Archives For Sarvodaya

Mid-Phase Review

March 20, 2013 — 2 Comments

On Friday, March 15th the Fulbright Commission held a mid-phase review. All of the English Teaching Assistants, Student Researchers, and Senior Scholars gathered together at the Fulbright Commission’s villa offices in Colombo for a day of presentations.

This year there are a total of 15 American Fulbrighters in Sri Lanka, and the conference provided a great opportunity for all the Fulbrighters to get together and see the progress we have made at this point.

Part of the reason why I enjoy the Fulbright so much is that it has brought together such a diverse group of people.

The five ETAs are spread across the island, and teach at institutions ranging from primary schools to universities. Our instituons are: University Of Sri Jayewardenepura (2 ETAs are placed here), the University of PeradeniyaSujatha Vidyalaya, and I split my time between the Vocational School at Sarvodaya and the Trinco Jesuit Academy.

The Student Researchers, with whom the ETAs have gotten very close, study a wide range of issues: the political economy of the plantations, contingency planning and the ownership of disaster management, gender based violence in Sinhala Cinema, the informal fishing sector in postwar Sri Lanka, the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, and alternative solid waste management systems.

The Senior Scholars are range from a professional dancer to senior lecturers, their research topics are: the architectural development of Sri Lanka’s forts, transformative dance in Sri Lanka, the climate services of Sri Lanka, and a social science study of village life.

This lecture was the first time that I met two of the Senior Scholars. It was great to get a sense of what they are studying and where their research has taken them thus far. Sri Lanka’s Fulbright program is unique in many ways, one such example is the close relationships between ETAs and Student Researchers. When I attended the ETA conference in Nepal I was surprised to find that many other ETAs did not know the Researchers in their countries.  In Sri Lanka, many ETAs live with Researchers. Since we are a smaller program, we get to have many opportunities for interaction. When all of the Fulbrighters converge there is little distinction between the groups.

Over the past several months I’ve been forced to become more efficient in all of my interactions.

When speaking with someone from a different cultural background, even in English, much can be lost. After studying in China for two semesters I had a good sense of how to deal with the language barrier, but there was quite a learning curve for the style of communication in Sri Lanka.

For the language barrier it is best to:
  • Speak simply. Throw out the convoluted diction and try to mimic the commonly used phrases.
  • Don’t dance around your problems. Clearly state what your goals and
  • Repeat everything and ask questions. If you’re asking someone to do something for you, ask them to explain the task back to you. Make sure you follow up with email (also, email cannot be relied upon, always follow up in person)
  • CC one or two other people in the office. Keep your interactions transparent

Earlier in this post I said I had become clearer and more upfront in all of my interactions. That isn’t always true. When dealing with cultural issues I often find myself dodging questions and answering if half truths.

Examples of these tough questions being asked of me: This is my fat daughter, what do you think? Why aren’t you married? How much did your [computer, shirt, phone, apartment] cost?. Are you Japanese? You don’t take sugar? Some of these questions make me laugh while others have made me uncomfortable. The first time some of these questions were posed to me I stumbled; sometimes I blurted out the truth (sorry fat girl), while others I paused and said the first lie I could think of.

Take sugar for example. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but I don’t like consuming sugar every day. I find myself telling people I’m a diabetic, its one of the few ways I can politely deny the sugary tea and soda that are forced upon me at meetings. As for marriage, I’ve found that telling people that I don’t have my ‘qualifications’ brings that conversation to an end. Salary has been by far the toughest issue to deal with. My stipend pays me well by local standards, and I’m often embarrassed to tell people that I make more than most doctors do. I’ve taken to telling people that I’m here as an unpaid volunteer, it just makes things easier.

The Fulbright has definitely improved my communication skills, in both relative and absolute terms. Compared to the start of my grant I’m much better equipped to handle sensitive cultural issues, I’m also better at getting things done in my office.

What do Sri Lankan students, an American English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and a Korean rapper share in common? For one thing, we all possess a love of dance and music. Psy’s top charting song, Gangnam Style, has taken the world by storm. With its gripping lyrics and absurd dance, this song has profound implications on cultural communication.

