When I moved to Sri Lanka in October 2014 I expected to learn a lot about the country in my time there. And working as a journalist there for nine months, I definitely did. What I didn’t expect was that it would teach me so much about who I am and where I come from. New experiences forced me to reflect on value judgements, customs and traditions which I’d never identified, let alone questioned, before.
It was unnerving, and exciting.
The first thing I found really strange was how comfortable people are with touching each other. I was roughhoused by old ladies at bus halts and hugged and kissed by women I’d just met. In the first few months my “personal space” felt like a physical thing, a 10-centimeter rubber ring around me that reverberated in shock when someone came near. I realized how carefully we British tiptoe around each other, like ballerinas, terrified of offending each other with human contact.
Eventually I adapted, and started to enjoy it. It became a new way to communicate; I could show someone I was pleased to meet them with something more than the corners of my mouth. I stopped flinching when colleagues stroked me on the shoulder while they were passing my chair, and I started using my elbows when boarding buses to make sure I got a seat.
While I was getting intimate with being intimate, I had also started to spot another unusual trend. I’ve caught a monumental amount of buses in my time, so I thought I knew the etiquette by heart. But London and Sri Lanka are a world away from each other.
In Sri Lanka my partner and I would sit at the back of the bus and for long journeys down the coast, and watch men, women, children and families get in and out of the two by two plastic cushioned seats. We noticed that people consciously chose to sit next to other people on the buses, rather than taking advantage of the spare double seats where they could sit alone. In London it’s an unspoken rule that you sit as far away as you can from any other passengers. If someone sits close to me it sets off alarm bells.
“Why do people choose to sit together on the bus?” we asked our friends. But it wasn’t much easier for them to work out the cause of their automatic behaviors than it was for me to understand why I instinctively avoided other passengers. Eventually we got our answer: people make space so families can sit together.
Putting Family First
This spirit of sharing and respect for family life is characteristic of Sri Lankans. At work my colleagues invariably offered me bits and bobs from their rice and curry lunch packets. If you invited someone over for dinner there was a risk they’d bring their family along, too (sweet, but impractical).
One evening I was surprised to see a friend give away more of her sandwich than she ate – something I’m not sure if I could ever bring myself to do on an empty stomach. Another night, when we were taking our leave after dinner at our friend’s parents’ house we saw adult children bend at the knees and literally fall to the floor at their mother and fathers’ feet, a traditional mark of respect.
In Sri Lanka siblings spend their weekends together and rush to each other’s bedsides at the first sign of a sniffle. And, even when children grow up and get married, they’ll often still reside in the house of one of the couple’s parents.
My way of life is reinforced by those around me. Like most people, I follow the crowd and act as they act. When my friends moved away for university, I moved too. Later, new friends showed me out-of-focus but beautiful photos of cities and islands around the world, inspiring me to set off on my own travels. The same thing happens in South Asia, but the expectations are different.
I started asking myself questions:
Why haven’t I seen my brother in so long?
Is my life really any better because I live away from my parents?
When did I forget how to share?
Some of these questions had simple answers. I didn’t want to return to the nest; once you’ve tasted independence it’s hard to go back (a few periods of early 20s joblessness taught me that). But others weren’t so cut and dry. It really was about time I found the money for a plane ticket to see my brother, and I really could learn something from the way Sri Lankans share.
I expected to encounter certain differences in the two cultures before I moved to Sri Lanka – I knew that there would be lower levels of safety and higher levels of sexism than in Britain. That wasn’t easy. But learning to question my own preconceived ideas about how life should be lived, and how we should behave around each other, was revelatory.
By Jo Eckersley
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