Monday, December 18, 2006

The Need to Improve Computer Literacy

Access to the Internet is an essential part of my daily existence. I have a morning routine that includes meditating, doing yoga and then the best part – drinking tea while getting online to read the Daily News, The New York Times and The Lanka Academic, then listen to online radio updates – this is the privilege of having access to the Internet.

It was not until my last year in the late 1990s, in high school that I became familiar with using the Internet. I even traveled to Senegal as a second year university student and had to write my family and friends mostly hand-written letters as the Internet and email were only commencing and not very reliable in 1998. Yet, as the years went by in university, communicating and doing research for school – or job-searching – I became increasingly reliant on the world wide web and began my journey towards computer literacy.

During my nine months in Sri Lanka, I used the Internet on a daily basis for my research and communicating with my family and friends – either across the globe in New York or across the street in Colombo.

I had the privilege of having access to Internet in Colombo and even when I lived with my host family whose home was walking distance (a long walk) to Wadduwa where there was an Internet café on Galle road. My life was certainly made easier by using the Internet to contact people, stay in touch, find out information for my research and even email articles to this newspaper’s editor from my village.

Especially when I returned to New York, I trusted the Internet to stay in touch with friends around the world, neighbors down the street, or the trusted readers of this column. I rely on it to communicate with a significant network of amazing people I have met in my travels to Sri Lanka, West Africa and Europe.

My dependency on—or even addiction to—this to this fountain of knowledge and communication was not always the case. In fact, even at my young age of late 20s, I do recall the days of life before the Internet and checking email. Growing up in New York City, we had access to computer classes in school, and my mother who is a university lecturer, always had one at home. My classmates and my early exposure to computers were limited to learning how to type and write documents for school. I do recall even feeling shocked at the ability of children younger than I to use the computer or create a website based on what they had learned in school.

This was not available to all children in America by any means during my time of going through school. Education Statistics Quarterly indicates that in 1993, 36% of classrooms in America had computers. However, that percentage has increased significantly in just over a decade. In 2000, it nearly doubled to 65%, and finally to 93% in 2003. While the condition of these resources is questionable, the significance of this presence must be accounted for.

In America today, only 50 % of adults use the Internet according to Pew Internet and American Life Project in comparison to a large percentage of young generations with lifelong exposure to computers. In America, nearly all sectors of business rely on computers and the Internet in some way. This gap of those with or without computer literacy has harsh impacts on those seeking to adapt to the technology – based modern world.

There is certainly a “digital divide” between generations, and particularly between class, ethnicity and rural versus urban America according to the Economics and Statistics Administration. For example, they cite a lower percentage of African American and Hispanic households having Internet access in their homes than compared to the national average. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004 reported 36 million people living in poverty, and of those, 12.9 million are children. These families living below the poverty line likely have to focus on survival rather than ensuring that their computer literacy. However, with the sudden increased use of computers in classrooms, will this gap in computer literacy eventually close? Will the presence of computers in schools of America really prevail and change the population as we know it?

Sri Lanka clearly faces a greater challenge with overwhelming gaps in percentages to face. When leaving Sri Lanka, I realized that I would be able to stay in touch through the Internet with only a few of my Sri Lankan friends I had become so close to. While several of my friends are among only the 9% of the country computer literate (according to the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics), many of them fall into the 81% that are not.

While I acknowledge that some information online can be useless, incorrect and often misused (such as messages that spread hatred, misinformation etc.), I believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages – enough to advocate the widespread use of the Internet and computer literacy on a global scale. The technology is surprisingly already present to address this issue with a wind-up powered 10,000 Rupee Laptop. The question is whether the funding for such a drastic change will ever arise and will the infrastructure of countries such as Sri Lanka be ready to equip its nations with the capacity to distribute and educate entire populations in a fair and efficient way?
Trusting Relationships Enables to be Honest and Sharing

They were coming! I would finally have the chance to show my two Sri Lankan classmates the hospitality and friendship in New York that they had shared with me in Sri Lanka. One of the blessings of having my university program in Sri Lanka end early was that my American school sponsored them to complete their studies at the U.S. campus. Our school is in Vermont – about an 8 hour drive north from where I live in New York City.