Gangnam Style’s success is particularly notable because it is the first song outside major American and European music labels to become so popular worldwide. It is an interesting example of shifts in cultural dominance. The most popular YouTube video in the world, Gangnam Style has been viewed over 1.2 billion times. For years America has imported consumer goods from the Korean Peninsula, now the importation of pop music has begun. Ma Young-sam, Korea’s Ambassador for Public Diplomacy of the Foreign Ministry, has expressed how important the music industry is to Korea’s soft power. The Financial Times recently quoted Mr. Ma as saying, “as foreigners pay more attention to the singers, slowly they develop a liking for Korea … and if they like Korea, they will buy more Korean things. This is what we’re trying to promote…” The explosion of a Korean pop song may or may not mark a shift in global power; but at the very least, Gangnam Style is a catchy pop song – and it made for a great lesson in the English language.

As a Fulbright ETA, I teach three sections of language skills at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee Vocational Training Center. Sarvodaya is Sri Lanka’s largest NGO, it maintains 34 district centers and reaches nearly 15,000 villages. My students’ ages range from 15 – 24, and they are studying either tailoring, nursery school teaching, or aluminum fabricating. The classes are provided to them at no cost through Sarvodaya and the World University Service of Canada. At the end of their training the students sit for their National Vocational Qualification exam, after which they are eligible to seek employment as skilled laborers. Prior to my arrival, the students had not received any formal English instruction. Their technical instructions are in Tamil medium, as that is the primary language spoken in this district.

The community in which I work was cut off from the world for three decades by ethnic conflict. With the advent of the internet my students are now plugged into the world. As the first Fulbrighter to be placed on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, it has been both challenging and rewarding to become a resident of Trincomalee and to expose my students to new ideas and cultures.

For two weeks I geared my English lessons toward teaching my students how to dance to Gangnam Style. The vocabulary surrounding this lesson is surprisingly complex. I began my lessons with the basic components of human anatomy, teaching words like arm, hip, legs, etc. After several classes explaining the nouns of the body, I began to demonstrate the verbs of movement: jump, squat, shake, etc. I spent an entire day with my classes utilizing a technique I learnt at the ETA Enrichment Seminar in Nepal: I distributed images of stick figures in various stages of bodily contortion, and acted as a rag doll as my students directed me to ‘lift your left hand’ and ‘put your elbow on your knee’.

The culmination of these lessons was when a fellow Fulbright Researcher and amateur dance instructor, Sarah Stodder, joined my classes for a day to teach my students and I the moves of Gangnam Style. She began by telling us the basic movements, broken down into two categories: arms and legs. As she verbalized the dance moves and physically demonstrated them, I codified her actions on the board for my students to copy. Once they had written the movements down, we cleared the desks and began dancing. At first, we referred to the directions on the board – mastering each step before moving on. Once all of the students had a command of the dance moves, it was time to play the music video and try dancing along with the great Psy himself.

As an American teaching Sri Lankans a Korean dance based upon the most popular song of 2012, I feel my students and I prove the truth of globalization. This is just one example of how the world grows seemingly smaller each year.

 

Today marks the final day of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal. The first day of Pongal is spent worshiping the Sun; the Sun is the giver of life, and without it crops would not grow. The second day is spent paying respect to cows. They are critical to life on a farm; not only do they provide milk, but they save countless hours when it is time to till the soil. On the final day, nothing in particular is celebrated. So on this final day of the Tamil festival, Sarvodaya had a Pongal.

I arrived at Sarvodaya’s Trincomalee District Center at 7:30 in the morning, and preparations were already underway for the Pongal. Reeds were being hung, the pots were being put in place, and the food was being prepared. Pongal is both the name of the holiday, and the name of a delicious sweet rice made with coconut milk, dates, nuts, raisins, jaggery, and a healthy dose of sugar. Speakers were brought in, and not an hour later the fires were burning and the speakers were blasting. It was really quite something to see this community come together.

Local religious leaders – Buddhist Monks, Catholic Nuns, Christian Priests, Hindu Pandits,and Muslim Imams – all arrived for the opening ceremonies. Once the water had begun to boil, each religious figure filled their palms with rice and lifted it up to the Sun before pouring it into the Pongal pot. The cooking had begun!

After many years of war Sri Lanka is still a very divided society. Over the past few days I have been greeting everyone I speak to with, ‘happy Pongal‘. On more than one occasion, I was told by the person I had offered this greeting to that they were not Tamil, and they did not celebrate Pongal. Even here in Trinco, a primarily Tamil city, if I greet someone who is Sinhalese with vanikam (Tamil for hello) I will often be told that I should have said kohomada (Sinhala for hello). The environment at Sarvodaya could not have been more different.

