Archives For Sri Lanka

This article was originally posted on LatLong.

The sun was slowly climbing the early morning sky as I roared down the A29 on the back of a motorcycle. The morning was hot and we had been on the road for about three hours.

The roads were in a state of disrepair after decades of civil war. Between the monsoons and mortars, many parts of the highway were seemingly missing. Twisted metal from blown out vehicles littered the side of the road, remnants. We did our best to navigate, avoiding craters left from bombs that had landed in the region.

Two of my traveling companions became anxious and attempted to escape the box I was holding them in. Carrying a box full of rambunctious puppies would have been difficult while walking down a street – let alone while riding a motorcycle. I started playing a perverse game of whack-a-mole. One hand was dedicated to gripping the box against my body. My other hand split its time between pushing the puppies back into the box and hanging on to the motorcycle as we careened down the highway.

This lasted for over an hour.

The road smoothed out as we approached a military checkpoint. My friends and I tensed up; news stories of the military’s atrocities floated to the top of my mind. We creeped to a halt at the checkpoint and half of our caravan was directed to the queue for locals.

My legs were shaking – I’m not sure if it was five hours on a motorcycle or fear of the soldiers. I was called up from the queue and approached grasping the box of puppies with one hand and my navy blue passport with the other.

The soldier inspected my entry visa and muttered some gruff words in a foreign tongue. We locked eyes and he asked me why I was travelling North. I inhaled slowly; humid air filled my nostrils. I explained that I had to get these puppies to my friend’s parents. I dropped the box down to the ground and opened it slowly. I stood holding two puppies as he cracked a huge smile.

Soon a large crowd of men clad in camouflage surrounded the puppies. They were laughing and teasing the dogs. The tension had evaporated.

A few minutes later we were on our way to the North, only five more hours to go.

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Cultural diplomacy – the attempt by a government to win the hearts and minds of foreign nationals – has a long tradition in the history of the world. Akin to an early form of globalization, cultural diplomacy served as a tool of statecraft for ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Through exchanging ideas, technology and individuals these societies built relations that enabled them to develop and evolve their agriculture, artistry, trade, and diplomacy. Ancient Egypt had the custom of bringing young aristocrats from conquered enemies to Egypt, where they were immersed in Egyptian society and returned to their home with favorable views of the Pharaoh.

Alexander the Great realized that he could not sustain his empire through military might alone. With this vision he built the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the largest in the world at the time and a site of scholarly exchanges. The library was built upon Greek culture and learning, and facilitated the spread of Greco philosophy. Greek cities were famously employed poets and philosophers to go abroad as ambassadors.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered the first example of modern state efforts to promote culture and education beyond borders. France, because of the Jesuits, exported high quality education to North America, China, and India. The Jesuits’ educational expertise was deployed in tandem with France’s colonization, diplomatic, military, and trade efforts.

Through their international education exchanges, Jesuits gained access to highly guarded cultural sites. Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, was the first Westerner allowed into China’s Forbidden City. He invited to be an advisor to the Imperial Court, and was given this honor due to his contributions to Chinese academia with his conversion of European scientific texts into Chinese. For Ricci, as well as for students today, the importance of academic exchange cannot be overstated.

Like the French, America’s first source of cultural diplomacy was rooted in religion. During the nineteenth century the American Christian missionary movement sought to spread the gospel abroad. This involved imparting Western knowledge with an emphasis on self- reliance at many schools and universities abroad. They founded some of the first universities modeled after the American higher education system abroad: Robert College in Constantinople in 1863, the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, and Peking University in 1989. Peking University (Beijing Daxue 北京大学) is generally regarded as the Harvard (or Oxford) of China.

Many Christian missionaries sponsored converts to obtain higher education in America. One notable example was Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Wing returned to China after graduating from Yale and convinced the Chinese government to send 120 young Chinese men to the U.S. for undergraduate studies.

As international exchange gained traction in America, the international peace movement of the early 1900’s promoted the ideal that mutual understanding could be achieved through educational travel. Under this worldview, foreign education played an integral part in ending all wars. Students and lecturers would serve as ambassadors and return home with a deeper understanding other nations.

In this context, Andrew Carnegie created his namesake Endowment for International Peace with a $10 million donation in 1910. His vision was to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization”. One of the main pillars of the foundation was the Division of Intercourse and Education, which sought to promote international understanding and cooperation.

