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There are immigrants in almost every country in the world. My blog is dedicated to immigrants, refugees among them, who having fled their homeland now share a common destiny of insecurity in an alien land, fearful of what those who came before would do. The point is that those who came before often have the power to destroy the whole structure of immigrant life.

Yes, we humans set up and isolate ourselves in groups defined by sameness; a kind word may not be spoken to anyone outside it, the “outsiders”. The victories it celebrates are not for welcoming the outsiders, rather, their death in battle. Rightly or wrongly the group defined by sameness believes that its superiority, prosperity, welfare, survival and happiness depend wholly on depriving outsiders access to the facilities that enriched it.

Each group defined by sameness has disputed or undisputed right over a geographical area- its domain. The British, French, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Indians and those of other nation states, each has exclusive rights over a certain territory; skirmishes at the borders often erupt when territorial rights are disputed, as between the Indians and Chinese. I recall Robert Ardrey’s account of an incident in the faculty room of the University of Pennsylvania. A professor was talking about a forthcoming journey to East Africa to study the territorial imperative of the baboons- the strong urge among them to fight for turf and keep contenders out. Another who was listening to his travel plans quipped,

“Why waste your time and money going all that way? Why don’t you study the territorial imperative and the fight for turf among the primates in this faculty room?”

There are many fractures within a country resulting from differences in religion, race, caste, community and so on.  Social revolutionaries ignite class warfare. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains’. Then, there is religious segmentation causing ferocious battles between religious sects, each claiming the right to represent believers or to redeem the souls of non-believers. There are countries that do not allow non-believers the same civil rights that are accorded to believers, blatant discrimination practiced in the name of an almighty, merciful and compassionate god.

The “outsiders” keep moving from one place to another in search of safe habitats.

I was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) toward the end of British colonial rule. When I was growing up, Sri Lanka was Ceylon. In the following narrative, I describe events in my time in the country I used to know as Ceylon; therefore, the use of this nomenclature is not intended to undermine Sri Lanka, but to recreate the period of history in which I lived; it was Ceylon then.

I completed my high school education in 1954 while English was still the medium of instruction. I was among the last to study in the English medium at the University of Ceylon. I graduated in 1958 with an honors degree in Economics specializing in Money and Banking- a specialty that opened up a promising professional career in the Bank of Ceylon in 1960 as one of two women officers hired by the Bank for the first time. Barely two years later I left Bank of Ceylon to join the Central Bank of Ceylon. In 1962, a Central Bank scholarship enabled me to study for a doctorate in Economics at the University of Cambridge. The timing though fortuitous was just right because the Economics Department in Cambridge was then staffed by behemoths in the field: Joan Robinson, Professor E.A.G. Robinson, Nicholas Kaldor, A.R. Prest and Phyllis Deane. Upon returning to Ceylon with the doctorate degree to resume the career in central banking, I found political developments had moved toward a radical Sinhala Only policy that threatened my husband’s career. Tensions between the two communal groups, Singhalese and Tamils, erupted in 1970. My husband, a Tamil, ran away from the communal conflict that erupted then.  At the time we emigrated from Ceylon, my father spoke words of wisdom and caution,

“Jey, you are a minority in the country where you were born, you’ll be a minority no matter where you go.  Worse still, outside Sri Lanka, you won’t have friends and family to support you.”

We heeded him not and emigrated from Ceylon in 1970, very early in the exodus of Tamils from Ceylon. From a safe distance of twelve thousand miles we read about rape and pillage, murder and assassination and lives lost on both sides in the communal conflict. My resplendent isle had become a killing field. An explosion rocked the Central Bank of Ceylon, my former workplace. I do not know how many of those I knew by sight only perished in there, crushed beneath toppled walls, flattened under collapsing book cases, and hit by flying debris. I heard their screams and saw in my mind’s eye, people I knew staring in disbelief at the floor of the library swaying beneath their feet. I saw some leaping to their feet to escape, but disoriented by collapsing ceilings, flaring fires, spreading flames and billowing smoke they could not. I saw bodies tensed on the ground; others, weighed down by debris, gasping for breath. I heard loud screams, muffled moans and then- Silence!

In the USA, we hoped hard work would pay off and worked diligently and indefatigably to achieve professional success. We opted to serve in under-serviced area where mainstream Americans did not wish to go in those days. With a family to support, we wanted to make a decent living and have the security that money provides. I stood before the classes and yelled out knowledge to students some of whom affected an air of insouciance. My troubles were on two fronts: first, to find a job and second, to hold on to it. People like me arrive from China and India, well educated, ambitious, industrious, dedicated and willing to sit for long hours, especially in front of computer screens, in order to transform our lives and share in the American dream, in the process achieving a higher rate of economic growth for our country also. But I encountered resistance deriving from prejudice even among the educated mainstream Americans, mostly among them. I am baffled to have given them many opportunities for its indulgence. How well served our country if all qualified and hardworking people are allowed to achieve their best!

My family faced many obstacles in the USA; I describe them in Memories on My Mind to show how insurmountable they seemed at first. Perhaps it might be enlightening to those who think in terms of “them” and “us” to know my experience with matters of belonging to “here” and “there.”

Back in the eighties, when I was teaching business finance to the youth of San Joaquin Valley in California, I met a student who looked like a cousin of mine in Ceylon. One day in the late afternoon, when we walking back to the parking lot together, I got the chance to satisfy my curiosity.

Where are you from?” I asked

“From the United States,” was his immediate reply.

I figured that he, like my own children, belonged to the first generation of American immigrants. Reasoning thus, I persisted,

“Where are your parents from?”

He did not answer me right away; so I looked at him to press a response.

“From the United States,: he said with rising inflection in voice. I detected in the tone an unrestrained force, like the assertion of a desperate right that he had to reveal, perhaps to tell me that it was none of my business.

I should have known better and not pursued, but I was intrigued. I thought he belonged to the Sikh community that came from the Punjab to work on the farms. I had to make the Indian connection because it was there, somewhere. So I persisted,

“I mean your grandparents, did they come from the Punjab?”

Silence. I thought the paroxysm of discomfort and displeasure he displayed by his indignant silence was disproportionate to the circumstances in my line of questioning until I heard what he had to tell me, which he did in a passionate speech.

“Dr. Jey, I know you mean well. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t resent your questions. My ancestors have walked on this continent for thousands of years. How would you feel if you were I? I resent when whites ask me where I come from. In my conversations with them I am afraid to speak out my thoughts. Often their response is,

“If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your own country?”

I should not have pursued such an inappropriate line of questioning in our multi-racial society. I apologized,

“Never again will I ask people where they come from. You resemble a cousin of mine back home. Those from the Indian sub-continent resemble each other, you know.”

“Don’t we all?” he replied.

Welcome to my Blog

Memories On My Mind is a chronological compilation of real life experiences I recall over seven decades of my life: sometimes a small pleasure I got from a good movie I saw or a large pleasure, like admission to the University of Cambridge, or excruciatingly painful recollections of my father’s and mother’s deaths. It is in some sense an autobiographical account that shows how fragile and vulnerable my life was and how hard I had to work for the little success I achieved.

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