We are not “Uniform”

I am skipping around here a bit in my Sri Lankan adventure, but after the election that the United States has just endured I wanted to share this story with you and some of the lessons I took from it. If you are following my adventures, you will read parts of this again, but I wanted to share it today. I feel like now more than ever we need to be able to understand the perspectives of other groups.

You will learn more later about how I came to attend Hillwood College, a primary school for girls in Kandy. But for now, just know that I had decided after a few weeks of attending international school that I wanted a different experience. I opted to attend a local school taught in Sinhalese. I had been in Sri Lanka for several months, and my grasp of the language was improving every day. But while I could now competently ask for the location of the nearest restroom or respond appropriately when a person said good-morning, I was no way proficient enough to attend school in Sinhalese. Still, I wanted to learn the language and most people will tell you full immersion, while not the least painful, is the quickest way to that goal.

Before I could attend I needed to be outfitted for the occasion. Almost all school children in Sri Lanka wear uniforms and early morning and early afternoon the streets are filled with large numbers of similarly dressed students heading to class. Most uniforms are white. Usually the boys wear short-sleeved shirts and shorts and the girls wear dresses although sometimes skirts are worn as well. My uniform was a simple short-sleeved white dress with a squared neck. A single pocket was on the left-hand side of the breast and the bottom was pleated. We went to a tailor in downtown Kandy and handed him the list of requirements for the uniform that had been given to us by the principal. It included the precise size and location of the pocket and the angles of its triangular shaped bottom. The list specified the number of pleats and the length of the skirt relative to the knees. The tailor was familiar with the specifications and as he measured me, he told us where we could purchase the correct socks, shoes and hair ribbons that were required. We had a list of hair accessories that were acceptable which included black bobby pins, elastics and barrettes and white ribbons (of a very specific width). My hair was to be worn off of the face and barrettes and bobby pins were necessary to keep all stray hairs in check. But not everybody is uniform, and the “uniform requirements” were not designed with me in mind. The large black barrettes and bobby pins stood out against my sun-streaked sandy brown hair and made me feel self-conscious when I compared myself to classmates with hair pulled neatly back with accessories that blended unseen into their black tresses.

I arrived at the school basically unable to speak the language and at the time was the only white student on campus. I remember feeling awkward during our class photo because the photographer kept asking me alone to move because the sun was bouncing too much off of my skin. Without understanding what was going on, I relied on my classmates to push and pull me to and from activities. Sometimes arguments would erupt among students that I didn’t understand, but that clearly were about me. My English speaking friend would later translate that the students were arguing about which religion they thought I practiced or whether I should attend English class or stay on my own for that period.

As the the only foreign and the only white student at the school, I was treated as a sort of curiosity. Especially younger girls would stare at me from behind corners and giggle as I passed. My hair was frequently stroked and girls would ask to see the underside of my forearms which were whiter they said than they had ever seen. The color of my eyes was a topic of much debate. Were they blue or green? It was a discussion that would occur as multiple classmates crowded around me.

As a ten year old these experiences simply washed over me – I didn’t give them much thought. All of my Sri Lankan experiences were new to me, so I accepted each as they were presented. However, as I grew older I thought about my time at Hillwood quite a bit.

I thought about my time at Hillwood when back home in 6th grade I accompanied my African-American classmate to the nurse’s office after she had cut herself on a rock outside in gym class. She was given a “flesh-colored” band-aid which stood out on her knee like the black barrettes had stood out in my hair.

I thought about my time at Hillwood when I was in high school and our health teacher talked about how babies were always born with blue eyes and the single Asian girl in class timidly questioned the authenticity of her statement.

I thought about my time at Hillwood when we broke into discussion groups on my first day of college to discuss diversity and there was only a single black student in my group.

When I was in high school I read To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus says to Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

I feel like my time in Sri Lanka, and especially my time at Hillwood, gave me the opportunity to walk around in the proverbial skin of another person. I was a minority – something I never experienced at home. I had issues with language. I was unsure of cultural norms. The uniform requirements did not take into account my hair or skin color. I was the lone white face and was expected to answer questions on behalf of my race and country. I was lucky. I was fawned over and more than respected at Hillwood. I sometimes felt self-conscious and aware that I was unique, but I never felt threatened or at a disadvantage (language skills aside). But I still think it was a valuable experience that I can draw upon and I am trying to use lessons I learned then to deal with the latest divisive U.S. election. If you have never been in the minority – I invite you to really think about what it is like. I invite you to take the challenge of safely putting yourself in that position just to see how it feels.

