Saturday, January 14, 2012


This blog entry is not going to be all that hunky dory of a topic, but it is something that has been germinating in my mind for a long time now and I think is an important one. Plus, what is life without a bit of balance right?

I’d like to start out by saying (disclaimer tone) that Sri Lanka is an incredible country, there is no doubts about that. Its scenic overload, fresh coconut curries, and, for the most part, incredibly welcoming people are unparalleled by most other places I’ve been to. This little teardrop island packs a lot of punch in the regard of awesomeness. It is also generally a safe place (Mom, this point if for you). It is a communal society where people are invested in the lives of their neighbors, friends and families and once you are included in one of those groups, people will break their backs to make sure you are fed, clean and happy. Often I find myself overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of people I just met.

At this point one might wonder “well then, Kelly dear, if Sri Lanka is so darn dandy and all, would you ever consider living there?” The answer to that question is yes, EXCEPT (and the emphasis is huge here) for the way men have been taught it is appropriate to treat women. Usually I would go on to make another disclaimer that “well, not all men, that kind of blanket statement is unfair” but to be honest, it is far more of a culturally ingrained mentality than that, so deeply part of the way things function in Sri Lankan society that it even seems to transcend the most decent and ethical of chap. To put it pointedly: sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is unreal. Absolutely unreal. And yes, yes, out of all of my travels to and fro across this globe, I do understand that countries have different gender roles and the relationship between men and women are not going to be the same as what I am used to. But honestly, out of every country that I’ve been to, Sri Lanka is hands down the worst when it comes to rampant sexual harassment of women, both local and (perhaps especially) foreign. I’d even go as far to say that it is worse than India and Ghana (the two other places that this has been a problem) COMBINED. Yeah…for those of you who know or have experienced what it is like there, that is not a small number.

Let me begin by some specifics (and blame it on the science, but I relish these kind of data collection opportunities). The past two days I’ve keep track of the number of cat calls, sexually suggestive comments, hand gestures, and exposure to gentlemanly private parts (yes, oh yes) that I get between my house and the local super market 30 minutes away. I feel like it is important to note that the road that I take is a back road in a residential and generally well to do neighborhood. I have grouped the comments to their most relevant category.

Very forward “Hi”/ “Hello”: 11

“Nice”/ “Nice______”: 6

“Hey, Sexy”/ “Sexy!”: 5

“Come!” “Come here!”: 5

Baby, where you going”/ “Hey baby”: 3

“Sweetheart”: 2

Male genitals: 1

This is one hour of walking over a two-day span of time in a relatively secluded area. This does not include figures from riding buses (groper’s paradise), going on trishaws (a constant battle to defend why I do not want to marry you), and walking to the university (where I have been flashed countless times). A week or so back my friend was stuffed into a public bus and where the bus conductor proceeded to run his boner along their bodies as he collected the bus fare from passengers. Although I am incredibly fortunate to not have been touched by anyone (which would result in their imminent death), the point I am trying to make is that this is not an uncommon thing. The verbal abuse especially.

I think that there are several reasons for this. The first is historical. Sri Lanka in many ways is a very modernized society, but it is also a state in transition, especially after the civil war. One residual aspect of a more traditional worldview is an emphasis on male dominance. That combined with having one of the world’s highest rates of alcohol abuse explains why Sri Lanka also has one of the highest numbers of domestic abuse cases in the world. Being a foreigner only adds to this problem for two reasons: 1. I am fleeting. Most assume that I have no family connections here and their actions will not be reprimanded by the collectivist society. Sri Lanka is a small island, everyone knows everyone, which is why being an outsider to this system makes the think they can get away with a lot more, and 2. Pornography. This point came as an “Oh my God! Why did I not think about that” moment when a fellow Sri Lankan male friend of mine and I were talking about this issue. Despite pornography being a federal offence, most men’s only interaction with a white woman is through the porn’s sites on the internet. Alongside the exported American media they see, which, let’s be honest folks, is basically pornography , their primary interpretation of white women is that we are ready, willing and non-discriminating with our sexual desires. This has very real repercussions. For a long time I did not understand why they were so obsessed with us foreign ladies, but it is because more often than not me walking down the street to go to the supermarket is not just me going to the supermarket, it is me caked in their fantasy and expectations of who white women are that results in the transmutation of me into not just Kelly-on-a-stroll, but a Sex-Goddess-From-Outer-Space-Here-To-Please-You. Strong words? yes. Slightly exaggerated? sadly only slightly.

