On the first day of school in Durham University I was sitting alone in a classroom at the Business School when a boy came up to me and asked if the seat beside me was taken. I gladly said no and he sat down. We started talking about the class that was about to start and how we had found Durham till then. Next he asked me which country I was from. I replied without thinking much, “Bangladesh.” He said, “Okay….umm…where is that, somewhere in South America?” I was happy to correct his mistake and we conversed on. However, from the moment he asked me about my country, I could feel my interest dwindling. It wasn’t until the girl sitting on my other side introduced herself that I realized the reason I lost interest in the boy – he hadn’t even bothered to know my name or tell me his.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my country and I am proud of being born and brought up there. There is, however, something about my name that can’t be replaced by anything else. My mother had specifically taught me to introduce myself properly with my name when meeting new people. The ‘country issue’ hadn’t come up till then, because this was the first time I travelled abroad to study. More importantly, I identify with my name more than anything else in the world: Raisa Bashar. This is the name that my parents call me by since the day I was born; the name that my teachers and friends use to speak to me; the name registered on my passport and National ID Card. It is my identity.
The next few days went pretty well. I made friends in class and college and I was slowly grasping the lessons. However, I faced similar situations to my first day when people kept asking me about my country before I could give them my name. Firstly, I was getting the feeling that maybe, just maybe, friendships at this new place were forged on the basis of where you were from rather than who you are. Secondly, I felt out of place every time this happened. I thought, “Was I the only one who thought it odd that an ‘internationally rich’ place such as Durham University would have kids who didn’t think it was rude to define people by their countries before even knowing their names?” I was wrong on both accounts, of course. People who didn’t know my name would readily sit with me at dining halls or greet me when I entered classes; some of them even saved seats for me! Later, when I brought up this issue with my new friends, they found it odd too. I felt comforted knowing that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
This is what surprised me. Many people actually got down to asking for your name when they needed your contact number! This might sound funny to you, but reflect for yourself and try to recall those times. I am sure this has happened to you more often than you realize. Maybe you were the one who actually did it. Influenced by this demeanor of others, even I sometimes forgot my well-taught ‘manners of the old’ and asked ‘almost strangers’ where they belonged before exchanging names. The weird thing when I did this was that I did not feel guilty or out-of-place until a few minutes after they left. It then dawned upon me that I hadn’t even gotten their names. Can you remember a time like this? This feeling contrasts with what I feel when I am at the receiving end.
So after discussing this issue with my friends and some close teachers over the course of my year in Durham, this is what I would like to conclude:
– Most people ask about your country first without realizing that this isn’t the right way to go about befriending others; however their intention isn’t to hurt or judge you based on where you are born.
– It is difficult to understand the discomfort that an individual may feel when his or her country is given precedence over his or her name, until you have experienced it yourself.
Top relationship experts and books on the art of bonding will tell you that it is really important to give the person you are speaking to, in any conversation, the respect that he or she deserves. I think that the etiquette of first asking for a person’s name, then his or her country, race, or religion, is crucial to establishing mutual respect. I am not saying that you simply cannot create friendships if you take the ‘country-first’ approach, but it is only ideal to ask your ‘friends-to-be’ their names first before finding out where they are from. Do you agree?
Illustrator: Mariam Hayat