The Observer Effect, Among Others

1 Jun

The thought has crossed my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t visit Sri Lanka anymore after this trip. Perhaps it’s just a temporary feeling of moroseness brought on by the clouds and torrential rains that have pounded Matara the past three days, but there are real issues at work here, both personal and social.

First: There seems to be a faint, undercurrent of sadness surrounding my trip here. The first question I’m asked when I meet with somebody is “When are you leaving?” And I tell them, “The 9th of June.” And it’s the same thing again and again with everybody; my name might as well as be, “Adam June Nine.” As soon as I’ve arrived, I’m already leaving, one foot on the plane. Other than myself, no one seems more aware of this than the school boys.

Last Saturday at the school ended weirdly. I had finished interpreting Ratatouille for the children at around 6:00. Evening prayers are around that time, so I told them to assemble outside. We waited for about twenty minutes for Damayanthi to finish a meeting with some visitor, and it was growing dark. A queer feeling came over me; it was that damp, dark evening of June 23, 2007 all over again and I was about to leave them after nine remarkable months.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. After prayers, Prasanna walked alongside me back to the dining hall, and said, “It’s so sad, you’re leaving us now.” I shook my head and looked at at him as to say, “But I’m not…not today.”

“No worries, I know. I’m just kidding,” he said, and walked away.

I didn’t think it was funny; it was unpleasant to have him articulate exactly what I was feeling. Nishan walked past me, saying, “Sad, sad.” And my throat got caught; I felt I was truly leaving them, a group of children whom I absolutely love to death.

Nishantha came soon after and spirited me away from that whole cloud of sadness and parting that was engulfing me at the school, and my thoughts shifted to considering the all-night monk chanting I had ahead of me at Mr. Abeygunawardana’s house blessing.

But still, everywhere I go, it is the same. A month is so short, and I’m not sure if I could do this again. It doesn’t seem fair to anybody, especially the children.

Second: it’s on this trip that I’ve grown acutely aware of “the observer effect” that vexes anthropologists and ethnographers worldwide. It’s when things change because there’s an observer around.

I had a very long talk with Lakmal today while we were waiting out the afternoon rains. The last few times I’ve seen him, he has brought with a group of friends which would include Amila, Naushan, Munsif, and/or Sishan. Those are the same men with whom Ginette and I enjoyed our ocmpany immensely our last two months in Sri Lanka, and I left the country feeling good that Lakmal had made some friends. He didn’t seem to have that many, other than Amila, when I first arrived.

Lakmal and I were recalling the free coffee give-away that the deaf association had set up for the second night of Wesak, and how fun it was to talk with so many deaf people assembled in one place. A thought came to me, and I asked him if he hung out with those men when I wasn’t there.

He said not really. I was surprised and told him I thought they were all good friends. I see them together all the time and have raucous chats. His explanation was essentially that my presence–the white deaf American!–brought them together, but that was it. His life was that he worked during the week and on the weekends he would maybe get together with Amila and Naushan, but not really anyone else.

Things change when I visit, and they go back to normal when I leave. I don’t know, but that just feels wrong and I’m observing an alter reality, personalized expressly for me, and that it all vanishes the moment the plane takes off from the runway at Katunayake. Holodeck, end program. What other observer effects exist here that I haven’t noticed yet? It’s disheartening.

Third: there is this impact that I make on others via either my presence or my intentional actions. When you leave for one year and then come back, you’re able to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

I suppose that in America, a child has so many influences, so many models that it’s difficult to separate each one and determine the extent of change affected by each. It seems a lot easier to do this in Sri Lanka, however. There is a before and an after. Before white people, after white people. Although that isn’t really accurate anymore; non-white people like Indrajit, Nadia, or Mala have made their mark. So let’s say before foreigners, after foreigners (besides, the Sri Lankan sign for foreigner is also the sign for light-skinnedness, so I’ve fallen in the trap of equating both concepts!).