I am trying right now to climb into the skin of a lot of folks. I am trying to climb into the skin of a Muslim-American woman who wears a hijab and think about how she feels knowing our president-elect called for a ban on immigrants who share her faith. I am trying to climb into the skin of a white blue collar worker who feels the democrats speak down to him and don’t represent his perspective. I am trying to climb into the skin of those who felt the need for a shake-up in Washington was so important that they could overlook the sexism and racism of the candidate they voted for. I am trying to climb into the skin of children who don’t yet understand blue or red states, but understand that the people around them seem angry and scared. Until we all try to climb into the skin of others and see their perspectives, I am not sure the dialogue will get any better. And it has to. There are too many issues in this world that need our attention. So, no matter what side you are on – think about taking a break from being you. Try to climb into the skin of another person and walk around in it for a bit. You might be surprised.

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Foreigners elbow their way to the front of the line.

 

After a day of contemplation under the ancient and historic leaves of the Bo tree, our group ventured six hours farther North to Jaffna, at the Northern tip of Sri Lanka. As we grew closer to our destination, I noticed billboards and roadside signs looked different. Rather than Sinhalese on top and Tamil on the bottom, they were reversed and sometimes there was no Sinhalese at all. The Northern section of the country is inhabited largely by Tamils who represent a minority in most other regions of the country. We arrived in Jaffna as the sun was setting.

jaffnamap

Janelle had been fussy all day and wasn’t moving her left arm much at all. The hotel was luxuriously mosquito-free, however, the area was experiencing a power outage, so nothing at all was humming. Our power in Colombo and later in Kandy went out all the time especially around the time when most folks were arriving home to a make dinner. The demand for power at that time was simply too much and lights would flicker on and off or simply stay off at least once or twice a week. Our cook became quite savvy at working around the brown outs. He would always make sure dinner was prepared before five o’clock and would heat it up using gas if necessary. Dinner by candlelight was a common occurrence out of necessity rather than in quest of ambience.  The staff of the Jaffna hotel was also well prepared for the inconsistencies of the electrical grid and we were provided with several lanterns.

Janelle cried as we made our way down the shadowy hall to our room. After we were settled Mom called the front desk to inquire about seeing a doctor. Not accustomed to foreign patients, the team fast tracked my sister past the long lines waiting in the hospital halls for treatment. The pediatrician wanted Janelle to be seen by an orthopedic specialist, so we were sent to another location. Our van raced away from the hospital and onto a busy shopping street and stopped in between a small shop selling electronics and one selling sandals. The doctor’s office was simple  – an open air waiting room two steps up from the hustle and bustle of the pavement. An examining table, chair and a small glass case with a smattering of drugs were all that made up the sparse orthopedic office. A dark skinned woman in a bright red sari who was leaving stopped to pinch Janelle’s tear-streaked cheeks as she left the doctor and her many gold bangles jingled as she gestured to my mother and said something which we interpreted to mean something like “poor child.” The office was more or less white and appeared more or less clean, so although the surroundings gave us some pause, my parents entered with Janelle and me.

The doctor was very excited to see us and we soon learned that he had done his medical training in England before returning to practice in his native Jaffna. He was thrilled, he admitted, to have a chance to practice some English in a treatment setting and immediately diagnosed Janelle with “nursemaid’s elbow” a fairly common elbow dislocation that happens in children when they are hoisted up or swung by their arms by adults. The doctor calmly spoke to Janelle and demonstrated to my mother how to reduce the elbow which he did in front of a small crowd that had gathered to watch at street level. Once her arm was back in its proper place Janelle was back to her cheerful self and entertained a group of curious onlookers who had gathered at street level with her smiles. Despite multiple protestations, the doctor refused any payment for his services. Mom popped Janelle’s elbow back into place herself on more than one occasion after that which always simultaneously terrified and impressed onlookers. Back at the hotel our exhausted family crashed right into bed. In the middle of the night power returned to the area, the lights came on. Dad quickly shut them off and went back to sleep.