Archives For Sri Lanka

Openness

February 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

The Fulbright has challenged me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. When I opted to take the Fulbright over a lucrative banking career my family was surprised, to say the least. When asked to justify my reasoning I was often at a loss for words – I didn’t know how the Fulbright would benefit my future.

Sure, the Fulbright is a prestigious academic fellowship. The alumni network is amazing, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn about a whole new region of the world. When I started my grant, I couldn’t tell you exactly how it would impact or shape me.

One of my biggest challenges has been remaining open to the experiences and opportunities here in Sri Lanka. I get overwhelmed at times, and just want to close myself off.

I found myself in a situation like that two weeks ago. I had a particularly rough set of days, and just wanted to escape Sri Lanka for a little while. I had to travel to Colombo, and was all set for my overnight train ride. The battery on my laptop was fully charged, and I had queued up several episodes of The West Wing to get me through the train ride. I got into my cabin and my bunkmate was sitting on his bunk. I briefly acknowledged him as I dropped down my bags, and chatted on the phone with my brother (its amazing that a 15 minute phone call to the states cost me less than $2.00…).

The screech of the station master’s whistle signaled the start of my trip, and I bid my brother farewell. Getting into my cabin, I just wanted to climb into bed and shut myself off from the world. My traveling companion struck up a conversation with me, and we chatted for a few minutes. One thing led to another, and a few minutes turned into a few hours.

As it happened I was traveling with an optometrist, who worked for Vision Care. He had been in Trinco conducting free screenings and educational seminars to spot vision problems. I found out about several government schemes to provide free eye glasses to those who can’t afford them. At the end of our conversation, we arranged to conduct a session at my school in the middle of March. There are several students who need specs (as they’re called in Sri Lankan English), but don’t have the resources to afford them.

Had I closed myself off, and let the troubles of my week weigh me down, I would have missed this amazing opportunity. By turning off my iPod and taking out my headphones, I opened myself up to a conversation that turned out to be engaging and fulfilling.

Looking back on my days at University in NYC, I wonder how many engaging encounters I missed by closing myself off to the world. Openness brings opportunities.

Friendliness

February 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

Friendliness is a culturally relative term. What I see as friendly can be cold to some people. The ‘stop and chat‘ is a requirement in Sri Lanka, and a simple hello can often turn into an hour long conversation. Larry David does a great job explaining the stop and chat.

Growing up in the New York City Metropolitan area, I am fairly averse to the drawn out stop and chat. Sri Lanka is forcing me to change.

Sri Lankans can be somewhat aggressive in their friendliness. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked ‘where are you going?’ While cycling on Kandy road, a major highway, there have been several instances when cars and trucks have matched my speed – and brought traffic to a crawl – to ask inquire about my coming and goings.

On a Thursday afternoon, while I was riding through town, a police SUV slowed down and an officer started talking to me from the back window. As we had a conversation the driver started getting involved in the conversation, and stopped paying attention to the road. The truck started creeping towards me and I was eventually run off the road. Luckily I was able to avoid the cows and crash into a bush. My bike suffered minimal damage, but the experience was rattling. By the time I got up and recomposed myself, the police had already driven away. One officer casually waved out of the window.

Before coming to Sri Lanka I never even considered lying about being a diabetic, but now I find myself telling people that fairly often. I’m not a huge fan of sweets, particularly when it comes to beverages. When visiting Sri Lankan homes tea is a required part of the event. In Sri Lanka, tea is usually served with copious amounts of milk and sugar. I personally prefer the taste of plain tea without sugar. One afternoon I was invited over a government official’s house in Trinco, and was offered tea. I asked for ‘plain tea, no sugar’, and was shot a quizzical look. I explained that I can’t take sugar, and he obliged. I was served a very milky cup of tea, with a bowl of sugar on the side. He placed the bowl of sugar down with a sly grin, and a knowing glance; he quickly left the room and I really believed he expected me to fill my cup with sugar.

In South Asia there is a much different perception of personal space. People are very friendly, but it can feel invasive. If I leave Trinco I can expect at least one or two phone calls from friends asking me where I went – word travels quickly here. As a foreigner I constantly find myself playing a balancing act between respecting cultural differences and defending my personal space and self-respect.

While most of the world was watching the Super Bowl I was standing in the rain to watch the celebration of Sri Lanka’s 65th Independence Day.

Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at the time, gained its independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948. For most citizens the day was unremarkable. Unlike India’s mass struggles to gain independence, Sri Lanka’s battles were waged primarily by the intelectual class.

