Living in Sri Lanka has been a constant surprise -it’s vibrant, demanding, stressful and relaxing in an oxymoronic paradise.The constant that has defined our time here has been the people, specifically, the kindness, acceptance and generosity of the people.
Sri Lanka is a culturally very different place than Australia. Yeah , I know, obvious right. But it differs in ways that maybe aren’t so obvious until you try to become part of a neighbourhood, part of a community.
Geert Hofstede (website here) is a Finnish cultural sociologist whose primary interest is cultural differences in the workplace, but has a fascinating way of looking at how societies tick. I got interested in his Power-Distance-Index (PDI) work (the extent to which lower ranked members of a hierarchy expect and accept that those above them will have and use power) when I was looking at communication problems in critical decision making.
PDI is ranked from 0-100 Saudi Arabia is 96!!!, NZ is 22, Australia is 36. Sri Lanka is 80. 80 is high on a world scale, and you’d expect a highly hierarchical society would cause some issues -and maybe it does.
But here’s the thing, we rank 90 (one of the worlds highest) for Individualism (A measure of interdependence, how much do individuals think ‘I’ not ‘we’). Sri Lanka scores 35 on this scale. A low score of 35 in this dimension means that Sri Lanka is considered a collectivistic society. This is evident in a close, long-term commitment to the member ‘group’, be that a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. The society fosters strong relationships where everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.
For masculinity (how much a society will be driven by competition and success) we score 65, Sri Lanka scores 10, almost the lowest in the world.
So what the heck are you on about Nick?
Well, here’s the thing. For a while back home I’ve occasionally ruminated how we are as neighbours in our street, and how much we give to our community. Answer, not much really. The latest round of Islamophobia after Paris got me thinking. How would an average Aussie neighbourhood respond to a new Muslim family rocking up in the best house on the street, not speaking a word of English and having weird customs and funny clothes? I’ll let you answer that yourself. My answer is, sadly, I probably wouldn’t even notice.
So, background over I’ll get to my story now.
As Mahani has written, we live in a Muslim neighbourhood. Three mosques, lots of small business.. everyone is hard working, not wealthy and trying to make ends meet.
Being a rich and unusual Westerner, I of course need to make some surfboard racks for my relatively expensive bike to feed my indulgent hobby. I asked around at work. One of the doctors who lives in my suburb insisted on helping. He did some background work and made contact with a welder nearby. We arranged a time and met the welder. He came with me to explain what we needed. He invited us into his house, fed us and let me store my bike there. I picked my bike up -he rang immediately to make sure it was me that had picked my bike up, because his wife had noticed it was gone. I came to pick up the racks. Half the street came out to chat and ask politely what we were making.
Together we cobbled together solutions for some of the minorly tricky engineering problems we had. I rode my bike home.
Most of the neighbourhood said “Hello Doctor” and gave me directions when they thought I was taking a wrong turn (of course they all know where I live – I haven’t told anyone!). The braver ones asked politely what those funny bent things were on my bike (I had googled some images to show!)
Next, I needed some foam aircon insulation to protect my board. Everywhere I went tried to help, but noone had want I wanted. . I stopped at my local “nuts and bolts” shop to pick up a spanner. The bloke there was lovely and wanted to help. He took my number and said he’d sort it out. The next day he texted and said he’d found what I needed. After work I went to pick up my foam. His Dad was there, and apologised for his son not being available, but was waiting for me to come. he gave the receipt so I was sure not to pay them more than it cost. He then helped me find some Occy straps at a local tuk tuk adornment shop.
When I ride to the beach for a prework surf, the guys who run the surf school insist I use their chairs and shower while I surf, because I’m a local. I’ve only been 8 times.
I could go on with examples but I won’t.
I’m learning how rich a community can be. I’m realising how disconnected we in Australia have become to those around us. I hope we can remember this when we return.