The ride to Mymensingh in a rented tour bus with almost thirty other teenagers for four hours was an experience to remember, to say the least. The field trip began early in the morning where by 8 am students in the English Medium section in the 11th grade stood sleepily in the courtyard of Rajuk Uttara Model School, waiting for teachers and the principal to share some words of wisdom and warnings. We were to visit the Bangladeshi Agricultural University in Mymensingh where we were given a tour of their 400 acre campus and various museums relating to environmental studies and preservations. What should have been a three hour bus ride took almost five (naturally, as most rides in Bangladesh) given the traffic from Ijtema (a religious pilgrimage taking place in northern Dhaka).
The students were most excited about the journey rather than the field trip to BAU itself, as it was a chance to be out of the classroom and openly mingle, sing, flirt, take photos, and gossip. The energy and hormones from otherwise restricted group of 17 to 20 year olds was very much expected. The girls took the rare chance to style their hair, put on some makeup, and color their nails black while still adoring the green and white uniform. The boys came prepared with music and practices pick up lines. At some point I was asked to join in them in the middle of the bus where they simultaneously danced to popular Bollywood songs and sang Bangla songs unknown to me. No one wanted to sit down despite having to hold onto the seats as the bus bumped around the countryside. I was told of the various gossip- who dated who, who broke up with who, who liked who, and everything else that made me almost nostalgic for my high school days in Tucson. We stopped at one point for gas where despite my objections students bought me local snacks- roasted peas and spiced nuts, and salted pickled fruit. In just a few hours, I became instantly close to the students in this particular group from Class 11, Business Studies.
The relationship between teachers and students in Bangladeshi schools is one that I have been particularly keen to observe lately. The candid respect and care that many show to their teachers is uncanny. For example, students took the initiative in the bus to distribute snacks and made sure that we the teachers had it first. Some would come up to the front of the bus to check in on me and Farhana, the other teacher and my mentor for my tenure at Rajuk. They took the time to engage us in polite conversation, even though it was not necessary. Students let each other become natural leaders of the trip and make sure that everyone was in place.
I suppose this was very different from my field trip experiences in the United States were the boundary between a teacher and the student is maintained in many degrees. All this time, I thought that it was more in the United States that a teacher was able to have an open, friendly relationship with their students, but I see that it is not necessarily the case. While students here are afraid of their teachers, they also almost look to them as a parent and a friend if the teacher happens to be kind. The idea of respecting your elders is very much engrained in the culture in Bangladesh in all levels. This of course happens in the United States too, but I believe that the boundaries are more concrete in the relationships. For example, I would never ask my teacher in high school about their relationship status and share personal love stories, or give them a ride back home in my car when needed (apparently, common here), purchase them snacks, and check in on how they are doing during non-class periods. Here in Bangladesh, it has never occurred to me as inappropriate. Rather, it is a sense of a new kind of respect I am just not used to yet. Also, it is a testament to Bangladesh’s culture of hospitality, informality, and respect for the elder.
I spoke about this dynamic with my mother on the phone the next day who told me that indeed in Bangladesh, hospitality is something ingrained in people’s upbringing. She told me how when she was growing up, extended family, friends, and neighbors showing up to your home was the most common and expected. Entertaining guests was something you learn naturally from a young age. She claimed that since moving to the United States she has become more formal in her behavior. Calling before going over to a close person’s home was absurd. She told me that in schools, while teachers were strict, if a teacher ever showed some ador- a beautiful Bangla word that somewhat means affection- the students will give all they can to respect you and become close to you. She laughed and told me that in a school setting, students are used to the environment of discipline and studying, so even a slight ador is met with overwhelming responses.
The fisheries museum at BAU was impressive, unexpectedly. Having seen many museums in Dhaka since coming here, I was shocked to see how well sea animals and fish were presented inside the two story building. It was artist meet scientist inside, where wooden rods and various traditional fishing tools were used along with representations of nature to present various creatures to the untrained eye. Many of the fish were preserved in clean jars around a room, where I also encountered a very grotesque preserved bat as well (random?). Another room included computer modules, projectors, as well as instruments used to research fisheries with neat labels. Seeing the museum gave me a hope for the push currently taking place in the country for environmental preservation.
We also visited other sites and museums around BAU. In a particular garden, I got to taste baukal– a small green fruit that tasted like a more airy, crispier, subtle version of an apple. The fruit itself is known as a kul, but here termed baukul because it was made in BAU. The principal who came along to the tour with his wife also personally introduces me to plants and fruits that I had never seen or tasted before in my life. This example of the extent of the country’s fertility and vegetation was beautiful.
After a lunch of rice, chicken roast, salad and eggs, a soccer match started outside among the boys. The girls played a game of pillow passing where prizes were given, and the members of the winning soccer team were also given prizes. There was a semi-formal formatted ceremony near the end in a dining hall where such prizes and gifts were given to participants, winners, as well as teachers for coming and helping.
I realized that study tours were literally designed as a way for students to bond with each other as well as the teachers. I liked this idea of it being not just an academic tour but a social one, and much needed as well. It was a break for the students in what is otherwise a life of studying and restrictive activities. I was really appreciative of the idea and the thought behind it all.