May I ask one question?
This was the gentle introduction from a puzzled young economics student we encountered at Galle railway station in Sri Lanka. We were on the final leg of our whistle stop holiday tearing round the country and desperate to see everything from ancient civilisations to whale watching.
The one unifying factor was the heat–around 35 degrees Celsius with humidity of 98% to be precise. Which indirectly led to the question. We had got through the three standard questions:
- Is it your first time in Sri Lanka?
- Where are you from?
- Do you like our country?
Thence followed an animated discussion regarding where our student acquaintances might go abroad for further study – Australia and Canada scored highly, the UK barely got a mention. We talked about town planning and building structures, a subject dear to my partner’s heart, as he is an architect. Then came the question:
‘Please could you tell me why all western men wear shorts?’ This from a young man smartly dressed in blue shirt, pressed jeans and black leather loafers.
We answered in unison: ‘Because it’s hot’. This in no way clarified our young friend’s query. Clearly he associated short trousers with childhood, and was astounded that a mature man should choose to wear shorts around a city.
I realised that based on his somewhat limited experiences of western men encountered whilst following the tourist trail, the student could well assume that shorts was their standard dress at home as well, and that all Englishmen went to work on the tube in baggy knee length shorts with pockets weighed down with essential items. I had spent the last 16 days soaking up as much as possible of Sri Lankan culture. I knew I had not dressed inappropriately when visiting the Buddhist temples, and had adopted my usual attitude of polite deference to the prevailing culture. Nevertheless, not for one minute had I reflected on what impressions we might be making on the locals. And then came this question.
It was a bit like the difference between reading the guide books and then finding yourself in the country itself. How could we begin to explain that back home our dress code was quite different, and that was largely based on one key fact – the weather. If you live in a climate where it never goes below 20 degrees, what need have you for shorts, when you have only known warmth all your life? The concept of a winter wardrobe was another one that would have been impossible to explain.
We clearly had not given a good impression of people from Britain. We boarded our train and arrived in Colombo three sticky, sweaty hours later. We collapsed gratefully on the bed in our air conditioned room in the hotel, then showered and changed for supper. My partner dug out his one pair of trousers from the bottom of his suitcase where they had languished since our arrival.
‘I think I’ll make a statement’, he said.