Thursday, October 04, 2007

Like a gathering of old friends

Last night I attended a small dinner party for Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Hon. Rohitha Bogollagama, who is visiting Washington. The event was the first to be given in the refurbished residence of the Ambassador, marking completion of a five year construction project. It typified one of many reasons why my long relationship with Sri Lanka, culminating in publication of my recent book: ‘Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars’ has been so rewarding.

I knew more than half the guests personally, many had been friends or acquaintances for many years. Among them were my doctoral student, Ravinatha Aryasinha, also a friend of 20 years. There were two former US ambassadors to Sri Lanka, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior woman diplomats, a prominent Sri Lankan attorney, now living in the US, and his wife. And others.

I still remember the dinner party, while I was living in Sri Lanka, when I learned one way socializing in the island nation differs from socializing in Washington D.C. In Washington, the average length of a conversation at social events, especially official ones, is rarely more than five minutes. In Sri Lanka, about 30 minutes is the norm. You rarely end a conversation before learning about your conversation partner, or catching up with him or her, in considerable depth. I still remember when I first began to understand this. It was a party at an an outdoor pavilion, dimly illuminated by strings of ‘christmas tree lights’ on a warm Colombo summer evening. My conversation partners were a Sri Lankan newspaper publisher and his wife. We spoke for nearly 45 minutes. Neither of the couple seemed to feel the need to move on to another conversation. It was one of those epiphany moments when you begin to appreciate some nuance of a new culture that has seemed strange.

Last evening, like many other Sri Lanka parties I have attended over the years, had that quality of relaxed intimacy. Such events do not end early. I arrived ad the Ambassador’s residence about 7:45, a few minutes late, but one of the first arrivals. The Minister arrived much later. We did not begin dining until about 9:15 and the typically extended ‘good bye’ conversations did not conclude until after 11:00. This was late for a weeknight in Washington, where my day typically begins about 6 AM, but i didn’t mind. It was more like a gathering of old friends than an official function.


Post a Comment

<< Home