18 October, 2017

To Be Or Not To Be Sri Lankan? … That Is The Question!

By Theruni Sebastiampillai

Theruni Sebastiampillai

How do I define my identity? At first glance, the answer would be simple and clear: I am a French citizen with Sri Lankan origins. This would be enough for any administrative paperwork. But in daily life, the reality is quite different depending on the situations that we are facing.

The first question would be:

Am I French or Sri Lankan? I was born in France, I studied in France, I live and work in France. So what could be more natural than to feel French?

Let’s take the example at school. I did not have to worry about my origins. It was not an obstacle. We were in a French school regardless of our origins. We were learning French and consequently its traditions. Of course, my roots have always been a topic of discussion. All my friends were curious to know which country I was from, curious about its traditions and lifestyles. Talking about my Sri Lankan origins, mostly allowed me to stand out from others but it never made me question my “French-ness”.

However, after I completed my higher education and started my professional life, I was faced with an overwhelming question of my identity. My current job at the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Paris is the ideal place for me to showcase my Sri Lankan origins all the while being French and also act as an intermediary between the Embassy i.e. Sri Lanka and the various French actors and authorities, i.e. France.  But how many times have I heard people asking me, after meetings or interviews with French representatives, “How is it that your French is perfect? How is it that you do not have any accent?” I was surprised when I was first asked this. My only answer was, “Maybe because I was born and I live here…”

However, in my particular context; I work for the Embassy of Sri Lanka in France and am of Sri Lankan origin. So people might not guess straight-away that I could be French. It is then more or less normal that people would ask these questions. Now, this question would not have probably arisen, had I been working for a French company.

This is when I realized that my roots do take an important place in my life and in my identity. But it is up to me to modulate the importance that I would give to my origins and to my nationality.

The second question which comes to my mind would be: Am I Sri Lankan or just belonging to an ethnic group? My mother is Sinhalese and my father is Tamil. For some, I could be seen as an ideal fusion and proof that different communities can live together in harmony in one country and for others, I could be seen as an atypical fusion and will not really belong to one or the other communities or would not even be a “Sri Lankan”.

Throughout my life and my experiences, I have come to realize that being a Sri Lankan was not the most important fact to know. People will inevitably be curious to know if you are from Sri Lanka, but in reality they will be really curious about your ethnicity. “Really? Are you Sri Lankan? Sinhalese or Tamil?” (Note that generally Muslims and Burghers are not even mentioned). Some will go straight to the point and ask to which ethnic group we belong to, while others will be more subtle by asking from which region in Sri Lanka we or our parents come from and then come to their own conclusions. Either way they still want to know your ethnicity. It is hard to believe that ethnicity is such an important criterion for any relationship to begin!

People consider us first as Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher and then maybe with a bit of luck as Sri Lankan.

However, the reverse situation can also occur. A Sinhalese only considers you as “Sri Lankan” if you are from the Sinhalese community whereas people from other communities will be only recognized in relation to their ethnicity and not as a Sri Lankan; the same goes from a Tamil’s point of view.

I have an anecdote which comes to my mind. While waiting for an oral exam during my A- levels, I saw a young girl. She seemed to be from India or Sri Lanka. Later on, she came to me and asked from where I was from. I answered “I am from Sri Lanka and you?”. She replied “Me too. Are you Tamil or Sinhalese?” I told her that I was Tamil and Sinhalese and she said very spontaneously: “Oh! So you are not Sri Lankan!”…Did I miss something? The only thing I could say is “Oh really! I did not know! That is actually something new! Well, my parents are Sri Lankan and have lived there, so I think it would be quite natural to feel Sri Lankan!”

At first we may think that this girl has made a huge misuse of language, but if we look at it a little closer, the problem is much deeper. One of the many reasons that could explain this type of reaction would be the environment in which the girl grew. We may assume that her parents are both Sri Lankan Tamils and therefore this girl may have lived with the belief that only Sri Lankan Tamils ​​are Sri Lankans and the others are simply Sinhalese, Muslims or Burghers. This may have been the kind of message that her parents, her entourage or even the media transmitted to her, either during discussions or while watching news or even reading the newspaper.

This emphasizes the crucial role that parents have to play in the search for identity of their children. Of course this is not the only factor, but children and young adults will behave, have notions of certain things, and form their identity, which will be heavily influenced by their parents.  The role of the school, the environment that surrounds us, but also our own analysis and openness, will help us shape our identity.

The Sri Lankan Diaspora has, I think, a specific role. Amin Maalouf, Lebanese author who has been living in France says in his book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to belong: “Their role is to act as bridges, go-betweens, mediators between the various communities and cultures.” And I think this is what we should really keep in mind.

Finally, I would say that individual identity is not fixed. Indeed, our environment, the people around us change every day. We will therefore necessarily observe, analyze and try to adapt to each changing situation; which brings us to constantly challenge ourselves on our “affiliation”, our beliefs and principles.

Now, if I have to self-assess and describe my identity, I would say that I am both French and Sri Lankan, regardless of my ethnicity. In some situations, I would highlight my “affiliation” to France and its values more than the other and vice versa. In any case, I think the balance will occur naturally.

I would like to conclude with another quote from Amin Maalouf which has helped me clear my many doubts. I also feel it would ultimately support the arguments which I put forward in this presentation and might make others reflect on:

“How many times […], have people asked, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt “more French” or “more Lebanese”? And I always give the same answer: “Both!” I say it, not in the interests of fairness or balance, but because any other answers would be a lie. What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”

*Theruni Sebastiampillai holds a Master in International Business Management from the European Business School, in Paris.

Theruni Sebastiampillai participated at the French-Sri Lankan Diaspora Youth Workshop “Post-War Reconciliation Dialogue for a Sustainable Peace”, which took place in Paris, on October 27th, 2012. She participated as a panelist on the theme “Individual and collective identity(ies): between search and struggle”. The event was organized by What’s Next!, a forum comprising of post-graduates and young professionals of Sri Lankan origin residing in France. What’s Next! seeks to promote a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka through intellectual exchange and multicultural dialogue.

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Latest comments

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    Don’t let your past dictate who you are but let it be part of who you will become…

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    There’s an interesting piece on the Groundviews website from November that also discusses Sri Lankan identity from the perspective of an individual living as part of the Sri Lankan diaspora, worth a read. http://groundviews.org/2012/11/24/the-struggles-of-identity-in-sri-lanka/#comment-49985

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