After over a year of thinking and not doing, I finally worked up the courage to apply to work in Sri Lanka and I am headed there, for the first time, tonight. I am inexplicably calm. I feel at ease. I’m about to uproot my life for seven months and nothing has felt more natural.
My family was overjoyed and supportive when I told them about this opportunity to travel and work earlier this year. My eldest uncle was elated and immediately started to regale me with stories of ‘back home’ living in Colombo with my aunt in his 20s, moving to the UK to work in London (picture my aunt working a car part assembly line in a sari!) and then moving to Canada to settle a life there. Overcoming our giggles over these stories he stopped and asked me: Why did you pick Sri Lanka to go work? I was completely taken aback at first. In my mind it was clear – I am doing this, moving my life, because it’s Sri Lanka.
After that initial shock and some reflection, I realized that those of my parent’s generation who came to Canada is one that left their home for a better life for their future children. The 26-year civil war has left an indelible mark on countless lives including my parents’. Leaving their country, friends and family was dually the most difficult and easiest decision to make.
Enter me. Born and raised in the western world with all of it’s privileges. A life with access and a defined road map. You’re here. You’ve arrived! Make the best of this place, it’s better than the rest! Why would you ever leave? I can see where my uncle was coming from. You can go anywhere, do anything – why go to Sri Lanka? I can only say that despite the life my parents have given me in Canada, there has always been something left wanting. This feeling that something was missing.
It took me a while to define it but it became apparent to me late in high school that Sri Lanka, steeped in history and reverence, did not feel like my own. Growing up I would sit in the kitchen quietly while Sri Lanka was painted colourfully for me by the stories of my family as they spoke fondly of childhood memories. I didn’t want to interrupt or ask too many questions for fear that the topic would change and I would miss my chance to hear more. I have lived most of my life knowing a Sri Lanka rife with war. These stories were a glimpse into a time before bloodshed.
However despite hearing these stories, I felt that as a born-and-raised Canadian, I could never really fully comprehend what that life was like, how Sri Lanka was and is. I will always be looked at as Canadian by older generations where there is a mutual understanding that I will never know Sri Lanka the way they know it. I can laugh at the stories of my father getting in trouble at school. I can tremble at the thought of my mother finding a snake coiled on her toilet when she was young. I can imagine the wind in my grandmother’s hair as she rode on a motorcycle to the market. But these are not my stories.
I wear my Tamil Sri Lankan Canadian badge proudly. But what do I really know?
My connections to Sri Lanka have always been through other people, through books and blogs, movies and the news. I decided that I needed to move there. I needed to work there and contribute to the country’s positive development but more importantly I needed to live there and create my own memories.
The next several months will be full of crises of identity and how I fit in. I am fully aware that as soon as I step off that plane I will be put into a Canadian basket with all of it’s preconceived notions and stereotypes. Sri Lanka’s bustle, extreme heat and complete assault on all of the senses will be overwhelming, I’m sure. But I am also aware that I can’t wait to dip my toes into the Indian ocean, drink plain tea with my 82-year old aunt in Colombo and visit my parent’s village for the first time. I can’t explain how much this means to me but I hope to write about it and tell a few of my own stories along the way.