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A New Direction

8 Sep

You’ll probably notice right away that something’s different with the website. There’s a new image on the top of the page (it’s a three-wheeler driving south on Galle Road in Hikkaduwa), and that’s not all.

Go to or click on “volunteering in sri lanka” on the top of this page and you’ll find a brand-new section about Found In Ceylon Experiences.

It’s my little project to help grease the tracks for people who are interested in volunteering at Rohana Special School. It’s exciting for two reasons: we’ve had great volunteers there and I want to make sure more keep coming into the picture, and it keeps me, in some way, stay connected with Sri Lanka.

I’ve been working on it for a while now and I’m really delighted to finally launch it. Go ahead and explore the pages! If you know someone who’d be a great volunteer, encourage him or her to visit this site.

At the same time, I’ve moved this entire blog section into its own /blog subdirectory, accessible anytime by typing or by clicking the “blog” link on the top of any page. There’s also a new archive section to make it a little easier to find older posts. RSS feeds still work; you don’t have to change a thing.

You also might’ve noticed the Google ads on the right side. I’m using some new stuff to power the volunteer section which costs money, so I’m hoping those ads will offset the cost.

Also, if you’ve been subscribing to this blog via e-mail, and for any reason you don’t want to anymore, there’s an unsubscribe box on the right side (scroll down if you don’t see it).

And last, well, this has been a blog that is all about my experience in Sri Lanka. And clearly, I’m not in Sri Lanka anymore. But I don’t want to abandon this site and start up a new blog, so instead, I’m going to start including stuff that have nothing to do with Sri Lanka. I was doing that on other websites long before I started up this website one year ago, and I’m looking forward to doing it again. (edit: My plan was to turn this blog into a general blog and write about non-Sri Lankan stuff, but it just didn’t work. So this blog remains about Sri Lanka, and I’ve started up a separate blog at Found in Blank.)

I hope you’ll stick around. And if you do, I’d like to say “ayubowan” to a new website!

The ILY Sign

19 Aug

Leah and I were standing in one of Miami’s Metrorail cars, waiting impatiently behind the closed doors as the train pulled into Government Center Station. Moments before the doors opened, I felt a hand brush against my back. It existed in that nether land between an accidental swing of the wrist and an intentional tap, but I heeded the signal and looked over at Leah on my right.

She glanced straight ahead and then put her head down. Huh. Maybe she’ll tell me later, I thought, and I looked again at the doors which stubbornly wouldn’t open.

Then the hand touched my back again, a bit more forcefully.

I looked over behind me, and saw a short middle-aged man wearing a dark blue cap and a gray mustache. He put up his left hand, forming the I-Love-You handshape. And then with a slight look of all-encompassing adoration in his eyes, he clearly enunciated, “I love you,” and smiled.

Then the doors finally opened.

Freaked out beyond imagination, I walked straight out, putting as much distance between me and my unrequited lover as soon as I could; a couple escalators later, I asked Leah if he was still behind us. He wasn’t.

Delusional proclamations of love notwithstanding, the public usage of the “ILY” sign among American deaf people appears to have changed in the past decade or so.

I remember watching a video of the 1988 Gallaudet DPN protest. There was a march to Capitol Hill, full of hundreds of goofy-looking deaf people (It was the Eighties, ok? Everyone looked goofy then.) proudly waving the “ILY” sign to the nation. Taken literally, those deaf people might as well as be screaming “I LOVE YOU!” over and over to the news cameras.

Watching this almost twenty years later made my skin crawl. Why should deaf people be represented by such a sappy expression? Why should the international deaf symbol translate directly to “I love you!”? It appears, well, childish. More (dare I say it) grassroots Deaf instead of educated Deaf? There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Deafness, nothing wrong with placing an deaf pride sticker on your car’s rear bumper. But does it have to be that sign, that message?

Can’t we come up with a bolder symbol to represent deaf people, and use the ILY sign for times when we actually mean it, like when Leah and I said good-bye to each other a few days later in Ft. Lauderdale Airport or when my parents say good night to me?

Back in Sri Lanka, the ILY sign represented just that–and more. I’m not entirely sure how the ILY sign made it to Sri Lanka, but it was used abundantly among the Rohana Special School children as well as the deaf adults around Matara. And heck, by every deaf person I met between Katunayake and Kataragama.

