Friday, August 11, 2006

Lankan Style of Accepting the Circumstances

EMBASSY: I arrived at the Indian Embassy at 9.30 a.m. in the heat of the morning sun, and joined the long line of visitors waiting in the queue. I had plans to visit friends in India and had set aside the morning to apply for a visa.

Once inside the air-conditioned embassy building, I realised that hundreds of others were there that morning with the same agenda. I surveyed my surroundings and saw children playing freely and people closing in on one another, vying to reach the next stage of a complicated visa process.

As I waited, I thought about being in public spaces in New York, in Senegal and here in Sri Lanka. This was part of life in a major city, and one of many times I had waited in long lines or been in a tightly-squeezed crowd to the point of losing mobility.

When living in my hometown New York, I always commuted on the "subway", the underground train system, alongside millions of other students and workers. I always left my house at a precise time in order to avoid the large rush-hour crowds.

If I was ever late, I would inevitably end up sandwiched between people on the platform. Trust and communication between people on the train was limited.

Passengers held onto their belongings for dear life and women hoped and prayed that they would be surrounded by other women and not men with wandering eyes or hands.
While living as a student and later as a high school teacher in Senegal, West Africa, the buses were equally crowded.

However, a different mentality existed there and I could feel a stronger sense of trust among riders. Passengers exchanged friendly words as bus fare was passed from hand to hand until it reached the fare collector. Parents would even entrust their children to laps of strangers on the bus - hence creating more space for an already crowded situation!

Occasionally, men would get too close for comfort for me or for other women. However, if a woman ever called out an unwelcome advance, other passengers would promptly and loudly, scold the interloper.

As in Senegal, I have observed Sri Lankans display a great level of trust and level of acceptance amongst people in public spaces. Taking the bus back and forth to a village in Kalutura District, I am always shocked to witness so many people crowding into one bus not including those hanging from the outside!

While the bus sways from side to side, I lift my heels to catch my balance and usually find my feet competing with others for floor space that seems to have disappeared.

I was impressed at the courtesy of those with seats and the trust displayed by those people who hold onto bags of those who are standing - something that would never happen in New York.
As I think about these experiences on the bus, I realize Sri Lankans display a deep level of trust toward each other, especially with respect to their children. Whether in a bank, a hospital, bus or embassy, I have seen children playing together far from their parents, much farther than most New York parents would ever dream of letting their children wander on their own.

The cry of a young boy in his father's arms brought me back to my surroundings at the embassy. I thought the room was beginning to lose any sense of order as people became restless in the fourth hour of waiting. Children crying and yelling along with adult discussions increased in volume as did the number of bodies in the room.

Reading my book, Lessons of the Lotus by the Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk, Bhante Y. Wimala, became impossible as the crowd drew in closer around me.

The last words I could read seemed relevant: "At the time of a crisis, self-acceptance enables us to relax, let go, and flow with the current rather than fight in panic.... It [self-acceptance] will easily give rise to forgiveness, love and compassion, making life more peaceful for you. This peace will then radiate to others."

I encouraged myself to follow the words of the wise man and accept what was going on. I attempted to accept the situation and think of myself as a peaceful being. I conversed with others around me and enjoyed practising new Sinhala vocabulary words.

Then a miracle occurred: Somehow I was next! I stepped up to the woman behind the counter and smiled - only to have her announce a lunch break and instructions to all in the room to return in an hour. The crowd sighed in unison and people dispersed to corners of the room to wait for the workers to return.

I spoke with two Sri Lankan men next to me, a father with his children and his colleague. They explained the three parts of their theory on why crowds ("HERE") are different from those in other places.

First, the men explained, people in their country are not overly concerned with privacy; rather space is shared collectively.

Secondly, there is a general feeling of safety around, hence the comfort of handing someone your bag to hold or letting your children play far from you.

Lastly, they explained, Sri Lankans do not emphasize doing things in a particularly ordered way,
so people are willing to go with the flow.

I let them know how I appreciated the friendly atmosphere. I noticed that those waiting were particularly accepting of the circumstances and not angry with the embassy workers.

I wondered if they felt that this peaceful approach was common throughout Sri Lanka. They thought it was indeed a part of a shared culture that transcended boundaries of differences throughout the country.

Another passage from Wilma's text crossed my mind and I smiled at the notion: "Extending compassionate love to those who may have caused us pain, the one to gain the greatest benefit-inner peace-is you."


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