I don’t doubt for one moment that what we have all done at Rohana has been nothing short of a miracle. Rohana Special School ranked second in O/L test results among all the deaf schools in Sri Lanka, right before St. Joseph’s School in Ragama. It remains the only school to have any alumnus currently in university, and it has two. The teachers continue to grow ever more interested in sign language, and have been vocal about their desire for individual copies of the official national dictionary. Deep issues continue to exist with the hostels, but in contrast to last year, these issues now feel resolvable.

I like to think that there are three types of impacts you make. The impacts you try to effect, and succeed. The impacts you try to make, but don’t happen. And the impacts you didn’t intend to effect in the first place. Let me offer examples of each.

The first is Amila. David plucked him out of his 2005 graduating class and quickly determined that he would become Sri Lanka’s first deaf computer instructor. And now, less than three years later, he is just exactly that. He works harder than anybody I know to support his family and achieve his dreams, and I’m grateful we’ve been able to give him so much support on the way.

The second is one boy, Priyankara. Easily one of the favorites of every volunteer at Rohana, he’s an independent and outgoing but sensitive boy with great artistic talent, good study skills, and a mean bowling hand. Yet, he kept saying to me he wanted to leave school early and go work somewhere, earn a living. I always told him he should stay through Grade 11 and take the O/Ls. Look at Rohana, I cried, isn’t it such a great place to be in now? Great hostels and classes and foreigners here all the time.

Despite all my imploring, he did leave school two years early and now works at a bike factory in Panadura. I’m sad he didn’t listen to me, and i hope he’s okay and happy–I thought about visiting him but I don’t really have the time.

As for the third type, let’s go back to Lakmal. Really, I could write a whole website on that guy. He’s one of my best buddies here, and he has made great friends with just about every volunteer that comes through this part of the world.

After he took the O/Ls in December 2006 and left the school along with six others, it was time for him to get started on adulthood and find a job. The problem was, somehow he had gotten this idea that we foreigners would find a job for him, probably as an advertising model. And so he waited, spurning the deaf association’s offers of help, saying that Mr. David would give him a job.

Finally, in late May, Ginette, Sophie, and I sat him down with the deaf association, and he started on his path to gainful employment. His first placement was as a carpenter or something, and he left it pretty quickly after because of “problems.”

One year later, I come back, and he’s secure in his job as a furniture assembler at the Damro/Evero factory, a position which the deaf association found for him many months ago, and everything is going just fine.

And today, as we were sitting in his living room, I looked at him and wondered, what if we had never come? What if we had all instead gone to help some parochial school in northern Mozambique? What of Lakmal, then? Would he have gotten his job that much sooner without that five-month delay because he had thought we’d give him a job? He is doing exactly what he’d have done anyway without our intervention.

And that’s just one person. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been affected by what we have been doing at the school. It’s an awesome responsibility. What are the changes, the effects we are blind to because we’re foreigners and don’t speak Sinhala and retreat to our private guesthouse world at night and live many worlds and cultures away? I know I’ve made some mistakes, but are there other mistakes that I haven’t even realized? It’s scary and staggering, and it makes me want to stop coming here, both out of sheer fear and out of ethnographic respect for everything Sri Lankan.

And then finally the fourth point. And with apologies to Lakmal, but I will once again use him to illustrate this. The reason why I was over at his house today was because his mother invited me over for lunch. I’m used to this by now; all these free meals in homes all over Sri Lanka because I’m a visitor.

He met me at my guesthouse and we rode to his home, with me sitting on his bicycle frame between the seat and the handles while he pedaled, like so many others do in Sri Lanka. After the hearty meal, we were sitting in the plastic chairs, digesting rice and fish curry when his mother handed him a folded-up piece of paper. He opened it up; it was all in English and he had no idea what it said.

He handed it to me. After just one glance, I knew what it was–a letter for help. I’ve read this before and know the format by heart now. I looked at the bottom and saw his name on the signature line, Asanka Lakmal.

