People watching Colombo Sri Lanka


People watching in Colombo is more interesting in December. Hordes of expatriate Sri Lankans here – resulting in gobs of family “get togethers” around the season’s pre-sex parties. I am on leave after many months at the yoke and I have been assigned to the family transport pool. My official responsibility is getting expiate family members around town alive through the terrors of Colombo traffic. The role has given me a perfect seat to sniff the aromas of Sri Lankan social life in the early 21st century.

Of course pecking out this kind of post is utterly dangerous. There are plenty of slippery slopes into stereotyping especially when it comes to describing visiting expats. Cultural variation is a very subtle thing. We tend to notice it in petty variation from our “local” standards – such as wearing Bermuda shorts and Nikes outside the house. American, Australian and UK accents are dead give always from that carefully cultivated Colombo accent of not sounding “go-day” while not sounding foreign. Proper pronunciation of Sinhala half tones is the key indicator.

The best place for all these observations is the Odel near the eye hospital – that island of first world department store shopping. Besides Odel, I’ll be doing a House of Fashions (should I say Gas Chamber of Body Odours?) run. I don’t want to think ahead about the parking ordeal that awaits me so that’s’ another post.

The annual pilgrimage to Odel is a fixture of my chauffeuring duties. This time I made a successful attempt to stay away from the expensive yet tempting book section. The interesting characters local “hip dudes” with their bangles and fancy hair hanging out with the hip hop dressed friends from abroad. Addressing each other as “Machan” in affected upper class British accents.

Inevitably, we meet some visiting “aunty” from abroad with an “uncle” (almost always in a polo shirt) tagging along. The only thing I am not fully comfortable with about these meeting is the cheek to cheek hug/kiss ritual. It is sort of French/Middle eastern but it feels quite awkward. Thankfully these chit chat (which mostly involve the women) don’t drag on. Everybody has somewhere else to go and chances are the conversation will reveal that we are all destined to meet at the same pre-sex party. Not an easy thing to manage as you might think.

Social coordinating during this time frame is similar to a mission to Mars. You got to plot trajectories of multiple bodies moving through vaguely defined and radically changing schedules. One person’s schedule change can wreck the calendars of other. Further complicating things is the insane politics of people to meet and people to avoid. Ironically, the whole thing requires you to have a highly organised yet utterly flexible schedule. The processing complexity is enough to melt a supercomputer.

One of the many things I have realised this “season” is that there are too many good people in my family in exile. When they do get here, the maelstrom of the “social scene” never really lets you spend quality time with all of them. I pushed my mingling skills to the max at the last dinner but somehow it felt flat.

Before I finish I’ll through out an odd sociological situation I have noticed. Visiting couples split up for the duration of their visit – with each person staying with parents. It creates this bizarre if not fun “dating” situation. Along with the politics of how many lunches and dinners you have had with each other’s parents. I knew about this before but the reality of it has hit only recently after observing it from close range.

Thus ends a skimmed version of my amateur anthropology. I am sure I am not the only Sri Lankan blogger noticing these things. Please do share interesting social habits/trends you have noticed this “new year season”.

The comment box humbly awaits your input.

12 comments

  1. Especially hilarious are the freshers who have newly returned from their first semester or two of University in a Western country, who greet you in thick accents, despite having lived in SL all their lives and abroad for a matter of months. The accent appropriated is usually quite wonky and ambiguous so they end up sounding like they’ve come from a country nobody’s ever heard of. It’s annoying but also quite sweet depending on how you look at it, lol.

    Btw, this line was classic: “Besides Odel, I’ll be doing a House of Fashions (should I say Gas Chamber of Body Odours?) run.” – Hahahahaha, so, SO true!

    Great post Cerno🙂

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  2. Gypsy:😆 Yes! the returning freshies with their accents! How could I overlook that one. I never thought the it was true till I actually met one. He had a convincing yet unspecific British accent. After just 1 semester! How is it that I never mastered that after years in exile…

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  3. I guess Sri Lankans pickup those accents fast as possible in the innocent attempt to not sound like or mistaken as Indians while we are in abroad. So we cover our soft sounds (common with Indian accent), with whatever the thick accent around us at that time.

    But I find it is most amusing to start with an Indian accent to go with light head movements in Sri Lanka front of “proper English” speaking relatives. But If you in US, you must use proper British accent specially when a white lady in a supermarket or a restaurant ask you “you work here?” or “where is milk?”.
    Also girls quite like British accent too.

    If you are in a bank or that sort of place in Sri Lanka and if the girl in the counter gives you hard time with her polite English accent, Irish accent is the best one to burst in to. And I guarantee you can get the thing done.

    The foreign accent syndrome is quite alright as long as you won’t imitate an accent from none-English speaking country, like Chinese or Korean. Only exception to that is Indian accent.

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  4. Sam That is quite fascinating. Never knew that Irish accents had so much clout here. Is this from your experience? Sounds like there’s a blog post in it.

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  5. Irish accents do not have what so ever clout in SL. But that is by nature powerful enough to send the listener to unexpected confusion.
    yah maan. experience.

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  6. Hahahaha! Hilarious exchange going on here boys😛

    I wish I could do accents. I have to agree that I’m a total sucker for a man with an accent. Once went out with a boy who was South African, French, German and Welsh, all mixed together. The accent was rather confusing but fantastic. And yes, a Hugh-Grant-style Brit accent will melt a girl inside of 5 seconds. Same with Irish and Scottish accents – for me anyway!!

    I know that if you go to a restaurant or an office somewhere and put on a huge fake accent you’re bound to get served first and served well. Possibly not in the more um up-market places but certainly in mid-level places. Sorry if that came off snobbish, it wasn’t my intention. But yeah – kinda funny and kinda sad that that’s the case.

    Couple of my haf Brit cousins came down years ago and said that if they ever got on a bus there would be people jumping up to give the ‘suddahs’ seats. But I’ve heard many friends who have said pregnant women have been ignored in buses and made to stand.

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  7. Lankika: Always a pleasure🙂 and thank you for the videos!

    Sam: There’s a blog post in your “experience” of the accept issue all right!

    thebohemiangypsy: Hmmm very interesting insights there. I guess the whole accent thing is another forgotten front in the language/class wars. You put it into words quite well: kinda funny and kinda sad
    The bus story is something like the stuff I’ve heard years ago from one of my uncles. I guess some things don’t change.

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  8. cerno mate thought you’d (and enyone else) might find some of these vids interesting..
    it a documentary telecasted over channel bravo….

    Sri lankan elite Cop’s STF (Special Task Force) – from Chris Ryan’s elite world cops
    some cleaver sod has put these on youtube…
    parts 1-5
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=DukJ4m4s5so
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=YaX3hs0ddrU
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=Kjdhd7by6KU
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=KL5yAW_zC3o
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=pP28XwScn3o

    awsome documentary… hope we’d read abt these in yer blogs.. hehe anyways have a look…

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  9. Lankika: Thank you for the links. Haven’t gotten around to watching the first ones yet but will when all this wedding season madness settles down.

    As for the icon – its automatically assigned😐 but you can create your own free wordpress.com profile which will let you add your own custom icon. Maybe an incentive to get you blogging as well😉

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