I wanted to share a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I thought may resonate, particularly as a metaphorical rumination on life intentions grounded in the mountain.
Could this have been Kanthi, whose story I shared last week? Or my host mother in Ekiriya, who worked as a housemaid for years in Saudi Arabia? It shouldn’t matter how this person might relate to us–my own capacity for empathy and “mournability” is admittedly imperfect–but encounters and awareness of how vulnerable Sri Lankan people (and in particular women, as evidenced by the discriminatory sentencing) are in such situations compels me to share the story of this Sri Lankan housemaid, sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery:
This is Kanthi. She is a gifted chef, a mother of three boys and one daughter, and a devout Buddhist. She is originally from the southeast of Sri Lanka, but now lives and works in the north-central ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Her husband was critically injured in a motorbike accident, cannot walk, and is unable to support the family. Kanthi thus traveled alone to work for several years as a house maid and cook in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait, sending money back to her family every month. Back in Sri Lanka now, she wakes up at 3 am, makes breakfast and lunch for her family, then heads to this bat kade (rice shop) where she cooks from 4 am to 7 pm, day in day out.
I had the privilege of eating some of Kanthi’s delicious rice and curry, and she allowed me to share her story. In a world where encounters with violence and suffering are far too common, I am inspired by Kanthi to appreciate and value seemingly unremarkable acts of human persistence, sacrifice and love borne out everyday.
I got off a bus from Kandy this evening in the neighborhood of Dangolla, where I started my daily ascent up the steadily up-hill road that leads to the ISLE Centre where I live. On the way, I stopped into my friend Sanjeeva Ayya‘s kade (small shop) to pick up a stalk of aembul kessel (sour bananas).
As Sanjeeva Ayya weighed the bananas, he told me that Ajith Ayya, another friend who is a bus ticket collector working part-time in the shop, was up the road at a malegedara, or Buddhist funeral home, being held for one of our neighbors who had passed away yesterday. The house was on the way back home, and despite the reluctance I felt with my tie-die shirt and blue shorts that don’t exactly mesh with the customary white garments worn at a malegedara, I hoped to pay my respects if I could.
The entrance to the road was emblazoned with an arched, white fabric, marking the passing of someone who lived here. As I made my way up the road, under the dark cover of coconut and mango and passion fruit trees, I soon came to a gathering of a few dozen people seated outside a well-lit home with additional adornments of white.
I looked over at the people gathered, and sure enough saw Ajith Ayya in his loose-fitting, purple dress shirt, which made me feel slightly better about my disparate attire. He immediately called over, walked out to the road, and grabbed my hand to bring me inside.
“mee aendum prashnayak naedda? (Are these clothes not a problem?)” I asked.
“nae kamak nae aetule enna (No, it’s not a problem, come inside), he assured me.
My presence as a foreigner was apparent right away, as conversation halted and those gathered around looked at me with an innocent sense of curiosity. I raised my hands together in worship, trying to convey a quiet sense of respect without taking attention away from the ritual occasion itself.
“buddhu saranayi” (“May you take refuge in the Buddha”), I said, as Ajith Ayya helped put my bag down on a chair, and insisted on bringing me inside the home. Right before us, I saw the lifeless body of an old man–whom I later learned to have been 84–dressed in elegant white vestments, his two hands gently interlocked upon his chest, laying upon a ceremonial canopy bed adorned with flowers and two regal elephant tusks presiding above.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body. The first time I remember was back in 2012, also in Sri Lanka, when the husband of Violet, our cook at the ISLE Centre, passed away suddenly. I remember arriving upon an enormous gathering of people outside her home, clad in white, and making my way inside with the other ISLE students to pay our respects and listen to Buddhist monks chant pirith in order to transfer merit and ensure a smooth passing to this man’s next life. Despite their grief, the hosts insisted on bringing us orange soda, and I looked around, overwhelmed, processing a combination of monastic chanting, family members sobbing, a cameraman filming, and the implications of my blatant outsider-ness on this intimate occasion.
It was at one point a few minutes after finding a place inside this home that I glanced back over my shoulder. I felt a deep gasp inside my chest–it was the body of the deceased man, right behind me, clad in white, right out in the open for all to see.
Seeing a dead body for the first time came as a real shock–like something foreign to my tangible cosmos of experience–which was only compounded in realizing the body had been right behind me for this time. Nonetheless, the gathering of people persisted here, listening to the chanting of monks, standing side by side with death.
