riding in cars with sri lankans

thumb_P1010979_1024I’m sitting in an air-conditioned minivan looking out the window watching lush green paddy fields whip by while Psy’s Gangnam Style booms out over the radio. Everyone is singing along and I can’t help but grin. Oppa Gangnam Style!

I think back to life in Canada and how some of the best moments I’ve had with friends have happened during a drive. Whether we are scream-singing along to Beyonce, giving each other relationship advice or laughing at the hysterical bad luck of a best friend, these moments have always been special to me.

The past week has been full of little interactions like this with colleagues all while driving in and around Colombo. With each ride I learned a bit more about the people I work with and by extent my fellow Sri Lankans. Despite language barriers, I connected with people through kind smiles, a love of music and chat over movies.

Picture this: A car packed to the brim, four in the back seat (a typical sight) where everyone is feverishly discussing the new Rajinikanth movie: Kabali! It comes out this Friday. Do you have tickets? He’s going to actually play his age for once! The action scenes are going to be out of this world. Where are you watching it? KABALI-da! I haven’t seen a Bollywood film in years, but I enjoyed watching how Rajinikanth’s name still brings people, young and old, out in droves, uniting them over the love of an over-the-top action movie. For those who have no idea, the teaser for Kabali will give you an idea of what I mean by over-the-top:

All the while there is usually a soundtrack to these interactions. Music is a strong part of life here. I hear my coworkers humming songs constantly. There is nothing more revealing than the music you choose to listen to while driving.

A 5-minute drive to Nashville: I am getting dropped off by one of my senior colleagues after a long day at work. As we pull out of the driveway he flicks on the radio and a crooning Jim Reeves singing ‘I Love You Because’ floats out over the airwaves. I had to stifle a giggle. It was so unexpected to hear that distinct voice and sound here, a genre of music I never associated with this place. I chalked it up to a unique taste in music. I quickly came to find out that Jim Reeves is actually extremely popular in Sri Lanka! Imagine my surprise.

Although I spend most of my time at work with colleagues that are well into their 50s, I had a chance to work with a troupe of Sinhala-speaking 20-somethings on field visits just outside of Colombo for three days. Spending about two hours stuck in traffic together will connect people despite any language barriers and especially over music.

Journeying to paddy lands: Day 1 in the minivan consisted of polite smiles and good morning‘s. It wasn’t until the radio was tuned into 92.7 Y FM that I began to understand the cast of characters I was travelling with. Full of boisterous singalongs and laughter overs stories I couldn’t understand, I could tell this was a light-hearted bunch. By Day 2 I became familar with the top hits on the radio, one of which was completely stuck in my head. I had tried to google the song but my attempts proved fruitless. I finally asked and was excitedly told it’s a song from a new band called Civil Voice. By Day 3 every time the song came on they would point at me – it’s your song! By the end of my small trip with this team we became one voice exclaiming Bappage Akkage Duwa!

A week spent driving around gave me a glimpse into life here. With many more car and bus rides to go, I’m excited at the prospect of discovering more. Now excuse me while I try to get that Civil Voice song out of my head.

goodbye canada, hello sri lanka

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.