At the time of independence Ceylon was one of the wealthiest nations in Asia – a model for Taiwan, SIngapore, and Korea. The education rate was extremely high and english was extremely common. Things were looking up for the island nation.

The Tamil minority had gained a great deal of power during colonization, they held a number of high posts in the Ceylon Civil Service. In 1956, the newly elected prime minister passed the controversial Sinhala only act – this act is usually a starting point for the historical narrative of the civil war.

In 1972 Ceylon changed its name to the “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1978 it was shortened to to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. In 1977 a new constitution, modeled after France’s, was enacted; Sri Lanka became the first country in Asia to liberalize its economy. The 1983 Black July riots mark the start of brought on the start of the LTTE and the official start of the war. For many years the LTTE planned to make Trinco the capital of Tamil Eelam.

For weeks Trinco has been getting a facelift. Roads are being widened, buildings painted, and signs hung. For more about the preparations in town, see this Groundview’s Article

This was the third time that the holiday is celebrated in Trinco, the first was 1953 and the second was in 1965. I woke early in the morning, to the sounds of rain and thunder. Once into the heart of town, we had to walk a good way to make it to the parade ground. Two security checkpoints later, and I was in the midst of a crowd – jostling for a sight of the President as he gave his speech.

The speech made many references to the current UN attempts to allow an independent investigation into the end of the war. Below is selected text of his speech that I feel really sums up his message.

We respond to the publicity against Sri Lanka carried out abroad by inviting foreign countries to come to Sri Lanka. We have seen that the best answer to false publicity and propaganda carried out in foreign countries is development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Do not believe something just because it is said, because you have read reports, critics have said it or the media has published it. We tell the people of the world – Come! Come Over and See for yourselves!
Friends
If freedom is a heavenly state, it is not a state one can fully achieve. There was a time when you went past the road blocks in fear of death. When you trod in fear past the roadblocks you did not see the potholes. You did not have the time to think of cleanliness of the city or new road signs. But when the fear of death and the roadblocks are no more, you notice the potholes on those roads. What is next needed is a concrete road. Once concrete roads are given to the entire country and the roads are properly carpeted one notices the absence of modern signboards. When these are completed we seek roads with more lanes for traffic. 
The expectations in a free country are also like this. The more freedom is obtained; the people expect a more advanced life.
Friends
We are a nation that has suffered immensely for freedom. All political parties in this country should understand this. It is not only the Government, but the Opposition too has the responsibility to safeguard this freedom we have won. Protecting the country and building reconciliation is not support extended to the Government or the Opposition. It is support given to the country. It is doing one’s duty by the land of one’s birth. 
The speech, once I read the translated version, proved to be unsurprisingly disappointing. The New York Times published a review of it.  
All in all, this was certainly one of the most memorable days of my Fulbright. It was a great experience. 

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.

L.R. Cake Shop

January 31, 2013 — Leave a comment

The first time you attend a wedding in Sri Lanka you will likely notice a beautifully decorated cake somewhere in the reception area. You may be surprised when you are served an individually wrapped piece of cake, not from the wedding cake. Upon close inspection of the cake you may realize that the core of the cake is styrofoam; cakes are made this way so that they can hold up to the heat and humidity during the entire wedding day.

My Amma (Sinhalese and Tamil for Mom) is the founder of L.R. Cake Shop, Trincomalee’s only degree granting cake decorating school. She makes the most whimsical cakes; American cakes do not compare at all. Last week, when I stopped into the shop, I was delighted to stay and watch a cake be made. I was only present for the final assembly, which took nearly an hour. It was amazing watching plain cake and pink fondant being sculpted into a princess’ dress. Next, white fondant was formed around the Barbie doll, to complete her dress. Lace was intricately cut to layer around the base of the dress, as a bow was made for the back. A lucky little girl will get this princess cake for the cost of 3,000 SLR ($23 USD).

All of the cakes are made to order. You cannot walk into the shop and buy a cake like you can in Colombo. It seemed odd to me at my first visit, but since I’ve gotten better acquainted with the area it makes sense. Trinco’s economy cannot yet support an on demand bakery, and Amma’s cakes are so varied and unique that it would be impossible to forecast the demand for something like a princess cake.

