Published in The Daily Star on Monday, 11 May 2015.
Home away from home
Dr Fahmida Khatun
HE is a graduate from Bangladesh. In the beginning of the 2000s, he migrated to the US. Now he owns three restaurants in Manhattan, New York, and has employed fifteen Bangladeshis. This effervescent person represents those who have struggled through and made their way to success by hard work, perseverance and sincerity in a foreign land. There are many like him in the US.
As we enter one of his eateries, we find a long queue of customers, all of whom are non-Bangladeshis. When our turn comes and we start speaking Bangla, everyone on the other side of the counter gleams and hastily ushers us to a table. In the next one hour the owner and employees of the restaurant focus mostly on us in between attending other customers. Politics, mayoral elections, the law and order situation and the business environment – all come up in the discussion. I realise that even though they live abroad, their hearts meander across Bangladesh. I also feel that they still see the potential of Bangladesh despite the chaotic situations and political disturbances.
As we see customers wait for their turn, we ask for the bill, but face an embarrassing situation. The owner refuses to accept any payment since we are guests from Bangladesh. Bangladeshis have a reputation of being hospitable both within and outside their own country. When you stop for fuel in a remote gas station or go to a grocery store in a foreign land and meet a Bangladeshi, he will promptly invite you to his house for dinner even though you have never met him before. This is how Bangladeshis automatically connect with each other while we are far away from home.
On my way back home from the restaurant that day, sitting in a subway train, I think of the other side of the story. There are many successful professionals in large organisations including banks, insurance and private firms, universities, development organisations and many other places in the US. Some of them have earned the respect of their co-workers for their excellent work. But their role is disappointing when it comes to extending help to other Bangladeshis. Young graduates of Bangladesh graduating from good universities in the US need reference and guidance to survive in the fiercely competitive job market of the country. Ironically, success of our Bangladeshi professionals is not balanced with generosity and magnanimity to help these graduates.
As a professional based in Bangladesh, I refer many Bangladeshi students, some of whom have worked as interns with me, to my former colleagues in Bangladesh or my professional acquaintances holding high positions in the US with the hope that the new job seekers would get some advice from them. Unfortunately, my experience has been mostly disappointing so far. Apart from a few supportive responses, I either receive a very official, non-committal response or an indifferent reply from some while others express their inability to help and many others don’t even bother to reply to my email at all.
As I try to understand the cause behind such a non-cooperative attitude, I realise that there could be a number of reasons for their behaviour. It could be that they probably suffer from an inferior complex at their workplace or they actually might not even be in a commanding position. Due to this they feel that they could face problems in their job if they help another compatriot. They may also feel that their job is their prized possession, which they have acquired through hard work, so they don’t want to see others reaching that position so easily. Moreover, their behaviour could simply be a result of the common human instinct – jealousy and the desire to prove that they are the best and no other Bangladeshi can ever achieve what they have. They could also suffer from insecurity and a lack of confidence which prohibit them from encouraging or helping any Bangladeshi to the job market.
As opposed to this, professionals from our neighbouring country India are always looking for opportunities to bring another fellow Indian wherever they go. During my days in London and now in New York, I have seen this myself. Many of us complain about Indians being omnipresent – from small businesses to corporate jobs to academics. Instead of complaining, we should learn how and why their presence is so strong everywhere. They look at the bigger picture. They want to project the best of their country. They operate with a vision to present their country all over the world. This is real patriotism.
To a New Yorker, Bangladeshis are known as assiduous, sincere, resilient and polite people. That is why we see them in the corner shops in New York subway stations, many eateries in Jamaica or Astoria or even Manhattan. With the encouragement of established Bangladeshi-origin professionals, we could see more talented Bangladeshi youths in white colour jobs as well. Sadly, the concern of egotistical professionals is confined to criticism and cynicism, instead of attempting to improve the image of their country. Bangladesh has problems. But it also has many attributes to be proud of. I feel Bangladesh and its success stories are terribly undersold here in the US.
The writer is Research Director at CPD, currently a Visiting Scholar at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York.