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 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.