They were Sri Lankan, Buddhist villagers from a community of farmers and fishermen, staring at the strange and foreign Americans wandering their school. I gazed deeply into the ebony eyes of the tan-colored teenagers sitting across from the carpet I sat on with my family. They looked so much like me, and yet, we were so different.
After a few moments of silence, their teacher suggested something in Sinhala, the native language I could scarcely understand.
“Dileka! Dilan! They want to play a game. Go stand in a circle,” my mother shouted. I gazed at her, thinking back to the hours of driving and flying I had endured to come here. “I want you to learn about your heritage, and the place where your father and I grew up.”
It took me a while to understand how to play the simple children’s game that they so eagerly wanted to play. My thoughts would drift away into the topic of the upcoming school year or the summer work that awaited me back home. I was exhausted and stressed. Mosquitos buzzed all around my body.
But I pasted a smile over my mouth, making the hand motions from person to person, while singing the traditional Sri Lankan song that accompanied the game: “Ceyla, ceyla, ceyla hey! One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine! Ten!” As a girl wearing green pants smacked the palm of another boy next to her, they all screamed hysterically. He was out. Sulking, he escaped the embrace of our circle, taking a seat on the rug.
We continued the game for an hour, and with each passing round it was easier to smile, because for every little thing they roared with laughter. If the teacher dropped her pen, every single face in the room lit up like a jack-o-lantern. We were a group of 15 – year olds playing a game that most of my American friends would find elementary and boring; and yet, not one person in that room frowned or furrowed their eyebrows the way I did.
The next day, I was helping a little girl with her geometry homework. As the humid air scorched my skin and my face, the thought of the torrid weather prickling my skin seemed to dominate my mind. But I ignored it, instead, explaining the significance of the Pythagorean Theorem to a girl with beautiful, hazel eyes.
One of the few words I know in Sinhala is “Ukka”. It means “older sister”. My parents always tried to get my brother to call me “Ukka,” but he never really had the desire or discipline to remember.
Once she understood the concept, I watched her smile, a grin that stretched across her face. She leaned forward, and whispered in her strange and foreign accent: “Thank you, Ukka.”
She was so young, and barely knew me, and yet she was so grateful for my tutoring. She thought of me as her own sister.
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Dewmini. What’s your name?”
“My name is Dileka,” I said, smiling to my sister, Dewmini.
Dewmini wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor. Another girl named Thamara wanted to be a computer programmer. A young boy named Nagoda, the same age as me, dreamed of becoming a mathematics teacher.
They lived in a one-story house, constructed from mud and stray bamboo sheets. Their parents didn’t work at an office, but harvested tea leaves for several hours throughout the day, or sailed the Indian ocean, scavenging for meaty and expensive fish. My new friends didn’t drive to school, but walked the two miles themselves. There was no such thing as Netflix. And phones were merely a luxurious fantasy from developed countries. This was their perspective of the world, and I would never truly understand it.
A few days later, I was sitting on the playground with all the school children, gossiping in a sort of compromise between Sinhala and English. As I swung, the swings screamed loudly as if to signal their last days, I noticed the conversation between my friends, observing the way their mouths bounced rapidly like ramshacked bobble heads.
Suddenly, one of the boys, Vishwa, pushed another girl, Ayesha, and she tripped, sliding gracefully down the slide. Ayesha glared at Vishwa when she landed on the ground, shaking her head in disapproval. She then turned her head to me, and with a struggle, was able to stammer the English words: “These boys…. Donkey coconut heads!” I laughed loudly, nodding my head in agreement and applauded her successful attempt to speak in the language she was learning in school.
Over a period of time, I dove deeper and deeper into that ocean. I swam around and explored, washing away all the fear. I learned all their names. I visited their dark, musty and crowded homes, smiling at the clothes lines that stretched across their yards and the miniscule beds they shared with siblings. It took me awhile to get accustomed to the culture of Panama, Sri Lanka. But soon, I had memorized the names of all the little huts in the marketplace, and what each one sold. I had swam in the beaches and driven their vehicles.
When I returned to school for my sophomore year, several of my friends had noticed a change in me. I was calmer. I was happier. I had tried on the shoes of another person, and realized that there’s only one world. But there are 7.3 billion different ways to see it.