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Natalia Yang: Blog Post 2 - A Single Story of Dhaka

Natalia Yang: Blog Post 2 - A Single Story of Dhaka

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During the orientation before my internship in Dhaka, one of the interns shared a TED talk called The Single Story. This is one of the most insightful TED talks that I’ve watched, and it has helped me re-think how I interact with environments, with people, and with my own worldview. It is the idea that through various mediums, news, literature or films, we perpetuate archetypes of different groups of people and apply universal, bland and stereotypical characteristics to unique individuals based on the colour of their skin, their origins or social-demographic backgrounds.

As I enter the second half of my 6 months here, I am engaging in a continuous process of shedding the socially-constructed, one-dimensional shield I came to Dhaka with, and replacing it with a fluid, colourful and endless patchwork cloak made up of personal experiences, new friendships and unique interactions. The one-dimensional story I came with didn’t include myself in it as a character. It was less a personal narration, rather a guide book, to ease myself into a chaotic new lifestyle blueprint. Now that I have taken the step to discard the single story, I can accept myself as a character embedded in the environment/setting and one that is just as easily moldable and changeable as my surroundings.

When I came to Bangladesh, I carried a single story with me of what I thought to expect of Dhaka: how I would be living, who I would be meeting, what I would be confronted with. The biggest culture shock for me was undergoing the process of taking that baseless plot and smashing it’s flimsy exoskeleton. Looking back, I realize that holding onto that single story kept me separated and distant from my surroundings, and this tactic was done from a place of fear. If I were to lose the single story that acted as a barrier between me and Bangladesh, I would lose my grounding in the familiarity of what I was accustomed to and what I thought I knew. However, when I started accepting certain customs and practices into my daily life, got to know the people living and interacting around me, these customs became normalized into my daily routine. They were no longer used to justify the single story, but opened up new branches of plotlines.

Before, I had the idea that Dhaka was a city made up of dirt roads, street side vendors, slums and cockroaches. While this city boasts all of the above, that is a one-sided image of the kaleidoscope that creats this metropolis. These were the images that I got from pictures of Bangladesh: dirty rivers, sallow faced labourers, and crowded narrow alleyway cum marketplaces. This is Bangladesh, and this is not Bangladesh.

This is a side of Bangladesh, but not what Bangladesh should be reduced to. These are photographs that come up in National Geographic, or images conjured from news articles detailing factory deaths, poverty and climate change. It’s iconic, ugly and beautiful, in the way the lined faces shown in worldly magazines can symbolize the beauty of humanity, and the horror of human-induced levels of poverty. However, it is exactly that: an icon, not a mass representation.

Photographs that reveal glimpses of a foreign culture living in an environment completely different from my own to be magnificent and awe-inspiring. However, if taken as independent representations, they end up exoticizing the people and cultures of a vast region. A pictures can be a thousand words, but the thousand words are told from a singular perspective of the photographer, and interpreted from minds that are already programmed with preconceived notions of “developing versus developed,” “savage versus civilized.” The images that I armed myself with as I came to Bangladesh were static representations of a society and a landscape that are undergoing constant and rapid changes.

The opportunity to travel is more than an opportunity for leisure. For me, it gave me the chance to take the fragmented glass pieces, the images that I have gathered about a region and its cultures, and fitting them into a broader mosaic, tossing the ones that prove to be colourless and supplementing the remaining with the patterns of a cultural mosaic to create an in-depth and comprehensive picture of the world we inhabit.

I was lucky to get to go to TEDxDhaka a week ago. One of the speakers shared a story about his conversation with a little girl that shaped his life direction. The little girl was the daughter of long-time friends of his from the U.K. On one of his travels back to the U.K, he stayed in their guestroom. As he was arranging his money on the dressing table, the little girl ran into his room to greet him. However, before she could enter the room, she hesitated and cast a curious and confused in his direction.

He leaned over and asked her what was wrong, for her to treat him suddenly as a stranger. She looked between the pile of money on the dressing table and him.

“Why do you have money?” she asked, “you’re from Bangladesh.”

The speaker explained his surprise, that she would say that. First of all, she was the daughter of close friends and someone he had watched grow up. Second, a little girl of five, she already had preconcieved notions of what people from certain countries should be like, what poverty looks like, and what wealth looks like.

Poverty and wealth do not follow strict lines of definition, and can not be designated to countries that are economically labeled as “low income,” “middle income,” or “high income.” Poverty infiltrates international and intranational borders, just as wealth can be concentrated in hubs across the world irregardless of national distinctions.  Minimizing the poverty and homelessness in a country with economic wealth is just as harmful as over-sensationalizing the poor in a less economically advantaged country. Designating a single story to an entire nation or continent diminishes the opportunity to learn from and share cultural understandings.

Cultural sensitivity may seem like something that is commonplace and easy like the natural interaction between humans, or much like “communication” can be just talking, but it can be a lot harder than its terminology deems. My short, short time in Bangladesh has taught me that keeping my mind open to multiple stories, even ones that don’t fit into neat boxes and categories (especially those ones), are instrumental in order to integrate social justice with international development.