On Being a Brit in Bangladesh (and back!)


I met Ken via the internet several months ago and knew quite quickly that we both shared the same love for the countries we both live in. He lives in Bangladesh and myself Russia, with this said I’m very honored that he created a post for my blog. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

From Ken

I’m very grateful to Steve for inviting me to write this post. As I write, sitting in a lovely cottage in Cambridge, UK belonging to an old friend, I suspect this post will be very therapeutic for me. In a sense, I’m dealing with grief at the moment.

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My family and I first came to Bangladesh in 2006. We immediately fell in love with the country, its people and their culture. By October 2008 we had moved there to live. We worked for a Non-Government Organisation called LAMB and lived in the grounds of the complex based in the poor and rural area of Dinajpur in the northwest.

Primarily a health and development project, my wife ran the Rehab therapy department and I taught O level Maths and Science at the English Medium school. During the five years living there I began writing professionally and turned full-time as freelance writer earlier in 2013. Both our children went to the same school where I taught.

It was an immense privilege to be a British guy in Bangladesh. Before going, I really wasn’t much of a traveler – I couldn’t even find Bangladesh on the map! I had never been to Asia before and had no idea what Bangla culture would be like. I found out that Bangladesh has the seventh largest population in the world despite a land mass less than the UK and that 70% of Bangladeshis are poor, live in rural village communities and depend on the land to live. It’s a fragile existence. I made the mistake of thinking that ‘poor’ must equal ‘unhappy’ and figured I was going there to make life better for Bangladesh.

How wrong I was. Bangladesh made my life better instead.

At Christmas 2012 we made the final painful decision that we must leave Bangladesh at the end of 2013 for the benefit of our daughter’s higher education. The UK has some silly rules governing who counts as British when it comes to university, which has nothing to do with your passport and everything to do with how long you’ve been in the country. So we knew we had a year to say goodbye to Bangladesh. It wasn’t enough.

Five years just whizzed by and it feels like there’s still so much I haven’t learned, haven’t explored, haven’t tasted. The people and culture got under our skin and 2013 flew by faster than we could bear. Most of our friends at LAMB were poor, living in mud huts and with very few of the commodities we in the West take for granted. Yet, I found myself more at home in their simple, uncluttered lives than I do with my lifestyle in Britain.

One of the great things about living in a culture very different to your own is that you learn more about yourself, your own culture and your preconceptions of who people are and what they need in life. It’s like holding a mirror up to yourself and seeing all the things you’d missed before. I learned about what I disliked about being British but I also learned what I liked, missed and was proud of too. I learned that while Bangladesh does indeed have many issues – poverty, malnutrition, inequality and a constant battle with the elements causing floods one moment and droughts the next being just some – this doesn’t mean that Bangladeshis are to be pitied and looked down on. Far from it.

In fact, probably my favorite place in the whole world is a little village a mile or so away from LAMB where some of our friends live. My family and I love to stay there enjoying great community spirit, friendship and excellent curry! Over this last year we made sure to visit as often as we could. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

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We left Bangladesh just a few days ago after thirty days of saying goodbye. Along the way there were many, many tears but there was also great laughter; throughout it all there was much love. I hope the few photos I share here give you a flavor of what we were blessed to experience for five years.

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What the future holds for my family and I back in the UK I don’t know. At the moment, we feel shell-shocked, bereaved and a little bit lost. This will pass, of course, but it will take time to re-learn what it means to be British. Will we return to Bangladesh? You bet! In fact, our friends are already preparing for it. As soon as the rains come in mid-March they will begin making a mud hut just for us when we visit again. The curry is probably already bubbling away and a cup of cha will undoubtedly be waiting for me.

I can’t wait.

Feel free to read more about Bangladesh and LAMB over at my blog KenthinksaloudI also write a blog about writing called writeoutloudI hope to meet you there!

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19 thoughts on “On Being a Brit in Bangladesh (and back!)

      1. Ah. I don’t know Sawston, but I’ve been to Duxford, Melborn, Foxton and Cherry Hinton, among others. Hope it’s not too dreary for you at this time of year 😉
        A Happy New Year, and may time pass quickly until you return to Bangladesh! Do you speak Sylheti…?

      2. Ah I know those places well from the days when I lived in Cambridge permanently – especially Cherry Hinton! The weather IS dreary but then that’s British weather for you :-/
        No I don’t speak Sylheti as I was over the other side of the country. It’s really just a Bangla dialect anyway and I force all my many Sylheti friends to speak Bangla with me – they all think I’m posh! lol.

      3. Well…. all Indo-European languages are just a dialect of Sanskrit, really 😉

        As an aside to your story – Cambridgeshire paid for my higher education, despite me not being a UK passport holder. But then, I’d been paying taxes there for over a decade. Swings and roundabouts. Bit of a bummer for you, though, I do sympathise.

      4. ha ha – true though with a heavy influence of the Persian-Arabic of course!
        My wife and I did our degrees in Cambridge and lived there for 8 happy years so despite the weather (which is worse in Cumbria where we actually live) we’re very happy to be back 🙂

  1. What an inspirational story in deed and a true one at that. The are so many naive people in this world and your story shows just how one can adapt to whatever situation evening in a poor country as Bangladesh. My last visit was to Bangladesh in 2010 to see my father who was not well I only spent 5 days there and what I was use to and what was there was so unreal. No running water solar powered lights we only used at night, no TV or internet as mobile phones we only got reception no again. the air the healthy as there was no main roads where my father lived..They lived off the land and at the end of my 5 day stay I did not want to leave. I thought yes I could get use to this. Money was not important but the poor people from the village made me feel important.
    Ever since those 5 days It always crosses my mind that yes one day I will take my family to see a poor country that in itself is so rich in culture.
    Most of all I admire you and your story cause you have lived it.

    Kodus Miah

    1. Thank you Kodus – your comments were very lovely and a blessing to me. I think we can all probably learn from the various cultures around the world instead of viewing others from our own cultural stereotypes. That’s the beauty of visiting other cultures – even when they seem so trapped in poverty. Thanks for your comments 🙂

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