Coming to Terms With Cultural Differences

Lesson 3 for Help! My Father Is Coming! and The Visit to Vijay's

Students will discover that it is possible to be challenged and "culture-shocked" by the norms of one's own culture when returning home from having been away and living in another culture. They will also examine and compare the customs of modern marriages with the customes of traditional, arranged marriages.

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 examine the cultural differences between the United States and Sri Lanka using a comparison matrix
To compare students' perspectives on cultural differences


  • 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
  • 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 


  1. Have students compare their journal responses from the previous lesson in small groups.
    Conduct a class discussion eliciting responses to the journal prompts.
  2. Suggest to students that crossing cultures is a complex process—one that can cause us to view ourselves and our own culture in new ways.Explain the concept of culture shock to students—the surprise and stress a person may feel upon entering another culture, encountering customs and values he or she had not expected. In the context of the question about Toner's father's return to Ohio, tell students that Peace Corps Volunteers—and others who live overseas—often are well prepared for the differences they encounter in other cultures, but do not expect to be surprised by cultural issues when they return home. Nevertheless, many Americans who live overseas, including Peace Corps Volunteers, do experience culture shock when they return home—confronted by customs and values at home that differ from those they had adjusted to in other countries.
    • Ask students if they think living in the culture of Sri Lanka changed Toner's father's view of the world.
    • Ask in what ways the father might have seen the culture of Cleveland, Ohio, in new ways when he returned to the United States.
    • What do students think the father focused on in describing his experiences to his wife and his friend Malone?
    • Ask students to pretend they are Toner's father and write a short report on their experience in Sri Lanka. Alternatively, students can prepare a skit for the class, enacting Judge Toner's report to his wife.
  1. Reading Comprehension Activity: Comparing Cultures
    Suggest to students that the comparison matrix they will use might help them in gaining insights not only into Toner's writing, but also into reading other materials—and into their writing.

Provide students with a copy of the comparison matrix (Resource Sheet 2, linked to above). A sample entry is included to show how the matrix can be used.

Point out that although the left-hand column has been filled in—the criteria on which the comparisons will be based—the students can add to them. Have students work in groups to complete the comparison matrix. When they have finished, have each group compare its matrix with another group's.

Then ask students what conclusions they have reached about the cultural similarities and differences between the United States and Sri Lanka. It is at this stage of using the comparison matrix that students may see for the first time how the cultures resemble each other despite obvious differences, or, to the contrary, how the cultures may appear similar in some respects but actually differ markedly.

  1. Focus on One Cultural Trait. In preparation for an activity on marriage customs, you may want to review (for yourself) the background information on arranged marriages (linked to above). Then conduct a class discussion on arranged marriages and those based on mutual choice. In the discussion, try to help students think about this concept: "It is easy to misinterpret customs in a cross-cultural setting. To avoid misunderstanding the behavior and beliefs of others, you have to try to see the world from their point of view as well as your own."

Have students re-read from "Vijay and I sat and talked," ending with "I'm doing you a favor by doing nothing, Vijay." With the class:

  1. Journal Activity. Conclude this lesson by asking students to consider the following statement: "Understanding and respecting the customs of another culture requires flexibility, compromise, and hard work." Then ask students to respond in their journals to the following questions:
    • How flexible do you think you would be in adapting to the customs of another culture—such as the cultures in Sri Lanka? Do you think that if you had been in Toner's father's shoes, you would have been able to adapt as well as he did?
    • What did Toner's father gain from being open and adaptable to learning from the Sri Lankan people and their cultures? What, if anything, did he have to compromise?
    • What are some ways that we can help students from other cultures in our own school adapt to American customs that might seem different to them? How can we give these students a sense of belonging?
    • What kind of hospitality could we show students from other cultures that would compare with the hospitality Vijay's family offered Toner's father?

Frameworks & Standards

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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