May 27, 2005
Poor Little Rich Girl
There are those days where I feel like I get it. I could live here in Sri Lanka for the rest of my life. Where I feel like I’ve really done a good job of fitting in, of learning the lingo, wearing unslutty western clothes that are culturally appropriate (even if I do look like a member of a Christian youth group in the process), of picking up the social nuances, of working and living in the Sri Lanky style.
Then there are days like today. Those days where I feel like such an outsider, where people make me know I’m an outsider, when I realise no matter how many curries I eat, how many shalwars I wear, how many rehearsed Sinhala phrases I spout I would always be an outsider.
One day out in the field driving up to Jaffna (itself a story filled with piercing Sinhala music, endless Army and LTTE checkpoints and streets filled with bullet dotted buildings) with all the field staff was one of these days…
Language is obviously the first thing that’s really going to make you know your place on the outer. Saying that the food is tasty and asking if people are tired only goes so far in 16 hour journey. After that you’re pretty much on your own to pick out words from the conversations flying fast your ears and try and at least make an educated guess about what the topic might be.
And then there’s the money - the fact that I’ve got a lot and they don’t. Even as a volunteer here I reek of money. It’s in the clothes I wear, the bag I have, the books I read, the house they pick me up from, the mobile phone I make calls on. It’s in the fact that I can even travel to another country and be there sitting in the back of a van with them. It’s in the colour of my skin.
We were having one of our many sugary tea stops for the day and all the ladies went out to find the toilet. Down an alleyway and in amongst some rubble we spot the squat. So we all hitch up our pants and take turns. All the other ladies hand their bags to the rest of the group to hold while they get busy - negotiating a squat toilet with a flapping about you can be bad news. But I haven’t quite gotten used to drip drying or the hand wipe so I always carry a secret paper stash (or can at least rustle up some old bus tickets) in my bag. When I come out of the toilet carrying my bag I find all the other ladies laughing and pointing. At my bag.
“Your money is toilet paper,” they’re laughing.
It’s a joke, I get it, but they do think that I could probably use money as toilet paper if I wanted to.
“I’m not rich! No no, not rich!” I say.
But they’re still laughing, and now they’ve started cackling in Sinhala, talking over one another. I hear the word ‘rich’ now and then, but once again I’m left holding the leash and the conversation has run away from me. I stand there like a fool, tears about to fall. I’m not rich, but standing here outside a roadside tea stop I am the richest woman in the world, I’m the richest woman they know. We’re all standing there in Shalwars and thongs and holding our bags after squatting to take a piss - but I look down at my thongs, a pair of Havianas my mum sent over from Australia that would have cost about half what they earn in a week and I just want to crawl into that big old dirty squat toilet in the ground.