Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Observations On Sri Lankans - Part 19

You know me. You probably know that my love for all things Sri Lankan is, like that ahem "wallet" Java carries around, unusually large. Though there are a few aspects of Sri Lanka I don't care for at all. Things like corruption, war and piss poor customer service. They're not Sri Lankan per se, we have plenty of the latter over here in London and some scatterings of the first two as well, but I think Sri Lanka can justifiably considered a world leader in them.

One of the fascinating bits about being a Sri Lankan abroad is the way in which one can dip into Sri Lanka, the country and the people, then go back "home" and really think, ponder and cogitate about things. I take London and the UK very much for granted. It's where I've been born and bred and so many intricacies and modes of behaviour are my "normal".

Do I ever question that it's compulsory for an English person to say "please", "thank you" or "sorry" a minimum of seven hundred and sixteen times a day? No, of course I don't, it's entirely normal and I'm sorry but you won't catch me apologising for that.

When you're a tourist visiting a country for a holiday that's one thing. You fly in, have a look around, observe a bit and then fly back to your home and think things like

"The Germans are very efficient aren't they?"

They you get on with life, forgetting about Germans and their efficiency. If you're English this lasts until the next international football tournament, when German efficiency usually wins on penalties.

It's when you have the chance to visit a country frequently and continually that you start to really observe things and think a little bit more deeply about the way the country and its people go about their business. Don't get me wrong here. I'm not claiming to be an authority on Sri Lankans and I know that my knowledge is poor compared to a local. But my view is a comparison based view rather than a total acceptance one and I get to stand and look for a much longer time, in much more detail than a package tourist in a beach hotel.

I digress here but I must tell you that old alleged Tommy Cooper joke, it exploded in my mind a couple of lines ago and has made me smile:

"So I rang the local swimming pool. I said:

'Is that the local swimming pool?'

The woman said to me:

'That depends where you live Sir'."

I may have vastly overused some quotation marks there, but the joke's a classic if you can read it with a Tommy Cooper accent.

One of the things I've noticed about the average Sri Lankan, who of course doesn't exist, is that they have a wholly different concept of personal space than the approach taken by an Englishman, or woman for that matter. Whether it's in cars, tri shaws, on foot or bicycles the approaches and attitudes are the same in Sri Lanka, which are totally different to the approaches here in the UK.

Picture the situation; you've got two English gents walking towards each other. All is comfortable but, as they get nearer, it becomes clear the they are going to meet at a point which is not wide enough for both of them to pass each other. One of them is going to have to give way to the other. There's only one way that this scenario will develop. As they get to the tipping point both gents will say something like "after you", they'll make a suitable hand gesture to beckon the other fellow and will then be stumped not knowing whether they should go first or let the other fellow go first.

After a second or two they'll both decide to go, which will embarrass both of them as they almost collide. They'll both back off and the scenario will be repeated complete with a dance until finally, some days later, they agree on a plan. That's the way it works here. It's some sort of law.

Now picture the Sri Lankan version of this scene; there are two Sri Lankan men walking towards each other. There may be some of that loud nasal sniffing throat clearing business going on, but that's for another post. They're approaching the gap, the narrow one that will only accommodate
one of them. It's not filled by an Englishman either. Now part of the Sri Lankan psyche is that neither fellow actually notices this gap until they're in it. There's no urgency, no sense of trying to nip through quickly before the other chap gets there either. They both get there then plough into it innocently.

There's untold pushing, squeezing and maneuvering, yet animosity isn't on the agenda. They help each other and somehow, through that miracle which is Sri Lankanness, they both get through and go on their way. The only possibility that hasn't been explored is that of reversing. That's only allowed if a Sri Lankan has the written permission of all four of his grandparents and usually a government minister. These days it's almost impossible to track down and get through all the red tape to get all four grandparents to sign something.

For many years I thought that the Sri Lankan way of dealing with these situations is rude. On the surface, to the average Brit, it does look that way. There are no pleases, no thank yous, no after yous and no sorrys. I would often, when finding myself in one of these predicaments in Sri Lanka, say one of those sarcastic thank yous that we Brits often do to make the other person feel bad. Of course in the motherland this is about as productive as complaining to an Italian waiter that he's been flirting with the female customers a bit too much.

It's not rude because it's just the way it's done. Each different way works, to a degree, for each country.

Of course in Germany there'd be a system that would get fourteen people through the same gap in half the time.

Who wants that though?


Java Jones said...

Hey RD - that was a birthday present, so I have to be tactful about the replacement, which will be much smaller! The thing about it is that I need to have the right compartments, pockets, stash areas, etc., in my wallet, so that finding the perfect one is a bit of a trip. Trust you to check it out!

Hey and I won't say a word about that bag you sling aver your shoulder and that you seem to love so much, okay? Although I did think it was rather sweet!!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Java - Ok, understood. Thanks for keeping quiet about my man bag too!