Pain & Prowess

A mother and daughter duo, who are tea pluckers

Tea Leaf Vision- A Vision for the Future

Its 12pm and I am about to go eat lunch. It’s International Day at Tea Leaf Vision, the school with which I am teaching English. Long, jeweled sarees, and beautiful pastel-colored attire gallivanting everywhere. A celebration of culture, womanhood, manhood, etc., it was truly a festive day. Wrapped up in the motion of events occurring around me, I am suddenly approached by a teacher. “Ms. Lindsay, may I speak to you a moment?” she asked. “There is a student I think you should meet.”

Me, on International Day in Sri Lanka- celebration of womanhood, manhood, and culture.
Dressed in my saree, I am on my way to Tea Leaf Vision.

I was a volunteer English Teacher in the tea estates of Sri Lanka. The school’s first American teacher, it was an added bonus that I was black. I don’t think the students had ever met a black woman before. So you could imagine the sheer surprise of my presence. I was there to teach English to the children of the tea pluckers. They were not children per se, but more like young adults. I was different from the European teachers they were accustomed to. I was American. The most striking thing was that my English was different, and students really liked this. It was a thrilling experience for them, having me there. For me, it was more of a healing experience.

My students in Tea Leaf Vision, in Sri Lanka
A selfie with some of my best students in Tea Leaf Vision.

A Journey Through Womanhood

Sri Lanka was the answer to something I was trying to run away from- a shattered heart. An 8 1/2 year-long relationship I had had was coming to a close. My partner, my confidant, the person I’d easily get lost with in any country, was no longer there. He was no longer someone I knew, and frankly, there was nothing I could do about it. I was losing every bit of myself. You see, no one has ever been kind enough to write a guidebook on how to heal a broken. As a woman, I can attest to the fact that we tend to throw ourselves in either education or travel in order to mend fragmented portions of our lives. It is almost natural. In my case, I did both.

During that period, I was getting my Masters, but being an avid lover of humanitarian work, I didn’t want to put this aspect of my life on hold. I somehow managed to still find time to do something that I loved, which was volunteer work. I really should not have gone to Sri Lanka, but it was the support one of my professors, who happened to be Sri Lankan himself, that carried me through. Encouraging me and finding inciteful ways to prepare me for this trip, he knew that this venture I was embarking on would be impactful. It brought me so much joy to know I was making him proud… but I digress.

The Student

The teacher had explained that this young woman just needed someone to talk to. Her situation was “very sad,” as she put it. I did not understand what was meant by this, but soon enough I was acquainted with this student. A lovely young woman, with long raven hair, and a rather reserved demeanor, stood before me. A sudden look of fear and embarrassment overtook her. In an attempt to calm her, I smiled to ensure her that there was nothing to fear.

She was a single, 19 year old mother to a 4 year old boy. She and the child’s father, who was Indian, were to be married. Misfortune struck when his family did the unthinkable and sent him back to India for better prospects. All the while, she remained in Sri Lanka, pregnant with his child. From her son’s birth onward, shame caused her to lock herself away in her family’s basement. This shame was mutual from both sides, as she was detested by her own family. It was a friend who had mentioned Tea Leaf Vision to her and the opportunity to learn English, which propelled her to seek the change she so desperately needed in that time in her life.

Tea Leaf Vision school
The school where I taught in Sri Lanka.

Laborers of Love

Shy, she said to me, “Miss I come to this school every day for my son. I travel 3 hours to come and go because I want to learn English. I want a good job to feed my family.” Behind these words was a reality that youth of the Sri Lankan tea estates were all too familiar with- a life of plantation work. The tea pluckers were a diligent, yet strong group of people. The women, in particular, worked from the early hours of the morning till late in the evening, handpicking tea leaves that we in the Western world delight to taste. The belief was that plantation work was rooted in their culture, but these young people…the students of Tea Leaf Vision,…they wanted to break the cycle. They dared to want more.

A mother and daughter duo, who are tea pluckers- a vision of womanhood
A picture of a beautiful mother and daughter pair of tea pluckers, in the fields in Sri Lanka.

Womanhood Come Undone

My conversations with this young woman got deeper with each moment. I told her of women in America. How bold, zealous, and unfettered we were. She gazed at me excitingly, but her look soon became neutral. She said something that struck me harder than I could have ever imagined. ” Miss, I wish to be like you, but my culture would never allow it. People here are different and behave differently. Just like I know…,” as I watched her agonizingly begin to fight an overwhelming emotion to cry, “I will never be loved; I don’t even believe it exists anymore. Men in my culture look down on women like me. I am not beautiful, and worst, I am a single mother. No one would ever want me.” The words struck me harder and harder as she professed them with little restraint.

I remember thinking at that moment back to what I had been personally facing. I’m usually good at giving advice, but for the very first time, I was out of words. How can a broken person advise anything to another broken person? I know I certainly was in no position to even speak on her situation, but I understood her every pain. She willingly laid it all out in front of me, so I felt like I had a responsibility to her to, at the very least, try to raise her up. I couldn’t let her sink any further. I tried to show her the beauty that existed, from the flowers surrounding us, to her son, and all the way back to herself. She was beautiful, like a perfect wildflower in a glorious field.

A Path to Healing

I wanted her to understand that the power of a woman extends far beyond how we are perceived by the likes of men. The complexities of being a woman are always layered. At some point in her life, they will become entangled and enthralled, almost always at the expense of love lost. Between keeping her head on her shoulders, and persisting despite circumstance, a woman is remarkable in her ability to make a comeback. It’s always painful, but there is power in the pain.

A grandmother and her grandchild standing in front of the mountains in Sri Lanka
A perfect example of womanhood, a grandmother carriers her grandchild on her hip as she goes through the mountains in tea estates.

I can’t recall my exact words to this young woman thereafter, however, I knew whatever I had said, had a lasting impact on her. She would go on to pursue higher education and become a teacher herself. It’s amazing how just a bit of encouragement, a little push, could affect the way we perceive ourselves and our circumstances. A changed mind is a powerful thing.

I went back home and faced my reality once again. The mental therapy I received from this trip wasn’t enough. It was a process, just as anything in life is. Yet, it was a stepping stone that would lead me in the direction I needed to be. I wasn’t finished re-claiming my womanhood. I wasn’t finished taking back my name. In due time, it would come.

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