Monday, February 22, 2016


Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to Kandy last week, a Valentine's day present to ourselves. Kandy is a beautiful city – the town pools around a lake in a valley ringed with green cloud-fringed hills. Strolling around the lake dotted with lovers (discretely hidden behind umbrellas) felt romantic indeed. Still, the prevalence of the Temples and their weight on the psyche of the town made it a funny choice for a romantic getaway. The temples themselves featured signs depicting a man and woman canoodling with strict lines going through it. Clearly fighting back against young Sri Lankan's tendency to use temples as a date site.

Jonathan and I... on a date at a temple 

The 80 foot White Buddha who overlooks Kandy

All the Temple visiting finally pushed me to write something I've been stewing over for a long time: faith in Sri Lanka. This is really just a collection of observations, not a well thought out or researched piece. But faith here is impossible not to observe. It is not separate from daily life as it is in the West but a part of it – from the Gods smiling down from behind restaurant counters, to the dashboard Buddhas on tuktuks, to how people on the bus stand (or at least raise their butts of the seat a few inches) when driving past a temple. Daily life is infused with faith. And faith, too, is infused with life. Today at the temple a rooster hopped and pecked across the shine, while dogs dozed in the shade of the Bo tree. To be sacred here does not mean to be closed – it means openess. That all life, nature too, has something holy about it.

Kandyan rooster investigates the Bo tree temple

From the surface Sri Lanka might seem a place of astonishing religious tolerance and diversity. If I didn't know how the war tore the country apart on Hindu and Buddhist lines I would never guess it from Colombo. A block from my apartment a tiny Buddhist temple shares a wall with a one room Hindu temple, all acrros the street from the local Mosque. I was surprised to find Parvati and Vishnu (Hindu Gods) adorning the same bus decals as Buddha, until a friend explained to me that these 'Hindu' Gods exist in Buddhist cosmology too, as powerful beings that have not attained enlightenment. Someone else told me that for the Sri Lankans, the Buddha is your spiritual teacher and adviser but it is the Gods you pray to for intercession. Want to pass your A level exams? You pray to the Gods, who are more involved in such worldly things than Buddha.

So I was surprised to find such overlap between faiths which have been at loggerheads for decades here. For reference, on Independence Day last week the national anthem was sung in both Tamil and Sinhala (the Hindu minority and the Buddhist majority languages) for the first time ever. Even this small gesture of reconciliation had some radical Buddhist politicians threatening to commit suicide, though unfortunately they seem to have not carried out their threats. Sri Lanka is home to what might seem an oxymoron: fanatic Buddhism. As the country limps towards reconciliation and equitable development under the new regime, to the careful observer, there is backlash. In the last few weeks there has been a sudden change in the Tuktuk decals I usually love, which often have stickers of the driver's favorite movie or words of wisdom such as 'Save your money'. Recently though, a sticker in Sinhala reading 'Sinha-le', meaning Sinhalese blood, has appeared on Tuktuks, and now even buses and tshirts. This is a reference to Sinhalese Buddhist identity, which might not quite be a threat in itself, but has some parallels to wearing a 'white pride' shirt in the US. Even more concerning, the slogan has been spray painted on some Muslim family's homes. Meanwhile, the leaders of one of the main Buddhist sects is in jail for calling for the death of a war widow. In Sri Lanka you can see the depth of corruption that any religion is capable one – when a Buddhist whose first tenet is to harm none, encourages his followers to kill an innocent woman.

But of course, like any 'religious conflict' this one is about more than faith. It is about ethnicity, language, distribution of resources, jobs, and history all play a role in a conflict under which religion is sometimes the banner. Indeed, if Sri Lanka moves away from Sinhala language use in the official sector, the most likely direction would be towards English, a move which will most benefit the English speaking elite regardless of their religion.

An observer for three months now, I see a lot of reason for hope. I see development and resources slowly leaking into the bombed out Tamil North, and military occupation slowly draining out of it. I see constant reason for optimism in the intelligence and enthusiasm of the young people I work with, at CEPA and in my class. I see the kleptocratic previous dynasty being dismantled, and protections created to protect the country from it happening again. I see a country full of people who feed stray dogs and buy rice packets for birds, who invest heavily in the education and happiness of their children. When I go to temples and see young couples holding hands or parents holding their children up see the Buddha, I want to say faith is a reason for hope here too. But I don't really know.  

