Before leaving the UK, VSO did their very best to make sure I was equipped and ready for the experience to come. Looking back, it's quite possible they were actually trying to put me off...so vigorous were the preparations. However, whilst slightly unnerved, I was not fully deterred and set off in January with a whole host of new knowledge under my belt as well as a few extra wrinkles at my brow.
One of the things that I found particularly interesting was gaining an understanding of culture using the metaphor of an iceberg.The tip of the iceberg represents the more obvious and visible aspects of culture (such as the food, dress and customs), whilst the vast majority of cultural factors sit under the surface, like the main bulk of the iceberg, hidden and inaccessible to the casual visitor. The nationals, on the whole, are the fish, living life under the sea with no experience of what lies above. Me? A seagull, arriving with a pretty good view of the surface but no real clue about what lies beneath. And yet, I planned to take up residence on the iceberg and held hopes of dipping beneath the surface on occasion and rubbing along with the fish! A pretty tough challenge, particularly when you take into account that seagulls tend to eat fish (this wasn't really explained in the training, but let's try to put that aside for now).
Luckily there is no danger of this particular seagull eating any of the fish. Thankfully, also, I was informed that there might be some penguins hanging out on the iceberg, lightening the mood with a few well timed gags and offering a head massage to anyone getting themselves in a bit of a flap. Well, nobody said that exactly, but this is what I imagined. So, who are these penguins? I was informed they might be locals who are fully immersed in the culture but also have a experience of life on surface, or possibly volunteers who have been in placement for a longer time. It was suggested that the penguins would be vital in aiding my transition and that I could do well to seek a few out. I liked the sound of these penguins. And so, whilst I was keen to get my tail feathers wet and dive in with the fish, I arrived in Sri Lanka determined also to find a penguin of my very own.
And find one I did. My penguin is a wonderfully warm and charming colleague at the University where I spend part of my working week. Of course, I didn't know she would become my penguin when we first met. However, slowly over time, it has become clear that she fits the job description perfectly. Whilst she has, as yet, travelled no further than India, she has spent a great deal of time with "foreigners" and is familiar with their strange ways. Her English is as good as anyone else I've met here, and yet she does a wonderful line in Sringlish expressions to keep me smiling whenever she's around. She is Sri Lankan through and through and loves her home country, but she's also fascinated with life elsewhere and will soon be starting a new life in the UK. She is always happy to listen to my woes, patiently corrects my Sinhala without sniggering, and often brings me delicious home made treats to go with the (ever elusive) sugar-free cuppa handed to me at teatime. Heck, she's even been known to laugh at my jokes! And, to top it all, she never seems to tire of the endless quizzing and questioning inflicted upon her as I try to understand the more puzzling, frustrating and just plain bizarre aspects of my experience here.
For all these reasons and more, she is a great penguin. But, as I mentioned earlier, she is also the "perfect" penguin. And, what does a penguin have to do to earn such high praise? Well, it turns out I wasn't too far off the mark with my initial imagining. I spent this past weekend incapacitated and feeling sorry for myself under a fan with a persistent banging headache. My penguin arrived with a smile, some food and a listening ear. And then, quite unexpectedly, without any prompting or hinting on my part (honestly), she insisted on giving me a head massage! Sewandi, you are a star, and this blog post is for you. If you're looking for a penguin to welcome you to the UK's bright and sunny shores next year, I'm not sure I'll be the perfect penguin, but I'll certainly give it a good go.