When you are working in such a multicultural setting, humour is key. My colleagues pictured here represent India, Sri Lanka, Peru and Paraguay.

Sometimes in Canada we can go over the top when it comes to being politically correct. Everyday I learn a term that I’ve used for years is loaded with racism without even knowing it. For example, when I say I’m “being gypped” I’m actually being racist towards the gypsies who because of my ignorance I didn’t realized still existed outside of the Smurfs cartoons. My apologies to the gypsies who I’m sure are decent people just trying to make an honest living.

Here in Sri Lanka stereotypes are not thought of in the same way. They are more like a useful tool to make sense of the world. Sri Lankans like to put people into categories. It helps them to make sense of the world. This is the reason for the bombardment of questions upon five seconds of meeting you. “What country are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Why don’t you have children? What religion are you? and How much do make?” in that exact sequence. I’ve given up trying to explain that I don’t belong to a particular religion because this is how the conversation unfolds.

Random Sri Lankan (RSL): What religion are you?

Me: I don’t really belong to a particular religion.

RSL.: I don’t get you.

Me: In Canada many people don’t identify with a particular religious group. Therefore, they aren’t religious and are spiritual instead.

RSL: Ah, so you are Christian?

Me: No, I’m spiritual.

RSL: Oh, Christian – right, right, right (head bobble).

Of course the irony is that the entire paragraph above is rooted deeply in Sri Lankan stereotypes, but the beauty of it is I have yet to meet a Sri Lankan that would take offense.  In fact, they find these things very humourous when pointed out by a foreigner.  I have bonded with many a Sri Lankan over their uncanny ability to bobble their head, talk a mile a minute and eat a spicy rice and curry so nimbly with their fingers.

This isn’t an exclusive phenomena to Sri Lankans. I have had many a good laugh with people of all nationalities over a stereotype. It could be joking with a Kashmiri shop keeper about his smooth salesmanship over a cup of tea moments before I agree to buy whatever he’s selling,  having a good laugh every time my French friend says “beach” (it sounds like “bitch” with her accent) or relying on a Dutch friend to deliver an uncomfortable message because they are much better at being direct. One could even argue that stereotypes, when used correctly, can bring us closer together.

I just saw a TED talk today about Aman Mojadidi, an Afghan-American artist, who takes this concept to the next level. Check out the amazing way he is using humour in his art to generate powerful ideas in Afghanistan.

Enjoy. (I’m so sorry but I need to sign off so I can finish sewing Canadian flags on all our backpacks, drink a Tim Horton’s double-double, and check out the latest ice hockey scores – EH?)