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.

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