Culture shock
Posted on November 24th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

In my opinion, two visiting British women were made to experience different forms of culture shock in Sri Lanka recently.  Both were subjected to discrimination and harassment, though in the later or the second case described here, these elements were almost totally concealed by melodrama. The reference here is to tourist Naomi Coleman, a mental health nurse from Coventry in England, who was arrested on arrival and deported from Sri Lanka in 2014 for wearing a Buddha tattoo on her upper arm, and to Sheree Atcheson, an influential IT business consultant in the UK, who visited Colombo in search of her birth mother. From their stories it appears that their visits were highly emotionally charged events for both of them in their differing individual circumstances, and that therefore they particularly deserved much more humane treatment than they actually got on reaching their dream destination.

Naomi Coleman seems to have got a real taste of culture shock when her dream turned into a nightmare on arriving at the Katunayake International airport on April 5, 2014. The then 37 year old mental health worker  was arrested at the airport and was later ordered by  the court to be deported for the alleged offence aforementioned. She had told the police that she practiced Buddhism, had participated in meditation retreats and workshops in Thailand, India, Cambodia and Nepal. It could be that she was visiting Sri Lanka, known as the centre of Theravada Buddhism, in fulfillment of a special dream she had. After her deportation order was made, she had to spend three nights/four days in detention. She claimed that she was verbally abused by the officers, and that they even demanded bribes. Probably she exaggerated her case. But it appears that her apparent ill-treatment was due to a miscarriage of justice that resulted from the overzealousness of the police officers who decided to arrest her. It could also have been due to the authorities’ fear that the woman’s Buddha tattoo could be offensive to local Buddhist sensitivities. There were then as there still are occasional instances of the Buddha image being deliberately desecrated by religious mischief makers to provoke Buddhists. Although the constitution gives Buddhism, the religion of 70% of the population, the foremost place”, there are no special restrictive laws privileging Buddhism over other religions. There is no ban on Buddha tattoos, either.

On her return to England, Naomi instituted action through her lawyers against the Lankan authorities in a Sri Lankan court for her alleged ill-treatment. A week or so ago, the case was decided in her favour, the woman’s lawyer arguing that her arrest was contrary to the immigration and emigration laws of the country. She was awarded a compensation by the government. The policemen responsible for her unlawful arrest were ordered to pay her compensation, too.  That is justice restored.  So it seems that the buck ultimately stopped  with the government (more correctly, with the state).

I mean to dwell longer on the newer case of culture shock that we witnessed in recent times. Sheree Atcheson is a Sri Lankan-born young British woman who was legally adopted as a baby of three weeks by an Irish couple.  She attended school in Belfast and later studied Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast. Having qualified as a software engineer at 23 (in 2014), Sheree joined Kainos Software.  While working in that company, she founded the first UK branches of the global non-profit organization known as ‘Women Who Code’ in Belfast  and London. This organization aims to eradicate gender bias in the IT industry. For this purpose she pioneered local centres for empowering  tech women through free hack nights, tech talks and career trainings.

At present she is working at Deloitte UK as a Tech Business Consultant. She also works as the UK Expansion Director of Women Who Code UK and Belfast, of which she is founder. She played an important role in designing the online voter registration system in the UK. She has addressed many global events such as the World Economic Forum as an expert in the IT industry. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post UK, which she has been associated with in that capacity since September 2015. In addition to all these and more, she works as a professional fashion and commercial model.

Sheree says that she founded what she named the I Am Lanka (@IAmLankaOrg) organization last month (October 2017) in order to highlight Sri Lanka’s local and global role models who have accomplished great things in their lives and careers” by empowering and inspiring our people through showcasing the current Sri Lankan change makers, in order to foster innovation and change in our and the next generation”. She appeals to young Sri Lankans of her generation to Be what you can see – because you are us & we are Sri Lanka.” At 26 years of age, already a celebrity in her chosen professional domain, the versatile young Sheree has been listed as one of UK’s top 35 Most Influential  Women in Tech ’17 (by Computer Weekly) among a number of other similar listings. (The source for most of this sketchy account of Sheree’s education and work background is her impressive full professional profile in the website, which is free for view.)