This experience back in 2012 made me reflect on death in my own culture, back in the US, and how we confront that inevitable condition of our mortality. I would later encounter Wendell Berry, who captures some of this cultural sentiment within a rich ecological metaphor,
“[The soil] is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
It is alive itself. It is a grave, too, of course. Or a healthy soil is. It is full of dead animals and plants, bodies that have passed through other bodies. For except for some humans–with their sealed coffins and vaults, their pathological fear of the earth–the only way into the soils is through other bodies. But no matter how finely the dead are broken down, or how many times they are eaten, they yet give into other life…And having followed the cycle around, we see that we have not only a description of the fundamental biological process, but also a metaphor of great beauty and power. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. No less than the faithful of religion is the good farmer mindful of the persistence of life through death, the passage of energy through changing forms” (The Unsettling of America, 86).
While Berry’s characterization of a “pathological fear of the earth” may be harsh, and cast judgment on the ostensible religious significance of coffins and vaults, he does bring light to the sense of “separateness” in which we often approach death in our culture. Bodies are often whisked off to funeral homes before being sealed away in coffins, and with the exception of popular Catholic tradition and other minority religious practices, we seldom come face-to-face with them in ritual occasions. Even the elderly among us–those closest to our mortal apotheosis–are often placed in nursing homes and other institutional spaces where the reality of death is circumscribed and kept at bay from the “eternal” engine of worldly aspiration. This sense of “otherness” does breed a sense of fear–perhaps a fear of the unknown, or more existentially, a fear of reckoning with the reality of our own impermanence. I have certainly experienced this fear myself.
This evening, at the funeral home, I was asked to sit down next to the deceased body of my neighbor, as my friend pointed out the living relatives who sat around us. He introduced me to the late man’s wife, who also appeared to be in her 80s, a frail woman clad in a humble white sari with long silver hair, and a left eye without a pupil, colored purely white. I was struck by her poise and composure as she sat there across from her dead husband, a man she had probably known for over sixty years.
She asked me how long I’d been in Sri Lanka, and if I understood Sinhala, but wasted little time with basic pleasantries. She looked firmly into my eyes,
“buddhu hamuduruwo kiwwa okkomalaa maeranawaa kiyelaa. apita hadanna bae. ee aeththa nisaa api minissunta udaw karanna oone, kaeaema denna oone, salli denna oone, eta kota apita ii langa ipadiimata pin hambakaranna puluwan.”
(The Buddha proclaimed that all living beings pass away. We can’t change that. Because of that reality we need to help other people, give them food when they need, money when we can, so we can earn merit for our next life).”
I sat there, my eyes locked with hers, and I didn’t have anything to say. We paused for a long moment. I stood up from my chair, then descended upon my knees, raising my hands up to worship this woman. “buddhu saranayi.” I walked out the door and left.
I wonder now, looking back at that moment, who this woman might hope was the real object of my worship. Would it be her, despite her own aging condition, and what seemed like her recognition of anicca (impermanence) and anatta–the absence of any permanent, concrete self entity? Would it be her husband, despite his departure from this life, and his rebirth in an unknown realm? Or would it be for the Buddha, despite his ultimate liberation from the samsaric world of death and rebirth?
Perhaps what she really wanted to cultivate, in herself and in others, was a “healthy soil”–a “mindful[ness] of the persistence of life through death”–and the great beauty and power therein.
I called a Sri Lankan friend of mine earlier a few weeks ago, hoping to find a time we could next get together. He told me he had been meaning to call me, and in particular, wanted to talk about a recent change I’d made on my Facebook profile.
That is, in the wake of the historic United States Supreme Court ruling to grant constitutional rights for same-sex couples to marry, I had joined many in the Facebook-endorsed movement to recast my profile picture in the colors of the rainbow.
I found out about the monumental decision when I came back from the village of Ekiriya, where I’d been without internet for a number of days. It came when I first logged onto Facebook, and noticed that some of my friends had made their profile pictures rainbow, with a caption that read, “Celebrate pride at www.facebook.com/pride.” Wondering what the particular cause for affirmation was, I loaded the New York Times website and quickly realized the landmark event that had taken place.
In hearing the news, I experienced an overwhelming synergy of excitement and disbelief–witnessing but perhaps not internalizing that one of the great barriers to actualizing freedom and equality in America had been lifted. This was a great moral shadow of our generation, and to see these legally-enshrined shackles broken was like the cleansing flow of a river washing through our land.