So what does one do about it?

I’ve oscillated from getting violently upset and yelling back at them, to looking at my feet and passively walking by (like most Sri Lankan women do), to learning Sinhala phrases to rudely snap back, to not going outside at all. But what I’ve learned (aside from the fact I am really bad at sitting still or being passive) is that any kind of attention only feeds it. So, after a lot of thinking about the issue, I’ve been working with what I set out to Sri Lanka to accomplish: a study on compassion. In Buddhism there is a phrase “May you be well, may you be happy.” It is a part of a meditation called metta, loving kindness. And although there are some things that are intolerable and would warrant other action (when verbal harassment turns physical for example), this method has had beautiful resultsRather than getting upset or walking shamefully by, I look them in the eye and say (either to myself or out loud) “May you be well, and may you be happy.” I've started to look at these guys as husbands, grandfathers, brothers and Dads, not just ugly, awful human beings. And what I have seen as a product of this is incredible! . I’ve realized that these guys have actually been the best teachers of compassion and loving kindness I’ve encountered in Sri Lanka. My walk to the store, my bus rides, my trishaw conversations have become a practice, an embodiment and opportunity for compassion. And that means, in turn, each time they call out at me they give me a gift, and for that I am grateful to them. It is circular. The more they enable me to practice, the more I am grateful to them, the more loving kindness I have to give. Interconnectivity at its best. The other benefit of this method is the changes I have seen in the way this physically manifests. When I see a large group of preteen boys ahead, as I walk towards them I send them kindness and keep telling myself may they be well and happy, and by the time I reach their group the anticipated chorus of rude remarks that I have grown so accustomed to there is only a mild trickle of one gutsy boy in the back, the rest just stare blankly as I walked by. Its not full proof by any means. But the point is I have seen a difference. I don’t know if it is because I am viewing things differently or I am giving off some kind of funky pheromones. Regardless, I’ve learned that although I cannot change a culture, I can change the way that I interact with it. There is a lot of power in that.

I suppose the other moral of the story is that you find what you are looking for in the most unexpected places. I came to Sri Lanka to find compassion in Theravada Buddhist monks and have found it in the cat calling men on the streets. How beautifully ironic is that?

So much to be learned from the mundane.

May you be well and happy :)



Monday, January 2, 2012

Another Year Has Come and Gone

Watching the sunset on the 2nd day of the New Year. ‘Tis the season for reflection falalalalala. Looking back on 2011 I can be nothing but grateful. I have graduated college, worked incredibly hard on the GRE, applying to graduate school and research, made new friendships, fostered the old ones, won a Fulbright, traveled to Japan, India and Sri Lanka, had the blessing of participating in my mom’s lovely wedding, and, most of all, encountered so much, both difficult and beautiful, that has deepened my understanding what it means to be a good human being. My resolution for this next year: take that learning and implement it. There are others (15 to be exact) saved in a Word document of trivial things I want to accomplish this coming 365 days, but to be honest, if I can accomplish this goal in even the slightest form I am a happy lady. Putting what I believe in into practice. Enough philosophy for this lass, give me some sweet, sweet praxis!

