From Colombo to California, Going Extra Mile to Tell Sri Lanka’s Story
Priyanga Wickramasuriya — the 42-year-old wife of Sri Lankan Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya and a former pre-school teacher — may have a long and somewhat difficult name for Americans to pronounce, but she has a warm and simple message.
“I just want people to know that we have a very, very, very beautiful and great country that has lots to offer to visitors,” she said of the tear drop-shaped island, located just south of India and next to the Maldives — half a world away from the United States.
“We have our famous hill country with tea and rubber estates, but also breathtaking waterfalls and rainforests, natural wilderness parks and endless beaches, and now we have lots of fine hotels,” Priyanga continued. “Of course, so many people know about our tea from the British colonial times — when the country was called Ceylon — but we are also famous for our precious and semi-precious gemstones, hand-woven clothing, beautiful batiks, colorful handicrafts and our exotic spices.”
But tea continues to be a major source of income in the “Resplendent Land” (the Sanskrit translation for Sri Lanka) — something Priyanga’s husband knows a good deal about. A tea executive most of his life, Jaliya Wickramasuriya created his own internationally recognized brand of Ceylon tea by establishing Ceylon Royal Tea Pvt. Ltd., with its head office in the outskirts of the capital of Colombo. He entered diplomatic life in 2005 when he was appointed Sri Lanka’s consul general in California with extended jurisdiction over the major states in the West. This past July, he became Sri Lanka’s top man in Washington.
“When we first came to the States in 1999, we went to Minnesota because my husband was in the tea business and we had friends there. But it was so very cold. It was the first time my kids and I had ever seen snow and ice. After six months, we moved to Atlanta,” Priyanga recalled. “Atlanta is more like Sri Lanka — and has become our second home. It’s warmer and the people are so friendly and helpful, just like home. Our whole family has fallen in love with Atlanta.
“When my husband was first posted to Los Angeles, we had a family discussion with our two teenagers and decided we would try to live in California for one year. That way the whole family could be together again and they could be near their dad,” Priyanga explained. “But after one semester, our children missed their teachers and friends so badly, we moved back. And when he was to be ambassador in Washington, I knew I would be commuting back and forth again. At least I have all the mileage from our trips to Sri Lanka each summer!”
Today, 17-year-old Sarindee is class president at Union Grove High School, about an hour south of downtown Atlanta, and she hopes to become an astronaut one day. Sarindee and her 14-year-old brother Janith excel in karate, although he also enjoys soccer and misses playing cricket. Priyanga’s sister-in-law watches over the children while she’s in Washington with her husband — forming an effective diplomatic team that epitomizes the hospitality for which Sri Lankans are well known.
With his smiling face and “brush” haircut, Ambassador Wickramasuriya has not let diplomacy change his life much, according to his wife. “He always has a big smile and that comes from his heart. He’s a very friendly person. I would say he is not only my husband and my best friend, but my brother and sometimes even my father. He advises and teaches me.
“But I teach him also,” she added. “I’ll be the first person to tell him if something is wrong. If you are in love, that’s what you do in an honest but loving way. I am still very much in love with him.”
That feeling is clearly mutual. “Priyanga is my strength. If it weren’t for her support, whether in business or in diplomacy, I couldn’t proceed,” the ambassador said. “When you get married, it is as if you become one person, not two people. So if I have a job, she is married to that job too and she helps me with everything.”
That has meant helping him through his time as both an international businessman and now as an ambassador — two vastly different experiences. “With diplomacy, you are always in the limelight and your life becomes very formal,” Priyanga observed. “We have always entertained but now it is much less casual. Everything has to be by protocol and just right. You dress up more and I am very proud to wear my sari.
“But I can’t complain about diplomatic life,” she continued. “The only thing I don’t like is missing family time. And now for me, it’s a lot of traveling, living in two cities. We always discuss things together and try to do our very best for Sri Lanka. It’s a team approach for us from the beginning of when we first met.”
The two met when she was 24 and he was 30. “Friends at home introduced us. His friend was married to a relative of mine. I guess you could call it an ‘arranged marriage,’ but it is perfect for both of us. The first time we saw each other, we fell in love immediately, forever. Our children love to hear our love story. We met and were married a few months later,” Priyanga recalled.
Since then, they’ve worked hard to tell Sri Lanka’s story and project a positive image of their island homeland. “We want Americans to understand that there’s no big conflict in Sri Lanka anymore,” the ambassador stressed, referring to the country’s 25-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) that has claimed more than 70,000 lives. “Today, this fight in the far north is between a terrorist group, LTTE, who demand a separate state, and our security forces. It is contained to only 3 percent of the total country.
“In Colombo and all over the rest of the island, we are all living peacefully and happily and have been for 2,550 years,” he insisted. “As an example, in the metropolitan area of our capital, Colombo, we have equal communities of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Except for the small conflict area, all the other parts of our country live peacefully.”
Echoing her husband’s sentiments, Priyanga urges Americans to visit Sri Lanka, which she said is wonderful to see year round. “We are there all summer and it feels less hot and humid than Washington,” she said, noting that August is a popular time to visit because of the 10-day Esala Perahera pageant in the ancient capital of Kandy, where elephants are decorated for the candlelight processions in honor of Buddha’s “Temple of the Tooth.”
Despite the wintry weather here, Priyanga is enjoying her time in the nation’s capital. “We love Washington — it’s such a lovely city,” she said. “Even before Jaliya was appointed here, we used to bring the children to Washington to see all the monuments, museums and other attractions.”
And although she misses the warmth of Sri Lanka, Priyanga has discovered a new kind of warmth in the United States. “Americans have always been so friendly and so very helpful. When you ask for help, you get it. I will never forget how the American people helped us during the [2004 South Asian] tsunami. In Atlanta, with donations from our neighbors and friends, we were able to send big containers to Sri Lanka. The children were in the Boy and Girl Scouts then and their troops all collected for us. I will never forget that.”
Today, although the children are still in Atlanta, the family always reunites during school holidays around Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break. Nevertheless, the distance can be difficult, Priyanga admitted. “We always go to wherever Jaliya is,” she said. “We are a very close family and the children miss their father so much. When he became ambassador, each one of us had to sacrifice.”
But the sacrifice has been made much easier thanks to technology. “I am a family man and I use technology to keep in touch with my family,” said the ambassador, who still talks to his wife several times a day, whatever city she’s in, and asks his children to call him every night at 9 p.m. “That way, even when they have to leave a message, I can listen to the message later and that keeps me in touch with their daily lives.”
Likewise, the children use Internet, cell phones and other forms of communication to stay in touch. “I love my school and teachers and all the shopping downtown [in Atlanta],” Sarindee told me by phone. “But I keep in touch with my friends in Sri Lanka by Facebook and texting them. I do miss my cousins and the beach.”
Priyanga thinks the high-tech connections help to soothe the separations. “Life at home [in Sri Lanka] is now just like here. A long time ago, our daily life was slower but now we are all so busy. It used to be that we would drop in to see each other without calling. But now, we have to call ahead, just like you do here. Everyone is on their cell phones and Blackberries. You name it, we have it.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.