Lady Luck Speaks

Desi dating and desires from the doctor of delight.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Passing on the coconuts

‘This is Captain Peiris and his crew reporting. I’m pleased to report we shall be reaching our destination in advance of expected time. I’d like to inform you that we shall be changing our display moniker in near future. UL’ usually late’ is a thing of the past. I hope you have enjoyed your journey – thank you for flying Sri Lankan’.

Ten hours of agony on the non-stop express. The three year olds in front of me continue to trade the latest Lankan swearwords at each other and the sleazy Majestic City inhabitant sitting next to me has not given up the chase. I turn for respite from the snoring grandmother on my other side. I’m out of luck. She’s marking time, expanding to fill all space available and blocking my escape route to the aisle with pungent gotukola branches! I take a deep breath and sigh – I’m nowhere near racking up sufficient Skywards points to get myself out of the cattle class.

Half an hour later, I’ve traded a false Sri Lankan SIM card number with MC dude and got myself the view all Lankans know and love – the view where mother Lanka is finally in sight. Forests of coconut palms greet me with their enthusiastic waves, reminding me of their integrity to the country we all know and love.

With uses from the practical (read ‘jute’) to the edible and drinkable (does the term ‘arrack’ ring any bells?), the humble coconut is central to Sri Lankan life. Where better do we see this than on the New Year table, with kiribath, kavum and kokis, not to mention the oil for the pahana lit to bring light and hope for the coming year?

During the past weekend, Sri Lankans around the world have experienced the positive connotations of our national plant. I feel privileged to celebrate belonging to one of the most hardworking, enterprising and law-abiding communities in the UK today. Our high standard of literacy has helped considerably in our quest to integrate as the ‘model minority’. It’s a pleasure to see Lankans represented at the highest levels, most notably in the music industry (Jason Bavanandan, Som Wardner and Nihal Arthanayake from Radio One) and the professions. Even the whitest of institutions, 1930’s Hollywood, had a Lankan representing – Merle Oberon of ‘Wuthering Heights’ fame.

The comparable ease of putting on a sufficiently ‘palatable’ front to the majority comes with its pitfalls. This is where the ‘negative’ connotations of the ‘coconut’ plant come in.

Brown on the outside, white on the inside - superficial westernisation has seen UK Lankans abandon varying amounts of our rich heritage in the quest for acceptance. Whilst the overt post-colonial self-hate embodied by Oberon (she disguised her dark-skinned Sinhalese mother as a chambermaid when visitors came round) is thankfully on the decline, a significant minority of Lankans compete to be ‘whiter than thou’ in a marginally less embarrassing fashion than the Coopers from Goodness Gracious Me.

I’m talking about those Lankans who outwardly reject all connections with their heritage, the people who feel ashamed to learn, let alone speak a Sri Lankan language or be seen in the company of other Asian people. The decision of a competent adult to reject a culture they feel to be irrelevant is one thing, but preventing ones children from learning about their heritage and being perversely pleased when others ask ‘why’ is a ludicrous peculiarity common to Sri Lankans and Sri Lankans only.

Granted, we’ve not got a ‘pop culture’ with the commercial force of Bollywood to keep up with, but it’s a shame to carry the distinction of being the only Asian minority who feel the need to communicate in entirely in English when we meet others of our ilk! What’s even sillier is that it’s not second generation Lankans responsible for this decline – we’ve learnt by example since aunties and uncles do it too!

This writer is also mystified by the ‘allergic reaction’ being Lankan can provoke in when meeting one of these self-haters; the evil glances and stilted conversation aren’t an unwelcome feature in the experience of other minority groups. I am envious when seeing Jews and Arabs so welcoming towards another of their group let alone when watching them rejoice when they see another of the same ethnicity doing well. Established members of both the Indian and Pakistani communities take pleasure in assisting fledgling compatriots up the greasy pole to success, so why do the overwhelming majority of ours singularly distance themselves and refuse to give back what the community have put in? Professional advice, work experience placements and appearances at Sri Lankan events would not go amiss in developing the unity and sophistication our community needs to avoid being sidelined as the assimilated ‘petrol shop boy’ also-rans.

The topic of one-upmanship is a fitting note to end on since our cricketing heroes will be setting foot on British soil next month. I wish the very best of luck to our boys in their efforts in avoiding the dinner dance plague that coincided with their disastrous performance in 1999.

