Encountering Very Different Ways of Life

Lesson 1 to Help! My Father Is Coming! and The Visit to Vijay's

In a captivating and amusing account, the author shows just how challenging it is for someone to move from a familiar to an unfamiliar culture and then deal with adjusting to the new environment.

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 explore the concept of crossing cultures
  • To examine how Americans may be viewed by people in another culture


  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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. Using information from the introduction to this book and the background information, introduce students to the author, the Peace Corps, and the setting.
  2. When the author's father left the familiar culture of the United States and entered the culture of Sri Lanka so unfamiliar to him, he experienced a phenomenon called crossing cultures.Clarify first that culture is the behaviors, customs, and beliefs that a group of people have in common. Culture is demonstrated in daily living patterns, traditions, values, worldview, styles of dress, attitudes toward education, beliefs about the responsibilities of children and the role of the family, as well as celebrations, music, art, and much more. To help students explore the meaning of culture and to build cross-cultural understanding, see Building Bridges: A Peace Corps Classroom Guide to Cross-Cultural Understanding.
    • Ask students what they think the term "crossing cultures" means.
    • Ask students whether they have ever traveled to a place in their city, state, or country—or outside their country—and noticed behaviors or customs that seemed unusual or different from what they were used to. If so, what was their reaction? What challenges did they encounter?

Explain that crossing cultures is the experience of going from one's own culture into another that may be quite different in customs, language, behaviors, and beliefs. People in one culture often think someone from another culture is unusual because of these differences. However, people from the other culture may think the visitor is unusual for the same kinds of reasons.

  1. Emphasize that Peace Corps Volunteers are trained to cross cultures respectfully so that they are accepted in their host culture, and that misunderstandings are minimized.

    Note: Students who have come to the United States from another culture can be an excellent resource for explaining these concepts. Invite them privately, ahead of class, to share their experiences if they are comfortable doing so.

  2. Have students read "Help! My Father Is Coming!" When they have finished, ask them to predict what might happen to the author's father in "The Visit to Vijay's," after the father's arrival in Sri Lanka and when he's accompanying his son in the rural countryside. Students should write their predictions on index cards. Then have the students share some of their predictions with the rest of the class. Ask the students to keep their predictions in mind as they read the rest of the story.
  3. Have students read "The Visit to Vijay's." Have older students read the story in its entirety. Younger students may profit from reading it in sections, as follows:Dividing the story may help students take notes by providing a break from reading, and it will give you an opportunity to check for understanding.
    • From the beginning of "The Visit to Vijay's" through the sentence,"I think my laughter came more from the pleasure of seeing these people full of joy in a time when joy was scarce."
    • From the paragraph beginning, "Vijay and I sat and talked," and ending with the phrase, "... all I wanted to do was toss aside the newspaper and fan my father like a pharaoh, all day and all night." See the end of this lesson plan for background information on Sri Lankan marital customs.
    • From the section beginning, "We returned to our chairs and soon heard my dad stirring," ending with the sentence, "He pushed my hand away. 'I'll be fine, Jimmy. I'm sure I'll be fine.'"
    • The remainder of the story.
  1. When the students have finished reading the story, ask them to discuss the following questions in small groups. Then have a class discussion on students' group observations.
    • How did Toner's father view Vijay and his family? (Give examples from the text.)
    • How did Vijay and his family view Toner's father? (Give examples from the text.)
  1. Discuss with students the idea that we take many journeys in our lives, and that these journeys can shape who we are.
  2. Journal Activity. For homework, have students respond in writing to one or more of the following prompts, in preparation for a class discussion in the next lesson.

For Younger Students

For Older Students

Frameworks and 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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