That F.O.B. Feeling

22 Jun

About a month ago, I was invited via text messaging to Manjula’s son’s first birthday. Manjula is someone who’s tried to be friends with me since last September, but I kept avoiding him, mainly because everyone else told me he was bad news. But as the months went by, I slowly came to see that he really wasn’t such a bad person.

And besides, in Sri Lanka, everyone is someone else’s bad news, honestly!

And so, when he asked me to come to his home on 18 June in the evening, I said sure. Per Sri Lankan custom whenever you are visiting someone’s home, you are required to bring either cake, biscuits, milk and sugar, or a combination of those three. And because it was a birthday party, I picked out three lovely little plastic wind-up ducks with faux feathers. It’s crap that I would have never bought back in America, but with either hot-rod cars or little ducks to choose from in the tiny toy store down the road from the school, I opted for the ducks. Boys don’t play with cars until they’re at least two or three years old, right?

And this is Sri Lanka, so they’ll probably lock up those plastic toys in a glass cabinet along with other plastic toys, stuffed dolls and glass teacups, never to be touched or played with for time immemorial. So I put them in the customary brown bag–gifts are not wrapped in colorful paper but instead presented in either the shopping bag from the store it was purchased at, or in a brown paper bag with the open end stapled together.

When I pulled up to Manjula’s home–it’s actually his wife’s parents’ home, above the general store they own–Munsif and Pradeep were sitting out on the balcony overlooking Hakmana Road, and they waved me into the building. I walked into the main living room and right away, I got this vibe. Something was different.

Maybe it was the metallic foil streamers, taped to the walls, with multicolor “Happy Birthday” printed on them. Maybe it was the Olympus 35mm SLR camera the father (or was he the uncle? Or the father-in-law?) was using to snap shots of the birthday boy? Or was it the Sony camcorder one of the younger men was toying with? Or the souvenir artwork depicting famous San Francisco landmarks?

Then I met Manjula’s wife, Eradhi. Something was off about her. She looked as animated as any Sri Lankan woman, but in a different way. Her shirt didn’t look local, and her flowery skirt reached above her knees. Manjula told her, “This is my friend from America, the one I was telling you about.”

Eradhi signed back to me, “America! I have an older brother and two sisters who live in California, and I grew up in England for a few years myself!”

I looked down at the paper plates and cups that had just been handed out, with one slice of yellow cake on each. The plates and cups were wildly colored with balloons and “Happy Birthday”–you know, standard Western fare.

Munsif gaped at the plates, “I’ve never seen such beautiful plates. And I’ve never seen paper plates before.” He turned to me and asked, “You think I could take one home?”

Eradhi explained to me then that those plates and cups, along with the metallic streamers and the balloons with “WWF” printed on them, were all from America. Her relatives brought them over to Sri Lanka during their last visit.

“So why are you living in Sri Lanka,” I asked Eradhi.

“Because I like and love Sri Lanka more than England or America. Now go try my homemade cake.”

I ate it, and it tasted almost just like a Western cake, not the artificial-tasting cakes with funky icing so common here (although I’ve started to like them–it’s an acquired taste).

“Hey, this is a really good cake!” I told Eradhi.

“Yes, my older sister, that one in America, she taught me the recipe.”

Munsif, who has a good eye for shirts from his job as foreman and shirt designer in the Vogue Garments shirt factory down on Kumaratunga Mawatha, pointed at Eradhi’s shirt and asked, “That’s not from Sri Lanka, is it?”

“Nope, got it from my family in America.”

I asked her if I could look at the label to make sure. She said sure, so I checked. Wet Seal. “Yep, it’s a genuine American brand,” I told Munsif.

“How much do you think it was?” he asked.

“Probably 2,000 rupees.”

“Ooooh.” This is a country where women’s shirts at the high-end stores in Matara cost less than 500 rupees.

The rest of the party proceeded smoothly except for that part where I got a little sick from eating my first beef–as in cow beef–in months, and where I momentarily expressed shock at the sight of men and women shakin’ their stuff together to four large speakers blasting music–American, presumably.

However, as I watched people after people hand Manjula and Eradhi large gift boxes wrapped with colorful gift paper, I slowly grew uneasy. Surely they expected a lot more from their esteemed American visitor than three plastic ducks in a brown paper bag? And surely the owner of a general store doesn’t need more milk and sugar?

