Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Alumni Profile They Won't Publish

"Out of our memory of the holocaust we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide.  We must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists. We must understand that human rights and human dignity are indivisible."--Jimmy Carter

Or that failing...

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."--Elie Wiesel

          Every year the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program sends American students to study abroad in Sri Lanka.  The program was founded in 1982 and I was privileged to be among its first students.

          Despite well-documented accounts of genocide and the ongoing persecution of Sri Lanka's Tamil population, the ISLE program continues to grow and flourish--they have even hired a program alum as a public relations liaison and publish alumni profiles in a monthly newsletter.  These profiles feature bright, likable, idealistic young people who express their love for Sri Lanka--a love that is romantic and almost proprietary.  The profiles illustrate how the experience of spending a few months in Sri Lanka as a student has helped to forge who they become as they mature.  I read these profiles with great interest; they confirm my fears.

          An email was generated to all ISLE Program alumni inviting us to submit our profiles, according to their guidelines, for possible publication.

          I invite you to read the alumni profiles published in October, November, and December 2011. Then read mine.

Alumni Profile:  Charlotte Heckscher, ISLE '82

Charlotte Heckscher, William Smith College, Class of 1984, ISLE Program 1982

Raised in a bilingual household by my mother and grandmother, I embrace Armenian culture, although it does not fully embrace me.  I understand Armenian, I sometimes dream in Armenian, and I've been told I speak with an Adabazaartzi accent, but I am not fluent; my mother's people are darker than I am and even with my dark hair and eyes, my light skin and sharp features aren't especially characteristic of my Armenian heritage.  Armenian has a word for this condition:  odar.  The definition of odar is "nonArmenian," but the term carries baggage.  It means outsider, outcast, inferior.  It doesn't rank as a curse, but it's still a bad word.  It's ironic, because Armenians themselves are outsiders; my mother's family fled Turkey during the genocide.

My father was a generation older than my mother, from an aristocratic German family.  He fled Nazi Germany as a pacifist and was imprisoned in Canada for two years because he was German.  His letter of reference from Quakers requesting refugee status had been misplaced by the British.  His prison camp contained a small number of Jews and Communists, but was mostly comprised of German pacifists.  I don't believe any Nazis were interred; I supposed they were happier in Germany.   He eventually joined us and married my mother when I was 10 years old, and his fanatical abhorrence for nationalism, as well as for any display of ethnic pride, came with him.

I am the mother of two teenagers, a son and a daughter.  Their father, a dear friend now, is Egyptian and moved to the United States when we married.   Our children aren't quite bilingual and, like their father, they are Muslim.  Since we live in the rarefied atmosphere of Princeton, New Jersey, our encounters with blatant prejudice have been limited to a few incidents.

Before I was laid off, I was a shadow.  A shadow is a special education aide who assists and closely follows a student on the autism spectrum as he goes about his school day.  I have often regarded my work as a daily attempt to bridge two different cultures or realities--the world of a particular child with autism vs. the expectations of the world of "typical" children and adults.  A shadow isn't well paid or well-respected, as educators go, but for the right person, the job offers a nearly perfect balance of challenge and fulfillment, and the opportunity to cultivate mutually transformative relationships.

The reasons I chose the ISLE program:

It was an accident.  Semester after semester, when the creative writing courses I had my heart set on were closed, I ended up being forced to take the classes that secretly, shamefully interested me more:  and Religious Studies never filled up.  More than merely intellectual exercise, these classes dared students to contemplate the most personal, heartfelt issues from new perspectives, where we came to recognize that the personal is political.  I took wonderful courses with Valerie Saiving, a prominent feminist theologian whose work influenced Mary Daly.  Valerie had crippling arthritis so her students were forced to trudge through the towering snow drifts of Geneva, New York, because classes were held off-campus at her Victorian home. She let us smoke cigarettes and drink tea and pet her Siamese cat while we had discussions--discussions, not lectures--about our assigned readings.  Her class on goddesses led me to take a course Lowell Bloss was teaching about Hinduism.  Again, I was drawn by the warmth of the teacher and the empowerment of being both challenged and treated as an equal.  Lowell and John Holt were recruiting students for the first year of a study-abroad program in Sri Lanka that was linked with Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby Colleges.  I knew nothing about Sri Lanka, but it sounded incredibly cool and I was determined to go.