In terms of an update: the few weeks have been a hodge podge of running around, Christmas parties, Buddhist monks, and travel. We just returned from Colombo where I rang in the New Year with my toes in the Indian ocean surrounded by a group of individuals who have been nothing short of inspiration since coming to Sri Lanka. Last year I spent New Years Eve alone, fasting, and meditating. This year I spent it surrounded by people who I have grown so much appreciation for. I think if anything is indicative of a shift in worldview over this past year this might be it. As nice as introspection and retreating might be, I’ve learned, at least from my tiny perspective, the meaning of life is connectivity with others. Therefore, I happily thank the circumstances that have allowed me to be where I am.

For Christmas a few of the other Fulbrighters, two of our Sri Lankan friends and Mike, a fellow American now residing in Kandy proper, all came together for what we called “An Ugly Moo Moo Party.” Similar to the uniquely American obsession with “Ugly Sweater Parties,” we decided to host a Sri Lankan flavored get together by encouraging the proud display of ugly housedress attire. My poor fashion sense, potentially shamefully so, was the source of inspiration for this idea, ever since my purchase of a certain orange moo moo the first week in Sri Lanka. Decorated with square snowflakes (because we forgot how to cut them), fake tinsel, and a branch (yes, just a branch, i.e. fragment) of a pine tree our landlords elusively found for us and left on our doorstep, and two dirty ankle socks we colored red with our names on it for stockings—the party was a hit. I made mulled wine and sweet potatoes and Bryanna made her infamous pumpkin pie.

Before Christmas we (Mike, Bryanna, Malia, Kelly and myself) partook on the revered climb to the top of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). Sri Pada is a cone shaped mountain in central Sri Lanka, famous for being the location of religious relics for Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. To complete the hike before sunrise we set off around 1:00 in the morning, following a lit path of over 5,200 stairs, dotted with temples and avid devotees along the way. Despite the rain and frigid winds we saw everything from flocks of bare footed monks, grandmothers being carried up by their sons, a man with a catheter, and Buddhist with white strings they tied at the bottom of the mountain and strung all the way to the top of the 7,000 foot peak. When we arrived to the top we waited for the sun to rise, the winds to pick up and listened to the chanting from a puja inside the temple where Lord Buddha’s left footprint is said to reside (the right footprint is somewhere in Thailand. Yes, the physics of this is baffling to me as well). Not only was the journey epic in it of itself, but I was so very nourished by being surrounded by mountains. Roasting marshmallows in the fireplace of the hotel to make Sri Lanka style smores was also a crowning moment of the trip (shockingly, it was THAT cold).

Today I went to a Dana, direct meaning: generosity, at my friend’s Ken and Vishaka’s house for several monks passing through. Since monks are not supposed to deal with money a Dana is equally a giving of kindness to them through the donation of food, as well as a social occasion for swapping the dhamma. I was able to meet an American monk, now living near Colombo at a temple, who was very interested in my project and a former counselor and social worker himself. He told me about a meditation center in Colombo geared towards lay meditators that might be a good place for my research. One of the major roadblocks I am facing here is actually finding people who meditate! You’d be surprised how incredibly rare intent practice is being a Buddhist country. I keep joking that I came to Sri Lanka to find out that I would have an easier time finding participants in the USA. I am meeting with him and one of our mutual friends for lunch tomorrow to discuss this prospect. Regardless, mere exposure to so many interesting concepts and people is such an opportunity. I feel like my understanding of Buddhism, as both a religion and a method, has developed so much since being here. And although not much has transpired in terms of quantitative data collection, I am positive my ability to be a sensitive researcher in this field in the future is going to benefit greatly form all of these experiences. Learning, learning, learning.

This next month I plan on tuning my research design and finding proper places for testing, as well as welcoming my Dad and his wife June to Sri Lankan soil for two weeks (YAY!). There is so much to look forward to. And although this next year has so many scary unknowns in front of me ( i.e. not even knowing in what part of the continental US I will be living in) I am excited to see what happens. Sometimes there is great grace in letting go and seeing what presents itself. So with that I let off a big sigh and smile at the coming days.

I hope this year brings happiness to you all.

Great love from Sri Lanka.