When I walk through the gates of my host family’s home, I already feel comfortable and at ease. My ammaa Puja and I can sit and talk for hours; she tells me stories of her youth, her university days in Paris and the drama of her different boyfriends, how she knew she should marry my Tattaa, and the years of depression and hardship after their first daughter was born. She tells me how she has given up her profession as a fashion designer to be home and take care of her children, make dinner for her husband, and keep the house. She tells me of the social pressures she’s faced in trying to impress her mother-in-law, how it felt growing up with a brother and how it feels now as the woman of the house, as a woman of Kandy, Sri Lanka, as a mother and a wife. She expresses her exasperation at the lack of proper health education, sex education, the lack of any real guidance about marriage. My ammaa has strong opinions and has been through hell and back, and she can tell me about it.
My tattaa Shalen and I drive in his car and he tells me of his hardships. Father dead at nineteen, two younger brothers and a mother clueless to the family printing business, the printing press secretly in debt and a crook uncle. He tells me how he turned the business around, how difficult it was to give up his post-grad dreams to take over a press which he knew next to nothing about. He laughs about his college days at Trinity, shows me the clubhouse and his picture on the wall next to his rugby brothers, and orders me a coffee. While he had to abandon his adolescence and grow up too quickly, his youthful spirit is his loudest quality. Puffy beard and swollen belly, he is a child at heart.
Shalen and Puja have created a home for me within their home here in Sri Lanka. We laugh while I dribble rice onto my plate, still unable to properly eat hand-to-mouth, while I struggle to say sube udeesanak still wiping the sleep from my eyes. While I marvel at Ammaa’s stories of secret dates and the horrors of childbirth. While I watch out the window as a three-wheeler nearly collides with the oncoming traffic. While the three-wheeler nearly collides with me as I cross the street each morning. We laugh through it all, and my family’s sense of humor is refreshing after a long day of Sinhala and touring.
There must be a strong generational gap here in Kandy; my house feels quite westernized and laid back. I’m not sure if this is the norm for young couples, or if my parents are just particularly relaxed, but it has really helped me to transition while here in Sri Lanka. They have created a relaxed, open space around their dinner table where I can discuss what we’ve learned that day or the lectures we’ve received at our field visits, and they seem genuinely interested in my opinions on each topic I bring up. Without judgement, they ask questions about how I’m feeling and how my life here compares to my life in America, what my family is like and how our homelife is different than that in Kandy. I feel cared for. We went to the grocery store one night after dinner, me, Ammaa, Tattaa, and my nangi Nishelli, and as we were exiting the small red car Ammaa said “Come on kids!” I couldn’t help but flash a smile.
Tonight I Skyped with my ammaa amerikawe and tattaa amerikawe and I introduced my new family to them over the videochat. Two worlds colliding, seeing my two sets of parents meet each other, was a bit disarming. My American parents thanking my Sri Lankan parents for taking such good care of me, my Sri Lankan parents commenting on how similar to my American parents I look. It is so easy to compartmentalize my life here, to keep the lines neat and unbroken. Even when Skyping with my family or messaging my friends, it is two worlds between which I control the boundary. But in this instance, the boundary wasn’t only blurred, it was shattered. And I’m glad for that, for my two worlds to become one, however minuscule a two minutes Skype conversation is relative to my semester-long experience to come. The lines in my head demarcating one life from the other are going fuzzy in ways that allow me to remain present and wide-eyed and open-handed, but grounded. That first shattering moment was a shock, but it feels good to know that my time in Sri Lanka is beginning to feel less like a foreign life and more like my life.
Hannah Worby was a Cognitive Science and Religion student at Vassar College and studied abroad with IFSA on the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program in Fall 2016. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.