Posted by: facetothewind | July 14, 2015

Falling in Slow Motion

Me with Taysif before his downfall.

Me with Taysif before his downfall.

I met Taysif one day last fall when I first moved into my apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is a young man (25, I think) from Bangladesh. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh ranks in the top 30 poorest nations on earth with close to 160 million people crammed into a country the size of Iowa. It has a long and complicated history in the Indian Subcontinent, but essentially it split off from Pakistan in 1971 in a bitter war that ended with one of the worst genocides in human history.

Photo from the Borgen Project.

Photo from the Borgen Project.

Add to the political and economic mess, climate change has caused dramatic shifts in its agricultural industry. Many Bangladeshis have fled to neighboring countries seeking a basic living and to send money home to their families. Thus the intersection of Taysif and my life occurred in Malaysia, a reasonably prosperous country that attracts thousands of migrant workers hoping to feast at the banquet table. Or at least catch a few scraps which are probably more generous than back home.

Our initial meeting occurred poolside at the apartment where I live which is a bit like a mini United Nations with fake waterfall and phony hanging plants. Taysif and I began our friendship with a handshake and a touch to the heart — a sweet gesture that marks all Bangladeshis. Our conversations are in broken English with both of us scratching our heads to try to either convey or understand the various tenses of English spoken in only one tense: the present.

Taysif works as a server in the rooftop bar and restaurant 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. He makes about $15 USD a day…for him it’s a salary he’d never make in Bangladesh. But to earn this, he has left his hometown and family 1600 miles behind. Now he shares a small apartment with 7-10 others depending on who’s in need of housing at the moment. He has never seemed defeated by his challenging circumstance, either by virtue of his naturally cheerful disposition or simply by his youth.

But then he got sick. I had been teaching him and one of his co-workers English for two hours each Saturday morning in the lobby of our apartment. He started showing up late looking pale and leaving early. Then he stopped coming entirely. Over the last few months of seeing him at the pool, the fullness and good cheer has gone out of his face, he has lost a lot of weight and his eyes have circles under them. For a long time I just thought it was that he had been drinking too much and not getting enough sleep. It is now clear that something bigger is going on. He thinks he may have hepatitis though I don’t see yellow in his eyes.

I only have about 30% comprehension of what Taysif actually says to me and so when I ask him what kind of care he has gotten, I’m unable to get a clear medical history from him. No matter, it’s clear to me that he’s not well and isn’t getting the care he needs.

Today I pressed him a bit more to seek proper medical attention. He shrugged it off saying he would after Ramadan which ends in 3 days. His breath was terrible and I had to keep about 3 feet away from him when he spoke. His lips are cracked due to the Ramadan-induced dehydration — no food or water may be taken from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm…a tough regimen even for those in the best of health.

The conversation about his health turned to one of economics and his country and then to religion. This is a conversation I try to avoid with Muslims or, frankly, any religious person of any faith. But here, especially in a Muslim country, a gay person is facing an uphill battle and I find it just best to avoid the topic entirely. Perhaps his fasting caused a lapse in his respect for my atheism (which he knows about from previous chats) as he started pressing me to get a copy of the Quran in English and to read it. “No, Taysif, I have no interest in the Quran, thanks. No, really. I have no interest in the Bible, either. No. None. None at all. You’re not going to convince me to read it. Sorry. No it’s not going to change my life. It’s not going to happen so stop asking me!”

I changed the subject and asked him if he was happy. Kind of a dumb question but what the hell. His answer surprised me. He said, “No I not happy and if I die from sickness then I happy.” Wow. I couldn’t believe he said that. “Really, you want to die? Why not just jump off the roof?” I felt a little stupid for saying that, but I was still holding on to some belief that he was just kidding me or goading me…he might as well kill himself since he didn’t convince me to read the Quran.