I was feeling very much like the tables were turned here–that I was the Sri Lankan and they were the Westerners. They barely wagged their heads, even!

I confided in Munsif my gift-envy anxiety and he told me not to worry–how was I supposed to know? I’m still learning, he said.

There is a phrase–often pejorative–used in South Asian circles to describe recent immigrants who haven’t yet acclimatized to Western culture. “Fresh Off the Boat,” or “FOB” for short. Examples of a FOB would be someone who still eats with her fingers, wags his head, or stares at white people–you get the idea.

And I’m starting to wonder if I’ll have my FOB phase for a while.

Last Sunday, a few of us visited the Kudawella Blowhole over near Dickwella. It’s a popular place for foreigners to make a quick stop on their way during their tours around Hambantota District. The churning sea pushes water up a narrow channel and every once in a while it’ll blow through a hole on the top.

While we were sitting on the rocks, admiring the views and awaiting the next water feature, I looked over and saw a white couple sitting across from the crevice, eating their box lunches with both hands. I repeat, both hands. The sight of it was so strange that I had to watch them for a while, turning away oh so occasionally so they wouldn’t suspect something.

I really had forgot that one could eat with both hands, something I’d do every day back home.

And then, of course, I couldn’t resist but poke Amila sitting next to me and say, “Look! They’re eating with both hands!”

“Yes, foreigners, they know nothing,” he scoffed.

I laughed, agreeing wholeheartedly.

6 Responses to “That F.O.B. Feeling”

  1. sasha ponappa 23. Jun, 2007 at 6:09 am #


    oh lord.. so you’re a FOB now, hmm? LOVELY! now I have someone who I can share my FOB antics with. just yesterday someone accused me of shaking my head in one too many directions, and I just couldnt explain it. it would be soooo good to have you home, and we need to eat at an indian/sri lankan resturant (although theres nothing like authentic homemade food) and swap tales.

    as always.. its a JOY to read your blog.


  2. Marilyn 24. Jun, 2007 at 4:53 am #

    I’m an FOB everywhere I go. Mickey uses the term “You think I just got off the turnip truck.” That must be a OTT…
    Thanks for another great story…I’m looking forward to seeing pictures and hearing so much more. We’re looking forward to your homecoming.
    See you soon.

  3. clare allen 24. Jun, 2007 at 6:49 am #

    As always a joy to get your updates!
    Your stories make me laugh out loud. Conversely some of your observations often re-inforce my sense of exasperation. The toys, books etc. in glass cabinets did it for me this time!!! Why, why, why??
    Thanks again.
    Much love,

    Were the photos OK?

  4. Jim 24. Jun, 2007 at 10:21 am #

    Adam: Good call on the ducks–cars are definitely for the toddler-types!

    Wow, I can’t believe you are leaving tomorrow–I haven’t blogged in quite a while, always thinking there would be the next one and I would then (need to follow Ginette’s example of Abraham Lincoln’s advise not to put off until tomorrow what you can accomplish today!

    We all are seeing that your incredible journey and our large picture window–thanks to you–into your experiences in Sri Lanka are closing. But as Liz noted this journey–and I use that term not only becasue you lietrally have traveled half-way ’round the world and throughout Sri Lanka but also because the inner journey you’ve been on has been so evident, and affecting and beautiful–will be a gift that continues to unwrap itself throughout your life.

    I think you have lived deeply and contributed profoundly! The wonderful positive changes at your school sound amazing and will continue to make an impact and be effective for quite awhile. That’s “bricks and mortar”, important stuff to be sure, but I’m certain they don’t approach the intangible impact you’ve had on your students and everyone with whom you’ve had a chance to spend”quality time.” Time is one very limted resource, and we are so proud of how much you have given, happy that you have recived so much in return.

    We love all that you do and you are. Safe travels back!

    Uncle Jim, Peg and the boyz

  5. Shilpa 25. Jun, 2007 at 5:33 am #

    Adam… Adam… Adam… ((shaking head))

    words don’t do justice here but i can’t even mention how much i’ve enjoyed reading all of your blogs these past couple months… just going through your blogs makes me extremely proud to be an Indian deaf woman myself. and it also makes me proud of how you’ve really tapped into the Sri Lankan culture so well.

    i still have your postcard on my fridge… and everytime i see Dasani, i still think of you. i can’t wait to hug your neck soon! i can’t wait to sit down with you and watch you relay some stories in ASL for hours. i really can’t wait…


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