Much like countries newly transformed into democracies, people are not always prepared for sudden freedoms. This is notable in the large numbers of international students that Bangladesh exports across the world, outwardly for education but motivated by migration prospects.
Only a few weeks ago, two Bangladeshi students who had arrived in Australia in the months prior died while driving recklessly and intoxicated with alcohol. It is alleged they were drag racing late at night before one collided with a pole. The accident was so tragic and brutal that police at the scene described one of the cars as having “disintegrated.”
While this was an extreme case, having social freedoms not present in their home countries can be very exciting for newly arrived students but also present dangers for those unable to manage the access to both alcohol and sexual liberation.
In an article for an Australian newspaper titled “The Secret Lives of International Students”, several students mostly from Asia relate the enjoyment they experienced being able to attend parties and concerts freely, experiment with drugs and interact with the opposite sex. For example, Indonesian student Dea says “Back home my friends couldn’t even go on a date wearing shorts, let alone be in a room with a boy.”
Several homosexual students spoke about their freedom to experiment in Australia but how they would need to conform to arranged, heterosexual marriages back home after they graduated.
Many are able to navigate and enjoy the greater tolerance and freedoms of the West, particularly women who are often subject to stricter social controls in their ancestral lands.
However, there is the dark side. For example, I have seen several newly arrived male students on sexual assault charges after they mistakenly interpreted local women as giving them alluring signals. The reality was that the girls were dressed normally but wearing what to Muslim students was scantily clad clothing such as short skirts or tight T-shirts.
Sometimes the women smiled in what to locals would be considered as completely innocent and merely polite, but what appeared to males from a repressed sexual culture as proof that Western women were sexually available, even to them.
Likewise, with alcohol, which is forbidden in Muslim countries and taboo in many others. I have a strong memory of seeing men depicted in Bollywood or Bangladeshi movies become suddenly and dangerously drunk as soon as they have even the tiniest sip of alcohol. It is an utterly inaccurate message that alcohol cannot be consumed in an enjoyable, healthy way.
"Tragedies associated with inability and experience with social freedoms will be more common if no priority or education is placed upon such matters."
One of my own relatives became horribly embarrassed one night after becoming heavily intoxicated to the point of vomiting. Having come to Australia to study commercial cookery, despite having a Master’s degree, it was the first time she had consumed alcohol. She didn’t eat anything beforehand, drank strong spirits too quickly and a physiology unaccustomed to the delights of alcohol crashed to a humiliating end.
Hers was a juvenile rite of passage that many youths have endured and learnt from. But for her it was never to be spoken about again, such was her shame, let alone there be any mention of it to her parents and relatives at home. There was a genuine perception that it might damage marriage prospects, for it had the potential to tarnish her as a party girl. Being dangerously drunk as a single woman was one rung below no longer being a virgin.
For others, not being able to manage alcohol can lead to finding themselves in dangerous situations, behaving inappropriately with others and, at worst, being prone to acting recklessly and impulsively, much like the students killed in the car accident.
In reality, Bangladeshi culture does not prepare young adults for such freedoms. There is little emphasis on building autonomy or steadily increasing access to freedoms throughout the teenage years with an expectation of virtual independence in the twenties, as there is in Western culture. The conformity and strict regulation of feeding, eating and behavior happens early in Western parenting styles. For example, babies are quickly shifted away from the marital bed and allowed to cry themselves to sleep. The practice is known as controlled crying.
In Asian cultures like Bangladesh, the children are infact expected to conform strongly to clan and cultural expectations once they being to achieve young adulthood, be it with occupational or marital choices. There is no emphasis on children achieving autonomy and then navigating their own life. Some of these norms are changing as the middle classes have greater access to Western norms, but it doesn’t change the fact that the average Bangladeshi student arriving overseas is unlikely to have ever done even the slightest bit of housework, let alone undertake paid employment in roles that would be shameful in their homelands.
They would also have had very little experience with alcohol or in intimate relationships with the opposite sex.
There is a growing awareness of such problems, but tragedies associated with inability and experience with social freedoms will be more common if no priority or education is placed upon such matters.