The first few weeks we were in Sri Lanka I took pride in how we had penetrated deeply into society here. Or so I thought. We had met and worked with colleagues and students, given lectures and taken interviews, discovered unexpected pathways and thought new thoughts. We had tasted and savored new foods. I had tasted (but not particularly savored) tank silt. We had laughed with people. We had gone deep, pushed ourselves, and bored through obstacles and strangenesses.
Were these collective activities any different than whitewater rafting, kitesurfing, whale-watching or elephant petting? After all you have to "penetrate" pretty deeply into Sri Lanka to do those things. They aren't available in Colombo so you have to take the trouble to "go" somewhere to do them.
Well yes, our academic and cultural exchange was of a much different character than those tourist activities. They did not include consumption. They weren't something we could have paid for. But "penetration" has connotations I'm not that comfortable with now that we've been here longer and I've thought more deeply about it.
To penetrate it seems, is a kind of unidirectional movement. The "penetrator" penetrates actively and the "penetrated" is passive. That's not my idea of exchange. Penetration, because of its directionality also connotes the potential for withdrawal, removal, or retreat. It somehow falls short of commitment, completeness.
Imagine something falling into the water. Immersion happens from all directions in on the object (or person) being immersed. Immersion is complete. It happens up above your nostrils and eardrums and eyebrows. Once you are immersed you can re-emerge but there may be no predictable way this can happen. There may be no logical way of reversing the process of immersion.
So. For a couple of examples. Our long bus ride yesterday to Maha Oya was in a sense, an immersion. We were surrounded by sound, movement, and the close bodies of our fellow passengers. We were experiencing the same things as they were and to the extent possible we were experiencing them in the same way. But our foray down the Polonowurra Road was a sort of unsuccessful "penetration." Not enough time to accomplish whatever intangible we had set out to discover, only the opportunity it seemed, to stick to schedule so we could get back to transportation home on time. Immersion was very much called for yesterday afternoon but we couldn't experience it because of tight time limitations. Immersion takes time.
What about that immersive bus ride though? Was it thoroughly immersive? Perhaps even this experience fell short of immersion for the simple reason that we don't have language skills here in Sri Lanka. So we couldn't experience things the same way as the other people on the bus. Were we on a crowded bus or train back in Boston we would more likely be immersed in our surroundings, simply by dint of the fact that we would be inured to our surroundings. We would be part of them. The language around us would be, for the most part, our language. The route taken would be one we knew. The schedule and time expectations would be known to us.
So, can we ever hope to immerse ourselves in Sri Lankan culture during this nine-month challenge of cultural exchange known as the Fulbright? I'm half optimistic.
The other day during our bike ride down the Old Kalmunai Road we had the amazing experience of being part of the flow of traffic. Janet noted this actually, as we discussed our ride later that evening. The chorus of horns and bells, potholes and pavement, the ballet of several layers of traffic in each lane, was something we shared with everybody else using the road. The language of busy traffic was universal, something we could partake in as we flowed southward with the rest of the people on the road. Same thing happens when walking down the Galle Road in Colombo, crossing it, or stopping for traffic. And in a quieter sense, our beautiful and memorable bike ride to the scenic Unnichchai Tank was a kind of immersion in the landscape, albeit a temporary one.
I'm half optimistic about immersion because we are slowly making Sri Lankan culture a part of us. Our abilities and comprehension, at least in Sinhala are bound to improve as we start language lessons next week. Opportunities for immersion may increase as we get to know more people more deeply.
My half un-optimistic side says "yes, but you'll always be going back to your guesthouse" but at home too, our kitchen is a haven from the bustling day. Also, though we may never be thoroughly a part of this culture--so much so that we don't even sense what's going on--just live it, there's some comfort in the fact that there are many cultures happening around us here. At home it's the same case. So even a person fluent in one of the languages here, even if she knew the bus schedule and experienced the same sounds and faces on a given day, might not or probably would not experience the bus ride like everyone else on the vehicle. There are just too many dimensions for anyone to master them all. My Christian Tamil-speaking host might only guess at the emotions and thoughts of Tamil-speaking Muslims stepping on and off the bus. And his guesses might be as far off the mark as mine.
Not that I'm beating myself up over this. The learning curve of this "cultural exchange" assignment is steep and we all have our limitations. Good thing I'm feeling ready for more challenge as we move forward. Or should I say...immerse ourselves more deeply over the next months.