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.

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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?

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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.

 

#bikeLK

January 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

Over the past two weeks I’ve started biking to work every day, and I have to say its been a welcome improvement to my daily routine. Between a cold shower, cup of coffee, and twenty minute bike ride I’m energized and ready to start teaching by the time I reach work.

It takes about twice as long to bike than to take a three-wheeler the 3 km between home and work. My bike provides freedom, I can go wherever I want in this town without worrying about the  cost of a tuk-tuk. I can stop at the vegetable stands on the way home from work, and pick out my dinner for the night. I don’t have to worry about taking a trishaw, or being dependent on someone else to get me around town.

My daily commute

It’s really quite nice to have almost an hour of exercise built into my day, I sleep better and feel better when I get home from a long day of teaching. It gives me twenty minutes to unwind and forget about stressful classes. By the time I reach the last major hill on my ride home I’m usually covered in a film of sweat, and ready to lay in my hammock for a while – until the mosquitos start coming.

People look at me strangely when I ride through town on my bike, for a number of reasons.  I wear a helmet, which is truly bizarre. I had to go to Colombo to purchase the helmet, and visited five stores before buying one. The first store I went into had a helmet for 2,500 SLR ($20.00 USD) and the last store I went into had the same helmet for 1,500 SLR ($11.00). The other stores didn’t carry helmets, and at the store I eventually purchased mine from, they only had that one helmet. I’ve been told by many Sri Lankans that it isn’t necessary to wear a helmet on a bicycle – but when I’m dodging cows, pedestrians, and busses, it is nice to be wearing one.

People also give me strange looks because I’m riding on a bicycle. Most white people who come to Trinco are NGO officials and Diplomats who are chauffeured around in air conditioned Land Rovers and Toyotas. It isn’t often that you see a white guy struggling up a hill on a push bike.

On another note, I’ve been learning to ride a motorcycle. Yesterday my friend took me into town to grocery shop on the back of his bike. You’re really conscious of what you buy at the store when you have to hold onto your parcels on the back of a motorcycle.

Learning to ride

 

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.

Go and Come

January 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Go and come. Its an odd phrase; but it is commonly used in Sri Lankan English, and I’ve really grown to like it.

I spent five days between Colombo and Galle last week, traveling around 850km by bus and train. It was a great couple of days. I had the best Japanese food of my life, ranging from sashimi to curry leaves tempura before heading to the American Center to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Program. The Center was holding a photo exhibition  displaying the work of a Sri Lankan who received a Fulbright to study at UC Berkeley.
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After the event, I went to Galle Face Hotel to have a drink and watch the sunset. That day marked the completion of three months of my Fulbright, just six more to go. It seemed like a fitting way to commemorate the day.

Sunset at Galle Face Green

The following day, I headed down to Galle. I spent a few days with one of the Senior Fulbright Fellows – someone who holds a PhD and is an academic. It was great to get to know one of my colleagues a little more.

On Sunday I took the overnight train back to Trinco, and got in around 7am. It was the first time I had traveled since moving into my house, and it felt great to be home. It is odd, I’ve only lived in this house a few weeks, but it already feels like home. Going and coming made it feel much more like my house. Its funny how that works.

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Its good to have a home.

Coloring Book Academy

January 15, 2013 — 3 Comments

I studied finance at Fordham. When I started University I was in the College of Business Administration; during my senior year we became the Gabelli School of Business, thanks to a major contribution by Mario Gabelli. During my four years there I had a lot of internship experience and I got an offer from a top bank to work as a credit analyst post graduation.

Now I am teaching nursery rhymes and coloring. My classmates studying liberal arts didn’t call the College of Business Administration the Coloring Book Academy for nothing.

Life is good great. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.

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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.

A part of my New Year Goals was to get more articles published. Well, here is the first one for 2013, published on Under30CEO:

“Money is green. Distance is measured in miles. Twenty degrees is cold.”

Depending upon where you are in the world this could be true, or it could be completely wrong. In most nations, the size and color or notes differs between denominations. Much of the world measures distances in kilometers. If you’re in the US, 20 degrees is a cold day, in Europe you could break a sweat (20 C = 68 F).

Raad the whole article.

Wadi, wadi, wadi!

January 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

Anyone who has traveled through Sri Lanka will be familiar with the plethora of food vendors that sell their snacks on trains and busses.

Wadi, a fried ball of chickpeas, curry leaves, and seasonings, is a staple in Sri Lanka.

Sometimes your food comes in plastic bags, sometimes newspaper, and occasionally it is served on homework.

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  • He only visited France.
  • Manik only reads schoolgirl stories.
  • Wimal only listened to classical music.

Today it seems the student did quite well. By the time I finish the snack I find that this student got a check plus. It’s always sad to get served food when the student failed their test.