I am an American: I was born in America, I am an American citizen, and I have lived here for most of my life. And yet, I’m not completely American, I’m also Sri Lankan, and though I’ve only been there twice, my heritage is just as big a part of me as being an American is. Coming from Sri Lankan people has always made me proud, and I have taken satisfaction in being unique, different, and a part of another culture. However, until recently, I didn’t really know what it meant to be Sri Lankan and knew relatively little about its culture and society. In addition, over time, came the realization that while living in the United States, there are many parts of American culture I also do not understand, and the reason for this is that an integral part of who I am is steeped in another culture. Thus, as a child who has straddled two cultures, I have come to recognize a gap that has left me a little confused as to who I am and what kind of person I am.
As a brown kid in America, I was subject to several situations that exposed me to the differences between what was considered normal in America and what was considered normal to me. One day in middle school I sat down at my lunch table and took out my Sri Lankan food. Because this was what I ate almost every day, the food was just another lunch for me. As one of my friends sat down next to me with his tray filled with pizza and French fries, he looked at my plate of delicious food with disbelief and exclaimed loudly, “Dude, what the heck are you eating?!” Other students at the table naturally took an interest in my “unusual” lunch and I heard someone say, “That’s the weirdest food I’ve ever seen. You guys actually eat this stuff?” I looked around in confusion. Heat flushed up into my cheeks because I didn’t understand why my friends made a distinction between their lunches and mine since this food was simply an everyday part of my life. These kinds of small moments are what I later came to realize helped to define why I always felt a little out of my element in society. No matter how much I acted like an American teenager, there were always parts of me that were unapologetically Sri Lankan, even if I didn’t know or understand it.
Then came a defining trip that filled in the gap that created confusion for me for so long. My family had planned a trip to Sri Lanka for nearly a year and I had looked forward to it with unbridled enthusiasm. However, my cousin Maayown who would also be going was leaving after one week, leaving me with just my parents and my brother for the remaining two weeks. This left me somewhat worried since it would put me in a position where I had no one my age to interact with. Since even Maayown felt a sense of confusion and sometimes alienation in America, how was I going to feel being adrift in Sri Lanka by myself? I honestly had no idea. And to add to my feelings of existentialism, right before we got off the plane in Sri Lanka, my mom wisely asked me, “How are you feeling?” It was like asking someone lost in the depths of space. My only response was, “I don’t know.”
Sri Lanka is a country that is not only polar opposite to America geographically, but culturally as well. To my own amazement, I noticed the many small things I easily connected to and this made me feel much more at home than I could have ever imagined. For example, a few days after we arrived, my family and I dined at a fancy restaurant in a hotel where the food was just like the food I ate at home! I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm over the dishes the servers placed on the table before us and I excitedly exclaimed, “Wait, I actually know what this is!” It was nothing more than food, but the connection to it made it clear to me that in Sri Lanka I could discover those things that had made me feel slightly removed from my American counterparts. As a result, I became a keen observer of everything around me: the people, the streets, the movement and lifestyle that become the heartbeat of a culture. As I walked down the crowded streets, gazing at the small stores on the sides of the road, the bright yellow auto rickshaws weaving through crowds of people, and the aromatic spicy smells of people noisily cooking as they clanged their pans, I felt more attuned to this place than I have ever been.
Over the next two weeks, I stayed in the house that my mom grew up in, and we also got to visit the city and the house where my dad grew up. Now, during this time, my deeper roots became more visible as I learned about my parents’ lives in Sri Lanka and how their lives were so different than anything I had ever experienced, but also how they were also the same. I learned about my parents’ schooling, what they did in their free time, and even the arguments between them and their parents! Absorbing all this information, I often thought to myself, “This is amazing. How did I not know about this?” By the end of my trip, I became aware of a sense of awe. The world, and indeed, even who I was as a person, was much greater than a single experience in one culture, one country, or even one school. I learned a very important lesson: all these stories, experiences, and cultures are a part of me, and I would be very unwise to ignore them.
Upon returning from Sri Lanka, my level of comfort with my daily life, and more specifically with my Sri Lankan heritage, profoundly increased. A few days after coming back to the States, someone at school once again asked me, “What the heck are you eating!?” Rather than feeling confused and flustered like I had in the past, I found myself coolly responding, “It’s my Sri Lankan food. Do you have a problem?” Sri Lanka and learning about where I came from, understanding my cultural background, and discovering my parents’ journey, had all crafted a self-confidence I had never experienced before. After lunch that day, I pondered this newfound self-assurance, and understood that by going to Sri Lanka I had accepted and understood my complete self, the gap had been bridged. For the first time in my life, I knew who Cheran was, and he’s an interesting guy. Even as the trip fades into the past, the feelings and experiences while there have stayed with me, and I am finally in my element: an American who loves and appreciates his Sri Lankan heritage.