Suddenly Singapore

14 May

So I spent several hours today exploring the Pearl of the Orient, Hong Kong. Thoroughly worn out and wearing a different shirt that wasn’t soaked with sweat, I got on the next flight. Instead of finding myself in Colombo, however, I’m in Sinagpore.

Go figure. You know how sometimes the airlines show you a “direct” flight, but it actually includes a layover where you don’t have to change planes? So I’m back in Singapore for the next hour, and recognizing that Changi Airport does a great job of including ferns and palms in every possible cranny, including in between the urinals in the men’s bathroom.

I had a pretty good tour of Hong Kong. The best part was the Airport Express train, a 25-minute ride from the international airport to Kowloon and Hong Kong. I was sitting by the window, my environment still illuminated by artificial light as it’s been for the past 24 hours. Suddenly, the train shot into bright daylight, and I gasped as beautiful views of lush, green hills above still blue waters filled my window.

Much of the Hong Kong territories is still untouched high green hills carpeted with tropical flora, just like how Kauai looks in my parents’ photos. Then the train approached Kowloon and the hills were replaced by hundreds of apartment buildings, straining vainly to meet the same heights as the jungle heights surrounding them. And then the famous Hong Kong skyline came into view; all those distinctive skyscrapers.

After a confusing walk through downtown Hong Kong, I took the funicular train to the top of Victoria Peak. I say funicular because all the printed and online literature I read up about Victoria Peak prior to the visit kept saying, “funicular train,” as if it is as common an adjective as “blue.”

Well, I just found out via Wikipedia what a funicular train is, and you should, too. Wikipedia: Funicular

That was a fun and steep ride, and the views atop Victoria Peak are really great. I saw the classic Hong Kong skyline, but not much more since it was a pretty hazy day (I really, really wanted to see as far as Shenzhen in mainland China), you know how it gets so cloudy in the horizon that the ocean melts into the sky and you can’t tell where the South China Sea begins?

After a hourlong nature walk around the Peak, I descended the mountain on foot (and have the shaky knees to prove it), stepping through the Mid-Levels and their famous escalator system, back into the Central district. I got lost for a hour trying to find a dim sum restaurant mentioned in the guide book, and when I found it, I realized I didn’t have enough time to eat and then return to the airport.

So ate at the airport I did, and some e-mails, and that was Hong Kong for me. I loved the hot, humid weather. The city is highly friendly to visitors, with colorful tourist signposts installed everywhere I turned. The people are interesting–everyone dresses Western style, and the stores are all high-end chain boutiques with English signs, so I didn’t feel very foreign. And that’s the problem with Hong Kong. It’s just another city, which means I have to be sure and work hard to see the interesting parts of it next month on my way back to America.

Now it’s on to Sri Lanka, for real this time!

An Exploration of Deaf Sri Lankan Identity

12 May

I’m sitting in the international terminal at LAX Airport, beneath a large information board titled DEPARTURES. There are four flights boarding; their destinations are Brisbane, Melbourne, Hong Kong, and Mexico City. Tahiti Nui #201 to Papeete is delayed; those who are on Asiana #203 to Seoul are out of luck because that flight has been cancelled.

The last flight for the day is Cathay Pacific #881 to Hong Kong leaving at 1:45 AM, with me in seat 33F. Then the departure area of the terminal sleeps for five hours, until the first two flights, headed to Mexico City and Guadalajara, take off at 7:00 AM.

Yesterday, I left a city and community that I was not ready at all to leave, and drove to San Diego with my friend Allison. I only had packed up my stuff the night before, so all afternoon today was focused on unpacking what I had brought down from San Francisco, and then repacking what I wanted to bring with me to Sri Lanka.

The funny thing was, I never really unpacked my Sri Lanka stuff from last year. I bought several of those Eagle Creek storage bags, and through the nine months I worked there, I stuffed them with various mementos and electronics.

And then they remained zippered for nearly a year…until today, as I furiously emptied them out, transferred some to Ziploc bags and others back into bags to reuse (such as electricity converters, a mini USB hard drive, sunscreen). I found my old journal and address book, and will just keep using them. I’m using the same camera, suitcase, and backpack; heck, some of the clothes are the same. In some ways, it’s almost as if I never left Sri Lanka.

But last year I was an English teacher. That was my job, among other duties. While I can reuse the same storage bags and miscellaneous objects, I can’t reuse my job.

Four weeks doesn’t lend itself well to teaching a third language to deaf children in a country where that language isn’t very visible in the environment or spoken by the populace. For all I know, they’ve completely forgotten everything I taught last year.

So I’ve been racking my brain and my friends’, trying to figure out my purpose for this second visit. I invented grand schemes and then dismissed those as being too paternalistic or colonialist. For a while, I seriously considered Sophie’s suggestion: be just a visitor with the aim of reconnecting to the children and friends. After all, they have not asked for my help yet.

But that didn’t feel right. While I’m aware that my very presence can make positive changes (by being a role model to the children, etc.), I felt that I had access to resources that I should somehow try to provide to the school and the deaf community. Other than the fact that I didn’t want a four-week tea break anyway, I also couldn’t brush aside the feeling that doing so would mean unconsciously taking advantage of my friends’ hospitality.

This morning, I opened up a package from my dear friend Amanda. Last year, she had collected an assortment of markers, stickers, and art supplies to send to me in Sri Lanka, but apparently the post office gave her a hard time with the customs forms to the point where she wasn’t sure her gift would arrive safely. So she just held onto it, knowing that I’d probably return one day soon. She was right, and she mailed the package to me to bring to Sri Lanka by hand.

