Sri Lankans and Their Notorious Head Bobbing

November 4, 2012
culture, sri lanka, working abroad
Sri Lankans

Sri Lankans and Their Notorious Head Bobbing

Mention Sri Lanka to your average person and the things that come to mind more often than not include tea, decades of war, elephants, clothing manufacturers such as Victoria’s Secret, and the 2004 tsunami. But with 2,000 years of culture and enormous diversity found from its every tea leaf to each grain of its white sand, Sri Lanka – an island nation the size of West Virginia – is so much more than conflict, exports, and animals.

I could write pages on its history, ethnic rifts, biodiversity, and spicy curries, but for now, let’s stick with the basics: the head bobble, epa, and learning to trust a place enough to ask for help.

When I was young, I used to smile when I both did and did not understand something; smile and nod and the adults assumed I understood. (Having dimples helped.) Fast forward twenty-some years and I’m back in Sri Lanka for the third time in twenty months, very pleased that smiling and nodding (or head-bobbling, as it’s known in this region of the world) still gets me far.

Of course, being able to say in Sinhala that I live in Sri Lanka because I was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach English literature at a local university helps, too, but sometimes I forget how to say all that and so I stick with Mama teacher-kenek (“I’m a teacher”) and the Sri Lankans I’m talking to bobble their heads and smile and I smile and we’ve communicated something.

Sri Lankan men respond to confidence; they usually won’t push back if you assertively state that you’re not interested in their driving services, kneading services, marriage proposals, etc.

The head bobble is a combination of nodding yes and nodding no in one smooth, figure eight-shaped movement that flows from your head to your shoulders. It’s something to master, but now that I’ve got the hang of it, I find myself head-bobbling in the shower, over the phone while talking to friends and family back home, to perfect strangers who nicely move their umbrella out of the way when I pass them on the street… it’s become a habit like anything else, and there is no gesture more universal on this diverse island than the ubiquitous head bobble and all that it communicates (yes, no, maybe so, thank you, no thank you, and, frustratingly, everything in-between).

Lonely Planet doesn’t stress this enough, but I say to anyone on their way here, get a-bobblin’!

While the bobble can sometimes mean no, there are certainly times here when I wish I had a piece of red construction paper with a big NO! written on it that I could flash when I don’t feel like declining with a polite head bobble and a small smile. Being able to say epa (“I don’t want”) with a low shake of your hand (think a wave but hand low and palm parallel to the ground) is vital if you want to get the point across that no, really, you don’t need a tuk-tuk right now and no, you definitely do not want a “free massage” on the beach today.

Sri Lankan men respond to confidence; they usually won’t push back if you assertively state that you’re not interested in their driving services, kneading services, marriage proposals, etc. For the most part, they ask because they are curious; I have found that most men here are more interested in the way in which you will respond than in what your response actually is. (Case in point: when men on the street pepper you with Where are you going?! they don’t actually care where you’re headed – they are just saying hello.)

And in case you don’t seem like you are saying epa with enough conviction, it’s not uncommon to find yourself being protected by one of the island’s many stray dogs. (Almost all dogs in Sri Lanka are strays, by the way, and should not be petted). While down south last weekend enjoying an afternoon on the beaches of Unawatuna (arguably the most tourist filled area of the island), a scraggly pup in search of respite from the blazing sun took refuge under my beach chair. As soon as the pup heard me say epa to one of the many massage-offering beach dwellers that ventured over my way, he snarled at any man who proceeded to come close to my chair. I’ve never seen a Sri Lankan jump so high or so far back!

Don’t get me wrong – Sri Lankans in general are some of the nicest, friendliest people you’ll ever meet. (They don’t call it South Asian hospitality for nothing!) But it’s nice to have someone (or something) watching your back occasionally, because there are times when feigning confidence and independence becomes tiring.

And that’s the thing about traveling alone in a country that’s not always the easiest or most comfortable to travel alone in – when to ask for help, and when to try to do it all yourself? That’s a question Sri Lanka hasn’t been able to answer for me yet, but as I get more and more comfortable here, I’m learning that I can trust myself and the people here more than I originally thought.

Like when you’re standing in the shower of a dilapidated guesthouse in Kandy (it’s cheap but, hey, you’re in your early twenties and trying to be strict about traveling on a budget, and you’ve roughed it plenty of other times in places less accommodating than this so it can’t be that bad) and, after a very needed long shower rinsing away a day of hiking in the hot sun, you go to turn the water off and the faucet comes out of the wall in your hand and water is gushing everywhere at full force and you try to plug the hole up and fix the faucet while getting soaking wet but after ten exhausting minutes of trying to screw the thing back into the wall you just can’t do it so you yell for help and help comes and afterward you’re laughing about it but later you think, If I had tried harder, could I have fixed it myself?

And that’s the thing about traveling alone in a country that’s not always the easiest or most comfortable to travel alone in – when to ask for help, and when to try to do it all yourself? That’s a question Sri Lanka hasn’t been able to answer for me yet, but as I get more and more comfortable here, I’m learning that I can trust myself and the people here more than I originally thought. And even in the overwhelming face of years of war and copious amounts of tea, that little piece of Sri Lanka is what, in my short time here so far, has struck me more than anything.

 

Sri Lankans and Their Notorious Head Bobbing

Have you traveled to Sri Lanka? Email us at editor@pinkpangea.com to share your experience with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.

About Natalie Lampert

4 thoughts on “Sri Lankans and Their Notorious Head Bobbing

  1. Grandpa
    November 14, 2012
    Reply

    What fun to be reading you again……….love from Grandma too…………

  2. November 6, 2012
    Reply

    I always love reading what you write!

  3. Jackie
    November 5, 2012
    Reply

    Very Cool… I’m impressed!!!!

  4. Jesse
    November 5, 2012
    Reply

    Brilliant! What a great first post!

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