Admittedly, though, I felt a sense of distance in receiving the news days later, and from a small country on the other side of the world. Though this issue is hardly about me (though I would argue that the discrimination undermined our common humanity), I wanted to witness the “moral arc of history” bend first-hand.
I decided to join the company of friends and family in making my Facebook profile picture rainbow. It was, obviously, reactionary to something that had already happened, and largely symbolic, but it was a small way to give tangible affirmation to a historic change in my home country, and to lend support to all the friends and family and good people I know who are not straight–to all those who swim against an oppressive tide just to be themselves.
As a straight ally of the LGBTQ community, I was humbled to see a status update of my former tennis coach who is gay:
“I want to thank my straight friends that posted rainbow profile pics over the past two weeks. I’ve been out for 15 years now and I would like to think that we don’t need the rainbow anymore. However, the truth is that whenever I see a friend’s FB profile pic rainbow-fied it makes my heart jump. The gesture is a declaration and a very clear one.
This in no way implies that people who did not display the colors are not ridiculously and fully supportive. Rather, this is a simple thank you to those that did. It sends a message. This has been a monumental week … I’m still in disbelief. Love = Love!”
I sometimes criticize Facebook and our hyper-reliance on technology, but this was an instance where I experienced a real sense of solidarity with others, and joined in celebration from across the globe through this digital medium. The movement allowed me to keep connected and offer some tangible manifestation of human values I share that transcend the particularities of where I may be situated in the world.
And thus, I was somewhat troubled to hear my Sri Lankan friend urge me to take the picture down immediately. He told me that in Sri Lanka, most any person who saw that rainbow-fide picture of me would assume I were gay. Though I am a straight ally of LGBTQ people, and my friend understood this, he told me that many people would simple not understand the prospect, and would instantly rush to conclusions that could negatively stigmatize me, and potentially, even undermine my life and research in rural Ekiriya.
I told him I understood, and relayed my thanks for the educational learning moment his words presented. After all, as a scholar with the Fulbright program, I believe I am primarily in Sri Lanka to listen and learn, not to project my Americanized sense of identity, custom, and worldview on Sri Lanka. At the same time, I remained quite unsettled about how I was suddenly pressured to carve my identity (or, more precisely, an amorphous digital identity that in this case was an intentional expression of self) around such fine lines. Would I leave the photo up, risking possible stigma to my name here in Sri Lanka, for the sake of holding onto symbolic expression and deeper values? In fact, was this altered Facebook picture actually a critical way to express my values, or support the broader cause of LGBTQ equality, or was this more about making me feel good through rather insubstantial, technological action? Was this even a big deal?
In some ways, it wasn’t–the paradigmatic ruling had already taken place back in the US (the rainbow profile picture movement emerging as a retroactive affirmation of that), and on a personal note, I’d like to think my friends, family, and platform of intentional influence readily convey my convictions on these issues, regardless of any quick-fix, technological maneuver.
But in more important ways, it did matter. The seemingly trivial action of rainbow-fying my Facebook profile picture while in Sri Lanka brought a larger issue to the fore–that is, can I be an entirely passive cultural observer who will actively suppress strongly-held, personal convictions in deference to the customs of another country, or will I draw a line in the sand somewhere, standing up for what I believe in in some capacity, regardless of how it may be perceived? After all, it’s worth explicitly emphasizing the reality that homosexual activity is criminalized in Sri Lanka–something any equality-minded individual (not to mention any non-straight person) with a relationship to this place will have to contend with.
In this case, I chose the latter. While I eventually changed my profile picture to a newer photo, I didn’t take the rainbow-fied one down. Because I remembered what my old tennis coach wrote, that “…whenever I see a friend’s FB profile pic rainbow-fied it makes my heart jump.” And maybe, for a Sri Lankan Facebook friend of mine struggling with their own identity, or for a loved one of theirs who might not be straight, my rainbow picture elicited the same kind of experience. I’m not parading out the streets of Colombo in civil protest, riding the coattails of Fulbright to forcefully pursue socio-political change in another country, but on my intercultural, digital platform of keeping connected to others I keep in my life, I won’t hesitate to portray who I am, and what I stand for. If that’s cause for concern among any Sri Lankan friends, and in a country I love, I look forward to more of the educational learning moments that make this Fulbright experience so enriching.
