Wednesday, January 27, 2016

So many strange dead ends, and the "going and coming" clause

love Sri Lanka and its people. But our stay here, especially in relation to my work encounters, has been characterized by so many strange dead ends that it's worth reflecting on. 

The human landscape here is something like a porous geology of underground limestone caves, where a flowing river may disappear and go into the darkest depths. Here a pocket of activity, fierce and energetic one day, may sink into oblivion the next. Plans dissolve. Objectives morph uncontrollably and seeming illogically. People go out the gate into the dark promising to return in five minutes, never to be seen again. The eagerness that was sworn in correspondence turns to laconic indifference. What you may consider to have been "solid" bilateral communication turns out as if it never happened. 

This is not to say people don't pick you up when they say they will. They do. And they pick you up as well if you're in some kind of perceived trouble. If you need help with anything anytime anywhere strangers will rush to your aid. People are caring, sincere, and energetic. Given the situation. They may also be uncaring, false, and flaccid. Maybe it's the same way everywhere in the world?

Why don't I give some examples? I'll keep names and other particulars under wraps. From my ethnocentric perspective it would be deeply embarrassing if someone wrote these things about me. So I'll keep it impersonal. 

After months of correspondence a colleague offered to pick me up someplace so we could start discussions right away that we planned to extend into the next day. Our goal was to map out a strategy for shared activities over the next few months. Pickup occurred as arranged. A great hourlong discussion ensued. The colleague told me he had to go to Kurengala the next day (could 'Kurengala' be code for "I have to opt out?"). I heard from the colleague many times again, always through phone calls, always kind, always asking after Janet. A couple of months later he sent me the annual report of his UNDP-affiliated NGO and asked me to get in touch on his behalf with a foundation in Boston. Naturally, he told me, I would be better equipped to represent his work than he was, since I'm from Boston. Heard from him once more, that he had applied for funding to that organization. We never met face to face after our first visit. 

Another colleague, one who's the same age as the first, a close associate of the first but someone he won't talk to. Again, substantial communications back and forth before I arrived. He promised to go to the field together, which we did, with a van full of colleagues (I footed the bill for the van and group lunch). He got to show off how nicely he converses ("he never talks down to country people," I was told) with illiterate peasants when he asks for directions. Next day I was to prepare a seminar-style lecture for a small group of his top students. Over 100 students showed, the whole "batch." (Incidentally is it only me who finds it strange that university students are referred to as a "batch" the same way as a package of biscuits?) My colleague was nowhere in sight, nor did I ever meet him again. I was told ten minutes before my talk, "we hope your lecture will last a full hour." Next day I was told we would take all hundred undergraduates into the field. I could arrange lunch packets for them or we could bring them back before noon. Luckily we reconsidered after the big man suggested, during one of dozens of furtive phone conversations, that this was the wrong plan to take. 

A third gentleman, about the same age as the other two. Begged, cajoled, harangued me to join him at his charitable foundation in a far corner of the country. Actually this had started the year before when we met briefly. He promised enthusiastically to show me so much of the landscape in his corner of the country, especially the irrigation tanks, which are the focus of my research. After a six hour ride to the empty property (plans had been made weeks before, him insisting that his son would pick us up), he told me "It was fate that we met. You will be the person who helps me figure out what to do with this foundation." Two days later we were on our way back in the opposite direction, another eight hour trip to his ancestral village. Then back again to his deserted property, him scheming how to accommodate a large group of Chinese students to make some extra money. We tweet sometimes and I just tweeted him to ask how things went with his new guests. Last I heard the trip had been postponed. Oh. When we parted ways after many bus rides (it devolved that he was afraid to travel alone on the bus and as for tuktuks insisted on calling "his own driver" instead of risking violent abduction!) he told me, "Drop that Saturday obligation you have at the university. I will call my son and he will drive us places you've never imagined. We'll go out together every weekend!" How happy was I to get on the Matara bus bound for my simple uncluttered existence in Colombo? 

Colombo. A small hot smoky city of huge traffic. From my guesthouse in Mt. Lavinia to the university I was to speak at on the other side of the developing "megapolis" would have taken three or four hours by bus. I had been asked months before to present a plenary speech on the second day of an international conference. All sorts of plans and itineraries were sent, including a conference field trip to the 17th highest waterfall in the country and a visit to the air conditioned Kandy Mall. One small oversight. How was I to get to the conference venue in a suit and tie? When I contacted my enthusiastic organizer with the question she replied, "I'm afraid we don't have arrangements for transporting you to the conference." I had to reply, "Sorry. I won't be able to participate." It's a given. You're a foreign guest and you're presenting a major talk. You're looked after. The plans changed quickly and I was provided rides as necessary. 

For me the most important example is the university I'm most closely associated with here. My first encounter, after a visit in May and several previous visits during conferences, was my colleague asking me to take his graduate students to an historic fort town to work on their research there. "I'll try to come," he told me. But he never showed. A day of complicated pick-ups at many points along the route developed into a day of snacking on short eats at the beach, having a juice, eating an early lunch of rice and curry, a later lunch of rice and fish, a late afternoon stop for hoppers and tea, another stop for tea, and finally drinking arrack. We spent some time at the site but most of the day with these students I'd never met was spent circling the fort with them, on foot, with them in constant contact with one another by phone. Plans were never revealed to me nor did we do any substantive work. It was hours and hours for what I perceived to be nothing. Now that I look back at the time it seems that we did even less than I thought then. Is it wrong to concede that I "wasted my time?" 