The foods I fell in love with:

I can't remember their names, or even their ingredients, but I still enjoy eating with my hands. Oddly, I remember bringing home about 20 bags of cadjunuts, spiced cashews, and rationing them to a handful a day.  I was savoring Sri Lanka, rationing it bite by bite, until one day, around the 18th bag, I decided to stop cold-turkey.  I just couldn't face the day when it was all gone.

My most memorable events on the program:

Three pivotal moments:

1.  In the pettah, the market place in Colombo, I stepped on a long rusty nail, driving it through my shoe.  I rested against the side of a building, but I couldn't remove the nail from the shoe and I couldn't walk.  An old beggar woman who, for some reason, reminded me of my grandmother (perhaps because my grandmother didn't speak English, either), pantomimed for me to give her my shoe. She was very serious, almost stern, but when she finally extricated the bent nail, we both laughed.  She shrugged her shoulders, beaming with satisfaction, as if to say, "See here, silly child, this is how it's done." I wanted to hug her, but instead I dug into my pocket to give her a few rupees. The smile dropped off her face.  Shall I spell it out?  I had cheapened her act of kindness, reduced her to a beggar when she had just demonstrated that we were equals, that human kindness is to be freely given and shared.

2.  I will never forget the extraordinary beauty of the tea country, lush and green, with hundreds of waterfalls.  Our bus zigzagged up one mountain and down another when suddenly, around a bend, we noticed an old man in a sarong selling postcards, the kind that tumble down, connected like an accordion.  The old man, frantic, would run up the mountain to beat the bus, jumping over the tea, reaching the next bend in the road further up the mountain just moments before us so he could display his cards again.  At each bend he was more exhausted, until he was finally bent over, defeated, trying to catch his breath.  I laughed with everyone else, except one girl who was sullen.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, "Why are you laughing? Think about it."

3.  I was afraid to leave Sri Lanka because I knew I would never return.  Once we got to the airport, I realized I'd left my bag at the Ottery Inn, where we'd been staying.  It was at least an hour's drive. I expressed my gratitude to the driver who eventually arrived with my bag, a grandfatherly figure with a gray beard and a toothless smile.  He showed me photos of his daughter and granddaughter and explained how smart they were and how perfect their command of English.  He asked me to write a letter of reference for them, so they could come to the United States and have the same opportunities I have.  He had written their names and addresses on a neatly torn square of yellow lined paper and made me promise him I would write, though I knew I could and would do nothing for him.  He smiled and said, "You are a rich American--you are very lucky!"  I had heard this refrain often, and had always responded, with irritation, that all Americans were not rich and that I, certainly, was not rich. But it was my last hour in the country and it was probably my last chance to seize the uncomfortable moment of grace.  There was no more resistance; I do, in fact, have much, much more than grandfather (materially, at least). Not because of any cleverness or special merit, but by an accident of birth.  I am rich.  I just want more than he wants so I hadn't noticed.

The activities I participated in:

My independent study, the culmination of my academic work in Sri Lanka, was to be field research on the practice of exorcism.  I had done my reading and made connections and bravely set out on a bus into some remote-seeming village to interview a Sri Lankan who had himself written extensively on exorcism and would arrange for me to accompany him to an exorcism and be my interpreter.

I have read about harassment in other alumni profiles.  I was the only Caucasian in the bus, with the added oddity of being a young female traveling alone.  I sat next to a woman and her little daughter, feeling quite brave, but safe.  She pulled my hair and touched my skin while her mother giggled.  The mother asked me something I didn't understand.  Then she tugged my hair and laughed, too.  I felt I was being gracious by allowing strangers access to my body.  I felt I had no choice.  The men sitting behind me poked their fingers under me, between the wooden slats of my bus seat, so they could get a feel, too.  The bus had become crowded inside and out, with standing bodies pushing against me and a number of people hanging off the sides of the bus.

