This Is Paradise – Island Culture

Geography influences people.  No question.

If you live in a place with harsh winters, you know the value of a good pair of boots, and bundling up in layers. But if you grow up in a temperate clime, you may never experience the pressure of external forces on your everyday choices, and may develop a habit of doing and living however you please.

Island culture is very different from mainland culture.

I didn’t understand that completely until I visited my father’s homeland, Sri Lanka, nearly 15 years ago. When I did, it suddenly opened my eyes to some of the key reasons why my mainland-born mother could never have understood her exotic husband, from an island so far away.

Islands create a close community. When we visited Sri Lanka, my sister and I were overwhelmed by family – it sometimes seemed that we were, in some way, to everyone in Columbo, the capital city. Whereas, in the US, we always knew we had family scattered around, but that family is often taken for granted, and not sought out for connection in they way that Sri Lankan families stay connected. And my aunts are geniuses as knowing how everyone is connected to each other. It’s amazing!

Gathering together, sharing food, singing and dancing, and just having fun together, until late in the night, was the routine. The parties we had in Sri Lanka simply never would happen among my American or English family – in the West, we gather at sedate dinner parties, seriously arguing politics, and books, and movies, and world events. Get up and dance spontaneously? Balance a glass of whiskey on your forehead while dancing to the music coming from a cousin playing a guitar, or an aunt drawing chords from the piano? Not a chance!

I received two letters from my mother’s sister many years ago, on the death of my great-aunt in England, who my mother corresponded with all her life. The letters were written by my mother from Sri Lanka, when she and my father and I travelled there and lived for about 18 months when I was 4 years old, until I was nearly 6. The first letter was full of enchantment – and she seemed to have the idealized colonialist view of the island, full of lovely smiling people and beauty. The second letter was more realistic, and far less enthusiastic. But, I don’t think it was that there wasn’t love and beauty all around her, but I can imagine how completely out of her element she must have felt. One of my aunts on our visit described to my how much respect they had for my mother when she lived there, because she was always reading! I think she must have hated the parties, and the expectation to smile and dance, and socialize. She has always been shy, and I inherited the tendency.  She liked order, and routine, and my father came from a culture that operated on spontaneity, and responding in the moment.

The visit helped me see how doomed my parents’ relationship was from the start, and helped me to accept that no one was to “blame” for them parting ways.

It’s just too hard, sometimes, to blend cultures. Especially island and mainland.

This-Is-Paradise-by-Kristiana-Kahakauwila-200x300This post was inspired by the novel This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila, a collection of short stories that shares a view of Hawaiians few tourists ever experience. Join From Left to Write on August 8 as we discuss This Is Paradise.  As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


7 thoughts on “This Is Paradise – Island Culture

  1. Such an interesting perspective on island life…I suppose the huge expanse of America has eliminated much of that closeness. I think it's interesting how immigrants to the US try to balance their home cultures with their desire to assimilate into American culture…that seems to be changing with the generations.

    1. jkuruppu says:

      I do think distance and expanse has a lot to do with it.

      And, it is interesting how immigrants hold on to some of home, while assimilating. It\’s hard to leave home, isn\’t it?

  2. Kristiana K. says:

    Aloha e Janaki,
    I couldn't help but feel emotionally moved when you wrote about your parents and the cultural tension in their marriage because of how geography shaped them. I've definitely seen that with my own parents. I'm fortunate that they're still together (35 years!) but I think watching how the mainland and island cultures have bumped against each other during those years has certainly helped me understand some of the distances they each had to travel to not just find each other in the first place, but keep re-finding one another. It's something I think about often.

    Side note: How DO those aunties keep track of everyone's connections to one another??

    1. jkuruppu says:

      The \”auntie\” role seems to be a lost art. All the Sri Lankans of my generation (and younger) seem to have as little ability to keep all the relationships straight as I do!

      Congratulations to your parents for managing the cross-cultural dance for 35 years! That\’s amazing. And I think you hit it right on the head, that its like a dance of rediscovery and reconnection all the time.

  3. I want to go to one of these parties in Sri Lanka! But, seriously, I think that the ability to look at your parents' differences and recognize there is a reason they did not work out in the end is so mature and healthy. Interesting that you're also able to see your own tendencies within your mom's personality. Do you think it is from growing up on the mainland?

    1. jkuruppu says:

      Yes, I do think it has a lot to do with growing up on a mainland, but also with more exposure to my mother\’s culture and family over my life. I really only had 18 months in Sri Lanka as a small child, and then two visits as an adult. I desperately want to carve out more time there! And also, nurture the family from my father\’s side who happen to live near me in the states.

      And, check back, as I hope to add some photos of one of those great parties we attended!

Leave a Reply