Archive for January, 2011

Why I wear all black

Friday, January 7th, 2011

People keep asking me why I wear all black.

Or they look at me and say: “You still haven’t changed your colour of dress.” “Don’t you like to wear coloured clothing?”
To which my responses are: “Nope.” “Nope.”

And then they ask me why I wear all black.

And this isn’t just people in Sri Lanka. People in the UK also ask. Though not as often. By UK standards it’s a personal question that you wait till you know someone quite well before you ask them. After a week or two. After you’ve bought them a drink in a pub and they’ve bought you one. After you’ve worked out how you each take your tea. In Sri Lanka it comes quite closely after “Sit! Will you.” “Tea!” (This is more an order than a question.) “How old are you?” “Are you married?” “Why aren’t you married?” “What’s your religion?”. “Why do you have short hair?” All of which come before the water for the tea has boiled. 🙂

Anyway. Here’s the story.

I decided to only wear black (black shirts, black trousers) when I was in Sri Lanka last time. It was while I was standing around at the College of Education one morning waiting for the batch photo. I was wearing a black shirt and black trousers. The women were wearing their nicest saris. The men were wearing shirts, and TIES!! The monks were wearing their usual robes.

I was sick of being asked by all and sundry why I wasn’t dressed up for the photo. I was thinking about how lucky the monks are because no one would ask them why they hadn’t made an effort, what they would do about their hair, why they weren’t wearing beautiful jewelry/ties to match their clothes. And I thought ah, what I need is a religion whose uniform is a black shirt and black trousers. Then I can wear what I want all the time and won’t have to justify it (other than by saying it’s my religion). And I thought, well, I should just do that then. Only, since I don’t like religions I’ll do it without the religion bit.

Most of the reason for this comes from spending three months teaching at Kandy Model School. While I was there I had to wear a sari every day. I hated it. But I had two saris and could just about cope with them. I realised that while I had to wear a necklace to leave the house, I could just take it off once I got out the door. I then realised that I could even leave some mornings with no necklace on at all. And once I worked out how to tie the bloody sari the other teachers and other random women did less coming up to me and fixing it for me (sometimes while I was actually teaching a class).

And then came the most important event in Kath’s sartorial career. The Sports Meet. You must have a beautiful sari for a sports meet. Ok. I’ll wear my red one which people thing is more beautiful than my purple one. No. You need a new and beautiful sari. So I was subjected to Pushpa and her daughter wrapping lots of Pushpa’s saris around me to find one that was beautiful enough. The problem was that Pushpa is taller than I am and wears slightly wider saris. When I wear them, the frill is too big and I am ugly. It’s ok. I can just wear my red one. The principal’s sister gave me a sari. Awesome. It’s new (well, new to me). It’s beautiful (I don’t even know what beautiful means in this country but I do know that by definition every sari is beautiful). It’ll do. Thank god.

But I wasn’t allowed to tie it myself. I was told that Pushpa had to do it because it had to look beautiful. Now I dislike sports meets at the best of time. The fact that they bring back bad memories of sport from school. The fact that this one had caused 6 weeks of missed classes. The fact that I had to look beautiful.

I stood and let Pushpa dress me. I breathed deeply. I counted to ten in any language I could think of. I desperately tried to unclench my teeth. I attempted to make the expression on my face look more like a smile than a grimace. I went downstairs and closed my bedroom door and swore loudly and repeatedly and stamped my foot. This made me feel better.

By the time I’d walked from the house to the street to get the van the sari was starting to fall off. The over-the-shoulder-taily-bit had come loose. I was standing on the bottom of the sari (this is why my frill has to be bigger, or my legs have to be longer). So I got to school. Hid in the office. Redid the sari. Took the stupid necklace off. And mostly survived the day.

At that point, I wanted to never wear clothes again. Wearing black shirts and black trousers is the closest I can get to wearing nothing without wearing nothing. I don’t want to wear nothing. I want to be protected from the heat, the cold, the sun and other people’s prying eyes. I don’t want to expose myself. I want to be well enough dressed so that I won’t stand out. Hence black shirt and black trousers. Presentable enough to wear for job interviews, weddings, funerals, etc. Practical enough to wear for trekking and cycling. And I don’t have to think about it.


Friday, January 7th, 2011

I’m a bit worried that some of my recent posts make me sound a bit grumpy.

I’m not.

But I think I know why I sound a bit grumpy.