This post is primarily about a man named Kumar, and his small, neighborhood fruit shop. Kumar is a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu from the high-altitude region of Nuwara Eliya, where his parents earned their livelihood as vegetable farmers. He and his wife, Diyana now live with their soon to be two-year-old daughter, Danushka, in a small, third-story room in Colombo, in the area of Thimbirigasyaya. Their home resides on top of a small fruit shop that Kumar runs, though Diyana and their daughter are almost always there with him. Kumar, along with another man who lives nearby, sells all sorts of fresh fruits that vary with the seasons—bananas, papayas, mangos, pineapples, guavas, watermelons, and sometimes king coconuts when he has enough money to buy them.
The shop is simple and non-ostentatious–without even a name—but it is known among the community for the quality of its fruit and its reasonable prices. It’s also a very pleasant atmosphere—when one enters beyond the outer black tarping that often protects bananas from the harsh coastal sun, there is a television playing Tamil shows and music videos, while patrons sit around, chat, and watch endearingly as Danushka climbs around the tables and chairs. When I am in Colombo, I almost always get my fruit from this shop, and my friend Amiya and I always enjoy visiting their family and connecting with other members of the community who pass through here.
But don’t get the wrong idea—despite the pleasant ethos of the place—Kumar works his ass off. He opens the shop around 8 am, and almost always keeps it open until 10 pm, hustling back and forth to cut bananas off the stalk or to blend up a fruit juice (for 80 rupees; $0.60 USD) popular among patrons on a hot day. Two or three times a week, Kumar travels in the early morning by bus across town to Pettah, where he purchases his fruit from a central market and hauls it into a tuk tuk, where he pays the fare and returns back to Thimbirigasyaya to commence another day. In my 8 months around the neighborhood, I’ve hardly seen Kumar take a day off until a few days ago, when I noticed the shop was shuttered closed.
I was eating in a Sri Lankan kaDe (small shop) this evening when I observed that Kumar’s fruit shop across the street had been closed for a second consecutive day. Curious and concerned, I asked one of the men working there, who’s also one of our neighbors in Thimbirigasyaya, why the shop was closed. He told me that Kumar was unable to pay rent for the month, and was forced to close the shop. “Pau,” he mumbled–a term that comes from Buddhist sources in Pali, indicating suffering. He took me outside and pointed up to their third-story home. A simple light was illuminated, and the silhouette of Diyana nursing her baby daughter was apparent on the balcony. The worker yelled out to them, and soon Kumar emerged on the balcony, and looked out with his wife and baby girl. We stood there, motioning back and forth toward the shop for a few moments, at a distance where words could hardly be made out, but devolved into a state of mutual stillness as a feeling of loss and uncertainty became apparent.
Thoughts clouded my mind. What should I do? This place was a valued part of our community, and Kumar and his family were too. I also had a sense of respect and personal appreciation for his work—after all, I had worked to sell fruits and vegetables for a co-op of organic farms in California just last year.
At the very least, I felt obliged to hear him out face-to-face and see how he was doing. I walked across the street, and motioned to Kumar to come down and meet me out on the street. As he lifted a metal barricade and came out to meet me, I could see an overwhelming sense of loss in his eyes, with beads of sweat shimmering on his brow. Indeed, he told me he simply couldn’t come up with the 60,000 rupees (~$458 USD) to pay rent for the month. He was battling to meet that expense along with a 15,000 rupee (~$115 USD) bimonthly light bill, 10,000 rupee (~$76 USD) rent for his family’s own room, and the other inevitable living expenses of life in Colombo. He told me his wife and daughter were moving back to live with his parents in Nuwara Eliya later this month, while he resolved to stay here and try everything he could to come up with the money and reopen the shop.
Once again, I didn’t know what to do. Should I give him money? If I did, would that actually help him in the long-term, or forestall what unfortunately seemed inevitable—that his small fruit shop might be functionally obsolete and simply outcompeted on this “developing” strip of Colombo metropolis? After all, I’d heard many stories of the humble, small shops that lined the streets of Thimbirigasyaya just years ago, and Kumar’s was clearly struggling for relevance amid the immediate presence of a health food restaurant, coffee shop, supermarket outlet, and other modern establishments with their sexy storefronts, strategic advertisements, name recognition, and air conditioning.
I asked Kumar how close he was to paying the rent; how much money he had to spare. “moggut naeae,” he mumbled. Nothing.
We often hear about the upsides of “development”—the people brought out of poverty, the jobs created, the increase in health standards, and the expansion of personal opportunity. I’m not naive enough to think that a small fruit shop is destined to be there forever, and I believe enough in an open market (albeit compassionately managed and regulated) to recognize that people should try to understand the demands of the local and (increasingly) global economy to inform realistic work and life choices. But I also believe that behind every human life is a unique story, and no shift in the market or closing of a small fruit shop can ever eradicate the stories of those whose lives reside therein—stories filled with struggle, pride, sacrifice, and love.