I had invited the two of them to the city and we finally coordinated a visit on a Friday morning. They had a friend in Staten Island, New York – and emailed me before hand to say they would be in town.

I was happy to see them – except, I tried to explain that Staten Island was not particularly close to my house nor a place that I visited often. You see, New York is divided into five boroughs (kind of like districts) and two of them are islands – Manhattan (where I live) and Staten Island. Manhattan is the central part of “the city” and is what mostly comes up in films. In fact, I often passed film crews or actors making movies on the corners of my neighborhood while growing up, and even saw one this morning.

While Manhattan is the only borough directly linked to all of the other four boroughs, it is often well-known that people who live in Manhattan don’t frequently visit the other boroughs. This is changing though – especially as the city becomes more populated, more expensive and native New Yorkers often search for a cool neighborhood that isn’t discovered by newcomers and tourists – or has lower costs than the over-priced Manhattan.

I emailed my friends explaining that I would be happy to pick them up, but if they felt comfortable, I could give them directions to my house – taking the ferry from Staten Island and then the subway (or underground train) to my house – an easy trip. They decided to meet me at my house – promising to call from a public phone when they arrived to my neighborhood.

I get terrible portable phone reception in my apartment. I have to keep my phone in just the right spot near the window in order for it to ring. I’m not certain what the cause is, but I heard a rumor that there are random spots in the city that are just known for bad reception – I must live in one of them.

I sat at my computer editing my application for the Young Professional Program at UNESCO. According to the mail service Federal Express, I was told I could mail it the next day to get it in on-time. I stepped outside onto the street to see if my friends had arrived – there they were! The last I had seen them was at a Big Girl party in Kalutura district on a hot rainy night a month earlier. They came inside and we drank some tea and had homemade banana bread. It was so great to see them there. I knew they had worked very hard that year and felt lucky to have an opportunity to study outside their country – as I felt upon arrival in Sri Lanka.

As we shared the latest news on life, I confessed something I had contemplated for days – what to feed them! Truth be told, I know my friends adore rice and curry – yet, in New York, there are so many options that you can’t get in Sri Lanka. I was torn between providing them with comfort food of rice and curry, or taking them to something different – like Italian! As I predicted, they told me I could decide and they would be happy. I wasn’t surprised, as this was the usual polite response I was used to in Sri Lanka (although, I trusted my friends were being genuine).

We made a list of things to do – and set off outside where it was warmer than usual for the time of year, at about 15 degrees Celsius, yet I could see we were all still adjusting. It was funny to see each other with sweaters, hats and warm coats – imagining a short time ago we were under umbrellas protecting us from the radiant sun of Sri Lanka.

We first walked around my neighborhood, Greenwich Village. It is not really a village, as it has its tall buildings and developed streets, but it can feel that way. My family is on the same street as they have been for the past 30 years, and I can’t go anywhere without seeing old friends and neighbors. In fact, we passed a few that I introduced to my Sri Lankan friends. New York has a population of eight million people, yet sometimes it can feel like a small village, especially when you have been there for so long.

Our first stop was for lunch – John’s Pizzeria, arguably the best pizza in New York. I know there are plenty of places to get pizza in Sri Lanka, but not the way it is served in New York – cooked in a brick oven, with fresh mozzarella, rich tomato sauce and thin, crisp bread. My friends liked it – enough to finish it all. Over the meal, one of them shared with me how they had gained five kilos since his arrival – I believed it! I had gained two. There are many theories as to why people gain weight when in America, personally, I think it’s a combination of preservatives in the food and the frequency that people eat since there is food available everywhere, all of the time.

From lunch, we got onto the subway (New York’s Metro/Underground) going south to visit “Ground Zero,” where the World Trade Center had been. My friends particularly liked the gallery of photos from the event – they were blown up and displayed along the metal fence that enclosed the enormous sight. The scene was filled with tourists and students there on class trips – most of them were from other states in America, although there were quite a few internationals as well. Since my last visit there two years ago, I noticed that the mood was less somber this time – although you could see people still paying their respects in contemplation.

