Constructive Escapism: Vol. X
I'm so thankful for weekends
So I went to the beach, and then to Colombo for to watch the election. Was out about a week and now that I’m back it’s the weekend and I can’t get anything done except copious reading of election analysis, which is pretty pointless: Phil Frayne, the head of the cultural wing of the Embassy, told me on Thursday, ‘you can read all the articles you want, but Bush will still have won.’ Phil’s a nice guy; excellent taste in suits though he looks like a tall young Jewish Richard Nixon. He also has a lisp, for those of you who know what that means. He’s the official chair of the Fulbright board so technically he’s my uber-boss or something, but he has pretty much nothing to do with us.
Anyway it’s been a while and I feel I’ve got to say something about my travels and thoughts. After this much time who cares about chronicling stuff—especially as the stuff fades in memory and emotions which were so strong at the time of their presence come to seem faintly quaint in retrospect.
Case in point: I cried three times during the election returns on Wednesday. By Thursday morning when I woke up I was pretty resigned. Since then my shame-fear stuff has more or less abated into crusty, prickly, angry, rueful indignation.
Side note: shame-fear is an important Sri Lankan concept; called ‘lajja-baya’ in Sinhala, it’s the essential quality that keeps people in line socially. It’s sort of like embarrassment to the nth degree—encompassing shyness, and respect for social norms, and fear of being singled out or noticed for one’s behaviour.
Actually the election made me the opposite of lajja-baya; it put me over the edge a bit, in terms of proper comportment. I had zero patience for the usual bullshit like guys catcalling on the street. Instead of ignoring them (a constant thing) I went around Colombo swearing at men. I realized that this was going in a bad direction when I told two on-duty, uniformed policemen to go fuck themselves. The police are wildly unprofessional here—as in, they were leering at me instead of directing traffic—so you don’t want to mess with them, and they’re no help in a crisis. I reined it in after that.
Sometimes I think that’s why they’ve had so much damn civil unrest here, from the LTTE war to the socialist-youth uprisings of the 50s, 70s, 80s… the culture doesn’t allow forceful individuality, and isn’t peacefully communalist like, say, America. (No, I really believe that!) So instead of people expressing themselves and joining together to work out problems, they are really nice and restrained all the time, and privately harbor all kinds of hateful prejudices, even the ‘liberals.’ Women in particular have little daily outlet for the anger that comes with being subtly socially oppressed, as with this harassment thing.
It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t lived here. Sri Lankan public life is essentially different from American/Western public life in this huge, paradoxically unobvious way: here there is comparatively little ‘public space’ in terms of parks, cafes, museums, restaurants, etc. I mean, all those things exist; they just don’t get the kind of use that we think of. Imagine Copley Plaza: people hang around casually, they get coffees at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, they sit on benches, meet their friends, and so forth. In Sri Lanka the public facilities (like parks) are not in good repair and the food outlets are places to eat, not social places. (Most people don’t talk while eating, it’s not a social occasion.) You would never just stop by the park or at a shop on your way home from work—the social world is structured around being at home or visiting friends at their homes or maybe among elites making shopping/eating plans together. I’m exaggerating here, but not hugely. Society is just that much more formal.
How this relates to the female-harassment thing is as follows. Since there is so little public life, it follows that anyone out on the roads in public must have a reason to be there: you’re enroute someplace, you’ve got a meeting or an errand. A woman’s place is in the home or taking care of children or working at certain types of jobs. If you’re not demonstrably doing one of those things (ie you’re walking, not with kids, not wearing a sari or business clothes, young, reasonably attractive, alone…) you’re outside propriety and respect. Especially foreigners are liable to get whistled at or spoken to, because of money—why are you walking? Why aren’t you in a car with a driver? Being in a car, besides giving you an actual spatial boundary, also indicates that you know your place in society classwise.
Blah blah blah.
So, right: I’ve just returned from dinner at Jill’s house with one of the Phantom Phulbrighters, people who are on the email lists but no one has met. He seems like a cool guy—ISLE ’99, doing a PhD in Buddhism at UVA, speaks Tamil as well as Sinhala, doesn’t cook. We made rice and curry (big shock there) and it was good. This after a day of neighborhood activities: working on photo uploading (look, look! at the links list!) and visiting my tailor friend twice (running out of Sinhala both times) and boiling water for later consumption (and spilling a full kettle of it on my kitchen floor). Two steps forward, one step back. My host family seems to have flown the coop. Usually when they go out of town they have someone come stay at the house to babysit it, but no one was there all day. (I can see into their front yard from my verandah.)
I tired. More about the beach and the fiasco later.
Oh, those pictures—take a look.
The ones of me are trying to convey my current haircut. Did I blog about that? No? Well, it took an hour and a half in a very posh Colombo salon and was incredibly masterful and precise and delicate. After all that I barely do anything to it vis-à-vis styling.
The ones of the apartment are from when I first moved in; I have more junk now but it’s still pretty spare. I can’t figure out how to photograph the place well, but believe me, it’s lovely. I didn’t upload the photo of the square toilet, you’ll have to just imagine it.
The peeps are as follows: the two girls are Jill (in black) and Malka (in pink), my best girlies here; the sunset is us drinking cocktails on the patio at the fancy schmancy Galle Face Hotel the night before the election (the sun represents the falling/failing light of democracy), and the group is, from left, Samir Lori Malka Jeremy Jill Tod. They are the other Juniors—Lisa is missing, as is Gavin. That was post-tasty-Thai in the lead-up to the apocalypse. I took only a few post-apocalypse and I’ll spare you the good times. There were drinks in hands, let it be known.
Someone write me an email please… now that I have internet at home I am starting to check it, like, three times a day. It’s like college!