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Creative Writing

Sri Lanka

I couldn’t understand their conversation and the words seemed foreign and guttural. I tried to follow, but it frustrated me that I couldn’t comprehend. Not speaking either Tamil or Sinhala had its disadvantages, as I always felt a disconnect to my country and to my family. I had never had a full conversation with my grandparents before they passed, and I always needed someone to translate. Being a vocal student and active member of my community made me accustomed to using my words, and whenever I was in Sri Lanka I was stripped of this.

I squint toward the rows of tea plants that stretched for miles. I was standing on a small peak that overlooked hundreds of tea plantations. The sun was burning harshly against my thin cotton kameez and I shifted uncomfortably as I waited for my younger siblings and parents to join me. It was definitely not my choice to wear a salwar kameez- the long cotton dress worn with loose fitting pants by many women of South Asian cultures, but my mom wanted me to embrace my heritage while visiting her native country. Although it was hotter than I was accustomed to in New Jersey, there was a heavy breeze that came with being in the mountainous ranges of Sri Lanka’s Uva province.

The fertile lands were filled with the small green leaves that would be handpicked for the Lipton tea company. These tea leaves would eventually be exported to the homes of tea drinkers around the world while creating job opportunities for millions of impoverished Sri Lankans. I smiled as I saw little green dots walk along the tea plant rows, colorful women toiling hard in the fields with coconut leaf woven baskets on their backs.

I swiftly lifted my dress as my sandals sank into the moist mud. When I reached my family, my dad was speaking to a young woman who couldn’t have been much older than me. She had beautiful dark skin that was worn like leather, despite her young age. Her basket was filled to the top with the small tea leaves that surrounded us. Her darker complexion implied that she was a working woman- a stigma that was very prominent in Sri Lanka. As a darker skinned girl, growing up in an Asian family, I sympathized with her. She too had probably been told that she was too dark and that “no one would marry a dark girl.” Yet she had so many challenges that I did not, slaving in a plantation for little with no opportunity for an education.

I couldn’t understand their conversation and the words seemed foreign and guttural. I tried to follow, but it frustrated me that I couldn’t comprehend. Not speaking either Tamil or Sinhala had its disadvantages, as I always felt a disconnect to my country and to my family. I had never had a full conversation with my grandparents before they passed, and I always needed someone to translate. Being a vocal student and active member of my community made me accustomed to using my words, and whenever I was in Sri Lanka I was stripped of this. I realized that when in Sri Lanka, I was robbed of using my voice just as she was robbed of opportunity.

I snapped out of my thoughts just in time- my dad and the woman were staring at me, waiting for a response. I looked to my dad, my eyes pleading for help.

“She asked you what you want to be when you grow up.” said my father.

My goals seemed little and insignificant, but I replied with my fresh American accent. “I want to be a journalist. I want to tell people’s stories and change the world. I want to help others and bring a voice to those who lost theirs.”

It was in the moment of realizing that in Sri Lanka I was unable to fully express myself that I realized I wanted to be a bridge between communities.

The woman nervously laughed. I knew it. She hadn’t understood. My dad smiled and told her I wanted to be a big time writer in America.

“When you become a writer,” she started, “Come back and write about us. We only make 500 rupees but the men make 1500,” she finished, referring to some of the male tea pluckers behind her and the harsh pay wage gap in Sri Lanka.

And so, one day, I will.


Written by Mariyum Rizwan. Originally published in June 2020.

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