing, I saw that she had highlighted the phrase “Nocturnal emissions”. “It sure is hot today, isn’t it?” I wanted to ask, but somehow, I knew I wasn’t getting off so easily this time, no pun intended. So, I ummmm’d and cleared my throat for a while and finally asked, “Do you know what these are?” “Yes,” she said impatiently, “They’re wet dreams. But what else can you call them?” Admitting that my sexual thesaurus was shooting blanks, I shook my head and said, “No, I think that’s the only thing I would call them, too.” “OK, thank you!” she said brightly and walked out of the room. To this day, I still don’t know what that conversation was about.

As we continue with our placements over the next two years, I expect that we’ll continue fielding many more of these types of inquiries. And I expect I’ll be talking about the weather enough to qualify as a meteorologist before I’m through.


Hans, the Netherlands said...

Well Glenn, I must admit: heavy stuff, especially for the "father in law"...
But to reassure, I'm only interested in the fact if you both are happy and have a nice time together!

Maybe it's a simple trick to give the person(s) who ask these private questions, a fat wink without saying anything and of course, with a James Bond-smile...

Warm greetings for both of you!

Ashley said...

Hi Glenn!
I really enjoyed this blog! I know exactly what you are going through. Thought I would add my story.

At a reputable Dhaka tailor shop.

Lady Tailor: Are you a woman?
Me: Uh.. I think so.
Lady: Please don't tell anyone.
Me: Okay...
Lady : My husband asks me why I am black on the outside?
Me: What you mean your skin? I have no idea
Lady: Are you married?"
Me: No
Lady: Is she? (meaning Karina who is in the changeroom)
Me: No
Lady: My husband wants to know why I am black on the outside?
Me: What?
Lady: I am black down here -SHE POINTS TO HER VAGAINA!
Lady: Are all women black down there?
Me: OMG WHAT? I have no idea. I guess... What?
Lady: Are you black down there?
Me: I am not telling you!
Lady: Please don't tell anyone

When Karina came out of the changeroom I made her leave immediately so I could tell her some Bangladeshi just asked what colour my pubic hair was!

Oooooooh Bangla.

Ashley said...

Now I know.. I should have brought up with weather!

Anonymous said...

I must have a need to escape work today. This is my second set of comments on your blog in the last 45 minutes. You get to the point where work just seems so mundane in the face of world issues like sex in a foreign land. And people think the Palestinian question is a thorny knot.

What gets me on these foreign treks is the disconnect between the prudish and the prurient side of any give culture. There is the official prudishness that we all hear about, and then there is the reality whose bluntness is at best a red face, if not a red letter, experience.

In all my trips to Asia, both China and Korea, I am a true exotic -- in almost every sense of the word. The short, balding rotund fellow is not so much exotic because he is a westerner [that makes him a curiosity] as because of the full beard on my face.

The seductiveness of hair! In lands where facial and bodily hair are not the norm, I am considered truly exotic. Samson's strength was his hair, which Dalilah cut off -- emasculation indeed [and I bet you thought it was about the jawbone of an ass].

There is a wonderful photo of me taken at the entrance to the Shanghai Science Center where I am surrounded by school age children. The stare of curiosity on their faces verges on comically precious. I am the monkey who escaped from the zoo and can talk. Now that's curiosity.

What is not captured is the moment when I take my leave and gesture for them to touch my beard. And some of them do reach out with squeals of great delight. One young girl of about 10 or 11 actually came up to me and kissed me on the cheek. Now this stepped over a boundary in her culture, if not in mine. This was exotic.

Of course, innocence wrapped completely around this; there was nothing even remotely sexual in this encounter. But touching the foreigner with his permission is one thing; kissing him is an act of boldness that probably surprised her as much as it did me.

Among my many adventures with Asian food and Chinese restaurants, I am often in a private room with friends and colleagues. This is more about containing the group in one place than about anything else. But the privacy is both a privilege and a delight [you have to eat in a Chinese restaurant in Asia to get the full meaning of this -- but that's a story for another time].

On one such occasion, a young girl at a Shanghai restaurant was so intrigued by me that should couldn't help staring. She was not Shanghainese, but from a small village. It is one thing to be overwhelmed as a country person in a big city; it is quite something else to find oneself in the almost titillating position of serving a foreigner -- a monkey that can talk.

Her country upbringing made her less "uptight" than her city counterparts. In other words, she had a delightful boldness that would probably have gotten her fired if her bosses knew how she was acting.

After a round of many pictures and my allowing her to touch the hair on my arms and face, things escalated to what I considered the embarrassing moment. These gestures were not at issue; my Chinese colleague was causing the problem.

