By Celina Cramer
“There are no more minorities” said the President after the defeat of the LTTE – a secessionist rebel group that waged a war against Sri Lanka in 2009. From now on, everyone is part of the majority. It was a nice feeling after decades of distinction between the communities in the island. I belong to one of the three recognized minorities of the island – the Burghers. A friend of mine noticed that we were the only ones not represented in the National Flag, I assumed that maybe we shared one strip in the flag with another community.
This was not the least an issue for me. But with regards to the current conflict which the country went through I find this misrepresentation amusing.
As a Sri Lankan of mixed ethnicity- Burgher after my dad and Sinhala, after my mother- I had some great deal to figure out. Aged 13, I presented myself at an acting examination of a prestigious theatre examination board in Britain , and found myself facing a strange examiner who reacted as if he was disappointed in meeting a Sri Lankan under my surname, as if to indicate that my appearance did not suit my surname.
I had for the first time experienced discrimination in one’s behaviour towards me. The question was not whether or not it was a discriminatory behaviour but to know whether this gentleman knew the history of his own country, a great power in the Colonization period. And that maybe had he known, he’d made the distinction and may have realized that there are British descendants all over Asia due to this wave of colonization by the British, French and the Nordic countries.
This question of proper education succeeded my question of discrimination over appearance and one’s surname. I passed the examination and later took on few exciting Shakespearian and Chekhovian characters on stage. In a way the stage allowed me to hide myself though I did not know what from.
I was parachuted between two countries since childhood: my mother thought it best to bring up her children, my brother and I, in Sri Lanka. Every August we’d come to Sri Lanka for the summer. I loved it. It was a meeting point with my extended family. A country with more culture, more tradition, more norms, more customs that would give us a sense in life and enable us connect with our roots, which she thought could not be accomplished in France.
Alas, I was nine when she parachuted me from France to Sri Lanka. I was to perform in the school’s ballet that I had rehearsed for so much, when she came in to school one evening to pick my brother and I and head directly to the island. I didn’t know much about this country. It all seemed so exotic to me; the beaches, the food, the people were all so different yet I felt something in common. At 9, Sri Lanka meant one word to me – holidays. And now it was a lifelong holiday.
I couldn’t speak much Sinhala and English though I perfectly understood both, I expressed myself in French. I attended a very prestigious Catholic school in the capital. It was a girls’ school; I detested it because this separated me from my brother, who was sent to a boys’ school. Now at this new school, I learned all my prayers, I learned to worship and respect teachers, fascinatingly draped in sarees each day. I also made an amazing discovery- my ethnicity. As I stood near a teacher’s desk, I happen to see the class register wide open. I took the liberty of checking my name in it. I found it. No. 48 – I was the 48th student to have arrived to that class, Name, Surname, Date of Birth, Race – Burgher, Nationality – Sri Lankan/French.
I gazed at the Race column for some time. Until this moment I did not know that I was Burgher. I wandered further up on the register in search for my friends; Rushika was Sinhala, Shaika was Moor- I knew something was up since she’d always turn up with white pants under the school’s white dress uniform and a shawl unlike us- , Jacquelina was Burgher and Vinodhya and Kamalini – the twin- were missing. In the school there would be a class with the letter ‘T’ that was for those students who studied in Tamil as their medium of instruction, and that was where the twins were. We were categorized according to our race. Now I knew who belonged where.
It was interesting to know that I was called a Portuguese Burgher once, because they didn’t understand where my French accent came from and to them it was ‘broken English’. I inquired as to the other types of Burghers: the real ones (British descendants), the Dutch Burghers and the Portuguese Burghers, in order of fluency in speaking English. More classifications were discovered with time: another friend who wore the pants and the shawl was a Mammon that was another type of Muslim along with the Moors and the Malays, again in order of degree of conservatism. My twin friends informed me that they were of the highest class of the Tamils – The Colombo Chetties as opposed to the other Tamils. This was the most enlightening experience during my school years.
Back home I was caught between two cultures: to worship elders or to hug elders? The former was the norm and rule according to my mother’s mother – my Achchi Amma- who forbade hugging. This was against the wishes of my dad’s mother. My worry was whether or not to hug or worship my parents: Who do I hug? Who do I worship? Do I worship God in the same manner? I sometimes got confused and mixed up the rules, for which I was given a good telling off and my French origins were blamed. Might have I said “Oops, excuse my French?”
I led my life happily with these minor confusions in my head. Everything was magnified when bomb after bomb exploded in Colombo on a regular basis. I became more aware of the civil war that the country was going through much long before. Even though I was 8 when I saw the horrible destruction caused by the bombing of the Central Bank in 1996 on French TV, it never felt so real. The LTTE- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – waged a war against Sri Lanka ; their objective was to gain a separate state meant for the Tamils. It took me two real-life experiences to realize the depth of the situation.
More than a war between a country and a terrorist group, many saw it as a war between two ethnic groups; Sinhalese and Tamils. One cannot deny the discrimination. Certainly not I, when I remember clearly that any dark skinned person was immediately identified as a Tamil who then immediately became a Tiger terrorist. I was made to think this way. But I was not the only one. Two years after the end of this war, I return to France. At an orientation programme in one of the world’s prestigious universities, I presented myself as a Sri Lankan, only to be checked if I’m a Tamil or if not, belonged to those who massacre them. Dumbfounded and shocked at this question I reply and rectify the distorted representation of Sri Lanka and its communities. It deeply wounded me, to know that this is what the world thinks of Sri Lankans.
I used to write essays on my motherland when I was small. Later I heard that there was a fatherland as well. Your motherland, is the country of you birth or origin. Because then I have two motherlands. I was born in one, brought up in another and living in the former. I am more fluent in one language than the other. I am bilingual. No. Trilingual if you count Sinhala. My national identity card says one thing, but my inner self says another. I am legally this but organically that. Where do I belong? Who am I? Questions ring in my head. Sometimes I feel I’m an –in between- person. Neither here nor there: a stranger in both lands.
Having listened to Kumar Sangakkara’s MCC Cowdrey Lecture, self-realization dawned upon on me and I came to the following conclusion: in the end, when your country is at stake, which is the case for Sri Lanka, there is no time to think of your ethnic origin, race or caste, you put yourself forward and embrace all ethnicities and call yourself a Sri Lankan. I may be a Sinhala-Burgher, but looking at the larger picture I am Sri Lankan, and that is all. You adapt and make your own identity out of the cultures you inherit. You are who you are and I am who I am: Sri Lankan, French, South East Asian, European and most of all a citizen of the world.
( Ms. Celina Cramer is a French born Sri Lankan studying Economic and Social Administration at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne – Paris 1.)