Next visit was Grand Central Station – designed in 1913 and recently restored to its beautiful present condition. After walking through the main concourse and seeing the crowds heading onto trains that connect to the suburbs and neighboring states, we walked to the nearby United Nations building situated on the East river that flanks one side of Manhattan. Immediately we spotted the Sri Lankan flag and took plenty of photos to show for it. Exploring the lobby of the visitor’s center was as far as we got – the security line took a long time and it was almost sunset. I had one more spot I hoped to visit before heading out to meet friends for dinner and dancing – The Museum of Metropolitan Art.

On our way, we passed by a Federal Express – I decided to double check that I could send off my application to the United Nations the next day and have it arrive on time. According to the woman at the office, she said that was wrong, I had to send it out by 9pm that night! It was only 4pm, so I thought I had enough time to visit the museum, go home, print out the application and send it in the mail. I didn’t want to cut my friends visit short – there were already so many sights we would not see. I was determined to fit everything into the schedule.

As we approached the museum, I felt reminded of the countless times I spent exploring the hundreds of rooms as a child, teenager and adult. My friends were just as impressed with the beauty of the building and the art that awaited inside. The clock was ticking though as we strolled through the endless rooms of art from all over the world.

Finally, my phone rang – it was their friend from Staten Island. My friends offered to let me go home to take care of my application and they would pick up their friend and meet me at my house. I was hesitant – they had only spent one whole day in New York City, was it right to let them go on their own? I thought of all the times they helped me understand the Sri Lankan bus and train system and how they seemed like naturals guiding the NYC subways. I figured, if they can figure out transportation in Sri Lanka, then they can figure out anything. They reassured me they would be fine and sent me off running to get home in time.

The sun had set and the temperature dropped several degrees. I made it home in 30 minutes after a crowded train ride. Once I was home, I looked over my application one more time – working for UNESCO has been a dream of mine, I felt it was meant to be. I hit the print button and waited for my ancient printer to produce three copies of 20 page application. Nothing. I tried several times, various troubleshooting tactics and still nothing.
I live in a city where you can get any service at anytime – or so I thought. I would just walk to a print shop and then go to mail it. I arrived to Kinko’s known for its office resources and supplies and produced my mini-disk for them to print the application. They explained they didn’t have printers at that location, but if I took the subway to another one, they would have it there. The problem was that I was running out of time.

I thanked them and went out to the street and scanned the lively night scene of restaurants, shops, apartment buildings and sports clubs. I decided to ask at neighboring stores. People were mostly friendly – I tried several restaurants, finding out if they had a printer I could use. They smiled, listened to my story and told me they couldn’t help – then sent me to another place they thought that could help. My best friend Britt called – she was in my neighborhood and wanted to see how I was doing. I told her briefly what was going on and told her I’d call her back.

Three streets later, I passed the school where I spent ten years taking violin classes. The lights were on and the sign on the door said there was a children’s concert. I went inside and someone asked if I was there for the concert. I explained my story and asked from the bottom of my heart if they could help. The office manager agreed to do it! He printed two copies – just in case and wished me luck.

I ran down the street, turned the corner and made it to the Federal Express in time to send the copies. Someone tapped my shoulder – it was Britt. She and I laughed at the experience, especially since I told her how strange it felt to be in such a hurry after not being as focused on time while living in Sri Lanka.

We walked to my house and were met shortly after by my Sri Lankan friends. We met up with another friend of mine and debated what to eat again. There are so many choices; it is sometimes hard to choose. Finally, we decided to go to my favorite place close by – Kati Roll, for Indian fast food.

The next day, my friends had plans to visit the city more with their own friend. They got their things together as if they were leaving. I told them, not so fast – I was about to cook! Nothing fancy, just a classic American breakfast – strawberry pancakes and scrambled eggs. I added a lot of red pepper to the eggs to at least satiate the desire for spice that even I had acquired. I couldn’t offer them kiri bath or kiri hodi, but I had the feeling they enjoyed the meal.

Once we all finished, I bid farewell to my friends. There were so many other things to do and places to go to in New York – only one day was not enough. But they had their last day planned and I had plenty of school work to do.

