Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The immigrants and the trolls of Sri Lanka Twitter

It is not rare that every time an immigrant raises an opinion or comment on Sri Lanka on Twitter, there is always a set of users who try to assume themselves to be the patriots - and shut any opinion from the immigrants down. "After all, you all ran away from the country." I am someone who prefers his opponents to be smarter. So some hints why you should avoid the typical insult, "Is an NGO paying your visa fees?" at Sri Lankans living abroad:
Scenic Byway to Mount Evans

If that person is a citizen in that country, they don't need a visa or pay fees to live there. That means a French citizen of Lankan origin does not need to pay "visa fees" to live in France. Also, thanks to visa-free entries, they don't need visa fees for many other countries either.
I am not a citizen of any nation other than Sri Lanka. But I don't need an NGO to pay my visa fees. Mostly employers/universities paid that for most of the countries that I have lived in. When they did not, the visa fee was something I could afford.
Not every Sri Lankan abroad is the same. We are all different. We all have stories. Often, humble ones. Unique ones. I am open to talk to anyone. I am someone who (still) takes the crowded public buses 154 or 155 every time I return to Sri Lanka. I believe Portugal significantly influenced my life - and made me who I am today. But underneath everything, I am still the same villager who left Moratuwa 9 years ago. I didn't "run away" from my problems. That is not my style. I move on my own, primarily searching for something that I do not know.

In summary, please try to avoid that "who is paying for your visa" insult. It's boring and repetitive. Not creative.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Interstates, freeways, and failed towns

Urban decay in Meridian, MS
I started walking from the Meridian train station towards my hotel, following Google Map suggestions. I was almost there I thought. I even saw the destination! But a problem. Between me and the hotel was I-20/I-59 interstate with no underpass, bridge, or an alternative way to cross. I had to call an Uber just to cross this street. I came to the conclusion that these Interstate roads and freeways are the new rivers. Rivers used to be the major transportation medium to travel inland. But rivers also segment a village, or naturally become the border of a village. Now, these freeways and interstates are doing the same. You drive fast on them. But they segment an otherwise decent town.

Most of the US cities have notoriously horrible public transport. I can walk a long distance in flat lands, especially when I am not in a high elevation (I am not acclimatized to elevation). 18 km is my usual weekend walk. Now, what irritates me is, USA does not have a public transport in many towns such as Meridian - but it also has ruined those towns - making them impossible to walk, by segmenting them with streets that cannot be crossed by pedestrians. My hotel was surrounded by I-20/I-59 and MS19. None of them had a way to cross. Essentially it felt like living in an island. Even Google Maps was suggesting me to cross the I-20 by feet to reach the hotel. Apparently, Google wants me killed by speeding vehicles or arrested for jaywalking in a major interstate. How did even these locals agree to let an interstate ruin their town like this? I get it everyone drives in the USA. But isn't walkability an important feature of a town? It is dystopian. As an animal, humans should be able to walk and run freely, without relying on vehicles for everything. Driving just to cross the street or go to a shop a few meters to a couple of kilometers away - isn't it sad?

Meridian was a textbook example of a failed down. Almost everything was decaying there. The two Uber drivers (yes, had to get them just because I cannot cross the I-20 between my hotel and the train station) - both told me there is nothing actually to do in their town, "Sorry, I don't think we have much to see. Maybe go hike Bonita Lakes Park." But they were happy that other notable cities (such as New Orleans) are a quick drive from there!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Immigrant Diaries

Philadelphia Chinatown
I moved out of my country on the 20th August 2012. I have a selective memory. I remember things that I want to remember, most of the time. However, I vividly remember 19th August 2012 Sunday. The night I was leaving my home to fly to New Delhi. My final destination was of course Lisboa. But first I had to go to New Delhi to get my visa stamp from the Portuguese embassy in New Delhi. We don't have a Portuguese Embassy in Sri Lanka. I was flying to Portugal to do my MSc. It was an Erasmus Mundus that I chose Portugal and Sweden, as it is a double degree. Of course, an MSc is just a 2-years degree. I never thought of anything beyond the 2 years. 

