The first and only time I’ve truly experienced culture shock, was arriving in Sri Lanka. It was my first time in Asia, first time teaching, and the first time being abroad but not on your typical holiday. From day one it was a complete assault on all the senses, and I was instantly hooked. I’ve experienced cultural differences everywhere I’ve been, but the ‘shock’ of my first 24 hours in Sri Lanka was unique.
We were living in a rural village outside of Negombo, volunteering at a local primary school. There are so many incredible stories of my time in Sri Lanka, but this one is about a specific moment which still, 6 years later, creates this knot in my stomach when I think about it.
We had been invited to a birthday party in an orphanage for disabled children. It was out of town so we took the day off school to travel there. The idea was to show our faces, play with the kids and then continue on for our weekend travel plans. Beaches, temples and elephants. How lovely.
We were greeted at the orphanage by the staff, who were just as welcoming and friendly as all the Sri Lankans had been to us. I was generally surprised at the upkeep of the building, which seemed spacious and relatively clean. As we were led towards the main hall we were told the birthday party was for all the children, not just one. The staff didn’t know how old any of the children were, nether mind which day they were born on. As babies, they are often dropped off in the middle of the night by their ashamed or overwhelmed parents. The stigma and burden of a disabled child in the family being too much. There was zero support for them, so who are we to judge?
Walking into the hall it became obvious that the majority of these ‘children’ were in fact fully grown adults. This orphanage was a one-way dumping ground, nobody left once they were deserted here.
Foster parents didn’t exist in this world.
We spent time with the children and adults who were severely mentally and physically disabled. They appeared appreciative for the extra attention and games. I like to think we at least broke up their routined days. I was an 18 year old uni student. White, middle class England – what did I know about the world? And what did I think I could really do?
It was getting to the end of the visit and I’d been speaking with a volunteer who offered to show us around the rest of the orphanage. The real part, that wasn’t on show to the birthday guests. I saw bedrooms crammed with 20+ bunk beds back-to-back. Some with no sheets, broken frames and stray animals lying around. A damp, dirty stench was soaked into the mouldy walls. We saw the bathroom, an outdoor tiled area where they hosed down inmates with cold water – the same way you’d hose down a dog. The rotting kitchen was incomprehensible. How was everyone not violently sick? Mould dripped from the ceiling onto rusty pans and surfaces.
This description isn’t for shock value. In fact, my words probably aren’t doing it justice.
Entering the final room, there was a man lying naked on a plastic sheet on the concrete floor. The plastic was used to keep the floor clean; we were told he had no control over his bowels. Flies and mosquitos hovered around, feasting on the bacteria that covered him. I have total respect for the staff who dedicate their lives to the orphanage, but this was completely in humane. I was frantically looking for an escape out the room, convinced I was about to vomit. The stench of the room hit the back of your throat. The man was so severely disabled he was treated like he wasn’t there. How many years had he laid in that corner?
But then we were called back to the main hall. We gathered around the cake and sung Happy Birthday. We sang with a false cheer, knowing that only a few metres away lay a man oblivious to the suffering and injustice he had been dealt.
Our ride appeared shortly after, so we waved goodbye and sat in the back of our air conditioned taxi. Stunned into silence. Our driver switched on the radio, and drove us away from the orphanage.
I’m not sure what you really learn from experiences like this. Witnessing people living in these extreme conditions must shape someone’s consciousness, compassion and empathy – I’m sure. But who really knows the real affect of experiences like this? I’m no psychologist. Perhaps, what that day taught me most was how quickly you can go from one extreme to the next. A privileged, white male undergraduate, to harrowing scenes abroad, to a taxi ride listening to the Backstreet Boys. How can lives so different, be so close to each other?
How can we be worlds away from our next door neighbours?
The saddest part is that the world will just continue like nothing’s happening. Next year they’ll be another birthday party. The following semester, I’d have gone back to university and planned the next summers travels. Meanwhile, the naked man on the concrete floor will continue to lie there, invisible to his neighbours near and far.
What a crazy world we’ve created.