It seems that a few weeks back Sheree initiated a plan to find and meet her biological mother in Sri Lanka. She contacted a private TV channel in Colombo and requested them to help her in this connection. They responded with great enthusiasm, devoting a lot of airtime for broadcasting available clues and bits of information about Sheree’s infancy and her present that would help divulge the whereabouts of the woman if alive who gave birth to her. For a few weeks, the topic dominated the newscasts of the channel concerned. Their dedicated efforts produced the expected result. The woman was found, her motherhood of Sheree was scientifically established without a trace of doubt, and Sheree arrived in Sri Lanka with her British husband to a warm reception at the airport, and at the news office of the TV channel. She had already been warmly greeted aboard the Colombo bound Sri Lankan Airlines plane by the other Lankan passengers who were already familiar with her story. We as Sri Lankans should be grateful to the TV news  team involved in this delicate operation which is personally so sensitive and consequential  for both women (i.e., mother and daughter).  The success of the TV channel’s prompt response to Sheree’s urgent call for help in her attempt to find her birth mother was, no doubt, greatly facilitated by our people’s natural inclination to be actively concerned when a person is in distress as well as by the tireless exertions of the search team.

However, the altruism of a business concern like a private TV company is not unlimited. Sooner or later business interests take charge of even an altruistic operation. It appeared that the particular TV channel indulged in a coldly mercenary type of journalism in this instance. (I sincerely believe  that my criticism will not, in any way, detract from  the general public approval that their dedication to the project has justly met with.) The broadcaster’s constant focus appeared to be on the inherent newsworthiness of the story, rather than on the need to help the two women rediscover their vital connection, without unnecessarily encroaching on their personal space, their privacy, which is their inalienable right. Of course, to the discerning viewer it was obvious that the news team took care not to highlight certain little pieces of information for suitably protecting them from unwelcome public attention. But they were not concerned about the privacy factor overmuch.

Yet, in that context privacy was particularly important for the mother, who was probably a much abused woman, at least in the past, considering the clearly bereft conditions of her past and present life. It is strange that apparently none of the news team members felt that it amounted to a cruel violation of the privacy of the two women fraught with anxiety to have them confront each other for that intensely emotional meeting in their particular personal circumstances in an unfamiliar cluttered office-room, that too, live before the cameras. Wouldn’t it have been better if the meeting had taken place in the privacy of a hotel room or a special room of the news agency itself or elsewhere with one or two members from the news team , a responsible relative of Sheree’s mother, and Sheree’s husband in attendance? A scene subsequent to such a prearranged private rendezvous, featuring  a happier, more relaxed mother and daughter pair could have been casually videoed for broadcast. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they were made to set their eyes on each other for the first time in their life in those unfamiliar surroundings. When that meeting was about to take place the TV anchorwoman revealed that although Sheree knew that she would be interviewed on that occasion, she had not been told that she was going to see her mother at that very moment. I for one failed to understand why she had to be treated to such a surprise  in that context. I suspect it was for the sake of increasing the entertainment value of the ‘reality show’ element of the whole exercise.

Having said that, I must immediately qualify it with the following: I do not have a shred of doubt about the sincerity of the TV news team. I have nothing but praise for them for projecting to the world, through their professionalism enhanced by their dedication to a humanitarian cause, a positive image of Sri Lanka. They didn’t confine themselves to just ‘doing their thing’. They went out of their way to make it a truly compassionate operation. They did that out of a genuine  sense of humanity, which is characteristic of our culture. It was quite clear that the TV news team were required, as in any normal situation, to act according to the wishes of their narrowly profit-focused employers. For this, they had to turn the mother daughter reunion into the kind of reality show suggested above, designed to attract as big a proportion of primetime TV audiences as possible across the country.

Whether or not Sheree experienced any angry disappointment or serious disorientation when she realized that she was misled to appear for a reality show instead of the interview they had requested is not clear. If she did, she successfully concealed it. She looked unfazed by the ‘surprise’ part of that very significant moment in her young life. Sheree’s response to the anchorwoman’s question whether her search for her birth mother was about finding her real identity was a confident but polite dismissal. No, she replied, she already had her own identity. Well said! I thought to myself when I heard that.