There was always a competition in Sri Lanka. I did that competition thing - but only until I entered the university (you need to get high scores in A/L to enter the good programs in a good state/public university in Sri Lanka. Not much different from China's Gaokao). By the 2nd year of my BSc, once I entered the Computer Science and Engineering program, I kind of avoided this competition mentality. I just want to be happy. In fact, I want everyone to be happy. My only benchmark, I do annually, by the year end. I judge my year against my previous years. Then I write an annual post (a habit since 2010), comparing my current year to the previous years, in metrics of happiness. I list 30 things that made the year interesting, i.e., that made me happy. It is all personal. I compare myself to my past self. Not against anyone else. I am on my own path that I carefully crafted. Not planning to follow another one's trajectory.

Italian Market, Philadelphia
I arrived in Portugal with an open mind on the 23rd of August 2012. I had never been to Portugal before. For reasons unknown, Emirates randomly upgraded my flight from DXB to LIS into a business class and treated me well. The border control agent in Portugal was extremely nice. I expected questions from him. He just gave me a smile and "have a good day." Portugal impressed me on the day-1. I met many people in Portugal. I made friends and family in Portugal. People I met in Portugal would change my life drastically. I often tell that I found myself in Portugal.

We were master students, especially from Erasmus Mundus - a prestigious mobility program under the Erasmus+ umbrella. We all had a story to share. We were also attending ULisboa / Instituto Superior Técnico, arguably the most prestigious university of the country. We all had a story to share. Portuguese people are also friendly and usually extroverts (at least compared to all the other 45 nations I have been). I was expecting to be lonely in Portugal as I left my parents and friends in Sri Lanka. But quickly, Portugal proved me wrong. I was surrounded by lovely people. Portugal also quickly made me into an extrovert. I started loving people more!

Most immigrants bring a piece of their home country with them. I usually remind everyone though that an immigrant or a tourist you meet in your country may not be the ideal representative of their home country. Some adopt themselves to fit the host country's culture. Others double down on their home country's culture. For them, they get stuck in a time when they left their country. For instance, I have met Sri Lankans who moved abroad in the 1980s have maintained their traditions sometimes more vigorously than those at home. It is like the time stopping to move. Some of them had not gone back to Sri Lanka in ages. Even if they did, that was too short of a time to observe the country sufficiently. Forget others - even myself - my Sri Lanka moments and memories largely stop at 2012 August. Even though I had been to Sri Lanka after during vacations in 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2020, those were just 2 - 3 weeks of vacations - too little to do anything beyond spending time with family, visiting relatives and friends, and to handle some other important matters at home.

Camden, NJ
For us - whether nomads or immigrants, often our country stops evolving ever since we left the country. We remember the songs of the country (bus songs!) up until the day we left the country. After that, even if we watch/listen to new songs online, the feeling is not the same as listening them from the bus or at home in Sri Lanka. Many immigrant towns such as Chinatowns and India towns in several western cities give the taste of home away home for many immigrants. As such, new waves of immigrants too often end up settling in the same areas.

Not all the immigrants are the same. Some had a great experience in their host country, whereas others just survived. Some were fleeing brutal regimes back at home whereas others were living a comfortable life in their home country. An immigrant's experience in the home country depends on several factors such as their life back at home and how the humans in the host country treats them. Luckily for me, everyone I met in Portugal were nice and friendly (with time, I might have met some not-so-nice-people - but by then I had already met hundreds to thousands of great ones - so that I could ignore any bad apples). It also depends on the factor who I am. I was in Portugal as part of the Erasmus Mundus double degree program. We had a clique of international students, and also very friendly local students too. When we introduced ourselves as we are from Tecnico Lisboa, we instantly got some respect due to the name of the university (arguably the best in the nation). May not be the same for everyone. I am not sure whether I will be able to replicate the same experience if I arrive there now for the very first time - 9 years later - say, as an employee rather than a student. Student life always brings the friendships quite easily. It is also often meeting the right people at the right time vs meeting the wrong people at the wrong time. Regardless of the hypothetical scenarios where I arrive first in Portugal in 2020 or 2021, what indeed happened in the real world in Portugal left me with exciting and positive memories.

I rarely have considered myself an immigrant. Rather, I liked to label myself a nomad. It made sense. With the mandatory mobility of Erasmus Mundus MSc and PhD, together with the internships, I had lived in 7 countries by the time I arrived in Atlanta in 2018 June. But, now it is 3 years since I came to Atlanta and I haven't moved ever since. Although H1B holders are legally not considered immigrants (I guess ?), I know I fall somewhere in the immigrant-nomad spectrum - but I am not sure where exactly. I am curious to see where time will place me next.