World War I hampered Carnegie’s efforts to end all wars. However, the war brought about American government involvement in cultural activities abroad. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 to build support for the U.S. to enter and participate in the war. The CPI is noted for its work in Europe and South America. It coordinated with US Embassies to open reading rooms for US-based journalism; it also organized speaking tours for Americans. Through the Fulbright program these activities continue today.

After World War I the Institute of International Education (IIE) was founded to promote greater understanding between nations and foster lasting peace through international education exchanges. During the 1920s IIE organized student, faculty and teacher exchanges between Americans and Europeans. Stephen Duggan, IIE’s president at the time, persuaded the U.S. government to create a new category of nonimmigrant student visas, bypassing post-war quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1921. By the mid 1920s IIE was administering international fellowships on behalf of the American, Czechoslovak, French, German, and Hungarian governments. Duggan put forth proposals to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a form of foreign aid and a way to promote long-term relations between countries. He asserted, “If ever there were a time when America’s aid was necessary to help sustain higher education in Europe, and in the interest of reconstruction and of the intellectual life, to bring selected students to this country, it is now.” These efforts prompted the State Department to organize a meeting on the topic of educational exchanges in 1936, which ultimately gave birth to US government cultural diplomacy.

With the 1941 entrance of the U.S. into World War II, the State Department moved most cultural diplomacy efforts into the private sector. IIE was granted responsibility to manage the US-sponsored student exchange programs in Latin America. In 1944 the Secretary of State created a new position, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs. This position marked a monumental shift in government policy towards cultural exchanges, as the government began to embrace these programs more fully.

The end of the war, international educational exchange had become a priority of the U.S. government. The Fulbright Program, America’s premier cultural diplomacy program, owes its creation to the efforts of Senator William Fulbright. He is “responsible for the largest and most significant movement of scholars across the earth since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.”

The Fulbright is America’s premier international fellowship. In your application essay, you need to include discuss why your research furthers the Fulbright program’s goals of fostering international communication and cultural learning. To better understand the program’s goals, it is useful to know the history of the Fulbright program and educational exchange as a whole.

For more Fulbright application tips download my guide.

Bureaucracy

June 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

For several months now I have been working with the Tsunami Animal-People Alliance to try and coordinate a dog vaccination and sterilization clinic in Trincomalee. I first got in contact with the NGO after a fellow Fulbrighter told me about the work they were doing around the island, that was in the beginning of February.

On March 22 I had a meeting with the Trincomalee District Secretariat (D.S.) to receive approval for to conduct a clicic in October. Over the course of the clinic it is expected that 300 dogs will be sterilized and vaccinated. The D.S. approved the project, pending the approval of the relevant government stakeholders – namely the Government Agent (G.A.) (who works for the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development) and the local veterinarian  I met with the G.A. on the 20th of April.

Its May 8th now, and I’ve received word from the G.A. that the project is approved, pending approval from the Ministry of Health. Two weeks later, I received the final approval and the project is set to commence in October.

The bureaucracy here is frustrating, and it seems that no government official wants to take responsibility for a project. Each official I went to for approval gave it conditionally; it seemed like they were afraid to take responsibility for the plan.

Things move at a frustratingly slow pace; if you keep on people and maintain persistence, its possible to make progress.

 

I was sitting on a verandah, sipping on a cup of coffee, overlooking the main road of Kandy. At the table next to me was a group of girls, pouring through their Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, trying to figure out their next stop along their tour. We started chatting and the asked a curious, but common, question, “how can we get to know the real Sri Lanka?” I’ve been asked this question on several occasions; and I think most travelers seek to get away from the toursits traps and get to know the true essence of a country (at least for a few hours…).

The benefits are incredibly apparent: a true culture experience that enables you to understand someone with a different set of life experiences. Well its surprisingly easy to do this: get out of sterile, isolating situations; throw out that guide book, and make yourself get out and actually talk to people.

It might sound simple, but just speaking to people can really alter the course of your trip. I don’t understand tourists who go around with headphones in listening to music. Riding on buses across Sri Lanka has been one of the best most interesting parts of my time here. When you’re sitting next to someone on a six hour bus ride, there is a lot of time to learn about the country from your travel companion, if you have headphones in the entire way you’ve just lost this entire opportunity. Talking to people on buses has led me to better understand Sri Lanka and its history. I’ve been shocked by what people have shared with me on a public bus, stories of war, survival, and new beginnings.