I realized that he wasn’t kidding and that perhaps his sickness was a death wish or he was feeling suicidal. I stopped looking at the skyline and turned my attention directly to him. He looked me in the eye and said he needed help to change his life. “What can I do Taysif? There’s not much I can do for you. I’m not Obama. I’m not wealthy and I can’t marry you.” He replied, “That’s what everyone tells me: ‘There’s nothing I can do to help.’ ” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and showed me a dead thread of conversation he had had with a German tourist. The guy was offering to help him but once he returned to Germany, the chats on Viber stopped. I saw several unanswered text messages on Taysif’s column. It ended with him writing, “Are you still there?” Apparently the German guy was not.

“I’m sorry, Taysif. I wish I could help you more. Keep practicing your English and keep your eyes open for new opportunities.” There was a dulled silence as if he’d heard this before.

Then out of the blue he said something profound, something that usually doesn’t come from a person with a very rudimentary understanding of English: “It isn’t my fault I was born in Bangladesh.” His eyes fell to the floor and I scanned his bony body, his dress shirt hanging on his shoulders, and I felt this eerie feeling that I had back in the day when I used to do psychedelics. It’s that momentary understanding that we’re all in this together and that this man before me may not speak my language or believe in anything I believe in, but he’s still a human and he’s still my brother. To pry myself away from this touching moment I was going to have to toughen up and shut that hippie thinking down. For me to leave him there at the poolside and go to my apartment with my piano and the view, would require that I turn my back on him and accept the unevenness of the world that landed me with abundance. And him with nothing.

I grabbed his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said, “You’re right, Taysif. It’s not your fault that you were born Bangladeshi. It’s not your fault that you were born poor. It’s not your fault.” I felt like Robin Williams in Goodwill Hunting.

He was silent and seemed on the edge of tears. He turned to leave saying, “Sorry I bother you. Go swim, go back to your apartment, take a nap.” And then he went back to work. I think he meant that without any malice or envy.

And that is exactly what I did.



  1. Fuuug. That’s a powerful story and I have one strong response: Take him to the doctor. Please.You may not be able to change much, but you might save his life.

  2. Very moving story. And yes, a thousand times yes — we are all lucky or unlucky by accident of birth. You and I were born into abundance, through no doing of our own. We were lucky. Billions of people aren’t so lucky. (Another reason why I can’t stand American arrogance and exceptionalism.)

    Seconding gillianoz. Can you get him to a doctor? Can you and Chuan afford to pay for a doctor’s visit?

  3. So beautifully and poignantly written, David. Now you have 3 of us saying “take him to the doctor”…can we offer a bit to fund someone’s health half a world away through no fault of his own? I would be happy to send a little money – please let me know. And I know you can’t save everyone. But this is someone who looked you in the eye, and basically said he’d rather be dead. OOOOH, man, that’s a lot to look away from…sending big love.

  4. Oh, David. I think you fell slowly into your own truth. You know what you need to do. Love, Jean xoxoxoxo

  5. Sadly, even in the U.S., it costs about $150,000 for one annual treatment of Hep-C under current protocol. They have come up with a cheaper, quicker one ($90,000) . . . approved abroad and doing trials here now…so it takes a mountain to move it along no matter who or where you are.

    • Well, let’s not forget that there’s also Hep-A and Hep-B. We don’t know what he has, if he even has hepatitis at all.

  6. Beautifully written commentary on life and the randomness of birth right. Yes, take him to the doctor if possible. Too bad his faith doesn’t allow him to want to save himself.

    • Dianna, and David, I thought from living in Egypt that people who were seriously ill or pregnant were not required by Allah to fast during Ramadan. I also recall that a lot of people who were perfectly healthy also cheated on their fasts. Can you convince your friend that he’s pregnant?

  7. I stopped by the restaurant to see how he’s doing and now that Ramadan is over, he is able to eat and drink and he did look a little bit better. I told him Monday we will go together to see a doctor. He said OK. Will keep ya posted. I don’t know why he didn’t opt out of the fast this year — seems like he would qualify for an exception. Doesn’t seem like life preservationist thinking to me.

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