By Archna Kannapiran
Published on November 13, 2013
In the summer of 2011, my sisters, my parents and I travelled to my parents’ homeland of Sri Lanka. My parents had not visited their birthplace for over 20 years and they were excited to meet all the aunts, uncles, and cousins in our extended family. Up until this trip, my sisters and I had only talked to and seen everyone via photographs, phone calls, and Skype. I looked forward to this trip as not only a chance to meet extended family, but also as an opportunity to see how I might feel there.
Our travel itinerary consisted of a layover in Germany before heading straight to Sri Lanka. The Air Canada flight to Frankfurt was filled with the familiar mix of people that I would expect to see walking down a street in Toronto. This was not the case during our Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Colombo. The minute I got on the plane, I discovered that every other person on the plane looked just like me and spoke either Tamil or Singhalese. I was reminded by the composition of the passengers that I was not in Toronto anymore. While listening to the banter of those around me on the flight I wondered about the purposes of each person’s trip. I was going to meet my parents’ extended family and experience the country in which my parents lived most of their lives. What about the other passengers? Were they travelling for business, educational purposes, or as tourists? Or, were they simply visiting relatives, like my family and me? My sense of belonging began to shift as I sat among these people I had never met before. The flight, comprised almost entirely of Singhalese and Tamils, looked nothing like multi-cultural Toronto, and yet I felt connected to those around me, as if I belonged to this group of strangers bound for the same destination.
This sense of affinity did not last long. Family in Toronto had warned me that porters and custom officers at Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka would haggle us for money. As I stood there with my luggage, waiting for my parents to make their purchases at the Duty Free shop, I became hyperaware of my surroundings and fearful that our luggage would be stolen. Apart from my fellow passengers, I looked at the others around me with suspicion: the porters, the airport officials, and employees. It did not help that at almost every entrance and exit to the airport there stood a uniformed soldier holding a rifle, which I was informed was due to Sri Lanka’s civil unrest. Although the soldiers did not approach or interact with us, their presence itself was unnerving. I avoided making eye contact. I was not accustomed to such a blatant and intrusive form of security in airports. This was definitely not Toronto anymore. Why did I feel so vulnerable and out of place here, unlike mere hours ago on the plane? What was the difference between my co-passengers and the others at the airport?
Once again my sense of belonging changed when I arrived in my parents’ hometown of Nallur, Jaffna. Nallur is a suburb of Jaffna, which is the bustling capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern province. It was where my parents had grown up as children and where the majority of our extended family still lived. Family welcomed us into their homes and I felt emotionally connected to these people I had just met. It was as if I had lived with them and known them all my life. In some ways, I felt like I was back in Toronto: the usual bickering of the elders deciding what to make for dinner and the constant chatter of cousins, nieces and nephews, and a secure sense of belonging.
Many times during my stay in Nallur, I stuck out like a sore thumb no matter how much I tried to fit in. Like here: Nallur Kandaswamy temple, one of the most revered temples in all of Sri Lanka and thousands of Hindu Tamils come from all over the country and world to take part in and witness the temple’s twenty-five day annual festival. It was during one of the festival days, as I stood in the middle of a bustling crowd of devotees, that I began noticing the sly glances and outright stares from those around me. It was as if I was holding up a sign that said “LOOK AT ME! I DON’T BELONG.” I couldn’t quite gather what it was that gave away my foreigner status: Was it the hair? Was it my shoes? I had made an effort to dress in a traditional sari, which was expected of women and young girls in Jaffna. I had even made a point of wearing gold jewellery, clipped my hair back, and wore minimal make-up, things I would never do at temples in Toronto. In my opinion, I didn’t even look like I came from Toronto. I wouldn’t dare dress like this in Toronto. But, somehow I did not fit in no matter how hard I tried. What was it that made me so different? How did people pinpoint me as a foreigner? How was it possible to feel such kinship and belonging with family—whom I had just met for the first time? And at the same time, why did I feel so unable to blend into the larger surroundings in Sri Lanka? How do I explain the where and who when it comes to belonging?
While walking down the busy streets of Colombo one night, I became consumed in fear and anxiousness, as if someone was watching my every move. The locals around me spoke Singhalese, a language I could not understand because I spoke Tamil, the other official language of the country. My inability to understand what those around me were saying made me even more suspicious. I became unnerved by the casual glances of passersby and the whispers of young men on street corners. The fear that enveloped me was inexplicable to my foreign eyes. For years I had lived in Toronto, among people of different ethnicities and races, and of those who spoke different languages than me, and yet I still felt like I belonged. How could I possibly feel so out of place here in Colombo, when I looked so similar to those around me? It was as if they could sense my foreignness. I felt utterly out of place. I felt like an outsider, and it felt like everyone knew.
I had been forewarned of the unbearable heat, unsanitary bathrooms, and the unfamiliar languages I would encounter in Sri Lanka. I was not prepared for the multiple shifts in my sense of belonging, and I did not expect to feel so foreign in my parents’ homeland. It became apparent to me on this particular visit to Sri Lanka that my sense of belonging was not static. It depended on the people around me and the situation and place where I was located. Identity is relational and situational, and feelings of inclusion and exclusion depend on the dynamics of location and situation. My sense of self and belonging depended on how much I could successfully “blend in with the crowd.” Among family members and fellow airplane passengers, I felt like I belonged; there was a common ground among us, whether in kinship or languages spoken. Among others, the large temple crowds and passersby in Colombo streets, any sense of belonging proved to be groundless. Where I belonged was related to with whom I felt I belonged.
Further reading suggestions
- Ahmed, Sara. 2000. Strange Encounters: Embodies Others in Postcoloniality. London: Routledge.
- Brah, Avtar. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London: Routledge.
- Brand, Dionne. 2002. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Random House Canada.
- Cresswell, Tim. 2000. In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Fung, Richard. 1988. The Way to My Father’s Village. (Film) Toronto: V-Tape.