I’d like to point out that clogging up the tour schedule with unnecessary social invites to mediocre occasions in assorted inadequately-ventilated town halls is unfair on a team expected to win at competitive sport. Encouraging the team to have 4am bedtimes on match day is a ridiculous price to pay to get yourself and the team member of your choice on the front page of your social group’s photo album. Cricket is one of the few things Sri Lanka excels at and the hopes of an entire nation rest with our boys. I urge you to swallow your vanity in the name of national pride – it is indeed possible to send off for your signed photo (of a future test series and World Cup winner) at a later date.


At 11:51 AM, Blogger Null said...

Wow you really know how to write. If I was this good I would write a book. I don't know what chuffed means but it is a nice sounding word. Almost edible. Must discover meaning of chuffed. And I have run out of sugar based avurudhu sweetmeats. The sugar high is wearing off. Lord help me. Pardon the unsolicited overlong comment. I need to expand my social life. Correction. I need a social life.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Null said...

Are you in sri lanka? Any way I can reach you eg via email..?

Um, if you are here, hope you have a nice holiday...

At 1:33 PM, Blogger S said...

'Chuffed' means pleased/thankful. UK slang, if you will.

I'm from the UK - been here since the day of my birth ;)

Tend to visit SL every couple of years though - will be spending time there this autumn.

Email me -

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Chamira said...

Interesting to read your thoughts on Sri Lankan culture in the UK. The language thing is so very true, particularly in the Sinhalese 'middle-classes'. It is a source of pride amongst visiting ex-pats that their British born/raised children can't speak a word of Sinhala. I have not seen this amongst Tamil Sri Lankans, Somalis, Turkish, French South American and basically any other culture. I get a sense that a lot of the older British Sri Lankan generation are a deeply miserable bunch, may be as a result of the not so multicultural/tolerant times they arrived in the UK.

The demographics of Sri Lankan migration was very different to that of Punjabis and other 'S.Asian groups'. The first wave of Sri Lankans were mainly professionals and were dispersed across the country. It is only in the 80's that 'working-class' Sri Lankans appeared, and hence little communities developed. So may it is all down to middle class angst of fitting in, getting on coupled with deep cultural insecurity/self-hate. May be it is not.

I have lost count of the times 'educated' UK resident Sri Lankans have told me how things were so much better when the British were there. Among these were second generation Tamils who had never set foot in the country. How they wanted to condemn the entire country to slavery so quickly after only stumbling around free for 50 odd years (and after 500 odd years of colonisation) is incredibly sad. I have yet to hear this from an Indian.

The younger people I have met who have come to study, and with all intentions of going back, are so full of hope and energy for the country it is liberating to be with them. They are also free of the horrendous racism that most British Sinhalese seem to display towards Africans and West Indians. It looks like among the ethnic minority groups in the UK we have certainly accepted and internalised the global hierarchy of race better than anyone else.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Rhythmic Diaspora said...

I like your writing style, funny and informative. I was born in the UK to SL parents too. I found your posts very clost to home for me, in every sense of the phrase.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Rhythmic Diaspora said...

As an addition to the comment by Chamira, the first wave of Sri Lankan immigrants was indeed scattered around the country and maybe that is one reason why the English language was used rather than Sinhala or Tamil. Also they were mostly middle and upper class people who would probably have conversed in English when they were in Sri Lanka.

I was born in the UK in the 60's and was brought us speaking English. I wish I had been taught Sinhala or Tamil but I had no need for it as a child. There was no "community" of Sri Lankans in the way that there was of Indian people, who shared a language. I had English friends and that was the only language I needed to know.

These days, with the huge influx of Sri Lankans to the UK there are more "communities" who speak in either Tamil or Sinhala to each other. Although I am British I also consider myself to be Sri Lankan and I am very proud of my heritage. There are a few of us around!

At 2:44 PM, Blogger S said...

Rhythmic and Chamira - thanks for the input.

Will check your blogs out later!

I'm pretty disgusted by visibly different people who don't want to know about their heritage - regardless of what anyone says, you're still seen as 'foreign' 'til you open your mouth over here. The BNP made such a fuss over a Greek-Armenian standing for election under their banner - imagine what their supporters make of visibly different people?

It's interesting to note that they got 10% of the vote in the UK EU elections.

With the Far Right gaining increased support in the UK - it's upto us to keep a foot behind in SL for a rainy day. That means learning Sinhala/Tamil fluently.

At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Janin said...

I agree with your sadness what a loss it will be for those expats in the UK who can't speak Sinhala and or Tamil. It will be a shame for them since a culture they have invested so much in to ultimately reject them as per the BNP, for those how are a part of that they will effectively be a lost and rootless Diaspora they may even not be definable as a Diaspora.