He was inviting her in Chinese to spend the night with me [go on a date] and I didn't quite understand what he was doing. But it became evident as the night wore on, and I had to insist he stop because he was embarrassing me as well as leading her down a path I would not go.

For my Chinese colleague, my behavior was odd. I'm a man; she's a woman [more a girl] and sex was expected. If I didn't agree, she might think it was her fault or that she had somehow offended me. I was being unfair to her. What's the problem?

In the land of Mao, one runs into the prudish-to-an-extreme coupled with easy sex that is expected but is not talked about. In the post Cultural Revolution era, there has been a marked rise in concubinage -- something Mao sought to stamp out as part of the imperial days.

It seems that men have one wife and one child, but many girlfriends. The more girlfriends, the more viral the man is. Not to have girlfriends is a sign of weakness. This is a very macho world.

Everyone knows that this is a way of life; even your wife knows about it, but pretends not to. If indeed your wife has evidence that you have girlfriends and can prove it, then she can divorce you and take half of everything you own, as well as get sole custody of the kid. The laws condemn the practice that everyone practices, even the women.

Prudishness increases as your career moves up the ladder, which in China is about moving up the ladder of power in the Party. The higher up the organization you are the more you are expected to refrain from extramarital liaisons. You are supposed to be the paragon of good behavior and anything that you do to cast doubt on that prefection casts doubt on the Party -- a definite no no. The irony is the more power you have or crave, the less sex you get.

Given this "open culture", one often encounters table talk that revolves around sex. At one dinner in my honor with mixed company [men and women], the men got into a heavy [if not heated] discussion about how many times a week they got sex [copulate, get it on, etc] with their girlfriends [that is, how many girlfriends do you have?].

Of course, this question was hurled at me with just the slightest hint of salaciousness. It was not an innocent question, most notably because all the women at the table immediately began to examine their napkins more closely while the men smiled with a sly gleam. So how often does the fat man who looks like Father Chrismas [aka the talking monkey] get it off or on with a woman?

This is one of those rare occasions when I actually turned red -- not a response I am used to. I demurred not by talking about the weather but by saying we Westerners do not talk about such private things in a public venue like a business dinner. That got them to laugh, clearly indicating that I was some kind of sissy or whimp.

Undeterred, and a little angry, I switched the subject by asking them what they thought of the current political situation in China especially after the Tianamen Square incident.

Now the tables were turned and their faces turned red. Of course, they did not answer, and I went on to say that here in China we do not easily talk about politics in public, just as in the West we do not easily talk about sex in public. I got my point across.

Sex ain't easy in a foreign land, and the closer my friendship develops with my Chinese colleagues, the "freer" they feel about doing good things for me, like finding a woman to spend the night with me at my hotel or in my apartment. They have a hard time considering abstinence a virtue, even when I explain to them that my abstinence is not prudishness or unnatural, but a health-and-safey issue.

Being hooked up with a hooker in a hotel is not my idea of fun anywhere in the world, never mind in a foreign land like China.

What I think is more interesting is what constitutes prudishness and prurience? Despite our rather prurient culture, we westerners don't really consider sex an appropriate topic of conversation -- at dinner or anywhere. Some would claim we do not have a natural understanding of sex [notice I didn't say this is unnatural].

Sex is part of nature; monkeys do it, so why not you. Yes, but monkeys don't talk about it, even if they play with themselves in public.

So you come to a sophisticated city like Shanghai and find a Sex Museum as one of its cultural highlights. I haven't been there yet and I'm not sure if I will. I think it focuses more on birth control than on actual sex -- too clinical for me. It takes all the prurient fun out of sex, which may be the intention in the first place.

Considering sex natural seems to take the salaciousness out of it. There is no prurience, no hidden meaning, no seduction. One doesn't go to a Chinese movie to see porn. One doesn't go to an Indian movie to see kissing on the screen, which is considered pornographic. But one can talk about sex and copulation, mano a mano, even if the woman is standing next to you [unacknowledged and ignored].

I'll take prurience any day over considering sex as no more than a natural act. Seduction is a whole lot more fun than table talk. Sin has merit; we should all revel in it, but never talk about it because it denudes sin of its sinfulness.

Much fun...victor

Anonymous said...

Me again...I just noticed a wonderful freudian slip in my last blog on sex: I refer to me as viral rather than virile. Now this is too cool to pass up unnoticed, even if I made the mistake. Viral as in virus-haunted, vs virile as in manly. And we are talking about appropriate both words are even if I meant to say virile and not viral. Victor