It’s my mom’s fault.
It is my go-to excuse whenever I have to cancel plans for a get-together with friends; grounded, had to study for the SATs, or a school night. The list is endless. But this time, it was not just an excuse; it was The Reason. It really was my mom’s fault, and even she admits it. So I was caught. Captivated. Transfixed.
For the past four years, I have spent two weeks of my summer vacation volunteering at a school in Bangladesh, that little country cut out of India. At first, it was a jarringly disorienting experience. Bangladeshi people looked at me as if I were an alien. I’ll never forget the time when my family and I were sitting in a van waiting for the driver to refill the tank, when inquisitive faces pressed up against the window as if we were in the main attraction in a zoo. Driving on Bangladeshi roads is a test of endurance; they are like the no-man’s-land in World War I, full of holes and craters from seasonal floods shifting the sand that is the foundation for the asphalt. So, what to do but drive over these obstacles at over 50mph? We feel everything during the 10 hours it takes to get to the school that is our destination. And the heat? Oh, the heat. Oppressive, suffocating, infuriating heat.
Each year, the staff of the NGO in the little town of Chilmari greets us with smiles and warm welcomes. They graciously include us in the morning devotions and staff activities such as playing badminton. Even though they realize that I am from a completely different culture, they accept me as one of their own by greeting me every morning and not laughing when I respond in my disjointed Bengali. The kids treat us even more warmly. Every morning, students in grades one through seven greet us with a shrilling, resounding “Good Maahhhhning” that is sure to wake me from my stupor. Regardless of the weather or what mood they might be in, the Bangladeshi kids that I encounter are always ready with smiles. Whenever I walk past a kid in the school, he makes sure to stop and wave at me with a smile. This was a refreshing difference, as I was coming from an American society in which most kids walk past you without so much a glance. The Bangladeshi attitude towards others is one of the most notable things I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life, as I’ve learned the powerful effects that a warm smile can have on a stranger.
Because of the people and their perennially positive attitude, I have become quite attached to my relationships with kids there. One thing that contributed to this is my sense of humor. During our English lessons, each little gaffe during class gained me more fans. First, it was making faces at the students. Then, I started winking at the students, which garnered smiles and imitations from both the girls and the boys. But what really won their support was my ‘stealing’ their flip flops. I would slide them out from under their unsuspecting feet during class and furtively hide the shoes in another student’s desk or backpack. My pranks and antics were things the kids could comprehend, something we could both enjoy, despite our age differences and inability to communicate through Bengali or English.
I am often guilty of attaching a lot of value to words. I believe strongly in the power of words to communicate and discuss ideas; I excel in Socratic seminars and debates in which I must defend my views; I have been part of my high school newspaper staff for three years because it provides an outlet to express myself. But laughter can do things language cannot, such as communicating friendliness and a kind demeanor, which can make a tall, yellow-skinned foreigner seem more like a human to an intimated Bangladeshi elementary school student. Bangladesh has given me the opportunity to build relationships not on words, but on laughs, and that’s what caught me. It’s my mom’s fault
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