“Do you realize your name is on this letter?” I asked him. He didn’t have a clue this even existed, and it bothered me that his parents were using him to get to me.

The letter asked for some sort of assistance–what kind, it didn’t say, but very likely financial–so Lakmal could build his house on a plot of land that had been donated to him by the head monk at his temple. That part, I knew; the parents had argued that he shouldn’t live near the sea because he couldn’t hear the next tsunami, whenever that may be, rush in, so the temple gave him some land further inland. And he had told me earlier before the meal that his parents were placing enormous pressure on him to deliver–somehow–so they could get started on construction. He had been asking me minor questions about whether I thought he could work overseas, probably in the Middle East like thousands of other Sri Lankans.

Another angle to this situation which irritated me is that Lakmal has an older brother who’s way more educated, a graduate of Rahula College, the best school in Matara, and knows some English. He could get a job easily and probably make way more money, so why were Lakmal’s parents expecting Lakmal to bring home the bacon instead of his older, more capable brother? Was it because Lakmal had foreigner friends and the parents wished for him to use those connections?

Besides, why now? Building a home takes years and years anyway as the owners save up enough money for one construction phase (say, the floor), pay for it and get it done, then start saving money again for the next (perhaps the roof).

But as always, I couldn’t be upset when I read the letter for help. I can’t be; instead, I always feel impotent. Impotent because I don’t know anything about American work visa rules, Sri Lankan hospitals, or the South Asian charity/aid infrastructure.

I’ve been asked to pay for cochlear implant operations for deaf children and for Samantha, pay for a life-saving chemotherapy treatment for a Rohana pupil’s mother with end-stage breast cancer, or help a married couple get a visit visa to the United States.

And the worst part is, when it involves money, it is usually within my means to pay. The blueprints for Lakmal’s house showed that it would cost about $10,000 altogether to build (a bargain!); the chemotherapy would have cost $6,000. I could perhaps liquidate everything I owned–this laptop, the car, my investments and CDs, and pay for one or the other.

But this, of course, isn’t the right answer. But why isn’t it the right answer? What’s so wrong about giving someone a home or making sure a child gets to keep his mother? There is another answer–raise money! But I simply don’t have the energy for that, not for fundraising. It never has been my thing.

I talked about this with Nerissa many times last year. She said it is a terrible responsibility, like playing God. Do you pay for one person’s medical treatment or provide a daily breakfast for 500 children? Do you just give a family some money, or instead spend the time and energy to train one of them in a sustainable occupation? I don’t know how she or David does it, and I only hope that one day I’ll have the same energy and courage to do the same wonderful things they’ve done to rebuild the entire village below their estate or rehabilitate Rohana Special School.

But there’s another dimension to this whole dilemma. It’s that my Sri Lankan friends are so hospitable to me. I ride on their bicycles and eat their food. They take the time to make sure I understand, and lead me all around their lives. Just today, if it wasn’t for the rainy day, I’d have been floating on a boat down the river with four other deaf men, felling birds with rocks and slingshots. But we didn’t, much to the birds’ relief, and we chatted about how Muslims eat at special occasions–six of them, and only six, sit around eating off a very large plate. When I told Munsif I really wanted to try that out, he immediately offered me an invitation to his home next Saturday to experience just that, and another gesture of friendship was had.

I get so many of these gestures. Their hospitality is overwhelming, and I feel what whatever I have to offer back is so grossly inadequate in comparison. They open their homes to me and show me all around the country; all I can give back is perhaps a meal at my hostel or a few boxes of biscuits.

And then there’s this gross inequality between our lives. I go back and live in America; they remain in Matara. What do they get in return?

I explained all this and presented that question to Lakmal. He said, “So that when we visit you, you’ll help us like we’ve helped you, of course.”

