Thursday, July 14, 2016

Last Lessons

On the verge of leaving Sri Lanka I am struck by how much Colombo has changed in the seven months I have lived here. It feels as if the city is growing beneath my feet – whenever I go down a road for the first time in a few weeks there is a new coffee shop, or an updated sleek storefront. The ultimate symbol of middle class opulence - Sri Lanka's first bubble tea shop – opened just last week. I've watched a crash of technology wash around the island as Uber competes with local taxi apps, food delivery services pop up, first world comforts at the touch of a button in this developing country. I wonder how sustainable this rush of 'modernity' is – will Sri Lanka trip over its own feet in it's rush to grow? Or is this the natural progression of optimism in a country where an international diaspora is streaming back, bringing with them seeds of business ideas from around the globe? More than this I wonder about what seems to me a growing chasm between the wealthy middle class and the poor – where the 500 rupees (about $3.50) I and the urban middle class slurp up in a Latte is more than many people make in a whole day of labor. While according to official statistics Sri Lanka is on par with America is terms of inequality I cannot square this figure with the reality I see here – that dinner for two and a couple drinks in a decent restaurant in Colombo can cost a month's earnings of poverty level wages. The dinners Jonathan and I treat ourselves with once a week or so will never once be within reach of a large section of the population in their entire lives.

This sense of unease at my own comparative wealth has helped to teach one of Sri Lanka's greatest lessons for me: humility. After my first two long stints abroad I thought I had few illusions left about my ability to 'save' or 'help' another society – I knew that my supposedly altruistic Fulbright grant would primarily benefit one person: me. I had no conception of how true this would be. In fact, last month I began to feel depressed, thinking that my grant was a failure because I have worked so little. Rather than wallow I reframed the past months in my mind from a time to work to a time to relax and explore, and then it became an incredible success, a paid vacation miraculously funded by your tax dollars. But really, it was that. In my seven months I ended up only teaching two months, and even then for only 10 hours a week. I thought I could fill my billowing spare time with an internship with the Center for Poverty Analysis, a think tank and research organization whose institutional stance on poverty as systemic injustice enchanted me. I found though, they were not especially interested in the vast skills that I have accrued in my 4 years of undergraduate study, which are namely: how to write a paper, and how to complain about the United Nations. My job there was essentially (excuse me, grandparents) 'Facebook bitch' – while it was interesting to absorb the knowledge floating through the organization, I hardly needed a four year degree to update their social media pages and edit the occasional article. I felt dwarfed by even the junior researchers, crippled by lack of linguistic and cultural competency. Even once I left CEPA to work in flood relief as an extra pair of hands, I felt helpless under these restrictions, unable to participate even in simple conversation about which student should receive which donated school bag.

Sri Lanka has confirmed what I already knew – that to do effective work somewhere you have to really know that place. It is the greatest of Western arrogance to think that we can sweep in from abroad and solve problems in a place where we can neither speak nor listen, and whose history and intricacies we do not know. I have since my teens wanted to work abroad, but I have waffled and wavered about where. I chased after the Middle East, but got discouraged by UVA's draconian Arabic program and the regional tendency to be treat white women with slightly less respect than a dog. I loved Cambodia, but found it over-saturated with all the other do-gooders who also loved Cambodia. I love Sri Lanka, but feel the marginal benefit of returning to work here would be low, given the breadth of the existing Sri Lankan intellectual class. I loved Rwanda, but feel cautious about working there given the Machiavellian machinations of the government to twist development to their own purposes. But one thing is clear: if I am to work abroad without hypocrisy I need to specialize. I need to learn a language. I need to learn a place. I hope that graduate school will give me an opportunity to dive deep, and until I do I will stay in my own country and use one skill that all this jetsetting has given me – overcoming culture shock – to help refugees and immigrants find their feet here. I am grateful for this time – though its main lesson may be that 4 years of writing papers in a library doesn't qualify you as 'skilled'.  


  1. So very thoughtful and enlightening to those of us like me who have been very rooted in life in the USA. But I must admit that my recent reading about presidential politics in the 50 years after the American Revolution have suggested to me that our 2016 election year is not as much of an aberration as you might think. You have been to some countries where some very outrageous things have happened but you are coming back to a country where some pretty outrageous things are currently happening though on a somewhat smaller scale. I will be interested to see what issues you find in NYC in the fall. You have packed a lot into your brain in just a few years. Your grandpa was proud of you!