The Fulbright has been one of the best learning experience of my life, thus far. The past six months of living and working in Sri Lanka have pushed me to be a better communicator and a more open person. This experience has changed me, probably in more ways than I’m cognizant of. As a caucasian male born to a middle class family in New Jersey, I don’t exactly have a lot in common with the son of a Sri Lankan fisherman who has spent the last decade of his life running from war. Despite the differences between our worldview and experiences, I try my best to understand his outlooks. When I first came to Sri Lanka this was incredibly difficult to relate with people here. Sitting in someone’s living room and listening to their stories of life and death can evoke a range or emotions, and I often found myself falling silent – unsure of how to respond. After time I learned to understand and empathize with the hardships people have faced; I became comfortable enough to ask questions and engage in conversations.

If you want to be a better communicator, start by listening.

Learning Colours

May 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Learning Colours

by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

I hear the maid tell my daughter,
three years old and just able to make out

red from pink and even blue from purple,

as they sit on the verandah
avoiding the glare of our tropical sun,

that she is fair.

If it had been someone else, I would have

stomped up, red in the face, and given my spiel:

“When the one real line is drawn,
even the fairest here is black!”

But this is a woman from a highland village.
She will look at the child’s dark mother and laugh

with her knowledge that coursed two centuries

down hills and dunes into her blood.

She will tell me that nothing gives one

a better advantage in life
than a bit of creamy skin.

 

Poetry can be very powerful way to teach English, but for a students it can be menacing. Last week I shared this poem, written by the Deputy Director of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka, with some of my more advanced students. It led to an engaging and thoughtful discussion about skin color and society.

My lesson plan for teaching poetry to ESL students went something like this:

During class we read two poems, and discussed the meaning of the poem. After that the students had to write a response poem. For homework I asked each student to write a poem, based upon Ramya’s. The results were fantastic.

There is no correct way to write a poem; after years of learning in a rigid test based environment that can be frustrating for my students. After working with them for two months though, my students have gotten used to my challenging questions, and they come up with some really great answers to open ended questions. This exercise was so different from traditional Sri Lankan school exercises, because it focused on student creativity

I want to share with you two of the poems that my students wrote:

Skin Colour
Some peoples are white,
Some peoples are black.
Doesn’t think about these skin colours
When you close your eyes
All things are same.

 

Black and White
A man came to my fruit shop
He took and mango and smell it
Perfectly checked my fruits.
I cut a small piece of a mango
Gave it to him.
His face became bright.
Not by his white skin, but
The fine taste of my mango
Grown in a black sand.
He took 5 mangoes.
He put 150 rupees on the bench,
Not in my hand.
Few ones only knew.
Only in dark milk moon is beautiful.

 

I was thrilled reading these expressive poems. For some time I’ve debated teaching this poem. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond, and if it would be culturally insensitive to teach it. After some time of worrying, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see how it goes. I couldn’t have been happier. My students voiced strong opinions on how skin color affects their lives, and they wrote some really beautiful poetry.

Poetry can make for a great ESL lesson plan and help foster creativity. I think the key is to make it relevant to the students, I was fortunate to find a really touching poem written by a Sri Lankan.

J is for Jambu

April 30, 2013 — 2 Comments

Jambu

Jambu!

Sri Lanka was referred to by the ancient Arab traders as Serendipit is the root word for serendipity. Part of the reasoning was that a man could cross the island with nothing but the clothes on his back, and emerge well fed. As one of the most bio diverse islands in the world, Sri Lanka is home to many interesting species of spices and fruits. One of my favorite things to do is to buy strange fruits and vegetables, and to try my hand at cooking them. Sometimes the results are great… 

Jambu have recently come into season on the island. This small fruit is also known as rose apple; its scientific name is SyzygiumThere are 1100 species of Syzgium, and I believe the ones in Sri Lanka are Syzygium samarangense

The fruit has a light flavor, and they’re slightly sour. Jambus are juicy and fragrant, and they have a nice crunch to them. The exterior of the fruit has a been of a sheen to it, they are primarily green with hints of pink. The bulb shaped fruits are tasty, and a refreshing treat on a hot day.