(Dear readers, by now, I’m talking about my relationships with adult Deaf in Matara; I do recognize that I do contribute to the school so I’m not worried about that. It’s more of who gets out of what in my interactions with my adults friends in Sri Lanka)

I said back, “But honestly, you know there’s almost no chance you guys are going to visit me in America.” And what went unsaid here was, “And I’m not paying for you to visit me.”

But why shouldn’t I? It’s certainly within my means, isn’t it? This brand-new laptop I’m using right now is worth about one and a half roundtrip flights between California and Colombo.

Then Lakmal explained that when he was thinking about working overseas, he asked the deaf association for guidance. They said no; it was their policy to not help deaf people leave Sri Lanka for work, or every deaf person would be asking them for help. It would have to be an individual effort One reasoning behind this was that deaf people from other countries were certainly able to visit Sri Lanka; why couldn’t deaf Sri Lankans do the same on their own?

I shot back that it was a grossly unfair comparison and that we deaf foreigners have way more resources–government assistance and free university education and strong disability and telecommunication legislation–than deaf Sri Lankans. And then I went back to the crucial point in our discussion. Lakmal and his friends were helping me so much; what did I have to offer in return? Food? Should I tip them or slip them a few thousand rupees, as repugnant as it is to place a price on friendship? A promise to help them come to America, however ill-equipped I am to carry it out?

I want to think and hope that our friendships are unconditional, and that they’re not in need of my help. They’re all fine; they all have roofs and jobs. And I go for a few days, believing that we really are just that, friends, and then I get a letter, like that one from Lakmal’s parents, and the illusion falls apart and I’m left unclothed, a white interloper with massive resources but isn’t willing to share any of it.

I can’t handle their hospitality with a clear conscience, and it is this point which, with the other three I have written about above, that leads me to think maybe Sri Lanka is better off without me. It’s difficult to imagine going back year after year, going through the whole eating meals at friends’ home ritual again and have them including me in their lives, only to disappear again without giving much in return other than my presence.

And at moments throughout this thought process, I step out of myself, chuckle, and say, aren’t all these quite bourgeois of you? At least you’re lucky enough to have the time and opportunity to mull these questions, instead of spending every waking minute eking out a living in some far-away cinnamon field in Ratnapura District. You should be thankful for what you have and not worry about any of these. Just enjoy the experience and know they love you and think you’re great. Then I step back and wonder which one is the real cop-out–to think about this, or not to think about this?

It would be easier if it was just the school that I had to work with–that, at least, is clear; children are supposed to grow up and leave and new children come in. There’s always something to which I can contribute. But that’s not the best way to experience Sri Lanka. More than anything else, it is the friendships I’ve developed with adult deaf people in Matara that turned my nine months in Sri Lanka into a truly cultural, high-definition experience. Any future trip without acknowledging that part would be incomplete.

I like to romantically think that perhaps this trip will be what I needed to finally let go of Sri Lanka, that country which has so wholly bitten my soul, and move on with my life. But that’ll never be true, and I don’t want to say a final farewell to Ceylon.

So, what of these issues? The observer effects? The inevitably short stay? The unknown and unseen impacts of my actions? The pleas for assistance? I have no answers right now, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever find them.

9 Responses to “The Observer Effect, Among Others”

  1. erin 02. Jun, 2008 at 4:40 am #

    truly beautiful. I know it can’t be easy for you to go about this whole ritual. despite all you’re feeling, the choices you’ve made are probably for the best.

    I’m much like you, I don’t like fund raising, I actually rather contribute in other ways. Not that I’m wholly against fund raising, it’s just not my thing either. althugh I truly can’t imagine what it’s like to have all these people ask you for assistance and even though you do have the means to help them out, you have to say no. it can’t be the easiest thing in the world for you to make that decision. I hope you find some answers, if just one.

