Just because you are paranoid…

One of the predictable stages of culture shock is coming to believe that the local people are hostile to you. We have now been in Sri Lanka long enough that the negative aspects of culture shock are due to afflict us and I can sense that hostility feeling creeping up on me.

It is strange that I should feel this way, in a sense. Every Sri Lankan that I have been introduced to has been welcoming, friendly, and has both expressed a willingness to help or has actually been of great help to us. So why should there be this creeping hostility feeling?

I think it comes from encounters with Sri Lankans that we have not been introduced to, the everyday, anonymous encounters with people that one has all the time with strangers. In these encounters the experience is more variable.

I walk to and from work and our house. Drivers of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks all whiz by, very close, often with a blast of their horns. Incredibly rude! Dangerous! Why should I have to step into the muddy ditch just so you do not have to slow down on your way to wherever? What makes your business more important than my business? What makes you more important than me? It is hard not to take it personally, though my observations actually indicate that the drivers treat all pedestrians equally badly, independent of nationality.

On my walk to work, I am stared at by the people I pass. The expressions on the faces are grim. I am a freak. I am an animal in a zoo. A skunk, perhaps. Something not from anywhere near here. Parents point at me to show their children. “Look! You have seen pictures of Americans in your school books. There is one in real life. Isn’t he strange? Wouldn’t you like to take him to class for show and tell?” Car loads of people slow down so everyone can get a good look. People stare open-mouthed at me out of bus windows as they whiz by. Did you see that! Imagine a white person in Dongolla!

I’m taking some steps to combat this staring phenomena. I have taken to saying “Good morning!” to many of the people I pass. To avoid potential misunderstandings in this conservative culture, I mostly reserve this for the men I encounter. Universally the response has been positive. The hard stare dissolves into a smile and a reciprocal “good morning” is given in reply. I don’t know these people in any real way, but I am becoming part of the daily ritual in this neighborhood. The auto repair guy now initiates a friendly wave as I pass.

Actually, some of my warmest greetings come from the children who live on my path to work. Children here are all taught English is a subject in their schools starting very early. I think they are practicing their English and I think they are pleasantly surprised that it works! Sometimes a group of three children run out from their yard to the road and wave and loudly shout “Hello! Hello!” until I return their greeting. Then they switch to an equally enthusiastic “Good-bye! God bye!” until I acknowledge this as well. Very cute.

Of course, sometimes there is real hostility or real differential treatment based on our status as foreigners. If we are walking on the streets of Colombo or Kandy we are constantly assaulted by tuk-tuk drivers and by beggars and by what I will loosely call con men. The tuk-tuk drivers are amazing in their persistence. Once, in Kandy, a tuk-tuk driver watched us get out of a tuk-tuk and pay the driver. Before we could take two steps, the watching tuk-tuk driver asked us if we wanted a ride! What was his thought process? That I was in the habit of taking multiple tuk-tuks to my destinations? That I had forgotten where I wanted to go and told the first tuk-tuk driver the wrong address, but suddenly I now remembered? That I was a spy, madly switching tuk-tuks to throw followers off my track? Humor aside, it gets very old. At least on my walk to work the tuk-tuk drivers have largely gotten to know my habits and mostly have stopped asking me if I want to hire them every time they pass me.

There are not a lot of beggars here, but you will see them, mostly on the streets of Kandy. And while there are not a lot of beggars, they are pitiful. Mere amputees are put to shame by men with deformed limbs or women who seem to barely have the energy to hold out their hand holding crying babies to their breasts. Just as in the US, one has no idea what to make of any one individual case, whether contributing money is really helpful or harmful.

Then there are the con men. I’m still not sure what they are after because we always tell them to go away before we find out what they are after. They use various lines to start a conversation. Where are you from? How long will you be in Kandy? One such man told me that he remembered me from the hotel that morning, that he was one of the hotel gardeners, and that he was absolutely forbidden to speak to me, so please do not tell anyone back at the hotel that we had met on the street and talked. My best guess is that these men are trying to steer us to certain vendors, from which they expect a commission on any sales, especially if it involves fleecing the foreigner unfamiliar with the market prices. Well, I can tell you we have had no need of con men in order to be fleeced in the market. We can arrange to be fleeced all on our own, thank you very much!

And, of course, there have been genuinely hostile events. Vendors do attempt to overcharge us virtually all the time. To some extent this is part of a culture where many transactions involve bargaining, but there appear to be no limits to the willingness to quote outrageous prices to foreigners. In a real sense, this is practiced by the government. Admission to the Pinewella Elephant Sanctuary cost more than one hundred times as much for a foreigner as for a resident.

And, as reported before, my bag was stolen. I am only now learning that I had not backed up quite everything that was on my USB drive and will face considerable work to restore what was lost. Two American women of our acquaintance, each within one week of arrival in the vicinity of Kandy, have been victims of sexual harassment, and one event was pretty extreme.

Another contributor to our anxiety is the mixed messages we get about the prevalance of serious crime. Supposedly, the theft of my bag was the first significant theft in anyone’s memory in the Physics Department. I trust the people who said that. But I also note the furnishings in my office. I have three(!) desks. Each desk has three drawers. Each drawer has a separate lock. There is a four drawer file cabinet with a lock. There is a cupboard with four shelves for my books and a lock. There are no master keys for the rooms in the building. Every lock is unique with a key for authorized users and a backup key kept locked up in the chair’s office. This system is surely inconvenient. But is it believed to be necessary because of a high probability of theft? That appears to be the only rational explanation.