One of my favorite temples in Colombo. It seems to me a focal point of the coexistence of the ancient and the modern in Sri Lanka. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Student Teacher

My apologies for a long silence. I have at last begun working in earnest, and so have much less energy at the end of the day for writing and thinking than I used to. Will try to get back into the habit of posting!

Teaching began with my ultimate nightmare. I had been waiting for weeks to hear from the Arts Department about when I would start teaching, so when walking home from my internship I got a call from the University asking me if I could meet in 20 minutes to discuss my class, I was delighted and went straight there. The professor in charge of my class greeted me with bright smile and said 'Hello! Your students are waiting!' I explained that I didn't know I was teaching today, so didn't have a lesson prepared and couldn't teach. He assured me that was ok, and that I should come teach anyway. So, during the three minute walk to my classroom I frantically made up some discussion questions, and bumbled through half an hour of awkward question and answer with my students, hoping the heat in the room masked my nervous sweating.

To their credit, my students seem to have thoroughly forgiven me for such a rough beginning. I teach three English classes now. Two with Arts student (Arts as in humanities, not fine arts), and one with Sciences students. I love teaching – to me it is a balance of play and performance. Being interesting enough to keep them engaged while I talk, but more importantly, to keep them talking. The more I teach, the more I realize it is the job of the teacher to ask questions, not provide answers. We play games. We write stories. We use new grammar concepts to imagine the distant future, or plan the ultimate Valentine's day date. My students are delightful. They are willing to play and take risks, and when they see me outside of class they greet me with huge smiles, and come up to talk.

While I have definitely improved my teaching since that first class, the sweating remains a constant. I sweat through my clothes in the first 5 minutes of the unairconditioned class. Even the students occasionally delicately dab at themselves with handkerchiefs, and you know if the Sri Lanks are sweating, it is hot indeed. On breaks, I shiver damply in the air conditioned teachers lounge. When I get back home, my dear partner Jonathan hugs me at arm's length and steers me directly into the shower.

I am learning a lot about Sri Lanka through my students. When I walk from the Arts Faculty to the Science Faculty it is like crossing into a different world – my students are vastly different in their levels of English and their cultural backgrounds. Somehow they even look different. I am in the slightly awkward position of teaching students who are uniformly my age or older – but in the arts faculty I feel like I am teaching children. I would peg most of my students as being in their mid teens, while in the Sciences I am keenly aware of my younger age. My arts class, as one might fear, is made up of 90% girls, while in my science class the gender ratio is reversed. I initially wondered if the difference in confidence between the classes came from Sri Lankan gender roles, but there is more to it than that. The few girls in the Sciences class move with a languid confidence that matches their male peers, and if forced to guess their age from afar I would do so with a lot more accuracy than I would for my girls in the Arts.

Through my students, I believe I am seeing class differentials in Sri Lanka. STEM subjects are taught in English here, so my Sciences students are quite proficient. They are looking for practice with a native speaker, and work related vocabulary to use in the job hunts they are about to embark on. My arts students on the other hand are taught in Sinhala, and, in the beginning anyway, would blush and look away in response to simple questions like how was their weekend. When I ask about their families they talk about farmer fathers and housewife mothers, and homes far away. They want to be teachers. My Sciences 'kids' (such as they are) grew up close to Colombo, if not within it, many of them I think speaking English with their families. They will be managers and engineers, and many will seek jobs or graduate education abroad. I wonder how possible it is for a bright rural kid with low English background to study Sciences at the University of Colombo. The subject alone is difficult enough, but to study it in a language you barely speak seems almost impossible. Many of the privileged Sri Lankans I met back in the US spoke of the days when English was a Lingua franca with great nostalgia. They told me you didn't know if someone was Sinhalese or Tamil back then – everyone spoke English. And perhaps it is true you couldn't know someone's ethnicity from language, but I think you did know their Class. And this distinction of class between the English speaking and the non-English speaking world in Sri Lanka I think holds true today.

(Some unrelated good news for anyone who hasn't heard. I was accepted into New York University's Master of Social Work program last week! I even got a decent scholarship, so I should be able to afford it with only somewhat crippling debt. I'm still waiting to hear from Columbia University, but I'm quite excited to know that I'll be living in New York next year!)