As they left, I felt proud at the start of this year we were merely strangers yet now we had become such close friends. Our communication with one another is honest and genuine. Amongst us, there is no making a cultural mistake. Instead, we ask questions and respect one another when sharing our own views. Although we have different ways of approaching our daily lives based on our cultural upbringing, our trust in one another has broken the initial barriers. The trusting relationship that we have has helped us to be honest and learn from one another. I considered how the world would be different if everyone would take the time to do the same.

Memories of Sri Lanka
SAVORY: As soon as I walked into the room I was overcome by the savory aromas of curry and coconut. Memories associated with these scents that I have missed during the past six weeks back in my hometown, New York City rushed to the forefront of my mind.

I thought of all of the wonderful meals with lovely friends I had made while in Sri Lanka for nine months. I joined my New York friends who were waiting for me at the Sri Lankan restaurant in the East Village of New York City, Sigiri owned by Tanya De Silva and Mala Rajapakse.

I surveyed the room and saw three other groups already enjoying their meals of rice and curry. I heard murmurs of Sinhala and when I closed my eyes, I felt, just for a moment, that I had never left the beautiful island.

There were four of us at the table, three friends who had visited me and myself in Colombo this past April while I was living and studying there for my post-graduate degree in Sustainable Development. As we waited for our food to arrive, we shared memories of our trip fondly - our travels down the coast to Galle District, then up to Nuwara Eliya and time exploring Colombo.
As the conversation continued, I considered the transition I have made over the past month - all that I had left behind in Sri Lanka and the events in life since my return to New York. After spending time getting to know and love the culture and the people of Sri Lanka, leaving the country was not an easy thing to do.

The last time I wrote my reflections, I was getting ready to leave Sri Lanka with an unknown immediate future - other than finishing the work for my degree while living at home in New York. I had lived abroad several times before in Africa and Europe and each time returning to New York, transitioning from one culture to another was a challenging yet manageable experience.

Yet this time, returning to my native country was more difficult of a transition than ever - I found myself pining for Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was related to having to leave so abruptly.
Instead of staying through the end of December as planned, my university in America required me to leave with only two weeks notice since they were concerned for my safety in Colombo. Several of my American classmates challenged our school's decision and stayed behind - I was proud of them, yet I also wished I could have done the same. There were so many places I had yet to visit and things I had yet to do in Sri Lanka, it did not seem right at the time to have to go, but I knew there was a reason for my return.

I spent the month back in New York, happy to be with my friends and family, yet longing to still be in Sri Lanka. How had the country left such a strong impression on me? To be honest, it took several months for me to get used to the rhythm of Colombo and the village where my homestay was.

In New York, I enjoyed the respect and freedom of being a young woman with the ability to do things on my own without feeling judged. My initial experience in Sri Lanka took a lot of time and energy to adjust to, but once I got familiar with my surroundings, I felt a deep connection and respect for the country, its culture and its people.

When I first arrived in Colombo, I had the impression that being an academic woman in the country on my own to do research was somewhat looked down upon or questioned by Sri Lankans whom I met. Although the fact that I was a student was highly respected, the element of being a young woman on my own was not. I noticed that once I built relationships with people, they respected who I was - as I was also given the opportunity to learn what others' values were and did my best to show mutual respect.

For example, when I first arrived in the home of my host family in Kalutara district, they requested that I not go anywhere by myself. This seemed preposterous to me since my purpose was to conduct research and would require me to do things on my own, frequently.
Yet I understood that their intentions were good - they were only thinking of my safety and how I would be viewed by the rest of the village. After several days of getting to know the family, I slowly did more things on my own, always sure to tell them of my whereabouts.
Fortunately, there were other classmates located nearby in the village - three Americans and one Sri Lankan, so I was sure to make use of their company so my host family felt more comfortable. By the end of the year, a strong bond of trust had developed among all of us - they no longer asked what I did or tried to influence what I should do.

They would let me take the children with me for long walks on the beach or to a field to do yoga. In fact, I shared with them what I did anyway because I knew they trusted me and we loved and cared for one another.

