It's always a conundrum. How do you give and take in ways that are culturally appropriate. And to whom? A few days ago I made a mistake, maybe not totally attributable to me. The day before, our driver Susil had said we'd eat lunch at his mother's. Of course, I planned to pick up some biscuits to bring as a gesture. Next day he reported his mother was having some difficulties and that we'd be eating at a friends. "No worries, can we please stop somewhere and pick up some biscuits?"
Julia knew right away which cookies were right. The chocolate ones. I complemented them with some lemon wafers. Couldn't go wrong i figured. If only I had noticed the slightest hesitation Susil showed, the nano blink of his eye. But of course he turned smoothly into the driveway of a country market so we could pick up the cookies. Next stop was his mother's.
We grabbed the bag of cookies because we weren't quite sure where we were headed. Was his friend's place around the bend in back of his mom's?
A pleasant hour or so with his mother, sister, and sister-in-law where we were served generous lime juices and reclined on cane or plastic chairs. Lots of conversation when the nephews stepped in in their school uniforms, and Janet ran out to grab a Massachusetts tea towel. (Made in China!) for Susil's mother. We left with the bag of biscuits and proceeded to his friend's roadside restaurant where an incredible lunch served on lotus leaves followed, but inappropriate to gift our host. Pay him instead! (Which Susil had seen to, generously, beforehand). Sheepish, I put the ungifted bag of cookies in the trunk, only to be sent hopefully back in the front of the car for Susil and Jose's long trip back to Colombo a couple of days later. Not exactly a bullseye in the exchange department.
But what about shirts? Well. Another hint was unheeded in May when Amara emailed me, "actually sir, could you bring me a t-shirt?" "A t-shirt!" I quipped to my Sri Lanka-born colleague at BU. "They invented the t-shirt in Sri Lanka!"
My rude awakening was that giving shirts is a way of mutual exchange here. Something unexpected and quite beautiful. Actually, I intuited and initiated the first shirt-giving with our server Niloshin, who brings me my black coffee every morning at our Mt. Lavinia guesthouse, first chance he gets. "Do you like this?" I asked, pointing to an old shirt of mine (still in good shape), hanging in our room. It took him exactly one second to look over the shirt and grab it off the hook without so much as a thank you. That's the kind of giving I like! We both felt it!
Next I tried with Chaminda, our loyal and always smiling night server, who had just announced that his wife was pregnant with their second child, after a miscarriage caused by dengue. He just about hopped down the hall with happy. And that made me happy too!
The next exchange came my way after a weekend at the cinnamon growers' in Batapola. We were leaving (for the first time that day--there would be a second) and the girls gave me a package-a brand new pink and white striped shirt. "Put it on!" everybody yelled and it didn't matter that I had to strip to the waist then and there--nor that the chemical finish of the brand new shirt would have to travel with me for the next twelve hours. I had been gifted and I was to show it!
It was nice enough, if a bit snug. But who am I to complain?
Getting ready to come out east to Batticaloa I unpacked one of the 3xx Boston Architectural College T-shirts I'd been sheepishly given back home and presented it to our wonderful rotund Manju, whose good humor and perfect diction has helped me learn more than a few words of Sinhala (at least he's tried). He laughed, just like when I give him candy, grabbed the shirt, and bounced into the back room with it, happy as a clam. Who knows where it will go? It's a tad large even for Manju.
A teal blue jersey, one that I liked a lot but knew I wouldn't wear any more was gifted to faithful, hospitable Sena, our host at our guesthouse in Anuradhapura. He had just returned from a Christmastime pilgrimage to Kataragama with more than 500,000 other Sri Lankans. The roads were packed for days and the delays massive. The red of his eyes after a nightlong bus ride clashed with the shirt but to be nice I told him, "nice for your skin color." Sena blinked in appreciation, unable to register any other emotion, but later poured his good heart out to Janet.
Ever seeking to lighten my load I brought a box of zometools out to Batticaloa to give the hearing-impaired class at the YMCA (played with them all afternoon today but that's another story). Also figured out what to do with my nicely washed pink and white striped shirt from Batapola. There's a young gent here from Kalmunai, a recent father of twins, who does his best to keep up with the incessant demands of guests, us included. I put the shirt up against him this morning and ever serious he asked, "Would you like that cleaned and pressed Sir?" "No. It's for you," I pointed. And hours later as we were enjoying dinner he ventured up to our table, "I think you gave me a very nice shirt before. Thank you Sir." Smile. Mission accomplished.