Amma can turn just about anything into a cake. She won third place in a national competition for cake making. For years she has been providing the area with cakes as well as training out of her home. It wasn’t until the end of 2012 that she felt comfortable taking the risk and opening up her store front, things were just too volatile in the East. Now every time I stop in town I visit her shop, which is usually full of students or customers placing orders. Sitting and talking with Amma is great, except for the constant barrage of cake being offered; I tell Amma she will make me fat.

It was no surprise when she told me that she will be making a cake for the President when he visits Trinco on Monday for Independence Day celebrations. Just a day in the life of Trinco’s premier baker.

26.12.20 Tsunami Day

January 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

IMG_1275

I came across this poster in town a few days ago. It is amazing how the tsunami lingers over Trinco; the shells of buildings litter the beach front. Fallowed plots of land are common sites, the salt from the ocean water have rendered them useless.

Time is frozen,
The days never grow longer,
nor do they grow shorter
The summer is eternal,
 flowers always in bloom
For all I know,
It could be March or June.

 

Photo by Quinn Rohlf

Photo by Quinn Rohlf

The Passage of Time

What to do?

January 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

“What to do?” This common Sri Lankan English phrase summed up my feelings earlier this week, when on my way home from work the pedal fell off of my bicycle. I stopped, picked up the pedal, and assessed the situation as a few curious Sri Lankans came to watch.

Fortunately, I was at the top of a hill. So for about half a kilometer I tried to ride with one pedal. As I was slowly struggling along, it started to rain. A few Sri Lankans riding by slowed down to inquire about what had happened. Unsurprisingly, pedaling with one leg wasn’t working out too well. I came to the bottom of a large hill and decided it was time to figure something else out. I hailed down a tuk tuk, and shoved my cycle in the back of it.

photo (14)

We had just departed when a police officer pulled us over to see what was wrong. He scolded the tuk tuk driver, apparently this wasn’t legal. The driver somehow worked things out, and we were back on our way towards my house. The driver had to take a series of backroads to avoid two more checkpoints along the road, because he was afraid of getting fined for having a bicycle hanging out of his vehicle.

Three months ago, I’m not sure I would have handled the situation as well as I did today. I wasn’t angry or upset. I sort of just laughed. Sri Lanka has made me better at dealing with unfortunate situations, people here don’t get as worked up about things as we do in America.

What to do?

Radical fundamentalism

January 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

What comes to mind when you read the phrase radical fundamentalism? Write it down.

My list is Al-Qaeda, 9-11, and Islamist. Reading that list makes it fairly obvious what an impact the 2001 attacks had on my worldview. I have a bias against the Muslim religion; my earliest memory of hearing about the Islamic religion is in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. It’s important to be aware of your biases and how they affect your thinking.

Between 1980 and 2000 which terrorist organization committed the most suicide attacks Which terrorist organization first started using women in terrorist attacks? Which was the first terrorist organization to assassinate a sitting prime minister and president?

One organization was responsible for all of these attacks, the mostly Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). What if this group had pioneered the 9-11 attack? They certainly had the resources; a navy, airforce, and an extensive budget. They lacked the motive, as the US was one of the more involved parties in the Sri Lankan Civil War. But say they had, I can imagine how my list would be different.

My motive for writing this post is to understand the complexities of religious fundamentalism. Every major religion has fundamental groups which have shed blood in the name of their deity. I was really shocked this week to see examples of this in Sri Lanka, with Buddhist fundamentalism sparking riots and fighting in Colombo.

You may have read a story in the news about a Sri Lankan girl being beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Bodu Bala Sena, or the Buddhist Power Force, began boycots of Muslim stores in Sri Lanka in reaction. A 400 year old Arab shrine in Anuradhapura – one of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals – was destroyed in reaction to the beheading. A Colombo outlet Muslim owned clothing chain, NoLimit, was the site of a rally led by Buddhist Monks that turned violent.

Muslims have lived in Sri Lanka since the 8th century, when Arab traders first landed on the island then known as Serendip. About 10% of the population in Sri Lanka practices Islam, and the green in the nation’s flag represents this minority. The Muslims faced some of the harshest treatment during the war, as they were targeted by the LTTE and forced out of their traditional homes on the island. In 1990 the LTTE provialimed that all Muslims had 24 hours to vacate Jaffna, the largest Northern city, or face death. It is estimated that there are nearly 250,000 Muslims still living in temporary shelterer since 2009.

Muslims have been the victims of terrorism at the hands of Hindus and Buddhists. Is that surprising?

http://www.jaffnamuslim.com/2013/01/blog-post_9248.html

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.