My Sri Lankan colleague looked perplexed, baffled and shocked.
You see I have given in to having a cleaning lady come in once a week to help me manage the ridiculous amount of filth that is continually accumulating everywhere. Normally we let her in every week to do her job, but these past two weeks when we were away we left the key with our landlord to let her in. We phoned her to let her know of the plan. Unfortunately, things get complicated when all parties involved speak a different language. In the end, our well-meaning landlord told her she couldn’t have access to our key and she somehow thought she was fired (international communication at its finest). Needless to say, I’ve spent the last week trying to patch things up.
Today I enlisted the help of a colleague who is fluent in both English and Sinhala. I thought with this secret weapon my problems would be solved and right in the nick of time since tomorrow is the weekly cleaning day. No such luck! Either I have the phone number wrong or I’ve been pronouncing the name of the lady who cleans our house incorrectly for nearly a year. Regardless, the scenario ended with my colleague being hung up on. Ai yo!
This scenario didn’t strike me as odd. In fact, it is what I’ve come to expect on a regular basis as I attempt to navigate around yet another cultural iceberg.
The thing that I can’t quite get used to is the concept of class in the culture here. My colleague referred to the cleaning lady as a servant without missing a beat and she was astounded that we were on a first name basis (that is if I’m even pronouncing her name right).
Sri Lanka doesn’t have a highly defined caste system as there has been for centuries in India. However, it is undeniable that certain class divisions exist. It seems as though these divisions are directly related to profession which is largely passed on from generation to generation.
As I struggle to define what has lead to these divisions, I turn to a quote from a document recently posted by a VSO volunteer, “Most people will know to which caste they belong, but the issue is nevertheless rarely discussed publicly and is widely regarded as taboo.” This rings very true. A Sri Lankan can walk into a room and other Sri Lankans will automatically know their status by the way they present themselves.
It is easy to be critical of this system when coming in as a foreigner. In reality I have to ask myself, “Are we really that different in Canada or is our class system more cleverly disguised through the myth of equal opportunity?”