Language and Relationships in Ekiriya

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.

Turning the Tables

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.