When contextualized, the actions of these religious leaders are inspiring. I really respect the work that Shanti Sena, Sarvodaya’s peace building arm, put into this ceremony. Even my Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim students wished me a happy Pongal (in English!) when we first met this morning. The day could not have been summed up better than by a fellow staffer who told me, “we teach all Sri Lankans about Pongal, so we hope that when our students graduate they will tell their friends and family about Pongal next year. I hope they have made Tamil friends and can celebrate together.”

Reconciliation occurs slowly, one person at a time. These cultural activities are incredibly important, as they help to strengthen the sense of community across cultures. Given the affinity Sri Lankans have with sugar, you would be hard pressed to find anyone on this island who doesn’t like eating Pongal.

Back in November, which seems like an eternity ago, I taught my students about the American Festival of Thanksgiving. I compared Thanksgiving to the Hindu festival of Pongal, which is celebrated in January. Pongal is a festival to celebrate the harvest.

Pongal (Tamil: பொங்கல்) means ‘spillover’, as in overflowing pots of rice. It marks the reaping of the harvest, and the change of seasons – the end of the rainy season. Here in Trinco, the population is overwhelmingly Tamil, and Tamils are generally Hindu.

The festival lasts four days, but only the first day is a national holiday. Today marks the day of sun worship. WIthout the sun, crops would not grow, and the world would be consumed by eternal darkness. Tomorrow is a day of worship for cows. Cows are crucial to the farming process, before tractors they were the sole means of tilling land (and still a popular method here in Sri Lanka). Cows provide the milk that is used to make Pongal, a sweet and savory rice cooked with  cardamom, jaggery, raisins, and cashew nuts. The last day of Pongal is a day of bird worship, and also a time for sisters to pray for their brother’s happiness. (Sorry girls, there is no day for your brothers to pray for your happiness)

This morning, one of my coworkers from Sarvodaya called me and asked if he could stop by. He brought me a heaping pile of Pongal, and two bananas. It was delicious. Tomorrow, at 5pm, I will be joining his family for their Pongal celebrations.

I’m curious to see whether any of my students show up for class tomorrow, as it a cultural day of festival – but not a national holiday. As often happens, I’ll find out in the morning whether I have class.

 

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Pongal and bananas.

Swinging in a sari

January 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

Swinging in a sariFace painted gold to lighten and brighten. Bangles rattling on her arms. Adorned in ounces of gold. This girl had just performed a dance at Sarvodaya’s Trinco New Year’s party. She was tired, sick of sitting in the auditorium, and ready to play outside.

 

Why Should I Care?

January 3, 2013 — 4 Comments

There have been several times during the past few weeks when I wonder why I should care about teaching.

  • When I walk into class and a student yelled, “No Sir, please no lesson.”
  • When my class lied for fifteen minutes about not having notebooks that day
  • When I walk into class and my students are playing with henna, because their teacher did not show up
  • When classes are canceled erratically, without notice to me

Teaching is tough, regardless of where you are. Teaching is a lot tougher in one of the poorer cities of Sri Lanka. Why should I care? Because if I don’t than no one will.

Teaching is frustrating most of the time; but those few moments keep you coming back. I liken it to golf; I’m out of practice, so my game is atrocious. But once or twice during an 18 hole round I’ll get a perfect swing in, and its a swing like that which keeps me coming back. Once or twice a day, I find I really made a connection or drove a point home. And that is why I wake up the next morning to teach.

A few days ago I taught a poem by Shel Silverstein, No Difference:

Small as a peanut,
Big as a giant,
We’re all the same size
When we turn off the light.
Rich as a sultan,
Poor as a mite,
We’re all worth the same
When we turn off the light.
Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.
So maybe the way
To make everything right
Is for God to reach out
And turn off the light!

This poem was a bit of a reach for most of my students, but I’m glad I pushed them. I tried an activity called creative copying, and had my students try to make their own stanza to fit in with the poem. I spent too long trying to explain what I wanted out of them, and this lesson didn’t go great in my first two classes. But by my third, I had a stanza of my own

Allah, Buddha, Jesus, or Ganesh
Whatever God you worship is right
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

After showing this to my students, one of the girls in my class came up with a really great verse:

Old as a teacher,
Young as a student,
We’re all the same
When you turn off the light.

Explaining it was too hard with the language barrier, but by showing an example things went much better. It was a great lesson for teaching, and life in general.

And its amazing when you realize that you’ve been getting through to your students all along. I was really touched this week when my toughest class gave me a New Year present. I was touched when I opened it, and had to work hard to stop laughing. I don’t think they realized the gramatical errors in the plack. It is something that I will keep in my office forever. 

