‘You Are From the U.S.’

Yukyan Lam

I kneel on the ground, a knife in both hands, its sharpened blade pointed at the center of the earth. I thrust the weight of my body against the wooden handle until my palms hurt—still, the serrated edge penetrates no more than a centimeter. The sun, high overhead and unsympathetic, beats down on my scalp. I breathe, re-adjust my grip, and heave into the knife again.

Another centimeter.

A man in a button-down shirt and a patterned blue lungi watches me from a couple feet away. He has also knelt down, perhaps to signal encouragement.

Centimeter by centimeter, I continue, forcing the soil knife deeper until its blade nearly disappears into the earth. I push and tug, scooping out as much dirt as I can, and deposit the hard-earned crumbles into a large plastic bucket. I stand up, slowly because my legs are cramped, and find another spot a few feet away.

And then I do it all over again. Ten times in total, leaving ten pockets dimpling the plot of land. I stand up, wipe off the blade with a dirt-speckled rag, and insert the knife back into its leather sheath.

I now have the soil that I need from this village, a place called Motbati, located on the southwest coast of Bangladesh. It is a riverine landscape, with streams and channels carving through the delta, seeping into its nooks and crannies. It is the height of dry season, and the purpose of my visit is to investigate the encroachment of saltwater, flowing inland from the ocean into farmland and sources of freshwater.

I’ve explained to the man, who is the community’s elected leader, that I will take some of the soil back with me to Dhaka. There, I will mix it with deionized water and then measure the salt content of the concoction. As I bag a sample of soil, several beads of sweat trickle off my face and drip into the container. Upon contact, they immediately meld and vanish into the dirt. Damn it, I think aloud. For a second, I wonder if I’ve now messed up the sample. I decide that it is probably all right and toss the container into my pack. It is much too hot to be wearing a scarf, but the orna is an integral part of the three-piece salwar kameez, typically worn by Bangladeshi women. Given my foreign appearance, I have been employing all the devices that I can to look a little less out of place.

I squint against the sun and survey the area. I tear off a piece of masking tape, label the sample, and jot down a few notes. The logbook’s pages and string binding are falling apart, from being crammed into a jute bag next to assorted fieldwork supplies. I scribble, “Weather: Last rained 3 months ago, currently sunny and dry. 80s.” And then, “Soil sample taken from open area on eastern side of village, plot is scorched & barren. Woman in sari brings goat to forage, but no grass here. Plot surrounded by 2-ft deep ponds with saltwater shrimp (bagda). Crop looking burnt in fields nearby (wheat?). Fields have fertilizers applied (chemical). Ground very hard, powdery, almost white.”

Sample collection complete, the logbook goes back into the bag, sandwiched again amongst the voice recorders, headlamps, handheld GPS, digital camera, extra AAA batteries, and backup battery pack. Now, I follow the community leader back toward the western, greener side of the village. We walk away from the saltwater ponds, toward the refuge of slender trees that provide a few fragments of shade.

We are a long way from Dhaka, and my itinerary includes several other communities scattered across the southwest coast. Even so, I am fairly certain that salinity testing will confirm what I can already see: that saltwater seeping in from the Bay of Bengal is destroying the fertility of this cracked corner of the Ganges river delta. Agriculture is nearly impossible, worth a farmer’s toil only because livelihood options are so few and human labor so cheap in this region of the world.

The locals I’ve met with say that, yes, the land has always been saline to some extent, but the problem is getting worse. They mention three reasons: commercial saltwater shrimp farming, diversion of the Ganges river upstream, and sea level rise. Some are resigned, many are indignant, but nearly everyone points out that—far from being a purely “environmental” phenomenon—it is inequality, its effects manifested in multiple spheres and compounded, which aggravates the salinity crisis and determines who suffers most.

Within this area, one villager has the resources to take advantage of the intruding saltwater by creating a shrimp pond, which is likely to exacerbate the infiltration. A poorer neighbor has been forced to give up on farming here. He may have to travel north to find work as a migrant farmer. Or, if he stays in this area, he may resort to wage labor for the pond owner—stocking shrimp, weeding algae, guarding the ponds at night. In either scenario, he will make less than a couple dollars a day.