The culture she comes from supports the idea that nothing external to you can define you: your birth circumstances, social background, caste, race, economic status, etc. are all insignificant distractions, when it comes to defining your identity. What matters for young women (and young men) is realizing your inborn potential through education and hard work. Sheree is very unassuming, but is appropriately aware of her own abilities and importance. She offers herself as a role model for young Sri Lankans. She is eminently eligible for that. Even in that society there is this problem of gender bias. A lesson that Sheree demonstrates for her young Sri Lankan counterparts to imbibe is that in situations where gender bias manifests itself, women should not passively accept the victim position. Her answer to discrimination based on gender is fighting for equality by empowering women through education.

When her birth mother asked her for forgiveness  for ‘the great crime’ she said she did (by giving her up for adoption when she was an infant), Sheree consoled her saying that there was no need for her to ask to be forgiven. For she had given her the life she has now. It is the sort of life that the ‘wealth of opportunities’ that life in Ireland gave her (as she said in a different context). Sheree seems to have a special warmth towards her country of birth, although she lived there only the first three weeks of her total 26 years. It must be something in her genes, I wonder. What Sheree’s story reminds us is that, given the necessary opportunities, young Sri Lankans can make great achievements. Be what you can see – because you are us & we are Sri Lanka.” Is her message, after all.

Sheree says that already she has got hundreds of messages from young Sri Lankans expressing goodwill, and telling her that they have been inspired by her. The many negative comments made  by her young fans on the TV channel’s perceived culturally revealing lapses in the covering of their own ‘help find birth mother’ operation suggest that she won’t be disappointed in her voluntary role model mission that she has launched on their behalf.

4 Responses to “Culture shock”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Sri Lanka and the Sri lankans have to do a lot to catch up with Buddhism. Stupid magistrate, should have been sacked.

  2. Senerath Says:

    This is the result hollow , unncessary ‘Cowerdly Cultural Pride’ which was created by those people with low self esteem who did not loose any relative due to war but suddenly realised they too are (balu)Sinahayos despite having no courage whatsoever to be a real Sinhaya. Why sack magistrate only ? The governement ( meaning the ministers concerned or higher officials concerned) could have made an apology and compensation soon after they were aware of this wrong decision. All those responsible, including high officials and politicians shall be punished.

    I had to give a short lecture to a polic man and a woman ( and his surrounding supporters) for not allowing a poor village girl entering Isuruminiya just because her very old fasioned dress was very slightly ( 1/2 inch) above the knee, while they are scared to talk to foreigners with modern skirts of same length. After I left , I overheard them shouting among themselves about Sinhalakama ( accusing me ‘Sangkara haettha’) but one of the policeman was drunk.

    Even the dual citizens are prevented form entering Polonnaruwa if they did not have anything to prove , unless you pay the high non-citizen charges ( which too is unjustifiable).

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    If Buddha tatoos and other ways Buddha images may be used by non-Buddhist folk are offensive and illegal in Lanka, then Visa offices abroad ought to state that when issuing the Lanka visa.

    It is only fair that visitors from abroad are warned beforehand, without making a big fuss afterwards.

  4. Vaisrawana Says:

    Buddha tattoos are not illegal in Sri Lanka. When this case happened, the responsible authorities (e.g. relevant ministry/ministries, police, etc.) should have acted immediately to protect the innocent tourist. Naomi Coleman is not a non-Buddhist. She is a confirmed Buddhist. Obviously, she did not mean to insult the Buddha, Buddhism, or the Buddhists by having a Buddha image tattooed on her right upper shoulder. Probably, having heard about the ‘legendary’ hospitality and friendliness of the inhabitants of the Buddhist-majority country, she believed that she was displaying her pious enthusiasm about the new religion that she had embraced out of personal conviction, and that she would attract admiring glances from the islanders. But she was simply shocked at her treatment at the airport.

    The problem is that our past and present authorities including the highest in the land either do not care or are woefully ignorant about the nature of our truly tolerant, cosmopolitan Buddhism influenced culture. These very same authorities keep quiet when non-Buddhist religious fanatics write and publish ‘Dhamma’ books deliberately misinterpreting the Buddha’s teaching, when non-Buddhists lay claim to ancient Buddhist places of worship as their own, when they destroy sacred archeological sites, and so on and so forth.

    Fran Diaz’s suggestion is a sensible one.

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