In Colombo, I went through a different experience, which unfolded in three stages. In the first stage I felt very comfortable walking around and doing things on my own in the capital because, I think, I was more or less oblivious to what people were thinking. I ran errands on my own, would go to meet friends on my own without being aware of the looks of disapproval that came my way.

In the second stage, I suddenly felt very aware and self-conscious of what Sri Lankan men and women thought of me - whether it was doing things on my own, what I wore and how I interacted with others.

This stage particularly increased as I was learning more Sinhala and began to hear pieces of peoples' comments around me - wondering where I was from and what I was doing in Sri Lanka. I also recall being alone for the first time after nightfall, and all of the strange looks I received - it was not the experience I was expecting, as this is a respectable thing for a woman to do where I am from. I continued to try to be respectful of the culture, but the difficulty was that I was not fully aware of what the right thing to do was.

Finally, I came to the realisation that while I wanted to respect the various cultures in Sri Lanka, I also needed to be true to my own identity. Further, I recognized that there was no one right way to live life anyway. Just as in anywhere else in the world, there will always be people to criticize and support you. After taking the time to ask questions from trusted friends on what is culturally appropriate, it was apparent that continuing to be genuine was the best approach.
This mentality prompted me to explore Colombo on foot one day, even though I realized that a woman walking alone in Colombo for leisure was unusual and perhaps not respected by some. I heard from a friend the day after going for a Sunday stroll in Colombo - they told me that they saw me walking.

When I asked why they didn't say hello the response was, "well, I was with my parents, and you know...?" Indeed, I did know - their parents would not take well to a young woman walking the streets of Colombo unaccompanied.

I don't wish to make generalizations or say that there is something wrong with all of Sri Lankan mentality. I would only like to point out that I experienced these judgments towards young women to be true in some cases.

Although I did face challenges in getting adjusted to Sri Lanka, I mostly enjoyed the friendliness that was more evident and frequent than the presence of judging and mistreating others.
The genuine interactions amongst people, especially friends, always struck me as a quality to be grateful for during my time in Sri Lanka. My Sri Lankan colleagues and friends were endlessly generous, kind and most of all - accepting.

Although clearly I was an "outsider," it never ceased to amaze me at the welcoming that I experienced in peoples' lives and homes of those I met. For all of the physical beauty of the island, I believe it was the relationships with people that made it particularly hard to leave Sri Lanka.

Although it was disappointing to have to leave last September, there was a hidden blessing for me in having to go home. I was able to spend time with my aging maternal grandmother, "Nana," who had recently become ill.

I even spent the last hours of her life by her side - something I would not have been here to do if I had still been in Sri Lanka, as was the original plan. Other than helping my family care for my "Nana," I spent time working on my thesis, writing papers for my course work, doing yoga and reconnecting with all of the family and friends I had not seen in nearly a year. I explored the streets of my own city as though I was a tourist - as though I was seeing things for the first time.

A gust of cold wind blew into the restaurant to bring me back to the present - the waiter brought the four curries to our table and I immediately felt comforted by the familiarity of the meal. I savored the scrumptious tastes in my mouth with each bite.

The spices were delicious enough to want seconds and thirds - although not exactly as my host mother in Kalutara would make it. The four of us finished all of the food on the table - rice, curries and string hoppers. We couldn't resist sharing desert - Kiri, Watalappam and caramel pudding.

Americans tend to eat rather early, especially on a Monday like this one. By 10pm, we were the last ones in the restaurant. We struck up a conversation with the women from the restaurant, providing a chance to practice some Sinhala. We chatted about food, what we missed about Sri Lanka and how I had just learned of a Sri Lankan community of over 5,000 people in Staten Island, New York.

I noticed paintings on the wall and they seemed familiar. The women explained that the paintings were done by children who had survived the tsunami in Sri Lanka and they would be sold at an art auction directed by a university lecturer, Dr. Pamela Lawton. They showed me a sign with the information, and then I realized that by chance I had met Dr. Lawton and her American students while in Sri Lanka.

I took down the information and added the event to my planning book. I looked forward to surprising Dr. Lawton and her students, who thought I was still in Sri Lanka. I also heard it would be catered with Sri Lankan food, one more reason to look forward to attending.