By Laksiri Fernando –
We all have cultural inhibitions especially when we encounter distant cultures. Because of cultural differences, we encounter what can be called cultural mishaps. This is about one or rather two of those mishaps to be exact. By nature, some people are culturally shy and some are bold. I rate myself to be somebody in between, or towards the latter. These are not some thoughts but some experiences.
My first trip abroad was to Canada to read for my masters at the University of New Brunswick. That was far back in 1974. I was sponsored for a teaching/research assistantship by Professor AJ Wilson, who was the Chair of Political Science at that university. He was one of our former teachers at Peradeniya. On the second day of my arrival, he gave me a ticket to a performance of a Sri Lankan dance troop at the Fredericton Town Hall. The troop was led by the famous Kandyan dancer, Heen Baba.
I was instructed to reach the Town Hall and did manage to follow the instructions without much difficulty. Fredericton was a small town. The month was early October and the weather was already extremely cold. I had my second-hand overcoat bought at a Colombo Pettah market and those second hand imported clothes were known at that time as ‘Bale.’ To be exact, what I was wearing was a ‘Bale Coat.’
I followed the others at the entrance to the hall, handed over my coat at the ‘cloak room,’ and obtained a coin with a number. We had a similar practice at Peradeniya (University) when we entered the main Library by handing over personal belongings, but not coats. We had free seating and I found an aisle seat in the middle. Obviously, it was not crowded. The whole audience was white Canadians and that time no Sri Lankans were living in Fredericton except the Wilsons family. I later found Professor and Mrs. Wilson seating at the back. The performance was not bad although I was sleepy due to jetlag.
This happened towards the end of the show. When Heen Baba was doing a summersault, he dropped the long tassel on his cap. Perhaps no one noticed it at that moment and without the tassel, there was no apparent difference. However, I noticed something unusual in his movements and he tried to pick the tassel up, while doing something like a summersault. It was not successful.
He could not pick it up! Even that was not noticed or ignored by the audience. But he tried to do the same once more without success and then people obviously noticed it. When he tried the same again, people started laughing. He tried again and again and the laughter increased. Finally, people started clapping and the curtain came down.
I was bit ashamed. The people around me were still giggling. I looked at the Wilsons, but they were glum without laughter. I am sure all laughed in lighter vein but I was rather upset. Why the hell he tried to pick the tassel up? He should have just ignored it. The tassel on the stage was almost unnoticeable and the cap without the tassel also did not make a difference. I went to the dressing room with Wilsons to greet the troop and already there were several Canadians greeting them.
Altogether there were about eight in the troop and they all were happy to see me and talked to me in their familiar language, Sinhalese. There were two Canadian ladies who oversaw them. The troop had performed in Ottawa and they were going to Montreal next. Heen Baba came to me and said in pure Sinhala:
Hari Lajjavane Wune (What a disgrace)
I did not make any comment, but rather amused myself of the happening saying:
Owa Ohoma Thamai (Things are like that)
I perhaps said that in a patronizing voice with an air of superiority. He was very appreciative that I have come to study at a Canadian university.
Then it was my turn. Prof. Wilson said that they would drop me at the Campus and asked me to come to the car park. Now I had to go and pick my tassel! I went to the cloak room and gave my number to the ‘girl’ over there. There were no one around and all had apparently left by then. I saw the girl going inside and even I could see my pale brown coat hanging casual. There were only few other coats. Mine appeared rather beggarly. I saw the young woman taking it out and then putting it back. She circled the area and appeared lost. Then I put a bold face and said pointedly:
“Yes, yes, that’s mine.”
Then the girl looked at me pensively and a sneaky smile came to her face. I still recollect that expression. Then she came to me with a brave face and handed over the coat, said ‘good night’ and vanished. I wondered what was wrong with my coat. Inside the car, I was speechless. Wilsons did not mind, perhaps they thought I was tired or sleepy.
When I went to my room, my roommate was still awake and reading a book at his desk. He was Shan from Bombay. I stood in front of him and straightaway asked:
“Shan, what is wrong with my coat?
He looked at me straight, and said:
“Man, it is a ladies coat!”
I was not ashamed. We both laughed and my roommate became very close to me thereafter. He explained that it had what is called ‘Magi sleeves’ and ‘darts’ in front and behind to give a shape to a women’s body.
I went to Canada via Moscow by Aeroflot. I had to stay in Moscow for three days and I was moving around wearing the same coat but no one was amused about me. I was wearing the same coat at the Montreal airport, as I had to change the plane for Fredericton. Perhaps people were too busy in noticing me. When I arrived at Fredericton, Wilson had sent his Secretary to pick me up but she did not laugh at me either.
The following morning, I went shopping with Shan and bought a new winter Jacket and threw the ‘ladies coat’ away. By that time, I had obtained an advance of my stipend. Therefore, I was rich. I don’t think the unisex dresses were very popular at that time. When I went to the political science department that afternoon, both Prof. Wilson and his Secretary smiled at me pleasingly.
The point is that when you encounter different situations or cultures, you obviously face mishaps. Those are no reason to get discouraged. Rather those are interesting life experiences one can simply laugh at. In the case of my ‘ladies coat, what was admissible in Moscow was not so admissible in Fredericton. That was it.
Note: Occasional stories in this series are not always factual. Those are imagined stories primarily for pleasure, but based on some facts and experiences. In this story, however, the main events are almost factual. Names mentioned are usually fictional, except referring to public figures. In this story, both Professor AJ Wilson and Heen Baba are mentioned with appreciation. Late Jeyaratnam Wilson is son-in-law of SJV Chelvanayakam and Heen Baba, a nephew of Nittawela Gunaya, great master of Kandyan dancing.