Colors and Contours of the Rainbow

rainbowfied

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.

 

 

 

The Other Side of “Development” – The Plight of Kumar

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.