Chamali and Chintha.

The boys!

Sandya, Chamali, and Hasanthi.

Back: Adam, Ruwan, Ginette, Sanjeewa, Supun. Front: Nishan, Priyankara, Sudath, Shans Ahamed, Rajitha, Gayan, Fiona.

I don’t know, just looking at these pictures, the children screaming “I LOVE YOU,” I really feel it. I feel the love, man. The deaf Sri Lankans act more freely about love. Boys and girls who have coupled up at school go to great lengths to profess their love for each other without cluing in the matrons or teachers (but I’m sure this happens worldwide, too).

When someone holds up the ILY sign, I really feel they’re saying, “Hey, Adam, I really love you.”

Don’t get me wrong. This is still true in America as well. My parents using the ILY sign to me isn’t less meaningful. It’s the public usage of this symbol to represent the deaf community that bothers me.

However, in Sri Lanka, the ILY sign, when publicly displayed, identifies the signer’s deafness. This particular usage doesn’t seem common among American deaf people.

I remember one Sunday–the day Sophie arrived–when a bunch of us went into the sea at Polhena. This is a popular beach location, especially on Sundays. After splashing around with friends, I climbed out and went to talk with Ginette and Sophie who had opted to sit on the sand. When I started back towards the water, I saw a hundred Sri Lankan men and women jostling around in the shallow water.

For the life of me, I couldn’t pick out Amila, Ajith, Naushan, or Lakmal among all of the other beach-goers. To make it worse, strange men started waving at me, motioning me to come play with them. I couldn’t find anyone I knew in the water until I spotted an ILY sign being waved around. It was Amila trying to get my attention, and it worked.

When I swam up to them, I asked why they had used the ILY sign. Amila explained that it’s the best way for a deaf person to find another deaf person. With everyone else just waving open hands, using the ILY sign is saying, “The deaf people–your friends–are over here!” How ingenious. In the months that followed, I saw the ILY sign being used in the same manner many times among both the children and adults.

I’m surprised American deaf people haven’t picked up on this usage. There’s so many times I’d have loved my friends to just wave the ILY sign when standing in the middle of a crowd, making it easy for me to find them.

But it means so much more than a homing beacon. It’s a way of saying that you and I are the same. We’re both deaf, and we’re looking for each other. Nobody else–only us–knows what it’s like. Come and find us.

So have I created a double standard here? That it’s icky for American deaf people to just wave the ILY sign in front of news cameras, but it’s heart-melting for South Asian children to do it for the digital camera?

Maybe. And maybe I should do something about that–grudgingly accept the international symbol of deaf culture–but not right now. I’m too content to review pictures of endless ILYs–the exquisite blending of the I, L, and Y handshapes–being thrown around like the genuine, essential messages of love which they are.

Karuna’s Culinary Wisdom

7 Aug

During our April break, Ginette and I took a brief holiday in Unawatuna, the touristy town set on a lovely beach just a few kilometers from Galle. Right across from the access road to our hotel was a sign advertising “Karuna’s Cooking Class.” Thanks to the New Year festivities, we had eaten our fill of amazing Sinhalese meals and, upon finding out its price of just 2,500 rupees per person, we decided we’d take her class come next month.

As circumstances would have it, our interest swelled to include five participants–all fellow volunteers in Matara clamoring to partake in the dissemination of the local cuisine–and then collapsed down to just me as everyone else fled for a day on the beach instead of in the kitchen. On the day of our class, I strolled over to Karuna’s kitchen and found a large German woman (by then, all Westerners looked large to me) who would be joining me for the class.

Karuna took us to the Galle market to buy the fruits, vegetables, and herbs we’d need. On the list was brinjal, pumpkins, beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, curry leaves, and more.

On the road back to Unawatuna (because this road ultimately led to Matara, it was called Matara Road), we stopped at one of the many fish shacks that littered the ocean side. Karuna swiftly selected a fine slice of tuna for our fish curry.

We then proceeded to cook kokis and wellawahum, two popular teatime snacks. While we sipped our tea, consuming our creations, Karuna explained to us what exactly goes into curry powder. Then it was time to chop and stew and make seven curries (including dhaal).