At 10:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of the BNP and the UK and since you are in the UK - Check out Channel 4 Thursday 4th May at 9pm for a re-enactment of the Bradford Riots from a muslims perspective........

At 9:28 AM, Blogger S said...

Thanks for the tip-off anon - I'll keep my eyes peeled for that one!

Having said that, I believe deprivation and ghettoisation are to blame for the Bradford riots. Neither side is more culpable than the other.

Lozells on the other hand, is a different matter.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if (Jason Bavanandan, Som Wardner and Nihal Arthanayake from Radio One) can speak Sinhala and or Tamil would you know ? Since this may go some way to prove your theory.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger S said...

Som lived in SL 'til ten - he said he'd forgotten most of his Sinhala as he doesn't use it.

Nihal probably does speak Sinhala - he met his Sinhala wife in SL and goes over there quite a lot. He's very aware of his identity.

Jason B - I'm not sure. There aren't many Battle interviews where they talk about his heritage.

At 10:38 PM, Blogger Kalum said...

Came across your blog by accident, read the first few lines and had to read the whole thing including all the comments! I am your British Born, middle class, 2nd generation Sinhalese child who cannot speak Sinhala, let alone read or write it. And yes I am also a medical student... another one. I have no Sinhalese friends, yeah I may know the odd person, but do I keep in touch with them and see them outside of the "cultural events", never... In fact it was only a few years ago, that due to the fact I was at a university heavily populated with Indians, I felt like I wanted to BE INDIAN just to fit in. So my problem was slightly different, in that I was not pretending to be white but actually a different shade of brown. I would often get mistaken for being Sikh or Pakistani and I enjoyed playing up to this sometimes, but this charade did my self confidence and sense of identity absolutely nothing at all...

The funniest thing is despite my poor connection with Sri Lanka and identity as a Sinhalese person, I will still be expected to marry someone Sinhalese!

I was fascinated what you said about why Sri Lankan people, and what appears to be more commonly Sinhalese, have not made much of an effort to bring up their children rich in their mother country's culture. I never understood why they did not teach us Sinhala like the Indians teach their children Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi etc and even get them to sit GCSEs in them? Why Sinhalese people are dotted around so much but other cultural groups have areas where they have mainly settled so the their is a sense of community (esp in London)?

I sometimes feel ashamed to call myself Sinhalese when I know so little about Sri Lanka. I have been over there with my family, but unfortunately due to not being able to afford it, we don't go often at all.

Well some of you will say, that I am a true coconut, and I have been called that in the past, but despite my lack of connection with Sri Lanka and its cultures I am still proud of being Sinhalese.

Would be really interested in meeting other Sinhalese girls my age in London, get in touch, Kalum.

At 12:33 AM, Blogger S said...

Hey Kalum,

Nice to hear from you - I do believe I might've gone to school with you; there was a chick who fitted your description who went on to do biomed @ a London uni. If it is KG then hey, my congrats on entering medschool!

I totally empathise with wanting appear Indian to be accepted - the coconut jibes you get for not being able to garba/get into Bollywood/understand the fasting schedule are enough to make many non-IndoPak Brit-Asians feel insecure. Believe me, I had a lot of catching up to get on with on the 'Asian' front too!

Having an SLSoc at university was a blessing though; the pressure to do the 'Asian' thing was negligable since most of us chose SLSoc/kept away from all things brown. I can see how you felt minus a haven like this; the only criticism other 2nd Gen's have had of this is that it was populated with peoples straight off the plane - I personally didn't have a problem with this as I've now got a whole host of places to hang out on holiday :D

With regards to parents and their lack of teaching, most Sinhalese mothers work, meaning the time they've got to teach their children is minimised. A lot of Indians have extended family over too; grandparents tend to be given the responsibility of teaching the mother tongue. Most of these peeps can't/won't speak English so the grandchildren are forced to learn.

I intend to make my parents do the same!

People did tend to settle where they got jobs, so that's why we got dispersed. Few Lankans => less demand for Lankan facilities; e.g. TV/radio/films => less incentive to learn Sinhala. Depressing but true.

A lack of language skill shouldn't discourage you from calling yourself Sinhalese though - 90% of things in SL are translated into English so it's possibly to get incredibly clued-up on both past/present day culture. Eyeball testing isn't going to go away so regardless of how you feel, you're always going to look 'brown' to strangers.

I best pen off before this starts to look like an essay, but hey, it'd be lovely to meet you even if you aren't the chick from school.

Can't wait to see you blogging!



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