Story posted January 18, 2012
On our first morning in Sri Lanka my group of new ISLE students sat on the veranda of the hotel surrounded by bright green hills and someone commented that it looked like we were on the island from the TV show LOST (a more relevant reference in 2006); that it looked like a smoke monster or even a dinosaur might pop its head up beside us. We were drinking Cokes out of glass bottles and everything seemed perfect and I thought about how I didn’t want to leave this hotel to move in with my host family. There were a lot of things I was excited about, a lot of reasons I’d chosen the program--a fascination with the region, strong recommendations from alumni--but I was least excited about living with a Sri Lankan family. I thought it would be awkward, stifling. They were a Sri Lankan couple in their sixties--what would we even talk about?
Lots, it turned out. Cricket is one of Sri Lanka’s national pastimes I still could not even tell you the most basic rules of that sport, but another national pastime is gossiping and I came into the ISLE Program with an already very well-developed background in oopa doopa (that means gossip Sinhala and it is the perfect word). This love of talking about other people is helpful in bridging cultural divides and after we got through the get-to-know-you formalities my Amma (host mother) got down to business discussing:
1. People who act like they were meditating but probably are not meditating at all
2. Which girls are going out drinking like a bunch of harlots
3. If so and so is ever going to get married
4. Who has the prettiest saris and who has the ugliest ones
5. Which people’s children are poorly behaved
6. Whether that one lady is actually as good of a cook as everyone says
That last one is particularly important because Sri Lankans take their food very seriously. There are a lot of rules: someone else has to serve you your food and once it’s on your plate you have to eat all of it but without utensils, only using your right hand (not the left, don’t be disgusting). This was pretty hard at first--to ball up rice and soupy curries with your fingertips and get them all the way from your plate to your mouth, but it is essential. “Only with the fingers does the good taste come,” my Tata (host father) told me. (My Amma was a rare Sri Lankan who disagreed, eating with spoons as a vestige of her education at an English boarding school in Colombo.) So with my fingers I learned to love fried eggplant and curried lentils and coconut flat breads and special Sri Lankan red rice. My Tata fed me pineapples and mangoes and bananas that he grew and introduced me to new fruits like the prickly sweet rambutan. I ate so much that one evening he remarked to me, gesturing at my stomach that had expanded over the months, “Now your belly has come!” Fair point.
I liked other things too. I liked spending entire days riding in trains, I liked absorbing the knowledge and stories of my legendary professors, I liked walking on the walls of the old fort in Galle, I liked dipping my French fries in spicy ketchup, I liked making jokes in Sinhala, I liked getting drenched in sweat on my walk to school and getting drenched in rain on the walk home. I remember feeling deliriously happy. This is so embarrassing to admit, but each night during the week before I left I would pack a little bit and each night I would sob into my freshly folded linen clothes. I was worried I would never be that happy again.
I don’t know if I have been, that’s a hard thing to quantify, but I do know that the ISLE Program has had a profound impact on my life since. My resume is now scattered with international development work, I wrote my senior thesis about women in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and I have been back to the country twice--once for vacation and once to work for a NGO. Each time I return I am struck by how much has changed since I first arrived in 2006: the leader of the LTTE was killed, my host brother got married and had a baby, these cookies that used to only come in lemon flavor now also come in mango. But each time there is also the wonderful constant of helping my Amma prepare meals of pol sambol and parippu while she tells me all of the latest oopa doopa.
Katie Seward graduated with a B.A. in Politics from Bates College in Lewiston, ME in 2008. She currently works at the American Red Cross in Seattle, WA.
This is a Sri Lankan keyboard. Michael Ondaatje (author of The English Patient) is Sri Lankan and he wrote an exquisite book called Running in the Family, and in it he says "I still believe the most beautiful alphabet was created by the Sinhalese."