Friday, March 25, 2016

A breakthrough in cultural exchange

Yesterday I rode about 20km south on the Old Kalmunai Road and then west to the isolated village of Kokkodachcholai, a place Thavarajah  told me suffered horribly during the war. I went out there because Google map shows hundreds of what appear to be abandoned homesteads. I asked the manager, Prince, what these were and he said, "I think they are paddy fields that are unirrigated." I doubted his word but my ride proved him correct. They weren't pretty but at least they weren't ruined homes. How did I find out about Kokkodachcholai in the first place? It happens to be the home village of one of the servers here. He showed it to me on the satellite map a few days ago. So yesterday when I got back, as sweaty as could be, I shouted jokingly, "I was looking for Selva!"

When the boys saw me ride up on Darshan's bike just before noon it caused a kind of celebrity scene. "How young and active you look sir!" (I looked like a used dishrag). "We must congratulate your wife on such strong and active husband!" (I felt like kidney failure was just around the corner). "You rode so far sir! More than 40km! You must be very fit for a man your age!" (I must have reminded him of the walking dead). 

It was a sudden moment where people saw me in a different light. They've known me for months. They see I talk and go places with the owner. They know I've ridden a bike to Unnichai Tank, even farther away than Kokkodachcholai. But I felt like yesterday I became somehow human to them.   

The wonderment over this bike ride continued for some minutes as one person told the next where I had been and in Tamil each wondered, "On bicycle?!" "Yes, on bicycle!" in a sort of game of telephone. Finally Ravi spurted, "You go Kokkodachcholai you come my village same far! You go straight on Kalmunai Road you see my village!" A moment later we were invited to Ravi's place for lunch the next day, a complicated arrangement including phone calls ("When you go after Kattankudy make drop call. I will come to place bus step you down"), written instructions (it turns out Ravi can't write in Tamil--Selva had to do it for him), and a kind of mass hysteria over this plan. From late yesterday afternoon through sundown and well into the evening it was, "You go to Ravi's tomorrow." This morning the phrase was repeated again as each server went over my day's plan. "Maybe my home next week."

The whole hullabaloo brings to mind, what is this Fulbright experience? From five months of intense travel, work, teaching, experiencing, and writing we have settled into a fairly sedentary, definitely very quiet (one might say "retired") life here in Batticaloa. It's an environment where the daily rhythm is modulated by large stretches of intense heat. Social  contact is limited to a small community of the owners, managers, workers, and the occasional guest. For entertainment there's the daily or twice-daily walk around the grounds (Very pretty. Look out for falling coconuts), viewing the gardens, rabbits, turtles, ducks, and quails, the pool, the cinema just down the road, and now and then a bike ride. You can also catch a cooling breeze off the lagoon, watch the bananas ripen, or enjoy canned music from one of the nearby kovils. Sounds like a lot as I write it down but from an activity standpoint it feels very limited. It is very limited. We draw what we can from it. 

Where did the grand plans for teaching and research go? My teaching experience, I've learned, is congruent with the experience of Fulbrighters elsewhere in Sri Lanka and also in India. We came with ambitious proposals, programs we wanted to initiate, ideas for sharing and engaging. In general we were met with indifference (or worse). Higher education in Sri Lanka at least is much weaker than I ever expected. It's a terrible waste. As for research, almost everyone discovers somewhere along the line that the nature of research here, and hoped-for outcomes of research, are somehow incongruent with our expectations as professionals in the world we've come from. Our research goals and activities transform, if not necessarily shrinking, from our expectations. Bottom line, we washed up on a distant shore and there are major adjustments to be made. 

So, to get back to the nature of the Fulbright. The goal? Cultural exchange. An outcome? Impact. How and whom do we impact? Logically, it's the people we're close to physically. People we see every day. How do we impact? It's about the people who watch us, who see the way we behave, who reach out to us from behind the screen of cultural differences. I worked with academic colleagues for months and was never approached socially. Yesterday a simple person who serves me coffee each morning jumped out of his social status and made a new kind of contact, one that influenced our time here but also the way his fellow workers look at themselves. It opened a new door in that it expanded social horizons. Not just the workers'. Mine too. 

I told Ravi, I want to bring something to your house. Something for your wife. "No sir! This friensip! Only for friendsip!"

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