She Works Hard for the Money: Sri Lanka Edition

18 August 2018

I’d like for you all to think that travel has taught me to live a threadbare-chic life, and that I need only to collect deeply meaningfulexperiences instead of material things to achieve happiness. Unfortunately, the brand new Birkenstocks sitting in my bag tell another story. I do like my comforts, especially foot comforts...I mean, c’mon, the Germans are really on to something here. Still, I’m constantly comparing myself shamefully to young, gap-year travelers that Nate and I meet on the road. Money really does seem immaterial to their travel. They wander until their money runs out and they must pick strawberries or clean hostels so that they can eat again. Then they scrawl their next destination on a piece of cardboard and are snatched up by a sympathetic driver/serial killer in short order. Put a cardboard sign in front of me, and I might be thrown a sandwich and some spare change. Alas, the deck is stacked against the mid-career traveler. I’m unable to quiet thoughts of “saving for retirement” and “gaps in my resume” and “when can I get some Starbucks?” Besides, I look better behind a podium than I do behind cardboard.

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All this means I gotta work hard for my money (cue Donna Summer), even while Nate and I are on this two-year travel adventure. Luckily, my chosen profession in the world of English Language Teaching (ELT) fits nicely into our goal of seeing the world. Even luckier still, my particular sector of the field means that I can do short-term consultant work as opposed to being locked into a year-long contract. This is how Nate and I landed poolside in Colombo, Sri Lanka for two weeks. I was hired as a contractor by our US Department of State and Georgetown University to be an English Language Specialist (EL Spec) with the Sri Lanka Police College.

We made the classroom a forum for sharing customs and traditions, practicing compassionate curiosity – a term I’m stealing shamelessly from Nate’s friend Kwame Christian. Please check out his Tedx Talk here on the subject; you won’t be sorry you did. We practiced asking questions about each other’s cultures; everything from the very observable to the unwritten rules.

  1. How should I greet someone that I know? Greet someone that I don’t know? Greet someone older or younger than me?
  2. What time should I arrive to a gathering with my friends? On-time, early, or late? What time should I arrive for a business meeting?
  3. What are the rules around giving and receiving gifts?
  4. What body language or gestures might insult or be offensive to someone?
  5. What are the rules for personal space in your culture?
  6. How should I have small talk with someone? What should I talk about? What topics should I avoid because they are considered rude to talk with someone you just met?
  7. I’ve just been invited to dinner. What are the unwritten rules of eating that I should know?
  8. How should I behave in a temple, mosque, or church in Sri Lanka?

Unwritten rules when broken generally cause little more than embarrassing taboos and are often quickly corrected through observation or the gentle redirection of a cultural translator. We eased our way into cultural differences through comic strips and funny commercials.

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We even had a mock “Uncocktail Party” where I divided the instructors into two groups and secretly gave them each their own cultural identity. One group was told that they valued eye contact, loud and boisterous communication, very little personal space, and warm, physical touch. The other, of course, avoided eye contact, talked quietly, preferred their friends at arms-length, and detested any type of touching. When let loose on each other, the result was hilarious (game appears at 0:37 seconds):

Next, we dove into the murkier waters of deep culture; areas that lead to dangerous stereotypes and prejudice. They asked me if all Americans carry guns, are divorced, and live on a steady diet of casual sex and fast food (As seen on TV!). I asked them why homosexuality is illegal and divorce nearly is in Sri Lanka. We talked about the values that shape our opinions and behaviors. For example, in many Eastern cultures, Sri Lanka included, the dominate value is that every individual’s actions should be based on the greater good of the group, which explains why divorce is less prevalent. Parents should stay together for the good of the family. In Western society, the value is placed more on individual happiness. If a man or woman is in a painful relationship, they are encouraged to end it and the suffering. We helped each other add some color and shading into what before had only been black and white issues. Black vs. White. Right vs. Wrong. Good vs. Evil.

In the end, it seemed that intercultural communication skills were in greater demand than language skills for this healing nation. We saw that curiosity, empathy and tolerance are the natural antidote of mistrust, prejudice, discrimination, and racism. The instructors told me at the end that they would recommend to their leadership that a new course in intercultural communicative competence be added permanently to their curriculum. As for me, I also learned some valuable lessons about my own world-view. The focus of nearly every American and everyone looking to America is on how divided we’ve become. I’m not one for faceless arguments on social media or carrying signs in protest. I lack the conviction and witticisms. With a little practice, though, I could be good at asking questions and truly being interested in the answer. So, I’ll try to practice what I preach...er, teach...and attempt to understand those who think differently, act differently, and *cough* vote differently. And, then, of course, I’ll blog about it ;).

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