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Yesterday I received a gem of an invitation, I was asked to go to a Bachelor Party. I happily accepted, as I thought this would be a great opportunity to get better acquainted with a colleague of mine at Sarvodaya. Also, I hope to attend a Sri Lankan wedding – so this is a good step in that direction.

I was picked up at 10:30 in the morning on a motorcycle, and rode to the groom to be’s house. When I arrived, a bbq was going and some chicken and fish were being grilled up. Six other guys sat around a table, in the shade of a coconut tree, as we munched on shrimp and sipped arrack. For several hours we sat around leisurely eating, enjoying the cool breeze, and the warmth of the arrack. Back and forth we shuffled, three times, moving the party in and out with the whim of the rain. We finally settled on staying inside, after it seemed that the rain would be with us for some time.

I was stuffed from the fish, shrimp and chicken when it was announced that now lunch would be served. A heaping bowl of rice was brought out, along with dal, chicken curry, vegetables, and a fruit salad. A friend and fellow fulbrighter told me that the best meals she had in Sri Lanka were served in someones home. And I couldn’t agree more. This was one of the best meals I have had in Sri Lanka, its a shame I was so full when it was served.

Aside from the little differences, this was very much like a party in America. Friends sitting around, shooting the breeze, and enjoying the moment. Good food, a stiff drink, and some tv playing in the background.

All in all, it was a great day. And I’m glad that I was invited, and that I’m starting to get a little more connected into this seemingly isolated city.

 

Trinco Town

November 19, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last Monday I arrived at Sarvodaya’s headquarters in Moratuwa. I had been staying with a few other Fulbrighters who rented a house in Colombo, and I had enjoyed a great weekend strolling about town. I was all packed, and my car arrived at eight in the morning. When I was going to put on my chacos (quite comfortable sandals), I noticed a huntsman spider blending in on the bed of my shoe. I recoiled as it ran off, in a state of shock. After chasing it towards the door, my driver whacked it with a broom and killed it.

What a start to the week.

It was about a 45-minute drive outside of Colombo, and when I arrived I was shown to a hostel before going for the obligatory cup of milk tea. The first day I spent most of the morning reading in my room, waiting for a few people to get out of meetings.

After lunch, I was shown around the campus, and introduced to many of the organization’s key people – from the acting director to the founder. Sarvodaya is a large scale NGO; their operations include all of those things you’d expect an NGO to do: education, orphanages, peace training, microfinance, disaster preparedness, and many others. They are also involved in some surprising enterprises: furniture manufacturing, printing presses, and a meditation center. As the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, they are involved in many projects.

On Wednesday I was able to hitch a ride to Trinco with Shanti Sena, the peace-training arm of Sarvodaya. They were conducting a three-day session, training youths in inter-religious cooperation.

A ride out to Trinco takes covers about 270km (170 miles) and takes about seven hours (the mathematically inclined will note that’s a speed of about 25 miles per hour). The condition of the roads is poor, and they wind across the mountains. During the drive out one of the workers asked me why I choose Trinco; he proceeded to tell me that he hates the town, as there isn’t much to do outside of work. My expectations were dampened, to say the least.

The Sarvodaya District Center in Trincomalee is among the newest of their facilities. It was reconstructed with donations from countries and NGO’s across the world, following the 2004 Tsunami. For three days I sat through workshops – conducted primarily in Sinhala and Tamil – with participants from all religious groups in Sri Lanka. While I missed a great deal of the specifics, in general the sessions were meant to showcase the similarities between the religious groups. It was fun, but a bit perplexing at times when I had no idea what was occurring.