  2. Paula 02. Jun, 2008 at 12:44 pm #

    Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
    Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)

    Adam, I know it is easy to dispair, but you HAVE made a difference in their lives, whether it’s obvious to you right now or not. Some of your influence may not become apparent right away. Maybe they will look at themselves differently in some way because of you. Maybe they will dream bigger dreams because of you.

    You cannot save everyone. You are wrestling with the same issues that every philanthropist must deal with, from Oprah to Bill Gates to Michael Steinhardt. One of the biggest and most admirable things about you is that you went there wanting to teach and help, but you also were willing to learn and accept their ways. Many “great white saviors” are never able to accomplish the second part, and often I think they do more harm than good. You respect them. You have offered what you could, and the biggest gift you have given them is yourself.

  3. Andrew 02. Jun, 2008 at 8:14 pm #


    Beautiful post! You did a wonderful job illustrating and discussing a hard, hard issue. I went through some of this during my summer in the plains of central Russia. I was 20 at the time and relatively naive. I went with a group though, along with experienced leaders from America who talked with us about these feelings and struggles. Their focus was along the lines of– giving the people the tools and know-how to make their lives better. We taught them about advocacy and petitioning the government for accommodations and accessibility.

    Being the carefree 20 year old I was and not wanting to pocket a dime of my per diem– I just took my deaf pals out for meals. We drank heartedly and enjoyed good conversations. I now wonder if I should have just given them the cash and allowed them to make better use of it. I don’t know.

    I believe that you have impacted the Sri Lanka community in ways both conscious and unconscious. You are a shining example of what deaf people can achieve! You also show them the value of helping others around you.

    During my experience in Russia, people would ask me for money or to help them escape to America. I always said, I didn’t have the money, I didn’t come to give them money. I came to share my experience and knowledge with them. I explained that if I gave them some money today, they would use it up and be asking me for more in a week, or a month or a year. That if helped teach them about lobbying their government for equal access, better education, etc — they could help themselves, their communities and generations after them. That’s kind of the mentality behind the ADA, VR, etc. To give people the tools they need to improve their own lives. Along the lines of self-sufficiency or self-determination.

    Have you talked to them about civil rights for deaf people? Better education and employment opportunities? I don’t have the slightest idea of what it’s like over there.

    Warmest regards,

  4. Brian B 03. Jun, 2008 at 12:26 am #

    Adam, thank you for sharing your experiences with us through your blog. I found your post deeply touching.

    What I would like to let you know is that the answers are right under our nose. Where else would we find them? With respect to your values, I believe that the answers come when it is the right time. As long as you follow your intuition, you will never go wrong. Listen to your inner voice, which is tapped to a wisdom greater than that which can be contained individually in our bodies.

    You have all the resources you need for your journey. The same is also true for every soul you meet. Ultimately, it doesnt matter who owns what. Everything is borrowed, anyway. What has brought me comfort is knowing that 50% of life and living is under our own willpower, and the rest is up to the grace of the universe.



  5. sophie 03. Jun, 2008 at 5:34 am #

    Hmm thought I would add the wise words of Baz Lurman..

    ‘whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s’

  6. Evan 03. Jun, 2008 at 6:07 am #

    There are various levels of tzedakah (often translated as “charity”, but more properly translated as “justice”). Giving reluctantly, giving when the recipient knows it is YOU who gives the gift, giving anonymously, etc. The highest form simply is to teach the recipient how to fish (or whatever) so (s)he can be self-supporting and, perhaps, capable of helping others.

    This, my son, you are doing. There may be imperfections along the way or differing expectations largely born of varying cultural compasses or individual or family (Kasun, e.g.) support or non-support…but you are attempting and achieving at the highest level of support that can be attained. Your impact may be felt for years or generations, and I suspect most of that impact will be positive – NOT a version of the arrogance brought by the “white man’s burden”. You are sharing concepts of self-worth (not fiscal worth) and personal and group capabilities. This may not blend perfectly with a Buddhist or otherwise non-Western culture, but trust in your friends and the Rohana kids to assimilate your lessons and examples.