By mid-afternoon, we had produced pumpkin curry, bean curry, carrot curry, pineapple curry, fish curry, fried brinjal curry, and dhaal. I was given the rest of the afternoon off to grab some sun and lead our small entourage of now-well-tanned volunteers–Ginette, Sophie, Vivian, and Denise–back to Karuna’s kitchen for dinner.

All was consumed within the half-hour. I also took the opportunity to teach Karuna some sign language before we bade her farewell.

Fast forward two and a half month later and 16,000 kilometers away in San Diego. Liz decided that on my second night back in the United States, the two of us would cook an authentic Sri Lankan dinner for the family using Karuna’s recipes. The search for exotic ingredients led us to our local Ralphs as well as the Little India shopping center in Miramar, a slice of Bollywood bumping up against a Marine Corps air base.

A few hours later, Liz and I had created a four-curry (plus papadam and lunumuris!) dinner for my parents, and there was no tempering down of the famous South Asian spiciness for my parents’ tough palates. We washed our hands, grabbed our plates, slapped red rice on them, and poured each curry onto the rice bed.

My family dug in right away with their fingers, squashing and mixing and throwing morsels into their mouths. There were few moments where I was more proud of my family than I was during that dinner. It really meant a lot to me to have them accept so completely an artifact that had been an essential part of my life for nine months–the fiery rice and curry dish.

Fortunately, you can do the same thing because I’ve finally typed up the handwritten recipe book I made during Karuna’s class. It’s actually more for Liz than anyone else, but if you’d like to try out a curry dish, here’s the 11-page cookbook. Cook away!

The Queen Of Fruit

25 Jul

“When ripe the [mangosteen] fruit is as delicate and agreeably sweet as the finest lansehs and may even be mistaken for ripe grapes. It is at the same time so juicy, that many people can never eat enough of it, so delicious is its fragrance and agreeable its sweetness; and it is believed that the sick, when appetite or the power of eating has wholly gone, are nevertheless delighted with this fruit; or at least if they will not take to Mangosteens their case is indeed hopeless.”

–Georgius Everhardus Rumphius, Dutch Governor of Amboyna (1628-1702)

Virtually unseen and untasted by Westerners, the mangosteen enjoys a prominent role in a possibly apocryphal story involving Queen Victoria and a substantial reward to anyone who was able to bring back an intact mangosteen to London. Unfortunately her gustatory wishes went unfulfilled.

I was determined not to end up like Queen Victoria.

Many people close to me will know that a large part of my journey to Sri Lanka was the search for the almighty mangosteen, known as “The Queen of Fruit.” As soon as I arrived last September, I immediately asked around for the mangosteen.

“Sorry, it won’t be around until next April,” they all said. But at least once every single month, I’d inquire about the mangosteen. Maybe there was an early harvest? I kept fearing some sort of meteorological calamity which would destroy the entire 2007 mangosteen harvest and leave my dreams unrealized.

Then suddenly one night at the end of May during a bongo drum party in Polhena, Vivian said, “Oh, I just bought a couple mangosteens at the market today. They’re good!”

I already had a few too many beers by then, and as I stumbled to Sophie’s room to pass out, I vaguely remember eating one or two white wedges of mangosteen flesh and tasting its famed flavour. It is often described as a creamy combination of vanilla, strawberry, and peach.

However, the children at Rohana knew I had been waiting for mangosteens, and one student, Champika, kept telling me that she had several mangosteen trees at her home and would bring me some the first chance she had.

Well, the first chance she had–about a week after my first taste–she gave me a plastic bag with black and white stripes, containing six mangosteens. This is what happened:

I ate at least two dozen mangosteens between the end of May and when I left at the end of June. I was so sure it did not exist outside of Sri Lanka that I bought a bag of six mangosteens to take with me on the flight so friends in Thailand–Bobby and Jenny–could taste them.

Now I know that mangosteen trees thrive in many tropical areas around the Indian Ocean–Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines. Attempts to cultivate them in Hawaii, California, and Florida, however, failed spectacularly, and due to fears of the Asian fruit fly, any mangosteen imports from Asia were banned by the FDA.

Until yesterday. As of 23 July, irradiated mangosteens will be allowed from Thailand, so you may get to eat your first mangosteen next summer. Irradiated, but free of fruit flies.