Dhaka, City of Service


Where Everything is 'Yes'
Imagine a Soviet supermarket: an unimaginative expanse of plain tiles and simple shelves behind hefty glass counters; behind each counter a robust middle-aged lady in an apron and a white sanitary hat, or perhaps her younger equivalent with long legs and a flash of unnaturally red or blond hair in styles not seen in the west for several decades. They’d slip on a plastic glove before touching the food which was kept behind each counter, away from the customers and assorted by type.

In 2002 when I used to live in eastern Ukraine this was how I used to shop. At the bread counter, by pointing and with a smattering of Russian words, the sales lady would select loaves and I would pay her a few hryvnias. Then at the dairy counter the process would recur for the milk. Then the meats counter… and if you forgot that the eggs were kept with the dairy you’d have to go back. Ukraine was a rapidly changing country eleven years after independence and such scenes may have disappeared but in 2002 the supermarkets seemed as yet unaware the Soviet Union was gone.

It’s a cliché that under communist rule there’s no incentive for service, when workers get paid regardless, and it’s true those supermarket ladies did nought to disguise how they felt at the moment you approached: you would be greeted with anything from broad smiles to scowls. They’d have a joke or laugh at my nascent Russian, teach the Russian words for the products I wanted or huff at having to take out a roll of cold meat and put it through the slicing machine. I really enjoyed the emotional range at the supermarket, and at the mention of ‘service’ it’s the first thing I think of: inconsistent but ever so wonderfully real.

The other extreme is the experience of some of the western chain fast food outlets in Dhaka: set phrases, tested and polished smiles. The aim is to treat every customer the same.

It makes me laugh to experience it in Dhaka, being told how many minutes my food will take to be served, the dish is hot, ‘please come again’ and so on. In the west it’s a strategy with potential to raise standards but in Bangladesh with its strong sense of hospitality and genuine service ingrained in the culture, it has the reverse effect. It feels alien. I certainly enjoyed my interactions with the staff at a couple of fast food places much more after I started using their phrases against them, telling the waiters after how many minutes my food should be served and asking if the plate was hot before they could tell me. The waiters relaxed and the impressive service standards you find on the street, unaffected and genuine, came through. I think the best advice a restaurant manager in Dhaka could give their staff is, ‘be yourself. Pretend the customers are visiting relatives.’

There’s a payment system that involves using your ATM card, not credit card, at stores to pay for goods directly from your account, or get cash advances. In Australia it’s called Eftpos and has been around for many years. I am told a similar system is available at larger stores in Dhaka. But in this city there is a much more widespread local ‘Eftpos’ system and you don’t need an ATM card to use it. In my area, and I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary, without cash at hand I can get groceries, cigarettes, tea, fruit and vegetables, surf the internet, reload my phone, have a restaurant meal and as I discovered recently, even buy clothes. They also give cash advances, handy for when you have no change to pay a rickshaw. It’s so easy to establish transaction relationships with the vendors you frequent regularly; the convenience of both systems is the same, but while the formal Eftpos system relies on technology, the local Bangladeshi equivalent runs on something even more remarkable: trust.

In the west are numerous schemes to bring return-business: free samples, discounts etc. People carry coffee cards offering the umpteenth cup free. In Dhaka I was not allowed to buy a banana because the bunch was no good. In Dhaka tea stalls offer a free cup when they feel like it. It’s the same customer care in a more informal and personalised way. Trust abounds in Dhaka’s marketplace: for the country an enormous asset. The best part is they remember your accounts; mostly they don’t even write it down.

That’s only the start of service. Each morning when I leave the house I usually stop for a cup of tea on the way. The owner developed the habit of making it when he sees me coming along the street so when I reach the stall his arm is already extended, holding out a cup of hot tea for me. He knows I have no time in the mornings.

Once I was joking with the phone refill guy that I came so often he should know my number, gave the money and started to walk away… of course he didn’t know it… until the next time. He’d memorised it: now I really do just leave the money and walk off. There are numerous examples of extraordinary, personal and sincere service in this city. Once when I was buying furniture and explained I had no tape measure the lady in the store let me borrow hers for a day to measure my apartment!

And don’t even start on the village: the way villagers regularly buy each other tea is best left unmentioned in Sydney, for there are those who will understand it as a strange form of communism or opportunism; unfortunately the very concept of simple day-to-day generosity is under threat there. ‘What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours.’ People actually believe that; fortunately it’s not everyone, but it’s unremarkable to see a group of friends discussing who didn’t have the soup when splitting a restaurant bill.

On the home front the service differential is also there, at least for the Dhaka middle class. In an average Sydney apartment block residents might pitch in to pay for a cleaning service (for the hallways) and maybe a gardening service (if there is a big garden) to come by once a week. In most apartment buildings there is no darwan, no rubbish collector who comes to the door; not even a resident caretaker. There are no buas, no cooks, no drivers and no houseboys. In Sydney most commonly both husband and wife must work full-time to make ends meet and free time is for washing clothes, cooking food and cleaning the house.

Electricians and plumbers are expensive and you sometimes have to wait all day for them, so people do all the simplest work themselves, carpentry too. In Dhaka there’s Alauddin from the electric shop to attend the wiring. Once he said he could do the plumbing too (I had a leaking sink). In that instance, okay, it didn’t work out so well with water soon gushing all over the floor, but often it does.

How do the middle class survive when they move to the west? A big life-change; it’s a mystery to me.

The downside of service Dhaka-style is the low wages for service-providers. It’s a dilemma for many high-minded westerners who come this way. I once heard of a guy who would walk for miles rather than take a rickshaw on the basis it was undignified for another human to use muscle power to carry him. It’s an admirable sentiment, but as I read on the internet the other day, an article from the 1990s, rickshaw-driving employs one million people in Bangladesh. If everybody followed that sentiment? With time even the highest-minded westerner better appreciates that no rickshaws, for many drivers, means no food, and there’s a mentality shift. The rickshaw driver’s need for daily wellbeing is difficult to ignore when you see it close up, every day. Any longer term vision of a more equitable society remains just that.

Recently I had an Australian friend visit and one evening we took a rickshaw for a good way: about a forty taka fare. When we arrived my friend reached into his pocket and handed the driver a five hundred note. The driver was naturally thrilled but his honesty was such that he held it out to give it back. I explained to my friend it was much too much; about ten Australian dollars and you can barely get into a taxi for that in Sydney. ‘Think of it as wealth redistribution,’ he said. The driver couldn’t believe his good fortune.

It’s not so easy to do such things when you live here, but paying generously is possible. Personally I’ve succumbed to having a bua who visits once a week, mostly because hand washing clothes is embarrassingly beyond me, but having a bua also embarrasses, western style. We are supposed to be independent.

How does the westerner adjust when they move to Bangladesh? With a growing understanding of local realities and network of vendor relationships: it’s a big life change that says what applies in one place is not always relevant in another. In Dhaka, the privilege of having a few takas in your pocket is nothing short of an opportunity for others to make an honest living, and the level of service available in Dhaka is honestly second to none.


This article is also published by Star Magazine, here: Dhaka, City of Service

Aside from service, in Dhaka there's lots to learn from the humble rickshaw: The 'Rishka' Wisdom



Yes, everything!































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