First Person

Sinhalese, Tamil, and why it all matters so much

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In Thiraimadu camp, Sri Lanka,Yealini, holds her one-month-old year old baby, Rohith. They stand outside their post-tsunami transitional shelter. Photo by: Howard Davies/Oxfam.
In Thiraimadu camp, Sri Lanka,Yealini, holds her one-year-old baby, Rohith. They stand outside their post-tsunami transitional shelter. Photo by: Howard Davies/Oxfam.

I’ve been thinking a lot about heritage lately. My husband, John, and I are expecting our first child in about a week. John’s a New Englander, who traces his roots back to various European intersections, but not one that he identifies with in particular. I’m from California, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants.

Everyone we know is fascinated by the sort of child the two of us would produce; the fact that we’ve decided not to find out the gender just makes it all the more intriguing. Will the baby have my South Asian features – big eyes, dark hair, caramel coloring – or will he or she have my mother-in-law’s trademark heart-shaped face, almond eyes, and long lashes. Could it be the “perfect baby” (someone actually said this to me once) and be a lovely cross of both?

And since it will be a biracial child, how will we make sure he or she has some connection to its roots?

Since the baby will grow up in Boston (an odd thing for me to contemplate as a die-hard West Coaster), John will undoubtedly lavish him or her with all the trappings of a New England life. He or she will learn to love turning leaves in the fall, sledding in the winter, the unexpected snow shower in the spring, and mountain hikes in the summer. We will teach the baby about Paul Revere’s ride and Walden Woods and Thomas Jefferson. And he or she will be able to see the places where all that amazing history unfolded.

But what of my culture? With my family living in Southern California and us only visiting a couple times a year, how can we make sure this baby knows about its other half? And as a very American girl myself, what lessons do I teach about what being Sri Lankan actually means?

This latest concern cropped up in my mind during the last few weeks as I followed the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. There are very recent reports that the fighting has ended, but aid organizations like Oxfam and others still have a lot of work to do on the ground. Oxfam is providing cooked food, clean water, and sanitation and public health services, while advocating on behalf of the civilians, Sinhalese and Tamil alike, who have lost so much in the midst of a war not of their making.

When my parents left Sri Lanka more than 30 years ago, they did so in part because of the worsening conditions in the country. By coming to America, by starting all over again and working very hard in the way that so many immigrants do, they gave my sister and me many gifts: excellent education, endless opportunity, and-perhaps most important-a physical and emotional security that we sometimes take for granted, and that so many in Sri Lanka cannot.

Maybe that’s why, although I am of Sinhalese heritage, I never really identified with it growing up in the States. I’d always just thought of myself as simply Sri Lankan-American. I see now that that, too, was a gift from my parents. The country’s political problems and corresponding violence were always something for them to debate, crisscrossing back and forth in English and Sinhala at extended family gatherings. It may have been part of their plan too that, for us, ignorance was a kind of bliss.

My parents grew up at a certain time, with a certain background, in a certain place. Most of their political feelings are really reflections of the sadness they now feel looking back on a home that’s nothing like what they remember, so different from the place that was once so peaceful it was nicknamed “Serendip.”

I’m grateful for the choices they made. Those choices, in a way, reflect who I am. But what is right for my child? I feel like I need to decide how much I want him or her to know about all of this. But like so many other parenting decisions, I’m still figuring this one out. I hope that my instincts will kick in at the right time and tell me the best way to move forward. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+