On Saturday I spent several hours walking through Trinco, taking in the sites of the town. It was about a half an hour walk from Sarvodaya’s center to Trinco town, and along the walk was a military checkpoint. Trinco is home to both the Air Force and Naval Academies. The military presence in this city is extensive, as the final months of the war were fought in this region. The town itself is quiet, and almost pastoral. Cows leisurely stroll along the main avenues in town, and an axis deer has made its home in the bus depot. There is one supermarket at the heart of town, but many small-scale shops. Trinco has many beautiful Hindu temples, they’re scattered across town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, after an early breakfast, the District Coordinator of Sarvodaya invited me to a USAID event. I asked him if it would be in English, and if other Americans would be present. He assured me that representatives from USAID would be there, and it would be in all of the languages of Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil, and English). I eagerly ran upstairs to throw on a button down shirt, and head to the truck. We arrived, and I quickly realized that I would act as the USAID representative. In fact there would be no English, but instead Tamil speakers would display their Sinhalese skills and vice-versa. It was quite funny, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the event, a German friend and I strolled down the street. I was inquiring at guesthouses about long-term rentals – to no avail. We stumbled across Chaaya Blu, an upscale western hotel. Stepping into the lobby of the hotel was like entering another country. The beaches on this stretch of land were immaculate, and everyone suddenly spoke English. We were ushered to the pool and seaside restaurant, and sat down for a cocktail and some sautéed cashew nuts. It was lovely, but this is not the Sri Lanka I have come to know over the past month and a half. While I was sipping on my gin fizz, I was suddenly stuck by thoughts the remains of buildings from the tsunami just up the beach. Westerners coming to this part of Sri Lanka can visit and remain woefully ignorant to the complexities of a country that was torn by war for nearly three decades. One of my fellow Fulbrighters wrote a great article on the ethics of tourism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today I started teaching classes, and I was in for a number of surprises.

For five days a week I will be teaching three classes for an hour each, in addition to this I am working with the staff on their English skills (most of the staff speak on Tamil, and limited Sinhalese and English). I had woefully overestimated the English competency of my students, and had to immediately tone down the lessons. My first class was teaching a group of 28 seamstress students, and they were giggling the entire time. While they are all about my age, the maturity gap is huge, we come form different backgrounds – and I’m fortunate to benefit from the best university system in the world.

In my second class I was becoming frustrated during the first fifteen minutes as two in a class of six remained silent and would not join in with the class. When their teacher returned and started signing to them I quickly realized that they were hearing and speaking impaired… I started writing out instructions, and then they got with the program. The boys were much less shy around me than my earlier class.

My last class was with a group of girls studying to become preschool teachers. I had a lot of fun with them, but they got through my lessons much quicker than others. So I had to break out Cat In The Hat, which I don’t believe they really understood all that well.

All in all, my students loved to see pictures of my family and friends. They were amused by the pictures of my cousins and I at Christmas, and perplexed by pictures of snowboarding. Teaching this year will surely be a challenge, but I look forward to it.

 

Oh, and I’ve started to get a serious sandal tan here, along with a lot of bug bites.

 

Brownie

November 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

He hadn’t noticed me approaching in the predawn darkness. Sitting, it seemed that he had fallen asleep while watching the gate. It was only as I opened the gate did he regain consciousness, startled by the clamor of the latch and sliding of the heavy door. Rising, he limped towards me. As I begin to close the gate he comes out to the street; he stares at me as his tag softly wags.

Brownie is but one of the many stray dogs in Sri Lanka. Unlike many, he is plump and fairly clean. His front paw is deformed, and apparently he’s been here for as long as anyone can remember. Here at Sarvodaya’s headquarters, in Moratuwa, Brownie has found a home. The streams of international volunteers feed this pitiful creature, and he is grateful for the attention. The local staffers laugh at us, as we feed him scraps; over the course of two days I caught more than one of those who mocked rubbing his belly.

As I leave the headquarters, on my way to Trinco, he sits by the gate watching me and cries.

Sri Lanka does not know what to do with its dogs. In a country where not every human has access to the basic necessities of life, it makes sense that dogs are not looked after. Some people do keep dogs as pets, and those dogs range from muts to pure breeds. A few of my friends are renting an attached house in Colombo; their landlord’s dog is an ancient creature, who is quite mangy.

You become accustomed to the dogs in your neighborhood. When I stayed in Dehiwala, outside of Colombo, a few of my neighbors took to feeding the neighborhood strays. While you might recognize these strays, it’s generally advisable to avoid them.

Three weeks back I spent the weekend by the beach, in Unawatuna. On Sunday morning I woke with the sun and decided on taking a leisurely jog through town. As it turns out, stray dogs don’t appreciate someone running through town at seven in the morning. An emaciated one eyed dog started snarling at me as I came through town. I stopped and slowly started backing up, looking at a neighboring car I could jump on. Out of nowhere a coconut struck the dog and it ran off with a yelp. An elderly man, skin wrinkled and garbed in a sarong, started laughing and waved at me – urging me to continue on my run. I smiled and thanked him; as he likely saved me a trip to the hospital and round of rabies vaccinations.

In a country where the President is trying to impeach the Chief Justice, the Universities are set to close on yet another strike, and the scars of a civil war – which lasted for nearly three decades – still run deep, the fate of a few stray dogs is not a matter of concern for most.

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A stray dog escaping the rain at Sarvodaya in Trinco.