1. My blog and journal are my only outlets here for dealing with the frustrations that I encounter.
2. This is my second visit to Sri Lanka and I know it well. The novelty is no longer dazzling me.
3. I’ve been here for a while and I’m seeing more deeply into Sri Lankan life so I’m seeing more things that frustrate me.
4. Frequently when I stay with people and tell them I’ve enjoyed the food (or my time with them, etc) they tell me that I am lying. “The food is not tasty.” “The facilities are not good.” “You didn’t have a fourth helping of dinner, it must be because my food is terrible.” Etc. There is a martyrdom that many people here adopt when I’m with them. It takes all my energy to constantly reassure them that I am in fact not having a terrible time. If I were to actually mention that my tea had a little too much milk in it for my liking then I hate to think what might happen. If I am feeling a bit grumpy, I don’t feel like I can let it show.
5. I have been travelling for 150 days. Maybe I am actually getting a bit tired and a bit grumpy.

Post script: I’m posting this post a couple of weeks after having written it. I was feeling a bit grumpy. I am no longer feeling grumpy. But I’ve never met anyone yet who’s managed to get through life being happy every single day. I’ll let the grumpiness be part of the rich tapestry that is life and happily move on. 🙂


Friday, January 7th, 2011

I may be white, western, an English speaker and a graduate but I am not an expert on everything.

A weird thing happens here. People ask me for advice about lots of things.

Now this is kind of nice. I’m here to help. If I can help that’s good. There are a lot of things that I know about and I’m happy to help people with my knowledge and experience.

But, I am not an expert on everything.

Here are some of the things that I am not an expert on:
The textiles industry.
Visas for England (I don’t need one, I’m British).
The job market in England.
Visas for Australia (I don’t need one, I’m Australian).
The job market in Australia
Running a business in Sri Lanka.
Which international universities are best for particular subjects.
How much it costs for international students to study in different countries.
The cost of living in different countries.
The price of everything I own (and many things I don’t own).
The structure of government in Sri Lanka (in particular the education departments).
The correct way to address and phrase official letters in Sri Lanka.
Agriculture in the UK.
The current state of British royalty.
What really happened to Diana.

To some extent I’m flattered. To some extent it is my own fault, people ask me these things and I actually do give them advice and information that they think is useful. Or rather I tell them what to type into Google. To some extent it’s just people asking other people for information, which is great. Sharing knowledge and skills is something that we as human beings should do a lot more of.

What I think annoys me is this expectation that I know far more about everything than they do. It’s the “we’re not worthy, you are superior” attitude that I find really annoying. Firstly, because I don’t actually know what they think I do, and secondly because obsequiousness is just not something that I think is good.

I may be white, western, foreign, a native English speaker and a graduate. But none of this makes me an expert on everything in Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia and the rest of the world. I’m sorry.

Special K

Friday, January 7th, 2011

I was in Food City in Kandy and I saw Special K breakfast cereal on the shelf. Nice! I like Special K.

But I didn’t have any way to keep the fresh milk cold (and if I’m going to have Special K, I want to have fresh milk with it). So I just sighed and put it on the list of things I’ll just wait for. No problem.

Then I was due to go to stay with Sujith (and he has a fridge) so I thought I’d go to Food City then and get some Special K and some milk. Awesome.

But staying with Sujith turned into staying with other friends in Avissawella (who don’t have a fridge). Ah well. I’ll just wait. No problem.

A few days later I was back in Karawita. By now, I was really looking forward to a bowl of Special K. And after one failed attempt, I actually managed to get a bus to Ratnapura to go to Food City to get Special K and milk. That wasn’t the only reason to spend an hour on a bus going to Ratnapura but it was a major reason.

So, with Special K and fresh milk safely in my bag, I merrily skipped my way back to the house. I put the milk in the fridge just to make sure it would be cold enough but couldn’t wait to taste the Special K.

I opened the box.
I opened the foil packet.
I saw the flakes of Special K in the packet.
My heart sank.
They were the wrong colour and they were glistening in a way that only sugar-coated things glisten.
I tried one.
Very, very malty.
Very, very sweet.
So disappointed.

Now, Special K in the UK has lots of sugar. It is marketed as a weight loss food but it does contain more calories than Cornflakes (mind you, most people then add sugar to cornflakes). I don’t eat Special K in order to lose weight. I eat Special K because it is tasty. And somewhat good for me. So the fact that there is some sugar in the UK version is ok. It’s not too much, it doesn’t taste like a sweet cereal to me. But these flakes were definitely sweet.

I looked at the ingredients. Sugar and honey. (In the UK, no honey.) Wheat (no rice). Given that everything in Sri Lanka that isn’t made from coconut is made from rice, how the hell is Special K here made from wheat with NO rice? Dear god the world is a crazy place!

