Monday, December 06, 2004

Diversity & Differences

Diversity & Differences

Celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, who made Colombo his permanent home, described Sri Lanka as "India without the hassle".

From impressions garnered during brief stay in the country, I can perhaps understand a little bit of his sentiment. The capital city of Colombo is not as congested as Delhi or Mumbai. Unlike in India or even Indonesia, pitiful sights of abject poverty are also not so evident.

The other major difference between India and Sri Lanka is religion: Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist. In Colombo, one can see many stupas and statues of Buddha adorning various parts of the city. Sri Lanka is in fact the center of Theravada Buddhism--one of the three main branches of Buddhism (also known as Hinayana)--that is also practiced in the Indochinese countries, including Thailand.

It is not easy for casual visitors like me to distinguish between the Buddhist Sinhalese--who form three quarters of the population--and the minority Hindu Tamils; it's a bit like how non-Indonesians are not being able to tell the Sundanese from the Javanese. To me, the interesting part about knowing a foreign country is learning these subtle differences. The irony is that the Sinhalese and the Tamils don't see these differences as subtle--the two ethnic groups spent the last twenty years waging a bloody civil war over it.

In any South-East Asian country, I would be able to blend into the masses and pass off as a local, but unfortunately not so in Sri Lanka. Even though I face no communication problems here, physically I stand out in the crowd like any Mat Salleh or bule in an Asian country, which makes me an easy target for touts, who are forever offering themselves to be my tour-guide. I cannot walk a few meters alone outside my hotel without someone approaching me: Hello sir! Are you from China? How do you like Colombo? You want to see temples? You want girl?

I'll need many more trips to Sri Lanka before I can thoroughly appreciate the soul of this beautiful country. Despite the hassle of having to constantly fend off touts in the streets, my first impressions are good. Even my more xenophobic Singaporean friends (who were not so appreciative of India) have good things to say about Sri Lanka.

Sometimes I feel being born and bred in Malaysia ("Truly Asia") has its advantages--one is not so aversed to foreign cultures because growing up in a multi-cultural society, one is already accustomed to such differences.

Why would anyone want to live only among his own race and accept only one single culture? Diversity can be, and should be a source of strength rather than strife. Diversity makes the world interesting and enriches the possibilities for the human race. In an increasingly globalized world, it's diversity that makes all the difference.

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