The exorcism specialist was rather handsome, with a soft, soothing voice and uncombed black hair that was pushed back from his brow.  In my imagination he was always the exorcist.  His wife followed us to a tiled veranda and instructed servants to bring tea before she withdrew into another part of the house.  I sat before him in an elaborate wicker chair, taking notes and answering his questions, as if facing a foreign dignitary.  He gesticulated grandly and I observed that he had an extra thumb, a little appendage which bobbled along as he waved his arms before me.  He waved extravagantly.  It was as if he wanted to display it, and try as I might to be polite and avert my eyes, I couldn't take my eyes off it. He had learned of an exorcism that was to take place in a few days and was writing the information for me when he stopped.

"I've never seen this before!"  The floor was covered with tiny red ants and they were all headed for me.  He watched while they crawled over my sandals, stinging my feet with their bites.  "This is very unusual."

Later on, as I waited on the dusty road for my bus back to Colombo, mosquito bites welted up on my arms.  It was a mosquito bite that infected me with Dengue Fever, a tropical disease that's also known as Break-Bone Fever.  Within a few days I was delirious, hospitalized with a fever of 104, with broken capillaries creating a delicate lacework pattern under my skin.  I never saw my exorcism but I wondered, in my delirium, what may have possessed me.

What I miss most:

Naturally, I miss the smell of Southeast Asia, the smell of Sri Lanka, the smell of Colombo streets, the smell of the ocean crashing down furiously at the end of Melbourne Ave., Colombo 4, the ocean that disgorged single sandals and flip flops onto the sand without their mates, the smell of incense at shrines, the smell of chilies and ground cumin, the smell of wood burning, garbage burning, diesel fumes and jasmine.

I miss the particular heat of Sri Lanka in August, the rare pleasure of taking a shower that starts off cold and bracing as the water falls on your face, but is warmed traveling down your body.

Of course I miss the particular light, the audacious bright sunlight blazing off the Indian Sea, the dark breadth of the sky at night as seen from the balcony of the Ottery Inn, pierced by stars, the fractured shimmer of moonlight on the sea, a surprising gust of wind, salty and damp.

I miss Rajah in every memory; he is everything for me in Sri Lanka. I miss being 20 with Rajah.  I remember his brown hands, how the white shirt of his uniform was too big, the sleeves rolled up and the improvised cuff still falling against his wrist bone.

I think of his bones, and the bones of all the others, when I remember him cupping my cheek with his hand, pushing a tear away before I left him.  I left him.  You see?  I left him there and now he's gone.

In every memory I feel his presence, and his absence.

How has the ISLE experience translated beyond my college years and changed my worldview:

I don't think we ever fully recover from the reverse culture shock, the trauma of returning home with our self-perception forever altered.  I remember dreading the ubiquitous, "What was it like in Sri Lanka?" Almost 30 years on, I'd like to reframe the question and ask, "How has the experience changed me?"

Rajah and I corresponded for many years.  His last letter, after he fled up-country from Colombo, written in his meticulous, old-fashioned print with a blue ballpoint pen, said, "These are trouble times."  The rest of the letter was written in Tamil, which I neither read nor understand.  I never heard from him again.

As the years went by, I read more about Sri Lanka's escalating problems and began to wonder why all this was becoming so important for me only after leaving the country.  We had been warned about ethnic tensions when we visited Jaffna (the stronghold of the insurgent Tamil group known as The Tigers).  We were cautioned that we would see military police with machine guns and that our bus would be searched.  It all seemed very exciting and even a little silly at the time, guns and searches.