Only time will tell what will happen to Kumar, Diyana, their baby daughter, and their fruit shop. Despite the odds, I hope they stay. But even if they don’t, I will look into the eyes of those who find work in these emerging modern establishments, and beyond the projection of relevance, order, and necessity, I know I will witness the same tumultuous journey for simple sustenance, happiness and love that drives Kumar to open his fruit shop every morning.
Dedicated to the loving people who lost their lives in the Emanuel African Methodist Church, and those who endure tragedy with a humbling spirit of unity and compassion.
For me, the past week has been wrought with an unsettling mix of wonder, tragedy, paradox, and pain. In particular, these sentiments were borne out of a few developments that captivated my attention and the world’s more broadly.
On Wednesday, I first learned that an international crew of astronomers found traces of what they believe to be the earliest stars of our known universe. They claim that, after the Big Bang, these first-generation stars exploded and altered the make-up of heavy metals that ultimately gave rise to the elements of Planet Earth, and by consequence, our very lives. The astronomers say they found evidence of these stars in the distant galaxy CR7, which contains a bright blue cloud of hydrogen and lithium, and has been emanating light to Earth for 12.9 billion years.
I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take one to be humbled by this increasing clarity into the origins of life on Earth. All the countless explosions, transformations, and regenerations of the cosmos over billions of years (not to mention the existence of anything, period)–culminating in the particular convergence of human lives–culminating in the microcosmic wonder of particular cells cohering to produce a human life. If you’re reading this, you’ve made it. I’ve made it. God, or Gods, Allah, Brahman, Buddha, Gaia, or Emptiness–whoever or whatever we may conceive to procreate, legitimate, or guide our realization of reality–how unbelievable it is to be here.
And the funny thing is, none of us chose to be. For all we know, we could have been born into some other realm or dimension with different laws of physics and biochemical realities–say, for kicks, the arms and legs of an amorphous wavy wacky inflatable tube (wo)man timelessly striding across a matterless abyss–the synesthetic color of “sound”–stepping on the backs of smiling clouds like a never-ending SuperMario video game. Sound crazy? For all we know, that could have been our default “normal”–try making up the reality we happen to be in (I should say, without assuming an empirical or rational first premise that has its origin in the particularities of the reality we live in–virtually impossible to even conceive.)
From time to time, I like to think about these existential questions of “what if.” It helps me rediscover and manifest the appreciation I ought to have for simple day-to-day life, to challenge and qualify conventions we hold in the world, to cultivate a creative and imaginative spirit, and to ground a guiding compass in a sort of cosmological reality that puts “problems” in perspective, humbles the “ego” in being the epicenter of everything, and helps me not to take myself or everything too seriously.
That said, here we are. This is our reality. This is our world. And we ought to take care of it, for it’s what we know, the source of where we came from, the destination to which we’ll all go someday. My heart pains that in this 21st century world–a world we often characterize as “developed” or “developing”–we continue to tear ourselves apart on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other conventions that tell us we are somehow separate, that there is “self” and “other,” “superior” and “inferior,” “civilization” and “nature”–that even the smallest action of one creature doesn’t have an inextricable and indelible impact on the whole.
I think all of us carry some kind of pain body–a memory or experience or burdening thought in which we internalize a profound disconnect from the world. For most of us, I think it arises from a lack of love, a trigger that tells us we’re not an indispensable part of the cosmos–that we all don’t come from a bright blue cloud in the sky–or more tangibly, that we aren’t welcomed or affirmed in the communities and environments we call home.
The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina this past week connected with an intense pain body of mine, triggering an experience of division, aversion, and a sense of the “other” that has characterized some of the lowest points of my life. That said, I cannot imagine the sense of pain felt most acutely among affected affected family members, friends, and members of the greater black community who contend with this experience of separateness and inferiority on a regular basis–who despite so many humbling displays of unity, compassion, and forgiveness, persist as what Maya Angelou called “…a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling [to] bear in the tide.”
We need to talk honestly and openly about the reality of race and racism. We need to have difficult conversations that address the roots of these prisms through which we filter reality, no matter how socially constructed or even delusional they may seem to be. Because on the level of form in which so many of us exist, these conceptualizations are reified and truly influence our lived experiences in the world. When they become so primary as to compel one man to walk into a place of worship and murder a group of others who welcome him because of his hate-filled conception of the “other,” we witness how the “ego” as defined against the “other,” taken to its extreme, bears the seed of tragedy.
