Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Island Time

I am currently sitting over a steaming bowl of tamarind chickpeas and listening to Buddhist chants ebb through my window from the nearby temple. Evening has set in on yet another Sri Lankan day of running about to and fro from office buildings, stores, administrative posts and bureaucratic stepping stones, only to succeed in a single goal: accomplishing absolutely nothing. For days we’ve been trying to get library cards to the university, a swimming pass, internet and trivial things like buying vegetables or meeting with the head of a department. After days of not understanding why the one person who needs to sign the one paper that would allow me to accomplish the measly task at hand is perpetually not at work, I come to the realization: relativity is at play. Sri Lanka is profoundly, inexorably and unavoidably engulfed in what is known as “Island time.” Island time is by no means a rare phenomena, and in fact, is a quite prevalent feature of ocean dwelling landmasses and otherwise. A mixture of culture, ample relaxation, heavy dosages of heat and the incessant reliance on old-colonial-paper-work-run-bureaucracy are several factors that I have identified as primarily contributors to this very real Einsteinian distortion. For the control freak or easily flustered this kind of lifestyle might be the tipping point for a near emotional breakdown, but to be honest, I find myself relishing in its absurdity.

Island time example #1: This past week I’ve finally met my advisor from the psychology department, a recommended Fulbright contact I have been trying to get in touch with since my arrival. As it turns out, the email I was given was wrong and the number I had been given for some reason was for a different department’s secretary. It was not until I had the fortuitous luck of literally running into her in a hallway that we were able to meet at all. At that point I introduced myself and once she realized who I was, hurriedly ushered me into her office across campus. “Oh wonderful Professor! We’ve been expecting you!” were the greeting words, setting off the initial “Hmmm there must be some confusion here,” voice in my head. As the conversation progressed and I assured her I was only a measly undergraduate student here for independent research, not worthy of such a title and totally unable to teach, the realization set in: there was a massive miscommunication at hand. Finally, after an hour of explaining the difference between a student scholar (research) and a senior lecturer (a US professor selected to teach for a year in their field of expertise) her conclusion was: “Oh, no matter, how many classes do you want? Four? Five?” After, and in true Sri Lankan style, negotiating my class load from 5 to a Cognitive Psychology course for second year students the discussion was over. I was told to come back on Monday ready to lecture without the slightest idea about what, where or for how many students. And obediently I came back Monday morning ready to teach my first class, only to find out that the Head of the department had decided to take a vacation to Colombo and the class schedule had not been posted yet. When I went to the secretary’s office (the silent but definitive magic makers of a bureaucratic society) to inquire about this confusion, she told me not only was Cognitive Psychology not on the list for courses this semester, but that students were not going to be registered for another 1 week, which after further inquiry turned into another 2 weeks. The fascinating part of this delay is that the university has already been postponed for over 2 months due to consecutive strikes by staff and faculty.

Ode to Island time!

Despite the fact I think I am incredibly under qualified to teach in the first place, I am excited to have the chance. It is my dream to teach and research at the same time, so having the opportunity to do that is something I am looking forward to. Despite the small frustrations of never knowing when things will actually happen or simple things like being told that I am not allowed to see the final examination worth 60% of the student’s grade, I feel like I am learning so much through the minutia of every day interaction... most of all the virtue of patience. Even when I may for the first time be considered a teacher, I am equally a student— as it should be. :)

Love to all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Homes, Holes and Happenstance

Hip hip hooray! I have finally moved to Kandy for the rest of my time in Sri Lanka! Three cheers for a little less transiency. Colombo has been great, but I am happy to finally be somewhere a bit more permanent. Annnnnd to compound the joy of prospective stability, after a month of searching for a house, we (another Fulbrighter and myself) have found a place to live. Alas! We are living in what is known as an “annex,” a very popular Sri Lankan phenomenon, where part of a house is rented out for short periods of time. Annexes can vary dramatically between being a detached “servant’s house,” only sharing property with the family, or it can be as intimate as living inside someone’s house with a room to call your own. The place we’ve decided on is a happy medium between the two. We have two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a long corridor hallway and a living room that are all built on the side of a house that is built on the side of a cliff. If this was not already enough of a bizarre set up, smack dab in the middle of our kitchen floor is a hole leading down to a narrow set of black spiral stairs and into a separate room with a small medicinal herb garden. It feels like something out of Alice and Wonderland—a rabbit hole in our very own kitchen. After trying to decide what to do with this space, either a meditation area or a dining/pub/hang out room, we’ve gone with the latter. The reason being, our next-door neighbors just so happen to be 1. A Buddhist school and 2. A massive stupa. Much like a mosque’s call to prayer, in the morning the temple blares chants from loud speakers, echoing across the nearby hills and directly into our annex. As a result, our entire apartment may as well be a meditation room… whether we like it or not. :)

The past few days in Kandy have been wonderful. The day I arrived I ended up meeting some friends of another friend’s friends (i.e. the social matrix that all of Sri Lankan society is embedded in and the means by which everything seems to be accomplished) for a class on the “Jatakas,” the stories of Buddha’s past lives. The people who were holding the class are Buddhist scholars from the US living in Sri Lanka and have written a book about the Jatakas. Seeing as they were expatriates themselves, I drove their house for the class thinking that the majority of the audience would be primarily foreigners (Kandy has a surprisingly well linked expatriate network). Much to my surprise, however, I did not walk into a room of expatriates, but a room of smiling bhikkus and bhukkunis (Buddhist monks and nuns) from Malaysia, Bhutan, China, Japan, Laos, and Myanmar. Ken and Vishaka (the authors) have been English teachers in Asia for over 30 years, so part of the class is to not only talk about Buddhist texts, but to help new student to the University with their English. Many of the monks and nuns there were also students working under the same advisor at the University as me. Afterwards I walked home with ne of the monks from China, who is doing hi PhD in Buddhist Psychotherapy. Sometimes I am taken aback by how widespread the interest in the relationship between contemplative practices and psychology are. We talked excitedly all the way back home and have since been pdf swapping.

The next day I was invited to go to the International Buddhist Center with the same group of students for another class about Buddhist economics. Again, not knowing exactly what to expect, I drove up to a temple outside of Kandy. Although we talked some about the readings that was given prior to the class, we ended up playing “Buddhist Trivia” for the majority of the time. Not only would I be bad at a game called “Buddhist Trivia” (and yes someone actually did manufacture this) in a regular setting, compared to these students bad was an understatement. It was wonderful. Despite the fact I was the clear loser of the game, it was an endless source of laughter and a prime learning experience.

To completely contradict my expression of the “joy of not commuting to Colombo” any more, tomorrow I leave for Colombo yet again. Haha. We’ve been invited to attend the “Marine Ball,” which is a celebration put on every year by the US Embassy to celebrate the Marines and their hard work. Much like many of the US’s ever so wise allocation of resources, the ball from what I hear is nothing less than an extravaganza. Dancing, food, drinks, processions (did I mention Marines?). It should be fun. All of us Fulbright ladies have bought saris to wear to the event, which will be the first time I’ve worn a sari since I was 16. We’re hoping to find someone in Colombo to help us tie them, considering negotiating such a massive piece of fabric is not only daunting, but near impossible for the average Westerner.

After this weekend we’ll move into out apartment and then real research will begin. But in true Sri Lankan style, you never know what the next day will bring, let alone next few months, which is also precisely why I am so grateful to be here. Life is one adventure after the next.

I hope everyone is well and love from afar!