When I read in one of the recent alumni profiles that an ISLE student had decided to walk to school in Kandy every day "after an exploding bus incident" I wasn't surprised by her attitude, which struck me as one of casual amusement and dismissal.  It's not our war, after all; we're there to study religion or dance or the Sinhalese language.  We Americans (or perhaps it's human nature) are able to draw a safe circle around ourselves by which we are buffered from myriad realities other than our own. We are in Sri Lanka to further our studies, not to stand witness to genocide or insurgency. We are not here to take a stand.

But we are.  Whether we know it or not, we are taking a stand.

That's how the Sri Lankan experience has translated beyond my college years.  I have a responsibility to Rajah, not just to myself, and I have a responsibility to you to take a stand on behalf of the disappeared, the dead, the oppressed.  It may sound grand, but it's simple, really.

Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Such a simple equation, not lofty at all.  Ask yourself, Is it true?  Ask yourself, Who am I?

I am like you.  My love for Sri Lanka is romantic and proprietary.  So many of my experiences there have become parables for me, transformative and moral.

My unquestioned assumptions were the nail in my shoe--the grandmotherly stranger was Sri Lanka herself, piercing me like a nail, wrenching out my fixed, stuck notions of place, class, and identity.

What is really so absurd about the old man in the mountains?  Is it that we prefer to see only the physical beauty of Sri Lanka, the picture-postcard images?  Why do we find the dirty old man racing up the mountain, breathless for a few rupees, absurdly funny?   What is it about his humiliation that tickles us so? What's funny about his poverty? Why is it amusing for us to glide up the mountainside in our air-conditioned tour bus and leave him behind, just because we can?

That embarrassing little appendage on the exorcist's hand, like the open secret of the persecution and genocide, seems like a distraction.  It inconveniently coincides with our studies--we feel it's almost rude to look.  I went to Sri Lanka as an outsider to study exorcism, but the fever was all mine, the demon was inside me.  I didn't do the field research--I fell in love with Rajah.  I lost and found myself.  And it didn't happen overnight--it took decades.

Do we use our experience of Sri Lanka to confirm our self-satisfaction?  Are we applauding ourselves for being better people, more tolerant of other cultures, do we now see the harmony in diversity?  Are we still congratulating ourselves for giving rupees to beggars?

If I am like you, then you are also like me.  Imagine us at 20, you or me or Rajah.  Imagine his aspirations, his opportunities, his laughter and his struggles.  Imagine the warmth of his hand, how his callouses sting your cheek when his finger brushes away your tears. Imagine what it means to disappear, to have no one look.  Imagine his bones when you look at his smiling photograph.  He is somewhere, if only in your memory.

Stand up.  Love Sri Lanka in your own way, but protest in your own way, too.  Know what it means to shrug off the "incident of the exploding bus."  Know that you are always a witness and stand up.


  1. Okay ... this was not a piece of writing but a film ... I watched it and experienced it scene by scene.
    So what does it take not to distance ourselves from different people and see that we are all so much alike after all?
    I have just spent the day with my soul friend Sakiko ... we come from totally different cultures and yet we seem to share so many views on so many levels. We wondered why (so often) it takes a tragedy to bring people closer to each other and to notice that we are like each other after all.
    You really did try to climb into the soul of that country ... and yet I'm sure that this was possible because of who you were and are. It might not have happened in another country with a very different culture.
    This is light years away from Princeton!

  2. I'm writing from Starbucks and my laptop isn't recognizing me as the author, so I'll try to respond as someone else.

    I cried when I wrote this and I cried when I re-read it. That probably means it's too close to the bone and needs major editing.

    I think our human relationships--yours with Sakiko and mine with R., etc.--are the bridges. It's not reading and intellectualizing and theoretical. It's experiential.

    I don't know anyone else in the program who had any kind of friendship with a Tamil. If I hadn't known Rajah, I'm pretty sure I'd still be in the dark.

    Sis, I'm so happy whenever I see you've posted one of your deep, thoughtful comments.

    I'm avoiding Christmas shopping and 5,000 other duties by sitting here with my cappuccino and my laptop. Envy me!