12/11/2012 09:53 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Cultural Polaroid: Sri Lanka

Dinner parties around the world never cease to be intriguing. The delicious food is the constant with the variable being guests and the mindsets brought to the table. Yet the candidness and bonding that occurs naturally over food provides illuminating glimpses on the pulse of any particular culture.

A Snapshot of Sri Lanka

Cultures vary in how they address post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, Ethan Watters in his book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psych, paints an amusing portrait of good-intentioned Western psychologists and humanitarian workers insisting Sri Lankans "talk it out" post-tsunami, with their reluctance spurring grave diagnosis of trauma to come. Sri Lanka has many indigenous ways of healing and communicating -- e.g., a rich oral story-telling history, religion, rituals, plus drama and art -- yet talking it out with a stranger on average was thought absurd.

Sri Lanka is estimated to rank low in Hofstede's uncertainty avoidance index, low in individualism, low in masculinity (citing former female heads of state) and high on an increasing long-term orientation, meaning the approach generally palpable within society is at complete odds with these indices. As I sat in a modernized household in Colombo, discussions swirled around me with a female corporate planner who long sought a liberating Western education only to acquiesce to an arranged marriage simply because father had said so; a CEO father pooh-poohing a teenager's dream to change the world one person at a time because this is Sri Lanka, nothing would ever change; an export/importer who had zero interest in discussing the remnants of the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war (Asia's most expensive war) that abated in 2009 but leaves countless numbers in fear and trauma; and an activist who keeps her work closely under wraps less for fear of her life and more for society's judgment as a courageous female working independently of community norms and reprisal.

Finding Universals Within Diversity

I realized that like many cultures that practice intense emotion regulation in public but let loose with close friends and family, so, too did Sri Lankans. What intrigues me is not so much how one goes about expressing healing but the conceptualization of its need in the first place. Countless times I've been told that there are not problems in Sri Lanka, that it is a happy haven. Here at the dining table, the guests happily spoke about tax structuring, the opening of Sri Lanka's borders once again to capital and investments and its growth potential yet the glaring truth, the proverbial pink elephant in the room, is there are borders and walls when it comes to human capital (and letting the United Nations investigate war crimes). The central question in my mind is how do we make a return to the core of humanity and compassion? How do we encourage the realization of interconnectedness? That one's self-aspirations for wealth, power, success, safety and happiness, etc., are inextricably tied to others? That having cognac in Colombo can be had but without the denial that people in the North still live every single day in fear of their life. I found it hard to choose out of 10 types of ice cream flavors when the activist to my right told me about women who had to choose which child to let go of in the tsunami. My greatest urge was to pierce the veil of denial that thickly coats this island paradise, but to do so at that moment would have been premature as the deeply embedded denial may serve the function of a coping mechanism in the immediate short term.

Baby Steps Future Forward

Inspiration usually strikes from the most unexpected of places. Most of the adults at dinner asked the standard (trite?) question of which grade 17-year-old Mehr Gunawardena was in, how was school, etc., in an attempt to make small talk. My advice? Delve into the psyche and dreams of the youth -- they stand at the vanguard of tomorrow, and more often than not the adult in the equation will walk away hopeful again. Drawing her out in conversation, I was blown away by the succinctness, poise and passion of this young lady, taking on PE investors and directors alike with her arguments on the politics of everything from China and India to life. She spoke about her new brainchild Forgotten Children, a nonprofit, youth-run NGO that creates both funds and awareness for child sex tourism in Sri Lanka. "Children as young as 5 and 6 begin their tender lives earning their family bread and butter for the loss of their souls," Gunawardena said. She continues quietly but firmly: "They have no choice, no voice and no knowledge of their rights and are taken savagely to the beds of anyone who proves to be the highest bidder."

Gunawardena looked around at the dinner table as I had and almost seemed at a loss of words for the privilege she was born into with wonderful parents and questioning painfully why these children's parents encourage prostitution, society ignores it and that there are a staggering 40,000 child prostitutes in Sri Lanka.

Taking these and many other socio-political facets into account, it is with great expectation that I welcome Dr. Piyanjali de Zoysa's revelation of the Sri Lanka psychological association being in its final stages before launch. That Gunawardena's example of individually taking up culturally appropriate means to address issues of urgent need helps me continue the campaign with the mayor's office to have psychology recognized as an independent field and major so that in the future, Sri Lanka has its own store of people to draw from in order to implement culturally appropriate and sensitive methods of assistance to those who seek the aide, those in the process of shedding denial of Sri Lanka's recent history but most importantly those like Gunawardena who are asking the right questions. I have belief that dinner conversations in Colombo can consist of both how many hotels have sprung up to how many people have been assisted in living their full potential.

Bais is a trauma-focused PhD Candidate in the world's first and only International Psychology Program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. As one of the most highly followed Indian models on twitter and avid Nichiren Buddhist, Bais travels around the world involved in humanitarian, social impact endeavours and connects the worlds of fashion, media, art, music, spirituality and psychology. Connect with Anjhula on International Psychology, Facebook and Website