“Where you from?” asks the green mango vendor from behind his cart on the ramparts surrounding Galle fort.
“Australia,” I answer, but immediately feel the need to add, “but my parents are from here.”
“From here?” he repeats and I see that he can’t understand how that could be true. I don’t think his English will stretch far enough for a detailed explanation of the Burghers in Sri Lanka and their exodus after 1956 when Sinhala replaced English as the official language. So I smile and give an apologetic waggle of the head.
“Holiday?” he asks. I just frown and give another waggle. “Residential writing fellowship” is not worth attempting. So he and I accept that it’s too hard to explain, but that it is. We accept it with a calmness that is so common here, an acceptance of how things are, a patience that slows you down and tells you – don’t get worked up, just see, just take note, just take the time that is needed.
I don’t know why I insist on telling everyone I meet about my Sri Lankan origins. I guess it’s because I feel them so strongly; because they are so present in my thoughts, especially when I am here. I know that I am not from here. I know that although my parents grew up here, in many ways they were not from here either. Their language was English, their customs largely European. I do not speak Sinhala or Tamil. I know only a little of Sri Lankan history and culture. The origins of my colour, my hair, my skin are back there somewhere, in a mixing of genes that connected me to this place even before I was born.
As soon as I land in this country, I feel as though I have come home. When I am walking in the street, everyone has the same colour hair as me. Yes, my skin is lighter, but it’s still a shade of the same colour – brown. I’m not chocolate brown or tamarind brown or teak brown like them, but I’m definitely a diluted shade of the same colour. I don’t feel all that different, I don’t feel as though I stand out. No doubt in their eyes I do. No doubt I’m just as foreign as all the other tourists. But what I feel in my body and in my head is a sense of comfort, of belonging, of fitting in.
Maybe it’s something to do with the food. I grew up with the tastes and smells of this country. Egg hoppers, pol sambol, rice and curry, parippu. These foods are a part of me, of my flesh. They were fed to me by my mother. So while English is my mother tongue, Sri Lankan food is my “mother food” – my mother’s food. And I think that’s part of this feeling of comfort, of familiarity.
So this month of writing hasn’t begun with a culture shock. Not yet. I’m sure there will be many, many new sights and sounds and experiences. (Being woken this morning by the screams of a male purple-faced, long-tailed leaf monkey outside my window was one, I guess.)
I already sense, though, that it won’t be a month of completely new experiences in a completely foreign land. It will be a month of seeing, of noticing, of taking the time that is needed. It will be a month of searching for stories in a land where I am already, in a small and inconsequential way, a part of the story myself.
And when I am trying to know what to take from my background, and what to take from this country, and how to make sense of how they fit together, I will stop worrying and answer the green mango vendor’s question with the words of Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
About Michelle Wright
Michelle Wright writes short stories and flash fiction. She won the Age Short Story Competition in 2012. In 2013 she won the Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition and came second in the Bridport Prize for flash fiction. She is spending a month at Templeberg Villa in Galle, Sri Lanka as the inaugural winner of the Templeberg Residential Writing Fellowship.