Cultural Beginnings

Location

Sri Lanka

5° 56′ 24.2196″ N80° 31′ 32.8296″ E

School Field and Around
At the halfway point in my stay, I am trying to improve my singing voice and keep hydrated on an island that is located five degrees above the equator. Adapting to the culture is always important – but these two were difficult to overcome.

This week marks the halfway point for my stay in Sri Lanka.  I have been here for five months and have five more to go.  When my wife and I came here in October, the cultural differences were sometimes difficult to overcome, but we have had many fun experiences trying to adapt to the Sri Lankan culture.

We are in Sri Lanka because we have been assigned to teach English in an all-girls middle school called Sujatha.  We are both full-time teachers and we stay very busy throughout the day working at the school.  However, we have enjoyed every minute of our jobs, especially seeing the students on a daily basis.  So far, there have been many funny events in school. I am going to focus on two that highlight positive cultural differences.

Imagine a small classroom packed full with fifty girls.  This is the average size for a Sri Lankan school.  All fifty girls were really excited to have a foreign teacher because they get to hear a different accent and learn English from an American. On the first day of school, we arrived at the classroom and introduced ourselves.  The girls were really shy, but we managed to squeeze a few words out of them.  We told them to ask us questions and finally one girl asked, “Could you please sing us a song?”

I do not consider myself a good singer at all. The question made me feel nervous and shy.  In the U.S., I had never randomly been asked to sing before, so I was unprepared for the strange request.  I came to find out that singing, whether you have a bad voice or a good voice, is customary in Sri Lankan culture.  Everyone knows many traditional songs and loves to sing them all the time.  I, on the other hand, do not know any traditional American songs and certainly do not sing all the time, especially in front of other people.

Despite my nervousness, I somehow thought of the song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”  It was the first song from my childhood that popped into my head.  Annelise and I began to sing and, although I thought it sounded terrible, the students absolutely loved it.  They listened intently to our words and applauded our performance when we finished.  After the applause, my nervousness disappeared and I realized that the girls considered it normal for their teachers to sing.

As I said before, Sri Lankan students love to sing, and this was shown to us the next day when we walked past some of the girls singing, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” during recess.  I could not believe that they understood the song so quickly and then wanted to sing it out loud.  That day put a smile on my face. It showed me that adapting to Sri Lanka’s singing culture made the students learn better English, even though it made me uncomfortable and shy.  Since I learned to embrace singing, the students and I now sing almost every day. They cannot wait for break time because they usually spend that time singing the American songs that we teach them.  Do your teachers sing with you?

Another story about adapting to the culture has to do with Sri Lankan clothing.  In America, when it is unbearably hot outside, I wear shorts and a T-shirt in order to keep cool.  This is not customary in Sri Lanka.  Despite the temperatures between 80 and 90 degrees, most Sri Lankan men and boys wear long pants and long sleeve shirts.  I could not believe my eyes when I saw men walking around in pants when it was sunny, humid and 90 degrees outside.

For me, this was a difficult cultural adjustment. I usually cool down by wearing less clothing, not more.  While I still wear shorts during the weekends, as a teacher I must wear pants and a long sleeve shirt during school. I have adapted to being overheated all the time.  My clothes are always drenched with sweat. I have learned to ignore it.  I now shower two or three times a day to stay clean. I wash clothes daily so they do not smell.

My body still has not adapted to the climate in Sri Lankan.  After five months, I still feel just as hot and sweaty as I did on the first day I arrived.  Fortunately, I have learned to ignore sweaty clothes and also drink lots of water.  Annelise and I drink about three gallons of water (about 48 glasses) a day just to stay hydrated in the blazing Sri Lankan heat.  Even now I do not understand why Sri Lankan men wear pants and long sleeve shirts, but this is a part of their culture I may never understand.

These two stories highlight a couple of cultural differences that I have had to overcome.  My experience so far has had many positives and negatives, but learning how to live in a different culture will help me in the future.  Since I have become used to singing in front of groups and used to wearing long clothing in the heat, maybe I will be more confident to sing in American classrooms and more tolerant of sunny summer days in my hometown.  Whatever the benefits, these two experiences were fun and enjoyable.  I will continue telling you about the cultural differences in future, but for now I will focus on improving my singing voice and drinking gallons of water.

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