The Eyes that Followed
Bangladesh. Photo courtesy Sykina Butts.
Impatiently, I waited for the rest of my group to exit the plane. I scanned the line for Elizabeth, Mercedes or Dr. Long. None of them were popping up quickly enough, so I checked to see if there were any free WiFi networks available. A missed call icon showed up on my screen. My Aunt Becky had tried to call me right before I left Chicago for Doha, Qatar; she probably wanted to tell me not to get kidnapped and to let her know if there were any Black folks in Bongladesk, as she called it. I smirked at the thought of my first telling her I was travelling to the South Asian country of Bangladesh. She bucked her eyes and bellowed, “What da HELL business you got in Bongladesk?”
I brushed Aunt Becky to the back of my mind as Elizabeth and the rest of our party emerged from the crowd. We made our way through Doha International Airport and eventually caught a shuttle to a hotel for the night. Elizabeth and I shared a room. While I prepared to shower, Elizabeth went through a book she found in our hotel room.
“Do you think it would be OK for me to wear shorts to go work out here?” Elizabeth asked as she flipped the pages in the book. “I don’t want to offend anyone.”
“It’s up to you,” I replied.
“I’ll be glad when we get to the forest and away from all of this.”
I pondered over what Elizabeth meant. She decided not to work out that night, and we slept for the brief time we had left before our departure. The night passed and so did another five hour flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views from our aircraft window changed from the modern, polished looking Doha to the foggy, forested Bangladesh. The airport in Dhaka was flooded with people of all shades; some of them were darker than me and some were brighter than Elizabeth. Every face we passed expressed impatience from waiting and several eyes jumped at the sight of Elizabeth and Dr. Long.
“Who do you think will draw more attention?” Elizabeth whispered as we passed through Immigration, “Me or you?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered back.
“I think it will be me.”
I didn’t think any more about Elizabeth’s question but time proved her right. Bangladeshi people stared at Dr. Long and her whenever we went out in public. When we visited a museum, they became the main exhibit. It was unquestioned if they were American. On the other hand, my confirmation of citizenship was followed by three questions: “Are you sure? Were you born there? How did your people get there?” I simply smiled and offered brief history lessons. To Elizabeth’s relief, we finally made it to the Suburbans, a forest in the hills of Bangladesh. Four days passed as we traveled up and down the Ganges River.
Eventually, we stopped in the city of Chittagong. Children crowded me, tapped their mouths, and squawked, “Hello, hello, hello!” They asked for money, food and whatever else we could offer. My intention was to divide the sweets I had brought from the boat with as many of them as I could but a boy grabbed my bag. His glazed eyes peered up at me and he begged for me to release the entire bag to him. So I did. As the rest of the children began to brawl with him over the bag, I slipped by them to catch up with my party.
In that instance, I thought back to Elizabeth’s comment about all of this. I understood things here were different than back home in America and that a separate culture, a religion and people made up this community. I understood how seeing the abject poverty coincide with beauty and glory of all of this could unsettle you, make you fearful, want to run away or draw comparisons to what you consider normal.
And frankly, it was a feeling I was ashamed to experience.
The boy’s hungry eyes stayed with me for the rest of my time in Bangladesh. They flashed before me when an elderly woman pleaded with us for money at a train station on our way to Sreemangal. They stalked me when our group sat down to full meals. They watered when Elizabeth rejected her portions and I ate both mine and some of hers.
His eyes followed me back to America. They traveled to my cousin’s house in the suburbs and to my Aunt Becky’s doublewide trailer in my hometown.
And his eyes waved goodbye and left when my Aunt Becky said, “Well, Toot! Ion know what ya expectin’ when ya butt went over there. Everybody po’ somewhere. Can’t help it.”