Written when I was living in Sri Lanka, in 2017
Imagine you are in another country, with a culture so different from yours it’s hard to understand everything going on around you. Imagine you don’t speak the language and don’t have the same religion.
Imagine there is an enormous unwritten book of rules you have to figure out, things that are so normal to all the others, that they don’t even think about it. They’re used to their habits and don’t even notice that this is not a human thing but a cultural thing.
For example: You’re used to have only one rule about flipflops* or other footwear. You wear them, wherever you want, whenever you want. Walking into someone’s house without taking your shoes off isn’t seen as rude, but taking off your shoes and walking around barefoot is fine as well.
In this new country, the first time you enter the house of your hosts, you take off your flipflops because you know that’s expected. Then they ask if you brought house flipflops. You don’t really know what they mean but they give you a pair of flipflops to wear. You wear them the whole day, and the next morning you walk down barefoot. When your host sees you, she tells you to get your flipflops because the house is “too dirty”. You don’t really care, but you walk up to get them anyway.
Then you find out that when you enter the bathroom, you’re supposed to switch to the bathroomflipflops provided. Also at temples you take them off before entering, but at some of the areas you can wear your flipflops and everyone knows exactly where those areas start and end. Except for you. You’ve never had so many rules about footwear but you try to learn them quickly, slowly start to understand them and follow them as good as possible. But sometimes, for example when you wake up and get out of bed and walk to the living room, you forget to wear your flipflops. Or when you come home and forget to switch your outside flipflops to the inside ones. And you feel so ashamed and stupid that it’s apparently so hard for you to do such easy things.
You can imagine that this brings a certain amount of stress. You are always strained and frustrated about yourself. Imagine that you are lucky, because you are white* and western and well educated, and people in this country have a certain amount of respect for you based on those random facts.
Now imagine that you are in a country where you don’t want to be, but your own country is unsafe. Imagine that people look down upon you, your culture, your colour and your religion. Imagine that you don’t speak the language, and no one is there to explain anything to you or to help you to get to know the culture, the language and the unwritten book of rules. Imagine going to the bathroom at night, being too sleepy to think about the flipfloprules. You’re walking down barefoot, putting on the bathroomflipflops in the bathroom and after doing your bussines you walk to your room with the bathroomflipflops on. In your sleepy mood you take them off in front of your bed and go to sleep again. Imagine this not being seen as a silly sudu nona* act but a crime.
For me, dealing with this situations is unbelievably frustrating sometimes. But I am here out of choice. Imagine being a refugee….
*Wherever I wrote flipflops, you can read slippers. Whichever word you prefer
*Sudu Nona: White madam. In this country, western foreigners like me are referred to as ‘white’ or in Singalese ‘sudu’.
Disclaimer: I love this country