Within this floodplain, India, which borders Bangladesh on nearly all sides, is the more powerful country. It has built a dam that diverts the flow of the Ganges river away to generate hydroelectricity, leaving hundreds of Bangladeshi communities downstream without freshwater or legal recourse. According to the communities, water is withheld when it is most needed. It flows freely when the land is already saturated by the rainy season monsoons.

On this climate-disrupted planet, those in the developed world are unleashing inordinate volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fueling sea level rise and extreme weather events, like the region’s tropical cyclones. Inhabitants of the Global South, meanwhile, are sacrificing their self-sufficiency to produce saltwater shrimp—ironically, for international export and consumption by the Global North.

Adding to the irony, I have flown in from the United States, to conduct research to fulfill the requirements of a doctorate degree in public health. These days, I am often wondering whether the good derived from the work will offset the carbon footprint of my air travel. When I confess this to my classmates, they take it as a joke. They laugh, but I know I am navigating tenuous terrain, between solidarity and hypocrisy.

The locals know, too, that it is a dubious position. At one of the first communities I visit, a dozen men and women have gathered in a dirt courtyard to meet with me. They have been waiting for two hours, my delay caused by an unexpected rainstorm and the challenge of traveling by motorized rickshaw on unpaved roads. “Well, you are from the US,” they begin. Adolescents and children are hovering nearby; there aren’t enough bamboo mats for everyone to sit. All eyes are examining us—my interpreter, a polite, articulate young woman from the local university, and me. “Your country is the most responsible,” one man continues, invoking the words jalvayu parivartan, Bangla for ‘climate change.’ Many in the group recognize the term, and shake their heads in emphasis. The man then asks if I agree with the statement. More importantly, he adds, what is being done about it, and what am I doing about it?

It is a challenge. Persia, my interpreter, translates it. Her soft tone fails to mask the man’s frustration.

I meet the man’s gaze and reply in English that I am in complete agreement. I am hoping that Persia’s translation and my demeanor can convey, at least in some small part, my sincerity.

Then I muster an explanation about the American political system, about how the current situation makes it difficult to enact policies to reduce carbon emissions. I am hoping this time that the response somehow sounds less equivocal in Bangla. It is 2014, and I am oblivious to how badly circumstances will deteriorate three years later. We are all oblivious, but from where my hosts are sitting, the situation looks serious already.

Finally, I speak about the purpose of the research. I describe how, although this is only a small study funded by one university, it may help bring the community’s situation to light and make it known to a wider audience. The findings might influence, if not politicians, then donors and agencies that decide how to prioritize money spent on the needs of the developing world. Although I mean every sentence of what I say, I have mixed feelings about offering these lines. They are written into the research consent forms; they already sound too rehearsed. I am painfully aware that I have come empty-handed, equipped only with suppositions and hypotheses.

Yet, if the questions are a test, I have passed. It has little to do with the adequacy of my answers. I am allowed to continue my work because, at the end of the day, there is still a need here. Merited or not, I, like any other foreign presence, represent some chance of a difference for the inhabitants of this region, a fact that is both motivating and unsettling.

For the weeks and months thereafter, as I collect water and soil samples and interview communities along the southwest coast, I am repeatedly interrogated about the United States—its place in world politics, its role in the climate crisis. To my initial surprise, most villagers are willing to put aside their work and earnings for the day simply to share their experiences and insights. It is a generosity hardly deserved by a US-based researcher flying in 9,000 miles on a carbon-spewing jet plane. I mention this to a local collaborator back in Dhaka, and he grins and says, “See! Didn’t I say that Bangladeshis are the most hospitable people and they would help you?”

I can’t help but smile back and agree with him. Still, the work is far from done. There are often things lost in translation, but the parting message given by one elderly woman as I set out from her village replays clearly in my mind: “Do your research,” she instructs me, “but make it useful.”