I looked at the fun Crayola mini-markers and the bag of little colored foam stencils. And then, I don’t know why, but I figured it out.

I have been collecting this and that for the last few weeks. A book: Deaf Artists in America. Several DVDs of ASL storytelling from California School for the Deaf. A handheld camcorder and tripod from Lizzie, a friend who works in Gallaudet’s TV/Film department. Origami paper and instructions.

I didn’t know how to tie it all together. I imagined simply having random art and video activities after school to keep the kids busy and engaged. The least I could do, right?

But as my eyes searched the contents of Amanda’s package, I realized that the last eight months has been, in large, a consideration of my Deaf identity. What has been an almost unconscious journey of my deafness for a lifetime prior to living in the Bay Area has turned into a conscious investigation, both internal and external, of the world I live in, the Deaf community I am a member of, and how Deaf people, despite being marginalized and split into several fractions by cultural, medical, and economic forces, stubbornly continue to celebrate their sense of unity borne out of a collective experience, world view, and language.

90% of all Deaf people are born to hearing parents: in isolation from their potential Deaf brethen. And yet, this community exists. Is that not one of the greatest stories of humanity? What is this essence that connects Deaf people to each other, like moths attracted to a flame? What does it mean to be a Deaf person, to transcend the deafness pathology?

These are all powerful and fundamental questions; the exploration of these questions has been one of the most important things I’ve taken with me from my eight months in the Bay Area.

And it is this very journey of self-discovery that I hope to impart to the children at Rohana Special School. While these are some of the happiest kids I’ve ever seen, they still see their deafness as an affliction.

In the next four weeks, I hope to guide the children onto their journey of self-discovery, and consider what it means to be a Deaf Sri Lankan. Through art, education, group discussion, sign language analysis, music, storytelling, video recording, and dance, the children will explore every aspect of their Deaf identity.

In the end, they will understand that being Deaf is full of possibilities, not limitations.

I may not be the most qualified person to do it. I’m not sure what the end result or repercussions will be. I don’t know if a heightened sense of Deaf identity would help them get jobs or put food on their plates. I will need to be careful to make sure they do not develop a Deaf theory based on Deaf American principles, but rather their own.

But I know this much: intuition is powerful. The materials, knowledge, and experiences that I’ve collected haphazardly for the last several months do all have a common thread. They were all meant to work together as part of this new program that I’ve only just started to nurture in my mind. I’m astonished by how it’s all seemed to work out.

And once again, it is all about serendipity; the word derived from that island once known as Serendib and now my next destination, taking off at 1:45 AM.

The Everlasting Bloom

5 May

A tree that blooms forever? It sounds like one of Aesop’s fables, or a biblical parable: a tree that boasted its beautiful and fragrant flowers daily; the gods grew jealous and smote the vainglorious tree.

Or a tragic poem: “a tree that bloom’d forever/sadly, rested it did, never.”

My housemates and I hosted a big party last weekend; sort of a farewell party as I leave this wonderful community I’ve found here in San Francisco. More than fifty people came. My yoga teacher and class assistants presented me with a stupefyingly large bouquet of pink lilies. These flowers have filled my room with such a pleasant aroma, and I find myself staring at the petals, wondering how there could be so many at once, how they could release such fragrance, reveling in the beauty of the collected specimen of Lilium.

And it brings me back to the memory of the awesome Araliya tree in Sri Lanka.

During the first two months that I stayed with Nerissa and David at Pointe Sud, I’d come to the beautiful dinner table every night and find dozens of white flowers scattered on top of it, arranged in interesting patterns. Sometimes it was arranged in the shape of Sri Lanka. Other times it was tucked into napkins or floated on water in small cups. There was one night where Asanka and Siri went overboard and took a trunk from a banana plant, inserted candles in its various parts, and sprinkled Araliya petals all over. The effect was stunning.

After several days of seeing fresh white flowers everywhere in the house morning, afternoon, and night, I asked David where all these flowers came from.

“From that tree right outside.”

He led me to the Araliya tree near the fountain. A delightful specimen of Plumeria obtusa!

“Nihal and Gamini have to rake up all those flowers off the ground three times a day. That’s where all those white flowers come from.”

I asked him when was this tree’s flowering season.

“There isn’t one; it just blooms every day, forever.”

During my stay in Sri Lanka, I slowly realized that this wasn’t such an unique phenomenon in the country. I should have take note of how the children always had tiny purple, pink, and yellow flowers ready to offer to Lord Buddha every morning and night. They just pick them off the bushes around the edges of the school. But I didn’t notice, not for a long time until it all struck me one day–everything here blooms forever.

I remember a line from Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. It went something like this: “Spit on the dirt in Sri Lanka, and a bush will suddenly spring up.” Ceylon is in the tropics; perpetual lushness is everywhere.

But the Araliya tree at Pointe Sud was always my favorite. Dependable and charitable, it was happy to just receive its water from the sky and burst forth flowers all day, year round. How magical. I look forward to returning to that tree soon.

Sri Lanka Presentation at DCARA

2 May

Just ten more days before I return to Ceylon! But first, thanks to my dear friend Jim Brune, I’ll be giving a two-hour presentation on my experience in Sri Lanka next Tuesday, May 6, starting at 7:00pm.

It’s at the Deaf Community Center, 1550 San Leandro Blvd, San Leandro, CA. This event is hosted by Deaf Counseling, Advocacy, & Referral Agency (DCARA), which serves the San Francisco Bay Area.

I hope you’ll be able to make it!