Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Please don't take me for a fool

I hope you don't take me for an utter fool when I say my questions have been answered, that I don't necessarily want to come back, that I've seen more than I want to see. You see, that's the way it feels to me. I know that to be "healthy" we have to look to the future, think about what we'll do next, build on what we've done as we go through life accomplishing. To do otherwise is to be dodgy and old, to give up. To not have "hope" for the future. But I'm satisfied with what I've accomplished here. I don't really care what people think about that. I'm happy with the state of my knowledge. Not curious for more. Not making plans. 

The place makes me as unhappy as it does happy. It's been demystified, de-exotified. Getting a membership to the gym was, in part, responsible. People see you. You see them. You park your bike outside, enter the noisy hot place. You are a stranger, sure. But you have a membership. You "belong" as much as anybody else. That is, besides for your white skin and the fact that you're thirty years older than the oldest person there. But it would be the same anywhere, at least the age part. 

Maybe it's all the growing seasons we've gone through. We've seen almost a year's cycle. Could see more. But most outsiders see a lot less. Maybe it's our lowered expectations. Not expecting a word or a gesture of truth out of anyone. Not expecting we can "make a difference" or find anything out. Maybe having seen enough is having seen the remains of violence and tsunami, the remains of rampant growth and consumerism, the many signs of hate and the small signs of love. Finito. Basta. Enough already. 

Kim keeps asking when we'll be back, how we'll stay in touch with people when we're gone. I think when and if we come back we'll walk up to the front door and let ourselves in. Time will pass and we'll remember and we'll be remembered. Harley is eager to return as a "visiting expert." He will have only been here a bit under four months when he leaves in exactly three weeks, the weeks he is counting. A different quality from our nine months here. Also, Harley is an expert. He's a dramaturgist and a play-write. It's what he does and what he teaches. I'm a botanist without a portfolio. A lapsed lichenologist. I don't teach in my field. Im interdisciplinary in my practice, which has its ups and downs. I'm a landscape expert who's never published on landscape because the landscape can be as big as a postage stamp or as small as a large island. Like Sri Lanka. That's what I came here for. And I couldn't have picked a better project than I concocted: cultural landscape ecology. Landscapes in transition. There's a lot to be seen and as I say, I've seen too much. 

My initial questions were answered. I saw and unlocked the irrigation tanks, the tank "cascade" phenomenon, the way people use and look at the tanks. I learned about simple people and I learned about the "greatest" academics and politicians in this regard. I did it without ever making an interview. I only needed to observe and have time to build the pieces of the puzzle and put them together. That's my expertise.

My initial questions about teaching and learning in this university culture were answered as well. Dismal depths is a nice way to describe what I found. The challenges I laid out for myself in teaching the way I teach in the United States were predicated on partnerships I thought I had or thought I could develop. I had been in touch with potential collaborators for several years. People said "you are starting your Fulbright running, with your feet well on the ground." I knew better but not as well as I know now. The best of my partnerships didn't materialize or evaporated when I got here. There were lots worse experiences. So my initial assumptions, ambitious, energetic, generous and proactive were not met or worse, rejected. Fine. I learned. 

I learned to make a whole second set of questions. My questions were about conflict and cruelty, about remembrance, testimony, "truth-telling." You can get remembrance and truth-telling if the rememberers want to talk. Or tell the truth. Your goals and your questions may not be part of their vocabulary. "Truth" and "reconciliation" let alone "truth and reconciliation" may or may not be part of their vocabulary. But I think they're not. Why makes no difference. You are not in the West. Your questions may be culturally irrelevant. Go ahead and think them, ask them, refine them. Learn of their inappropriateness and you will, perhaps, have learned a thing or two about this culture. These cultures. 

Having gone through two or three sets of healthily defined, robustly built questions, I see that further questions may not be necessary or desirable. Perhaps more desireable is the wave of a hand on a familiar face of someone you've conversed with at the cinema. Perhaps more desireable is the young man on a bicycle who asks why you weren't at the gym last week, someone you never talked to but who knew you were there. Perhaps more desireable is the word to a friend or acquaintance who spills out his story with no questions attached. No questions = no strings. Like a Jaffna mango round, ripe, tender and sweet. 

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