These little fruits are chockfull of vitamins: thiamin, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and sulfur. The jambu is a source of fiber and is low in fat and calories, with 56 calories per 100g.

A kilo of Jambu will cost you SLR 100/ ($0.79 USD). Not a bad price at all for such a tasty fruit.

Costs of War

April 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’m continually surprised by the challenges of working in a post conflict area. Trinco, the town where I live and teach, was relatively unaffected by the war. By this I mean there were a few bombings in town, but they did not suffer from heavy fighting. Just a few kilometeres outside of the town there are areas that were really hard hit by fighting.

Over the weekend I had the privilege to travel to Mannar to celebrate Easter. On Saturday I went sea bathing with a friend and his older brothers. They are divers by trade, and collect sea cucumbers and conch shells.

Raj, the eldest brother, and I were sitting on the beach chatting. We were sipping on toddy and eating fish and crabs that we had cooked over a fire. His English is good, and he told me how he loves working outdoors. When the conversation came to my studies at university, sadness flashed across his eyes. Raj told me that he was supposed to go to uni for science, but due to the war those plans changed. He spoke of his life and how he enjoyed the simplicity of his trade.

Every year in Sri Lanka only 2% of students get admitted to university. Only the top students can study in the science or medical faculty. Raj seems genuinely happy with his life, but its hard to imagine how different his life would have been had he gone to uni. It is impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of war. How many future scientists, engineers, and doctors found it impossible to continue their studies?

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.

Surviving

March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

He intensely gazes at the sea, looking for signs of fish. Something catches his eye, and he points it out to his son. The young boy is learning his father’s trade. Slowly he wades into the water, stalking his prey. He readies his net and casts it onto the sea. There is tension in the air as he reels in his dragnet, unsure of whether his throw was successful. The reward for his effort is a tiny fish, the size of a deck of cards.

pictures to animation

Just feet from the Farah III I watch this Tamil fisherman work. One month before the climax of the Sri Lankan civil war he fled his village. He has no boat to fish in the deeper waters, as his was destroyed in the final weeks of the war. He has a net and that enables him to survive.

Paper

March 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Paper, a film by 

  • Based off of the name of this film, what do you think it is about?
  • When in your life do you use paper?
  • Could you use less paper in your life than you currently do?
  • What would your life be like without paper?

My students at Trinco’s Jesuit Academy walked into class those questions written on the board, and I gave them ten minutes to answer before we moved on to watching this short documentary about a newspaper based in Jaffna.

In my four months of teaching, this was hands down my best class. After the video I was able to foster a discussion with my students that lasted nearly half an hour. They talked to me about their media consumption, and why they think its important to be informed. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they don’t trust the government run newspapers. I did not expect that kind of open criticism.

Sri Lanka’s education system is not geared towards creating independent thinkers. Notebooks are routinely referred to as copies, even by my students who speak little English. My students, who are among the best in Trinco, were initially frustrated by the questions written on the board. One girl complained, because there wasn’t one correct answer. This sort of open ended discussion is not common in Sri Lankan education. It was a tough class to start, but once the discussion got rolling I was thrilled with where it went.

After the class I reflected on what had transpired, and how a nation’s society reflects on its education system. Sri Lanka has an amazing medical system. Many Sri Lankan doctors leave the country to take positions at top hospitals in London, New York, and Toronto. Medical tourism is growing, as foreigners come to Sri Lanka for quality, affordable healthcare. The education facilities of Sri Lanka are doing something right, if they’re producing such top notch doctors, but medicine is just one factor that comprises a country’s society.

There is a divide in the world’s education systems.The two best education systems, Finland and South Korea, have taken radically different approaches. South Korea’s system rewards students who excel on exams, and focuses on rote memorization. Finland on the other hand doesn’t measure their students for the first six years of their formal education, which begins at 7. Finland’s holistic approach differs greatly from South Korea’s rigorous exam based education system.

While there is merit to both systems, I cannot emphasize how much I value creative education. I feel that my greatest educational achievements are a result of project based learning. My students may not have gotten as much out of the film as I wanted, but it was an encouraging start. I look forward to working with them over the next several months.