The stupid amounts of sugar, honey and malt I can understand. I’ve drunk tea in this country. Nestomalt (one of the greatest crimes against humanity in my opinion) is loved by people here. So I think the Sri Lankan version of Special K is probably suited to the Sri Lankan palate. Which is a bit annoying since I bought it specifically so I could eat something that wasn’t designed for the Sri Lankan palate.

Ah well. There’s a lesson here. When in Rome …! Don’t eat macaroni cheese in a tourist hotel in Kerala. Don’t eat cheese or chocolate in Sri Lanka. Don’t eat toast in Asia (unless you can make it yourself). Don’t eat breakfast cereal in Sri Lanka. Don’t eat bread in Sri Lanka. Or rather, eat these things but don’t expect them to be ‘right’. In the same way you shouldn’t eat seafood unless you can actually see the sea from where you are sitting, and pasta is definitely better in Italy. And don’t try pol sambol in England!! Even if you make it yourself, the coconut just doesn’t taste the same.

A Poor Man

Friday, January 7th, 2011

I met a poor man on the bus. I knew he was a poor man, because he told me he was.

He said: “I am a poor man. I have five children. My daughter is doing O Levels and has no papers to help her. Can you help?”

It turns out I couldn’t. I don’t have enough money to give men I meet on buses. He said he didn’t want money, he wanted my help as an English teacher. I said I didn’t have any time. He said he didn’t want my time, he just needed past exam papers. I said I didn’t have any and didn’t know where to get them from. He seemed annoyed.

But it got me thinking. He has five children and counts himself a poor man. Now in my opinion, if you have 5 children, you’re rich. If you’re too poor to have 5 children, you’re stupid.

Now this may seem a little harsh. But having children is not compulsory. That’s like someone else saying: “I’m such a poor man, I’ve got 5 sports cars and gym membership, I can’t afford to buy medicines.” Now this person would get no sympathy, but apparently having children isn’t seen as a choice.

Attention people of the world: Children are caused by unprotected sex. If you can’t afford to have children, then you can’t afford to have unprotected sex. It really is that simple.

So here is a man who has five children and can’t afford to support them the way he wants to. Poor man.


Friday, January 7th, 2011

I’ve visited lots of people in Sri Lanka. And I love them all.

Some have good ‘facilities’. Others don’t.

People seem to think that I mind about the ‘facilities’.

To some extent I do: given a choice I want a hot shower in an indoor, tiled bathroom. If I don’t have a choice, it doesn’t matter.

I’ve been very, very happy in houses where I’ve had to bathe outside at a tank. I’ve been less comfortable in houses with a hot shower in an indoor, tiled bathroom. ‘Facilities’ aren’t that important. Especially not for a short visit.

But I do have a question. Why do people worry about what sort of ‘facilities’ they can offer me, when they are perfectly happy making their children, grandparents, sisters, brothers, spouses, etc use those facilities? Surely white people aren’t that fragile. And if you have ‘facilities’ that you are ashamed of letting your guests use, then surely you should be ashamed of letting your family use them too.

So I think my point is that you shouldn’t be ashamed of your ‘facilities’. Especially not on my account. 🙂

Goose Bumps

Friday, January 7th, 2011

I was in the hotel restaurant having lunch.

It was Christmas Eve.

The radio (Sri Lanka’s Official Christmas Station) was playing crappy Christmas music.

I was eating a cheese and tomato sandwich with fries. Not very nice but that’s beside the point.

Then the original “Feed the World” song came on the radio.

And I got goose bumps.

I am in Sri Lanka to try to help. I am volunteering teaching English to try to make a difference in a way that I am able.

But it’s not enough.

I need to do more. And when I get back to the UK I will be reassessing my life and working out how I can do more.

I urge all of you to do more too. It doesn’t have to be much more. But just a bit.

I know some of you do things already. You donate your time and/or your money to charity. And this is wonderful!

But I still think we can all do more. In fact, we all need to do more.

So instead of spending 20 quid on a Christmas present for a friend, spend 18 and buy a Big Issue with the other 2.

Or make a deal with some of your friends not to exchange gifts. Put half the money into your own savings account and donate the other half.

I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to feel bad. I just want you know that a small difference is still a difference. And 2 quid might not be much for you, but it is a lot for someone who doesn’t have much.

We can make the world a better place. But just talking about it won’t help. We need to do something too.

And in my case, the something that I’m doing already isn’t enough, I need to do more.