But even to a much less extreme, to reinforce the idea of a “separate ego” apart from others as so many of us do, we endlessly search for ways to splice up the reality of “the other” into comprehensible boxes that allow us to delineate how our “ego” juxtaposes against these boundaries. Perhaps this is why historically “whiteness” has been protected within a particular “club” status, in which anyone with a trace of “non-whiteness” might explicitly or subtly lose their affiliation and the associated privilege. There are many things that can and have been said about Rachel Dolezal these last few weeks, but if all the attention to her story reflects anything about our condition, it’s that we are profoundly uncomfortable when someone or something does not neatly situate into the categories through which we filter our experience of reality, and when someone strikes a particularly sensitive nerve on the grounds of race, the reverberations are heard that much louder. (And no, I am not defending Ms. Dolezal and her often deceitful manner of claiming sole license and inviolability in clinging to categories of her choosing without an empathetic understanding of the lived realities of others conditioned by those categories.)
The conversation needs to address these categorizations on an transparent, nuanced plane–in a way that understands the historical power dynamics at play, and that respects how meaningful identities and cultures have arisen over time along these boundaries to endure and find solace amid often oppressive realities. To act otherwise would be either complacent or to feign the “post-racial society” that some wishful thinkers attest was heralded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the election of Barack Obama in 2008, but continues to break down every time a black man is killed by the police, or a bible study in a historic black church is hatefully terrorized. Only then, after honest and painful and vulnerable conversation, prompting meaningful and collective and informed action, can we increasingly empathize with “the other”–can we awaken to see that the wonder of creation has arisen in unique and beautiful manifestations of color, but that these colors all, yes they all, have their origins in a bright blue cloud in a distant galaxy.
අපේ ජීවතේ මල් මවතෙ ගල්
“Our life is flowers, there are rocks on the road” – Sinhalese proverb
As I have written about before, I am spending much of my time as a Fulbright scholar living and doing research in Ekiriya, a rural village in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. My experience in Ekiriya can hardly be encapsulated in words, but I do want to reflect on how the nuance of language conveys so much cultural value and meaning in this special place.
It is first worth offering a glimpse into the distinct ethos of Ekiriya. Ekiriya is a predominantly agricultural village of about 60 families who depend on rice and vegetable cultivation for their collective sustenance. Naturally, there is an enormous amount of time and energy that needs to be devoted to cultivation, and people fulfill these demands by ascribing to a system of labor exchange and reciprocity. When it comes time for my neighbor to harvest rice, I meet my obligation to help him or her (almost always without pay), because when it comes time for my own harvest, I will certainly need all the help I can get from my neighbor and others.
The paddy fields serve also as a locus of social life, reinforcing the family and broader village relationships that ultimately put rice on the table. Men and women (usually working together, while fulfilling distinctly gendered responsibilities) exchange jokes and stories, while ritually pausing and coming together for tea and snacks in the midst of a hard day’s work. During the rice harvest, children often accompany their parents to the paddy fields, playing around in the heaps of newly cut hay as both parents carry out their labor-intensive responsibilities.
The small village community is also bound together by its shared religiosity grounded in the Theravada Buddhism tradition, though evidently incorporating elements of Hinduism and local religious consciousness. Regular merit ceremonies provide a forum for people to come together in the event of a new home, sick person, death, or religious holiday. The village temple itself resides at the center of physical, social, political and spiritual life in Ekiriya, serving as a focal point across generations for informal social gatherings, village meetings, and the local preschool, as well as for more formal occasions of worship.
Thus, you could say, life in Ekiriya is largely grounded in shared responsibilities and lived relationships. While these days, more and more people are breaking with tradition and taking up jobs overseas, in the military, or in other capacities away from the region, the fabric of personal and vocational interconnectivity remains strong.
And this is precisely where language carries such cultural importance. In Ekiriya, in every interaction with another, one is expected to use a personal moniker that reflects the particular relationship between individuals:
nangi – younger sister
akkaa – older sister
malli – younger brother
ayyaa – older brother
aachchii – grandmother
siiyaa – grandfather
putaa – son
duwa – daughter
naeaendaa – aunt
maamaa – uncle
In fact, mothers will often scold their children in front of me for calling me “Sam” as opposed to “Sam ayya,” “Sam maamaa,” or just “ayyaa.” To be honest, it also takes somewhat of a burden off me to remember each and every person’s sometimes tough-to-remember Sinhala name–I am constantly using this interpersonal language in my interactions with others, navigating the sometimes uncomfortable liminality of wondering whether to call a middle-aged woman “akka” or “naeaendaa“–an older man “maamaa” or “siiyaa.”