    You’ve recognized that David & Nerissa have to deal w/ this conundrum on an ongoing basis. They could sit in their front yard for years and use their resources to dole out rupees to a never-ending line of needy recipients. However, know also that some of those gifts would be corrupting and might lead to unexpected and unintended negative consequences. Instead, they have taught hundreds how to fish (metaphorically, ofc).

    And so have you.


    p.s. – this blog entry was a masterpiece. thanks for sharing w/ us and enlightening us.

  7. grandma 08. Jun, 2008 at 5:49 pm #

    Your latest entry is a wonder. I’m so touched and delighted by your insights and growing maturity of thought.Remember To msave tbe world is our responsibilitybut we can only make a beginning and leave the completion of the task to those who come after. You’ve made a remarkable start.
    Much love,Grandmaand Grandpa

  8. Frank Lester 18. Jun, 2008 at 6:01 am #

    I throughout enjoyed reading the experience of a deaf person living outside his country and working in a deaf community aboard just like what I am doing right now.

    I can relate how you feel about returning to the same place and feeling sullen. That’s what I am going through right now. After elatedly living in Kenya for 16 months and following 3 months out of Africa, I returned to live in Zambia. The feelings of excitement and newness aren’t there like they were earlier. Was it the infatuation wearing off? I don’t know. Several factors could contribute to how I am currently feeling. I lived on a school campus in a rural area 9 hours bus ride away from the capital city of Nairobi. I was with 250 deaf children 24/7 and felt very much part of the school community. Now I live in the capital city of Lusaka, in a middle class suburban neighborhood, commute downtown by bus, and work in an office. I could be doing the same thing back in U.S. which I got away from. So, right now I am trying to figure out what to do or how to change the picture that I feel is not right. I miss working and hanging out with deaf children and youth. It is my intend to make the best out of the situation I am in, maximize my capacity, and create an impact.

    I’ve also always been asked for how long I am staying. After replying that I’ll be here for one year, people say I should stay for two or three as one isn’t enough. More often than not, I’ve been asked for handouts, for example, money, telephone credit, American visa, job, scholarship, or whatever I have.

    Many people in Kenya and Zambia know American Sign Language. So when they are around me, they tend to shift towards what they think I want to see. I tell them I prefer that they stay true to their own sign language and that I can follow for most part. If I don’t understand a sign, I’ll just ask. I do see the “Observer Effect” happening here.

    Wishing you all the best at graduate school.

  9. Ginette 21. Feb, 2011 at 12:50 am #

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your feelings and for prompting questions. The words you have beautifully and meticulously written have again touched my heart.

    When I returned to NZ, I became self absorbed. For the sake of my own sanity, I had to. I love Sri Lanka and I always talk about it with such great passion. But, I gave a lot of myself away, my heart and soul went into every project we undertook. And yet, I still felt that it wasn’t enough. I wanted to continue giving, but the reality is, it’d never be enough to solve the countless inequitable, unfairnesses we witnessed.

    The guilt of being able to return home to my own country, to my own ‘easy’ life was unbearable for months. It’s only now, years later, that I feel I could return to visit. Yet, perhaps visit in a holiday sense of the word isn’t the right term. I feel a social responsibility to continue to give, but in a different way than before. Next time, I will protect myself and build a temporary wall around my heart. Sri Lanka taught me you can’t give if you’re burned out. And, I’m convinced financial problems can’t be solved with money. It’s more indepth than that.

    Farewell is a promise that you’ll meet again. That’s how I feel with Sri Lanka. When the time is right, I will return. I guess I too am facing the dilemma of categorising the intentions of my next vist. As a friend, to initiate action, a catalyst to bring people together, to launch the next project or do I just turn up and see how things go?

    I know that we can’t provide the answers. Only questions can be raised to provide awareness and an understanding of a country and culture that is so remote from our everyday lives.