By Ranjini Obeyesekere –
His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka,
Office of the President,
150 Galle Road,
Dear President Rajapaksa,
The first time I ever left the shores of my island home Sri Lanka, was on a Fulbright Travel Grant for graduate study in the U.S. My husband, an earlier Fulbright scholar, was returning to complete his Ph.D at the University of Washington in Seattle. I had been accepted to the English Dept. at the same University.
That was over fifty years ago.
It was to me a mind-blowing experience. I was twenty eight, a mother of two young children, and I was going back to do graduate work at a university. It was not uncommon for wives to accompany husbands when they went abroad on study leave, but at the time it was not usual for both to be engaged in graduate studies. Was I foolish to attempt it? What was this new unknown world going to be like? At home I had extended family and a support system which enabled me and many of my colleagues to take on employment after our degrees, and cope fairly easily with the demands of home, family and a job. But here in a new world without those supports could I make it? There was both fear and excitement at the challenge.
I was overwhelmed by the initial welcome we had and the warmth of strangers. A university professor and his wife who had been in Sri Lanka, greeted us the very first day we arrived, brought us furniture to make our meagre apartment comfortable, and even offered us money to tide over till our finances were worked out. That act of sheer generosity to strangers was what I will always remember about our first day in America. Thereafter, we had every kind of help; from neighbors, fellow students, from our host family, the Sweaneys with whom we maintained contact and visits until their death.
I was tongue tied at my first seminars, listening fascinated to my fellow students, questioning, contesting and arguing with the Professor over various aspects of a work we were discussing. Being used to the pattern of lectures and tutorials in my undergraduate years in Sri Lanka, this give and take between the Professor and students was to me, awesome. Over the years I learned to hold my own. Since then, as a teacher, I have always brought to my relationship with students, this give and take, so crucial to the learning experience.
We lived in graduate student housing which at that time consisted of army barracks –remainders of World War 2 — situated on the edge of an open space that had formerly been a waste land. I had imagined America to be a world of enormous wealth and luxury so this two bedroom shack-like unit was quite a disappointment. However it turned out to be one of the richest experiences of our stay. Our immediate neighbors were Ned Wagner, a Child Psychologist and his family, just arrived from New York. They immediately became our extended family and he was “Ned mama” to my children ever after. A Japanese biologist and his family of two children lived opposite us; the younger of them was the same age as my son. Neither knew English but they would play together for hours each talking his own language and amazingly seeming to communicate! Tuneko’s letters to me still begin, “My dear sister Ranjini.” Then there was the German scientist and family. I remember the awe with which I watched Helga, put her baby in the wash tub of our common laundry area and scrub her with the same intensity as she did her pots and pans! There was Ramesh Gangolli, the Indian mathematician and his family, who, like the Wagners continued to live on in Seattle and have been our connecting link to that part of the world ever since.
As time passed and we went our several ways we continued those friendships, visited each other’s countries, lived over and over again in each other’s homes, watched our children grow, and even though some have long passed away, the sense of extended family never left. This has not been just our experience but the experience of so many others who like us, have gone on Fulbright scholarships to the US, had our personal and emotional worlds enriched and our intellectual horizons widened and deepened.
The Fulbright programme is an institution that has extended its reach and touched lives like ours over a sixty year period. In a world that desperately needs to reach out across divides, it deserves the fullest continuing support, of the alumni and the governments of both the US and Sri Lanka.