It’s become mostly unconscious as I spend more and more time here, a linguistic prerequisite to manifest most any engagement with another. But my background in the Northeastern US offers enough difference in cultural perspective to notice the uniqueness of this way of relating to others. I can’t help but think of what the implications would be back home if I called a woman “sister,” or “sis” (which may well be the equivalent of the more informal Sinhala word, akki), or an older man I ran into on the street “grandfather.” Out of perhaps an immediate family context, it may well come across as condescending or just unwelcomely personal.
That said, we have to be careful about taking such linguistic idiosyncrasies out of their different cultural contexts, and speculating about what they might mean for different ways of constructing meaning, values, and relationships. In the States, we may well reinforce social relationships through other means of spoken word, body language, or other avenues altogether. I don’t have enough nuanced insight to speculate much further cross-culturally–I only use this reference to frame the unique interplay of language and culture in a rural Sri Lankan reality.
I do wonder, though, in addition to considerations of agricultural necessities and lived religiosity in Ekiriya, if this linguistic convention also reflects a more philosophical notion grounded in Theravada Buddhism–namely, the concept of anatman–that there is no permanent, unchanging self entity that we could call “Sam” or “Savantha” or even “Siddhartha.” Perhaps an emphasis on the relationship between people reflects an attempt to break down this self-concept, and illuminate the chains of conditionality understood to bind people together in a realm of dukkha–often understood as “suffering,” “unsatisfactoriness,” or “imperfection.” In Zen Action, Zen Person, the author T.P. Kasulis explains how the tradition of Zen Buddhism arose out of a Japanese linguistic and cultural context where persons “A and C” gain their identities through how they relate to “b,” or the particular medium through which they come together (AbC). Perhaps something similar is at work here in Ekiriya, where religion, culture, and language are virtually inseparable. After all, Sri Lankan Theravada monks are often expected to use “api” (we), “apiTa” (to us), and “apee” (our) as opposed to “mama” (I), “maTa” (to me), and “magee” (my)–reflecting a distinct consciousness of language and what seems like a deliberate commitment to the values of “no-self” and “non-attachment.”
Whatever its precise origins, the use of interpersonal language in Ekiriya–and certainly many parts of Sri Lanka more broadly–reflects the centrality of relationships between people. While “Sam” may stick out with his white skin and ever-germinating Sinhala, depending on who you ask, he is either a son, a brother, or an uncle. And call him Uncle Sam, but this reality and system of identity is certainly different than what he might expect back in the States.
This week, the U.S. came under harsh scrutiny from the United Nations Human Rights Council for our record on human rights.
In a procedural forum in which members states are evaluated every four years, representatives of 117 countries offered comments, criticisms, and recommendations centering on issues like police brutality and discrimination, the maintenance of the Guantanamo Bay prison, drone strikes in Pakistan, and the continued use of the death penalty in several states.
While each issue raises its own complexities, one can sense that the world turning a mirror on our own imperfections as Americans (to the extent we are responsible for our political institutions) is a remarkable event. Having lived and engaged with Sri Lanka for much of the past few years, I constantly encounter the sense of moral rectitude that often underscores our country’s persistence that Sri Lanka facilitate a thorough investigation of alleged human rights abuses at the end of the 26-year-long civil war in 2009.
Don’t get me wrong, I too share these alarming concerns with respect to Sri Lankan recent history, and I support the international and increasingly domestic effort to demand accountability for atrocities committed in the recent past. Whatever your philosophical or moral conception of “human rights” may be, the overt violation of human dignity anywhere is tragic, and tears at the fabric of our shared humanity, which can’t be so neatly circumscribed along political lines. And as the German pastor and vehement Nazi critic Martin Niëmoller wrote in the 1950s,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.*
In reading this news from the U.N., an initial part of me felt slightly defensive–as if an aspect of my identity had been uncomfortably challenged because of its lack of recent, pervasive, and consolidated precedent. In a way, this identity had indeed been challenged, partially because I am a white male enculturated in this most powerful country in the world, and I carry a living complex of privilege as conditioned by history, which as some astute observers have noted, is often invisible until you lose it, or simply never have it.
