Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Personal Space

Because of a sudden downpour at the usual time - 7am - I was late going for my morning run today. When I reached the park at 8:10, I found it empty. Instead of sharing this park with dozens of others - mostly walkers - I had the whole place to myself.

I found myself wondering why this was so. Had the numerous people who walked here every morning, as early as 6am, been scared off by the rain? Were they all busily getting ready for another day at the battlefields of work? Did they decide to forego the Park authority's stern advice, spelled out in bold letters at vantage points throughout the park: the crisp "Health is Wealth", the common-sensical "Of all exercises, Walking is best" and the logic-defying "All the wealth you accumulate has to be shared with others, but your health is for your own enjoyment only."

But here is the weird part. Instead of being pleased that I had this small but open place to myself, I was actually missing those people! I realized that I was learning to become a Bangladeshi again, and that my notion of personal space - once so important to me when I was in the US - was slowly eroding.

Whether or not you agree with Sartre that existence precedes essence, you have to agree that an important essence of being Bangladeshi is making do with tiny amounts of space: an inevitable side-effect of 130 million people sharing a land smaller than Wisconsin. From the moment a person is born, to their deathbed, they must cope and thrive while surrounded by people.

You can call it "making do" with small space - or you can say that they are violating my personal space. It really does not matter. The point is that Bangladeshis deal with this issue heroically every day. But this same heroics can drive foreigners to distraction. Some days I marvel at the heroics, other days I want to pull my hair out.

I marvel at the way a romantic couple makes the long walk up to one of the large flyovers in the city, because there are no pedestrians on top, and they think they are alone on top of the world. I marvel at gaggles of schoolchildren, or the streams of garment workers who flutter out like so many butterflies from their institutions. I marvel at the way shopkeepers at the Bazaar who manage to keep track of the orders of all the customers who are never in line and always crowding them. I marvel at the way that drivers, rickshaw pullers and bicyclists all share the road, sometimes getting in each others' way, always navigating through whatever tiny space they can find, but never losing their cool. And I marvel at the traffic policemen who, despite all the crazy traffic, keep on directing traffic to reduce jams and get people to where they are going. (Well, most of the time. Sometimes the traffic cops seem asleep or just stand there without doing anything.)

I pull my hair out when the Bangladeshi passenger contingent on a flight to Middle East, upon hearing the announcement, rushes to the gate as one monolithic mass, almost trampling each other and small children in their hurry to board the plane. Is the plane going to take off without them? Once inside the plane, when I am standing on the aisle placing the bags on the overhead, why must they push and shove past me instead of giving me 5 seconds to sit down and get out of their way? When I am at a crowded place, such as a Bazaar, I pull my hair out when I am pushed, shoved, stepped upon and sometimes even poked by umbrellas. But no one else seems to mind this kind of behavior - whether on sending or receiving end - it seems they grew up with it and know no better.

Encroachment on personal space goes beyond the physical. What about the intense stares one receives on the road or public space, specially if one is foreign or female (or both?) And at the workspace, instead of delegating work and letting employees complete it in their own intellectual space, we Bangladeshis love to butt in and micromanage. When someone falls sick, every well-wisher has a recommendation for this medicine and that doctor.

So there you have it. For better or worse, to be a Bangladeshi means learning to make do with very little personal space. And it looks like I am getting used to it, even as I enjoy a morning run.

No comments: