I am sri lankan--really?





Mira Tignor, Sidwell Friends '16



Mira Tignor recounts her struggle with her racial identity. (Published: 2016)





That’s your mom?” The first time I heard that question was in first grade on a parent volunteer day. I was looking forward to having my mom at school with me, not anticipating the puzzled looks and skeptical questions we would both receive. My mom is Sri Lankan, my dad was white, and so I am half-Sri Lankan. I have fair skin and blue eyes, which matches the appearance of the white side of my family more than the Sri Lankan one. And so I really do understand the confusion – strangers and acquaintances aren’t sure of what our relationship is, and so they want to clarify. But after years and years of innocent remarks that question our relationship (and less innocent assumptions that my mother is my nanny), it becomes tiresome.

My struggle with my racial identity is heavily intertwined with my sense of place in the Sri Lankan side of my family. When I was little, I would spend every afternoon at my grandparents’ house. The smell of curries wafted in and out of my homework space, both English and Sinhala words floated through the house. Every year my grandparents visited Sri Lanka and brought me back jewelry and clothing from the capital, Colombo. However, I had never been to Sri Lanka until last year. All of my cousins grew up there, speak Sinhala fluently, and have noticeable accents. While my family is my greatest connection to my Sri Lankan heritage, they also embody what I can never be. We never spoke Sinhala in the house, it’s unlikely I’ll achieve a level of fluency beyond broken. We didn’t eat spicy curries or kotthu or other Sri Lankan dishes growing up, so I can’t tolerate the heat of many traditional dishes. When my cousins are telling stories or jokes in a mixture of Sinhala and English, it’s retold to me belatedly and awkwardly. This culture barrier leaves me feeling a step behind my family and struggling with my racial identity.

My visit to Sri Lanka last summer strengthened my connection to my heritage, but also highlighted the distance I often feel from this part of my identity. We stayed in my family’s home in Colombo, and they took me all around the island. We explored the coasts of Trincomalee, the mountains of Nuwara Eliya, and the rocky cliffs of Galle - I was fully exposed to the diverse beauty of Sri Lanka.

I picked up more Sinhala to communicate with the locals I interacted with, and yet, a few little things reminded me that I didn’t quite belong. At tourist attractions I would be charged the slightly

"HOWEVER, I HAD NEVER BEEN TO SRI LANKA UNTIL LAST YEAR. ALL OF MY COUSINS GREW UP THERE, SPEAK SINHALA FLUENTLY, AND HAVE NOTICEABLE ACCENTS. WHILE MY FAMILY IS MY GREATEST CONNECTION TO MY SRI LANKAN HERITAGE, THEY ALSO EMBODY WHAT I CAN NEVER BE."

higher foreigner’s rate, while my mother was charged the lower rate for locals. I was allowed to wear shorts in areas that my darker skinned female cousins could not, because showing your legs was “expected” of Americans.

The whole trip was an awkward mixture of visiting a foreign country and returning to a long lost home. Ultimately, though, I felt much more connected to my Sri Lankan identity by the end of the trip. I am working towards a level of comfort with my identity so that I can simply say “I’m Sri Lankan” without further explanation or feeling that I am lying. After years of learning about racism, my culture, and the significance that my appearance holds (and doesn’t) I feel much more comfortable navigating my white-passing privilege and my identity as a person of color every day.