But a more reflective and critical side of me knows that this kind of international scrutiny–which in many ways turns the power structures of history on its head (look at the small African country of Chad, which expressed its concerns over the disproportionate targeting of black men in the U.S. by police)–is well warranted.
We could say a lot about these issues, but to address one particularly salient problem these days, our criminal justice system’s multifaceted subjugation of young men of color is horrendous, embarrassing, and worthy of systemic overhaul. More and more police departments across the country are undergoing federal investigations into practice and protocol, which only retroactively illuminate deep-seeded prejudices too long sheathed beneath a boiling point, until we can no longer bear losing another Freddie Gray at the hands of the police.
You’ve heard the statistics, which may not sufficiently portray the humanitarian crisis at hand, but I’ll recapitulate for the purpose of this written medium. Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. More black men are incarcerated today in the U.S. than were enslaved in 1850. And as the prophetic Michelle Alexander illustrates in The New Jim Crow (2010), black men are prosecuted at alarmingly higher rates for drug felonies–a directly “victimless” crime in which targeting is left heavily to police discretion–despite blacks and whites using drugs at remarkably similar rates.**
We suffer from a lack of empathy in the U.S., and from a malady of looking at the rest of the world as a spectacle to be judged from the prism (or prison?) of our cosmic epicenter. We demand that Sri Lanka investigates its human rights abuses, but fail to prosecute our C.I.A. and high-ranking Bush Administration officials who illegally pursued torture in the early 2000s–above the law, above reasonable moral recourse. What “accountability” did we have for dropping more bombs on Laos in the 1970s than were dropped on all of Germany and Japan during World War II? What compensation (or informed, substantive change in course) has there been for killing scores of innocent civilians in Yemen and Pakistan with drone strikes? How do we excuse the failure to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner–a Staten Island black man selling loose cigarettes on the street–by aggressively subduing him an illegal chokehold?
We have another problem in the U.S., and one that particular afflicts the Republican party in failing to meaningfully own up to these issues. That is–we all too often see support for these UN criticisms, or more acutely, criticism of American military, police, and intelligence power as alarmingly “anti-American.” It’s as if we can justifiably lambaste welfare, Obamacare, and social security all we want, but the moment we start questioning the use of our unparalleled physical might in the world, we somehow denigrate our authentically “American” character.
And that couldn’t be more misguided. We should have the utmost respect for the service men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting us from harm both near and far. Our military, police, firefighters, intelligence, and other defense officials have essential and ultimately noble roles to play in keeping us safe everyday. But there is a critical difference between respecting these individuals and the vocations they fulfill, and in uncritically supporting the pervasive deployment of these toolboxes both within our communities and overseas. Too often, our discourse conflates the two, and grounds “American” loyalty in almost unconditional support for physical force and power. I often wonder if this is at least partially attributable to a psychological complex associated with “masculinity” we share, where we compulsively protect our collective ego against any suggestions of fallibility. Power, force, and “might makes right” rhetoric is a vulnerability-averse “first defense,” if you will.
I don’t know how you read American history, or the story of our Founding Fathers, but what seems most quintessentially “American” to me is the ability to speak up, express ourselves, and live our lives free from the shackles of centralized power streaming through epochs of human history, particularly since the advent of agriculture. Our country was founded on a forceful, but perhaps more paradigmatically, ideological challenge to the hegemony of absolute power in undermining Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We owe it our most thoroughly American spirit to call it as we see it, and recognize when our own power has at times undermined basic human dignity, and welcome the criticisms of the international community to use our influence in the world for the better.
*I tend to respect the political sovereignty of nations, but when it comes to systematic oppression of basic human dignities–such as toward the Rohingya minority in present day Burma–I think we have a moral obligation to speak up, impose sanctions where necessary, and use appropriate political measures in an attempt to alleviate the situation wherever it may reside.
**I certainly do not intend to suggest that drug use is a “victimless” crime in the sense of not harming anyone. Too often, it most certainly does. I use the word “victimless” in the sense that drug crimes often (though again, not always!) involve a consensual transaction and intentional usage, making it difficult for police to combat without deliberate, targeted strategies. And that’s precisely where conscious and unconscious bias seeps in, because the “War on Drugs” has accounted for the approximately ninefold increase in the U.S. prison population from 1980 to 2013. I should also note that I use the word “crime” contextually–I think that an overwhelming amount of drug “crimes” should be decriminalized and treated as issues of public health, addressed compassionately for the sake of human well being, and proactively to curtail the tremendous waste of tax dollars in filling prison beds.