Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

December 2, 2012
Why I Choose to Live Abroad / Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

During the past few weeks, I have felt particularly far away from the U.S.  There’s nothing like a storm of historical, damaging proportions and a dramatic presidential election (not to mention celebrating Thanksgiving with a ten kilogram jackfruit instead of a turkey) to make you miss home.

I’ve always hated being left out – kickball games in third grade, birthday parties in middle school, conversations revolving around the intricacies of the economy in college – and it’s been strange to be on the sidelines of the drama and fervor that have characterized much of the U.S. lately.

But it’s also reminded me that many of us wear our nationalities on our sleeves as well as on our passports, and I’ll admit I have felt very “American” lately. (I should note that I am fortunate to be living in a country where that does not endanger my safety.)

When Hurricane Sandy was ravaging the East Coast, many of my Sri Lankan colleagues and friends earnestly asked if my family and friends were out of harm’s way. They then asked me to explain what evacuation systems were in place and how long, on average, it usually takes to repair the New York Subway system. (I couldn’t shake the knowledge that the people asking me these questions are citizens of a country where 35,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami.

Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

They were inquiring about Sandy with that horrible storm in mind, no doubt, and I struggled to give answers that compared the infrastructure of the U.S. with that of Sri Lanka, where power goes out intermittently all the time, everything from streetlights to buses break down often, and if a bad storm hits, there are no quick fixes.) And in the few days before and after President Obama won re-election, most of my conversations with tuk-tuk drivers went like this:

Driver: Where from?

Me: Maga ratta Americava. (I am from America.)

Driver: Ah! Americava! Obama! Election! Happy, Obama election?

Me: Ah, ah, yes, very happy.

Driver: Ah, ah, good, good. Obama very good. Obama Muslim? And, ah, marijuana now legal in all Americava?

(And from there, I attempt to correct common misconceptions about my nation’s president and the recently passed laws in some of our states.) Sri Lankan tuk-tuk drivers – the chatty ones, at least – often hold strong opinions and enjoy espousing them while driving folks around. In this sense, they’re like most other taxi drivers around the world, and for the most part, conversations with them are always enjoyable!

Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

All that said, it’s not always pleasant standing out here (and having light skin ensures that I do). I recently visited the iconic Royal Rock Temple in Dambulla (where the above picture was taken), a revered holy place that is part of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. Sri Lanka has been a stronghold of Buddhism since the fourth century BC, and Dambulla’s cave temples have been a place of worship since not long after that. The caves, full of Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes, were breathtaking, and I spent a lovely morning exploring them.

As the midday sun began beating down, I returned to the entrance of the temple to sit in the shade for a while, and I was snapping photos of a group of nearby monkeys when a rather large group of Sri Lankans approached me. It seemed to be a couple of families, and one of the mothers sat down on the stone bench next to me and proceeded to have her picture taken with me while I was turned and taking pictures of the monkeys.

Another mother, and then a father with his daughter, followed suit. It took me a second to realize what they were doing; they hadn’t said anything to me before “posing” with me. Not quite sure how to react, I turned, gave a small smile to the children perched next to me on their parents’ laps, and continued taking pictures of the monkeys. They, in turn, continued to smile at me, the cameras in the hands of their friends who were taking pictures of them sitting next to this puzzled, young, white woman.

I laughed to myself as the irony struck me.

I laughed to myself as the irony struck me. Here I was taking pictures of monkeys and this group of Sri Lankans was taking turns posing next to me like I was some kind of monkey, or foreign being, that they felt the need to capture on film, too. My limited Sinhala wasn’t enough to ask them why, exactly, they were doing this, but I did manage to make some small talk as they continued to snap away (now the young white woman was speaking Sinhala, AMAZING!)

When they were done, the families gave me one last grin, took their children by the hand, and walked away. I watched them leave, took another look at the monkeys, looked down at myself, and shook my head with a smile.

Here’s the thing. Tourism in Sri Lanka has increased significantly lately, and many Sri Lankans are used to seeing foreigners all over the country (predominately, however, in the Southern and Western parts of the island).

A record number of over 800,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2011 – an increase of almost 40% from the year before – and that number keeps rising. Sri Lanka, with its beaches, beautiful Hill Country, eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ancient cultures, and much more was regularly overlooked by travelers during the war years, but now the tourism industry is booming.

You won’t find too many Americans here, though, and so eager tuk-tuk drivers, for example, are quick to show off their U.S. knowledge once they find out you’re from the States.

You won’t find too many Americans here, though, and so eager tuk-tuk drivers, for example, are quick to show off their U.S. knowledge once they find out you’re from the States. (They’re also quick to poke fun at what makes Americans different from the British and Australian tourists they’re more used to – just this morning, a tuk-tuk driver mocked me for my very American, nasal pronunciation of the word “can.”)

It helps that I am living here for another eight months, too; I’m able to tell wide-eyed tuk-tuk drivers and Sri Lankans I meet at touristy places like Dambulla that I am not a tourist, that I have a residence visa, and that I teach at a nearby university. All of that equals some version of Sri Lankan ‘street cred,’ and I’m glad I have it.

So, sometimes it’s okay wearing my passport on my sleeve here; sometimes it’s okay standing out. Having the chance to articulate things about my country that some Sri Lankans wouldn’t otherwise get to hear is humbling, and as I share stories about where I come from, I get some pretty great stories in return. And we all get some fun pictures of, ahem, unsuspecting monkeys.

Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka

Have you traveled to Sri Lanka? Email us at [email protected] to share your experience with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.


Photo credits for Standing out as an American Tourist in Sri Lanka by Natalie Lampert and

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