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.