June 16, 2010

Peace Corps Moment – Lenny (Part 1) – Sri Lanka 1997

Lenny’s shocked expression conveys his absolute motionlessness; his broad feet are rooted to the stone kitchen floor. A 50lb bag of rice rests on his shoulder. He stares, and I can only stare back, a handful of my dinner poised in front of my mouth. “Hello,” I offer, in English.

His skin color is a mixture of chocolate and ash. His black hair hangs in greasy tangles. At barely 5’2” tall, wearing ripped shorts and no shirt and judging from his angled ribs and thin arms, you’d never guess he’s so strong. Yet, he stands without effort as if the bag is weightless.

He speaks to me.

Now, I’ve been living with my Sri Lankan host family for barely a full day and my Sinhalese is nonexistent. I can almost say yes, no and please, but that doesn’t matter – Lenny’s voice is a murmur. It’s a string of sounds so low and garbled, I can’t understand a word no matter what language he’s speaking.

“Again?” I offer, hoping my inflection and confused look will translate. Some of the rice and lentils I’m holding seeps through my fingers.

Lenny keeps nonstop talking.

“I’m sorry,” I say slowly, not sure what I’m sorry about. Maybe because I’m a stranger in his house. Or that I’m American and all I know is English. Or just maybe that I’m tired, hot, and have to eat my dinner with my fingers.

A big, toothy (though somewhat toothless in sections) grin spreads across his face. He slings the rice bag with a thud on top a stack of 5 others in the corner of the kitchen. That smile stays. He walks up to me, his eyes a bit wide, and places his hand on my shoulder. “Hari lasinay,” he says, and still I can hardly hear him even though he’s less than a foot away. His breath smells of mint and tea, and I have no clue as to what he means.


He laughs. And it’s then that he gets his name. I mean, it’s then that I give him the title Lenny because I’ll never learn his real name. My host sister spends the next week introducing every member of their large extended family, except for Lenny. It takes the week for me to realize that he’s not a family member. He’s their servant. But before that realization, right now, I can tell by the way he is standing and the uncontrolled laughter erupting in a flurry of noise, tongue, and spittle that he’s mentally impaired. He’s a few cards short of a full deck, as my father would say.

It takes some time, but I do eventually learn my host family’s name for him, which loosely translates into “retarded.” Sri Lankan social interaction is a weird mixture of rudeness and an inability to contradict, so they label him without a second thought nor with a hint of guilt. And he accepts it. But for me, he becomes Lenny – stolen from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It was either that or call him Retard.

1 comment:

  1. Of all your posts, there's something about your stories about Lenny that have stuck with me. Maybe because it kind of remeinds me of how things are in some places in Bangladesh. Maybe it's because it reminds me of how what seems complicated/hard work/impossible for one person, is just a matter-of-fact, normal part of their everyday life ... and while a person's situation may be something we look at with a bit of pity or sorry, they are quite possibly looking back at us (me/whoever) with the same exact thought/feeling.