“Sri Lanka, India, same thing.” The old man casually threw that sentence in my face after asking about my ethnicity, like we were discussing an age-old question of “tomeighto” versus “tomauto.” And just like that, I pictured a jumbo eraser rubbing away the borders of my tiny island like it didn’t exist.
I always found it humorous and slightly depressing that many others felt compelled to uproot my entire country and plop it down wherever they saw fit, just because it was foreign to them. Many of the people I’ve met used the unfamiliarity as a ticket to place me in cultures I don’t belong in.
Someone once spent an entire evening trying to convince me I was actually Egyptian as though they held my birth certificate in their hands and I was the one mistaken. I’ve never even visited Egypt. Miraculously, even after that extensive conversation, I still am and always was Sri Lankan.
I’m not offended by their disbelief and I never faulted anyone for not having heard of Sri Lanka before. We are a tiny island lacking national attention — even after M.I.A., the tsunami or the more recent end of the civil war. We’re not the No. 1 tourist destination and if our businesses ever made headlines, it’s because of allegations that someone in a sweatshop sewed Beyonce’s new clothing line.
I’m not surprised that we’ve gone unnoticed, but I do mean it when I say I’m Sri Lankan, and I wish people would acknowledge that. We have our own government, language and way of life. We exist. 7.8731 degrees North and 80.77178 degrees East.
For years, I took on the crusade of correcting every individual that lumped me in with Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis and myriad other cultures I don’t belong to. I’ve introduced assumptive Hindi speakers that approached me with words I never understood to Tamil, one of the three main languages in Sri Lanka, alongside Sinhala and English. I’ve shrugged at countless unfamiliar foods, reminding them that Sri Lankan curries and sweets are different from Indian food. I’ve spent hours describing clothes because we refer to them by different names. But this struggle is not restricted to me alone. I’m sure the divide between North and South India creates a similar conundrum, despite coming from the same country.
I have nothing against other cultures, I just wanted to be acknowledged for my own. But after a while of fighting against the current, I got swept up in it too.
As the years passed and others continued tossing aside my culture for a more familiar one, I started referring to myself as “brown,” not Sri Lankan. I nodded at references that didn’t apply to me, tired of constantly explaining myself and defending my claims that we are different. I adopted the more common names of clothes and food, hoping to reach an understanding in place of more roadblocks.
Desperate to find a community, I tried assimilating with other Indians, hoping to bond over spicy food and the head bobble. I introduced myself to anyone that seemed similar. I gave a knowing smile to the usuals at House of Curries, disappointed that the only Sri Lankan restaurant in the Bay Area was an hour away. I even passed by the Indus club’s booth on Cal Day, curious to see what the fuss was all about. But my hope to join them, because I couldn’t beat them, only led to discomfort. I felt like a fraud, playing a giant game of pretend.
It took me a year and a half at UC Berkeley to realize we had a Sri Lankan Students Association, but even joining that seemed fruitless as there’s only been one meeting to my knowledge since joining the organization, and I struggled to find other Tamil speakers within that group. Since that meeting, I’ve given up on trying to find other Sri Lankans, let alone other Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan Muslims. I’d given up on fitting into a group I considered home.
But I’d still like to retain my island’s name. We are not like everyone else with a similar skin tone.
Our island has been out of the western radar for some time, which isn’t surprising. I don’t expect to find any of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka among the 318 million people in the United States and vice versa. The idea is so rare, I almost overrode the stranger-danger rule and went to an Uber driver’s house for dinner because he was from Sri Lanka and spoke Tamil. It felt nice to belong again, not to have to explain myself for once because he understood.
This lack of understanding that is rampant among most Americans isn’t a green light to lump me in with our more famous third-world neighbors. My culture, along with other “Asian” minorities, has constantly been discarded, replaced with another, more well-known one — despite the grave degrees of difference and my undying attempt to clarify the distinction. It might seem a little taxing, but adding one more country to the repertoire isn’t too difficult, I promise. We learn new things everyday. Let my country, Sri Lanka, be one of them.
I can’t fight alone against the flood of misinformation — a common sentiment among many minorities. But if we create room for understanding and stop dismissing the chance to broaden our perspectives, we can finally embrace our differences and learn from one another — whether it’s about my culture or yours.
No one should ever shrug aside their identity because it’s easier to assimilate than it is to educate.
Contact Ilaf Esuf at [email protected].