Breaching the Gulf Between Cultures

Lesson 2 to Help! My Father Is Coming! and The Visit to Vijay's

Students delve into the dynamics, the challenges, and the rewards of adjusting to a new culture, as illustrated by the author's account of his father's coming to terms with Sri Lankan customs.

About the Story

"Help! My Father Is Coming!" and "The Visit to Vijay's" are excerpted from Chapters One and Six, respectively, of Jim Toner's memoir, Serendib.

Toner's book is an engaging story of how a largely estranged father and son came to understand, accept, and respect each other under the most unlikely of circumstances. The curmudgeonly, elderly judge from Cleveland, Ohio, had never been out of the country and appeared ill-prepared to visit the rural parts of a land where he would be besieged by flies and all sorts of imagined crawling dangers, as well as no electricity or running water, no plumbing, and the ravages of a civil war. Nevertheless, he adjusts to cultural mores remarkably different from his own during the course of his monthlong visit.

About the Setting
Serendib, or Serendip, is the name by which Sri Lanka was known centuries ago. The name is the source for the word "serendipity," which means the accidental finding of something good. The country was subsequently named Ceylon. First under Portuguese influence in the 16th century, then under Dutch influence in the 17th century, the country became a British colony around the beginning of the 19th century. It gained independence in 1948.

Sri Lanka is an island about 270 miles from north to south, and 140 miles from east to west, some 18 miles off the southeast coast of India. Largely flat or with rolling hills, Sri Lanka has high mountains in the south-central region of the island. Its exports are mostly agricultural, consisting of tea, rubber, and coconuts.

Sri Lanka, with a current population of just under 20 million, experienced many years of conflict between the minority Hindu Tamils, of the north and east, and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. The Tamils were fighting for independence. That long-standing struggle was exacerbated in the late 1980s by infighting among the Sinhalese. A cease fire and efforts at an enduring peace are under way today.

Greetings in Sri Lanka are an important ritual. Toner writes that when he encountered his father at the airport, "Before I knew what to do, before I knew if I should shake his hand or embrace him or hoist him onto my shoulders, I pressed my palms together beneath my chin and said, 'Ayubowan, Dad.' Cindy smoothed down his wild hair and explained that ayubowan is the Sri Lankan welcome. 'It means that the god in me is greeting the god in you,' [she said]." (Ayubowan is the greeting used by the majority Sinhalese population. The minority Tamils use the greeting wanacome.)

Vijay, who features in the second selection, is a native of Sri Lanka, a member of the minority Tamil population, and a close friend of the author's.

Peace Corps programs in Sri Lanka have been active, on and off, since 1962. They have focused on English language improvement, agricultural and environmental projects, education and teacher training, and youth work projects.


To analyze the change that the father experiences during the course of the story
To reach the enduring understanding, "It is easy to make judgments about people and places that we later learn are inaccurate."

  • Lemon grass: A coarse, tall grass that smells like lemon and is often used in Southeast Asian cooking
  • Tamil: [TAM-uhl] A member of Sri Lanka's largest minority ethnic group. Tamils make up about 18 percent of the population.
  • Sinhalese: [sin-ha-LEEZ] A member of the majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese make up about 74 percent of the population.
  • Wanacome: An important Tamil greeting in Sri Lanka, which means "the god in me welcomes the god in you"
  • Ayubowan: An important Sinhalese greeting
  • Mesmerized: Awestruck; spellbound; captivated
  • Skewer: To pierce with a long pin or object
  • Sari: A style of dress—a long piece of cloth wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulder—worn by women in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan
  • Sinhala: [sin-HAH-luh] The official language of Sri Lanka, spoken by the Sinhalese
  • Tea plantation children: Children whose parents work as tea-pickers (who earn little money)
  • Demigod: A godlike person
  • Splay: To spread apart
  • Wadee: A hamburger-sized clump of fried lentils or beans
  • Betel: The betel palm bears a fruit called the betel nut, which many people in Southeast Asia chew for its mild stimulant effect
  • Brain drain: The departure of experts from a country, often through emigration
  • Ablutions: [ab-LOO-shuns] The washing of the body
  • Martyr: [MAR-tur] A person who chooses to suffer (or die) for a cause
  • Rupee: Local money
  • Ramayana: an influential epic poem important in Indian culture
  • Krishna: An important god in the Hindu religion
  • Sanctity: Holiness 


      1. Have students share their journal responses from the previous lesson with a partner. Then conduct a class discussion addressing these questions:
        • As you read this story, what did you learn about going from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one?
        • What picture stands out most in your mind as you think back on the story?
        • After reading the first few pages of the story, were your predictions confirmed about how the father would manage? If not, what surprised you?
      2. Carousel Brainstorming. This strategy (see below) is a useful and active way to elicit divergent viewpoints on a story's multiple meanings while allowing students to move around the room. Use the five quotations and accompanying questions from Resource Sheet  as the basis for this activity.

        Instructions for carousel brainstorming activity

        • Prior to class, photocopy the quotations in Resource Sheet, separate each quotation with its accompanying questions, as indicated by the solid lines, enlarge them on a copier, and paste each quotation and its accompanying questions on the top of a separate sheet of chart paper. Make sure the number of each quotation is large and easy to see.
        • Post the five sheets of chart paper around the room, with ample space between them. Place extra sheets of paper, masking tape, and a felt-tipped marker on the floor below each sheet.
        • Assign students numbers from 1 to 5. Ask them to move to the chart paper on which their number is written.
        • Have students discuss their group's quotation and its accompanying questions. Each group should select a recorder to write down ideas they raise, using the felt-tipped marker you've provided. Make sure students know they should help the recorder in summarizing the group's best ideas.
        • Call time after a few minutes. Ask students to move to the next piece of chart paper, so that each group will be facing a new quotation.
        • Repeat the process until all groups have discussed and responded to all questions—then have the groups move back to their original quotation and questions.
        • After collecting markers, ask each group to read the responses of the other groups and to compare those responses with their initial answers.
      3. Journal Entry. For homework, ask students to respond to one or more of the following prompts:
        • As I think about the carousel brainstorming activity we just completed, here are some things that I came to realize about the story's meaning that I hadn't thought of before.
        • Explain whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: "It is easy to make judgments about people and places that we later learn are untrue." What judgments about Sri Lanka had Toner's father made that he later learned were untrue? What judgments did Toner make about his father that he later learned were not valid?
        • In this story, Toner's father experiences an external journey and an internal journey. What is the nature of the internal journey that he experienced?

Enduring Understandings

  • Understanding and respecting the customs of another culture requires flexibility, compromise, sensitivity, and hard work.
  • It is easy to make judgments about people and places that we later learn are inaccurate.

Essential Questions

  • How flexible do you think you would be in another culture?
  • What can one gain from being open to people or customs that, at first, seem strange?
  • What kinds of compromises might you have to make in order to fit in to life in another culture?
  • What might happen when we make snap judgments about people or places?


English Standards: 1, 3, 6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).

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