And by the morning of the second day one of them was so ill (couldn't tell if it was his leg hurting or a heavy cold or both) that we saw him lying flat on his back in the university van (which came equipped with a driver). My colleague instructed the worried group over the phone to haul the ill student back to Nugegoda before the morning was over. This was (somehow) perceived as a major medical issue. 

A few days later my colleague asked me to meet with the group again at night to check on their progress. He told me again he would try to show. But he wasn't there. And profess? There was none. I though had made an inconvenient bus trip in the dark to a place I didn't know to do as I was asked. We went out for an execrable rice and prawns with sausage in a nearby mall and then I was driven home. 

Two months later during a session the group was going over the same work with the same poorly developed plans, this time using advanced 3-D computer technology to present their "accomplishments."

That day, later, as my colleague and I waited for another student who just didn't bother to show, we had a chance to discuss some of his concerns regarding his career and his childrens' future. I like listening and I like problem solving with friends so I was happy to spend the hour. Strange that in all this time (it was three months by now) Janet and I hadn't been invited to a single social event with this colleague and his wife, who we had treated to dinner and drinks with another colleague when we first arrived in Colombo. Hard for me to understand. Because most people here are hospitable and if the tables were turned I know exactly how a guest to Boston would have been treated, introduced around, invited to collegial events, etc. But everyone has their own personal things going on and everyone has their own personality. 

Speaking of personal things I knew from our discussions that my colleague would like to spend a few weeks visiting the United States and in particular, meeting people in the design program where I teach. I also knew he wanted to do some traveling with his graduate students in Sri Lanka, presumably to broaden their horizons and give them more time in the field here. 

Hard to strategize a visit to the United States given the infrastructure of my organizations but lo and behold, a new colleague (now friend) got in touch with me about joining her students on a several-week project in Batticaloa. I thought she would be an excellent person for my colleague to meet. "I'd love to join you out there," I wrote back, and I have enjoyed the time so far. "And I'd like to put you in touch with my colleague who might bring some students from his program out to participate. I'll put you in touch and the two of you can arrange things. Cc me so I'm in the loop and I can participate too, since I know these students." My colleagues did end up getting in touch and here it is the 27th. My Sri Lankan colleague is scheduled to come out Batticaloa on the 30th. Just one little thing. He hasn't gotten in touch with my American colleague since three weeks ago--or is it a month now-- to make any kind of plans. Nothing. Is he coming? Are his students? Time for me to stop asking and instead focus on what I want to do in Sri Lanka these next four months. It will be wrong to spend another hour at his university. Not the right time in my life either to encourage professionalism in someone who's not present. He's proven himself well. 

So I discussed some of these issues with Janet this morning. Happy to say she engaged me and didn't just say "let go of it," which of course is another way to cope with these strange dead ends. 

Her insights were marvelous. First she invoked the term "Going and coming," which is ever present in Sinhalese but is also part of the Tamil cultural repertoire. Things like relationships or what we do in them  are not linear. They're kind of circular. People go. They come. They're super happy when you come back. We've seen this in so many contexts. So just like people don't like to say no, they don't like to go without a coming back clause. Maybe neither the going nor the coming is that hard and fast, so when we come together in our endeavors it's serious maybe, but not that serious. Just like our going. We don't want to disappear. Just stay out of sight for awhile. And maybe share phone calls back and forth, especially in the days after we (temporarily) part. 

Janet threw this out. Could it be connected to ideas about past lives? Maybe we're not "here" as much as we're passing through, so professional connections, when we look at them in perspective, are valued but not with the emphasis we exercise in the West? And by the way, maybe not such a small concern, how are we expected to act? 

A few things to contemplate. Maybe they seem a bit "out there" but maybe it's all part of how we are immersed in this world and these cultures. It's a place where buses and trains run, bikes can be repaired, food bought, prepared, and served, and ATM machines work. But maybe as longish-term Fulbrighters we're being exposed to a different way of thinking--a way of doing that goes beyond the unreturned phone call or email. It's a place of strange dead ends that you can't let hurt your feelings because the dead ends, like all of us, are always "going and coming."


  1. Thats quite an interesting idea (going and coming)...Did you also know that in Lanka, when visitors take leave, they don't say Goodbye? What is said in Sinhalese translates as "We will come again", even if there are no plans for coming back. I guess this implies that the visitors enjoyed the visit and would LIKE to come back.
    Actually so many things are implied but never said (eg: please/thank you).
    I can understand how this can be frustrating to someone from a different culture.

    1. Yes. Thank you. Gihin ennang is exactly what I was referring to. Actually our frustration has been very low. We really are loving it here (-: thank you for your kind words. Sam

  2. I have heard of some similar stories - though not quite as bad about University students. I think its more a problem of the universities than a general cultural issue. (I have no direct experience of local universities but have never heard anything like this from the business world)