Zebrafish researchers recently found a gene that accounts for much of the variation in human skin color (photo: utnapistim)
Being Sri Lankan is as inherent as slc24a5 making me brown, and about as intangible. Every party, every dinner – that melanin elephant sits in the corner, waiting to be introduced. As a child, however, you don’t really notice. I thought that everyone lit lamps on birthdays, or had rice for dinner. The only skip in the record was the first day of school, when the teacher looked up from the roll with a blank stare. I’d wait in nervous tension through the Ps and Rs, to raise my hand and explain myself. Shorten the name and shorten the silence, and move on to being like everybody else. In Montreal, however, people would just laugh when I said I was from Ohio. In that compressed air between introductions and cocktails, complexity doesn’t fly. It was Sri Lanka that spoke the loudest, and it was Sri Lanka that I had to learn.
Even now I can only think of two or three people who understand the airport that I come from, and not cause they care more. Japanese and Filipino’s have actually allocated enough memory slots for a couple countries and I don’t have to grin and talk about the war. Near the end people would ask me where I’m from and I’d say ‘I don’t know’. They’d smile and I’d read my baggage tags, watch the words do donuts on their glazed eyes and careen off into space.
So what to do, I got a flight to SL. Get off the plane and for once I’m lost in the crowd. I remember TJ took me to his country club in Ohio and we went swimming in the crowded pool. I felt like you could see me from space. In SL I can walk the streets and take the bus and nobody notices till I open my mouth. The anoymity is strangely comforting, like I can let my guard down. Then you meet people who are just as mixed up as you, where it’s normal to study abroad and you can almost make Inspector Gadget jokes.
So I’ve got a pocketful of antihistamines and I’m nursing a gin and tonic at Tantra. The cold medicine makes me woozy and the alcohol turns out to be a poor emotional mix. Been trying to forget about her but old tenderhooks calls me 4 times for directions and goes home with her boyfriend. Das hurts. There’s a Postal Service lyric, ‘your heart won’t heal right if you keep tearing out the sutures’. Hence I can’t sleep and I’m writing this.
The event is the launch of Serendipity Magazine, which is explicitly targeted for parayas like myself. Everybody there has that same delay when you ask them where they’re from, the same one that government clerks and teachers greet with a blank stare. I understand though – the weird complexity and kottu that is being Sri Lankan. The fact that you can travel and move and still never leave. To me Sri Lanka is a dream, it’s the Jataka and Andare stories that Amma used to tell me before bed. It is also space elevators and stock markets and the kick-ass country that could be. At the same time, Sri Lanka is violence so absurd that you just rub your eyes and carry on. It’s hate mail and threatening phone calls and wise people telling me to tone it down. But to me Sri Lanka is, above all, a place where all my stupid dreams can come true.
As cheesy as that is, it’s like the Wild West out here and you can do whatever you want. Everyone I meet is trying to grow their business, or start something, or build, and I love it. It’s a place where Dr. Ari can go from one village to the nationwide force that is Sarvodaya. It’s also a place where the JVP can go from 5 classes to brokering power (for
better or worse). It’s also a place where you can turn the political climate around in a generation. I’ve seen people build magazines, gyms, and modelling agencies from scratch in 2-3 years, and that’s cool.
A lot of the people doing the building are expats or repats like myself, and that’s what I like about Serendipity. Right now we don’t really have a common language or connection, but stuff like Serendipity can engender that. I forget exactly what Afdhel said cause I got high heeled in the forehead but I think it was something about, uh, here’s the press release:
Serendipity is the first magazine for the global Sri Lankan community.
There are over 400,000 Sri Lankans living outside Sri Lanka – in places like London, Melbourne, Toronto and New York. Serendipity aims to be the first magazine that links these scattered communities to Sri Lanka – and each other
Oh, that’s right, he was saying that Sri Lanka isn’t an island anymore. It’s a diaspora. We’re a culture that’s flowed beyond these boundaries, and we need to reconceptualize ourselves. When I think of all the Sri Lankans who have lived here it breaks my heart. We’ve lost so much talent to murder, exile, and financial expediency. On the latter, I don’t begrudge anybody that emigrates, but it’s sad that you often have to in order to give your kids a better life. More generally, we lost the whole Tamil element that could have made this country such a vibrant tapestry rather than a bloody rag. I’m not saying that a magazine is going to fix this, or that it’ll stem the brain-drain, but it’s a start. One thing I’ve learned is that when you find talent in Sri Lanka you have to hold on to it and cultivate it in every way possible, so I’ll hold on to Serendipity. The mag is well written and the layout is extra kosher, so I likes. It also addresses my mixed up demographic with stuff on M.I.A., string hoppers, Colombo nightlife, and the ceremonial stuffing you get when visiting from abroad. More than anything, however, I appreciate its vision of a global and rich Sri Lankan identity. I thought that vision was some vague thing I’d concocted in a doze at Heathrow. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone, and it’s nice to think that a jumble of cultures and experience might not make me a global paraya but, rather, uniquely Sri Lankan.