Our house is another example. Dongolla is considered a pretty posh neighborhood by local standards. It is proximate to the university and has nice views from its hillsides. But Is the expectation that eventually we will be burglarized? We have noticed houses in Dongolla that have razor wire on top of their walls. Or broken glass set into the concrete that forms the wall. All personal belongings in our house are kept in a wardrobe, here called an almirah. The almirahs all have individual locks. When we had discussions about security, the biggest positive factor was the fact that we had a maid who would watch the house when we were away. But the maid is not always there. What then?

The other day, we opened the curtains to let the abundant sunshine into our bedroom. We were fully dressed, of course. I went on an errand. When I got back, Kris reported that she noticed a man in the yard of a neighbor across the creek from us staring through our bedroom window for a considerable length of time. So, was he just curious? Was he casing the joint? Does he have an accomplice he will call to tell when it is safe to break into our house?

Paranoia for sure and a predictable stage of culture shock, but only time will tell if they really were out to get us.




  1. Varuni said,

    December 3, 2008 at 8:36 am

    Hello Tim,

    Here is my view on the following comment.
    “Admission to the Pinewella Elephant Sanctuary cost more than one hundred times as much for a foreigner as for a resident.”

    I agree with you how odd it is that people have to pay extra amounts for many things when they are away from their homelands. Let me recall my memory:

    * I had to get a transit visa paying about $30s when changing the planes in Frankfurt, just because I was carrying a Sri Lankan passport (or any other developing country passport), (I had paid all the airport taxes to the air liner).

    * Then the resident and non-resident tuition rates (Thanks to OU, mine were waived)

    * When I had to pay a higher percentage of tax out of my poor graduate stipend, which was a different percentage than for a resident.

    I know how odd, all these different formulas for foreigners.

    Just a minute…. may be…. there is a good socio-economic reason behind all these extra payments for foreigners, which we do not understand as physicists.
    Like to read more views. Enjoy your stay

  2. Tim said,

    December 4, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Touche’, Varuni!

    Visitors of various kinds are regularly taken advantage of everywhere, certainly not just in Sri Lanka.

    In the US, cities often have a “bed” tax on hotel rooms. This is a relatively recent phenomena that has taken off and now appears to be pretty much universal. Often the reason cited for such a tax is that the funds are to be used to enhance public tourism facilities in that city. The problem is that visitor’s have no political voice in how much tax is levied. My experience as a modestly frequent business traveler is that these taxes have greatly increased over the years to being as much as 20% of the cost of the room. Unlike airfares where legislation requires quoting fares including taxes, room rates are often quoted without including the tax. To the traveler on a budget, a surprise 20% increase in room costs can be very painful. So there is a “good” socio-economic reason for this situation, it is called “taxation without representation”!

    I don’t know much about the transit visa cost or who levied it, or the tax rate you paid as a grad student, but I will say something about resident vs. non-resident tuition rates for those who have not encountered them before and might find them alarming since the differences are large (factors of 2-4). First, these differential rates exist only at state-supported, public universities in the US. And when I say “state” in this context, I mean specifically one of the fifty states that make up the United States. And the term “resident” in this context means a resident of the state where the university is located. So, for example in my home state of Ohio, this differential is applied equally to residents of Michigan as it is to residents of Sri Lanka.

    These state universities receive taxpayer support from the residents of that state (though the percentage of costs paid by the state have been dropping fast in recent years). Thus, the states feel justified in charging more to those people who have not been paying taxes to the state, which go, in part, to supporting the university.

    But here is the catch. While those charges exist to satisfy a political demand for such a differential, almost no one actually pays the non-resident rate. There are several ways around them. University students are generally older than the “age of majority,” i.e., they are considered legally independent adults. So, an (American) undergraduate student from Michigan who wishes to attend Ohio State University can simply move to Ohio before enrolling at Ohio State. The rules vary a bit, but generally you are considered a legal resident of the new state after you have registered to vote there (which you can do immediately upon arrival) and been resident for a year (sometimes less). So our mythical Michiganer can move to Columbus, OH, get a job waiting tables for a year, start school after that and pay resident tuition.

    Graduate students have a different way around the system that works as well whether you are a US citizen or not. Graduate students are used (some say exploited) to teach undergraduates and graduate students are doing the bulk of the research work at any university. From the state’s point of view, grad students constitute a cheap source of labor. And, research programs compete to attract the best graduate students to their programs. So far as I am aware, *every* state supported university in the United States waives the out-of-state tuition charges for graduate students that are either teaching or doing research. So don’t thank OU for waiving your tuition, because if OU didn’t waive your out-of-state tuition, their research programs would be dead in the space of a very few years for lack of new graduate students. This almost happened to the University of Washington when I was grad student there until someone from the university went down to the capitol in Olympia and explained the facts of life to an overly enthusiastic state legislator.

    But I totally agree, visitors anywhere are often taken advantage of until they learn enough to defend themselves. We have been lucky here in Sri Lanka to have met some wonderful “teachers” who are educating us about how things are done here.

  3. December 6, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    […] 6, 2008 at 5:08 pm (Uncategorized) I was stung a bit by Nikky’s comment on my “Just because you are paranoid…” post. She wrote that I was being very negative about my experiences in Sri Lanka, when actually I […]

  4. January 14, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    […] a Chinese puzzle, you had to know the correct sequence of steps. This was a pleasant reminder of the handsome almirahs here, some of which have secret drawers. Since we are unlikely to be able to return home with an […]

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