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Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal
October 22, 2013
Call number: 2011.019.068
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: And I'm just going to start by prepping the interviewby saying this is Manissa McCleave Maharawal interviewing -- Neela, do you have a middle name?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Kusum.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Kusum.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: And Devika taught me how to say your last name.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Wickremesinghe.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Yeah, Wickremesinghe. Right. On October 22nd, atthe CUNY Graduate Center, as part of the Crossing Borders Bridging Generations project. And Neela, I'm just going to have you introduce yourself by telling me your full name and where and when you were born.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: My name is Neela Kusum Wickremesinghe, and I was born on[redacted for privacy], at Lenox Hill Hospital, in Manhattan. Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Great. And do you want to just -- we're just goingto start -- like I always start my interviews really open-ended. Do you want to tell me something about your childhood?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: It was pretty rad, I mean, I'm glad, knowing somebackground, that my sister is also part of this project, because I feel like in the future, two people can listen to these two interviews and find out were we either lying or where we actually did -- these things actually did match up, so 1:00that was good. But we had a lot of fun. I grew up in Staten Island, I still live there, after a brief hiatus for college and graduate school. I lived in Minneapolis for two years, and I just moved back to New York. Yeah, but growing up in Staten Island, I think you identify with that first, I think. Like where you grow up, especially in New York, and then there's a lot of realizing, like when you realize when you're very young, or at least I did, that when people talk about New York, like in the world, that's where you live. So it's kind of a weird reflective moment, even as a kid, because you realize that you're living in a big place that everyone knows about, but you're living in a part of it that no one really knows about. And so that's kind of the cool part about living in Staten Island is because they still have a lot of secrets that no one cares 2:00enough to sort of mess around with or take a boat to go see. So, yeah, we had fun. My mom is from Brooklyn, so she -- all of her family is here, and my dad's from Sri Lanka. He came here in -- I want to say '70 or '71. Early '70s. They're both physicians, and they met at the hospital. And then my sister was born in 1984. I was born in '87, and we have a younger brother named Prian, and he was born in 1991. Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: So, when you say that it was pretty rad, what was radabout it?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I guess it was -- we just -- we were sort of -- I don'tknow, I guess we were our own little unit for a long time, because there was a lot -- I mean, three isn't a lot, but, you know, you can sort of run around in the backyard and do your own thing. We were -- I was very jealous of, sort of 3:00like, imaginary kids who had like friends on their block. We did not have that. But we did, like, play with each other and have all of that thing. Yeah, we had fun. We still have fun. We always have animals in our house. We grew up with a yellow lab. His name's Gus. In our family, we name our dogs mainly after important dead people in our family. So we had Gus, which was from my mother's great uncle Gus, and now our current dog, Leo, is from my great grandfather Leo. And I hope that one day we'll have more of this. But it's very important animals after important dead people. And my dad came to New York -- it's a funny story, I have a cousin on my mom's side, my youngest cousin, first cousin, John, and he grew up in New Jersey; they're like our New Jersey 4:00Italian cousins. And he had to do a school project about immigration when he was maybe, like, I don't know, fifth or sixth grade. So it was kind of a last-minute thing, I remember getting the phone in the kitchen ringing, and it was one of those phones that had the really long cord, so you could take it, like, away, and have private conversations. But it rang, and it was him, and he said "Oh, I need to talk. I need to talk to Uncle Prasanna," my dad, Prasanna, and he said "I have to do this project for school about, like, immigrants. You're an immigrant, like, let me have it, but give me the short version, because it's, like, due tomorrow." And he said -- and my dad took the phone and said "Now, are you getting this?" He said "I did not come to this country and kiss the ground, I did --" you know, which was very telling. He always tells people that he came here because he had a job offer, and he took it, you know? It wasn't like he really wanted to come and be an American, and I don't think that any of us really are, but that's why he came here. And the cool thing is 5:00that he is one of three also. So he has two older sisters, and himself, he's the youngest -- the only boy, and his oldest sister went to Germany, married someone from Germany, and we have German and Sri Lankan cousins, and his middle sister went to England, married someone from England, and we have half-Sri Lankan, half-English cousins as well, which is -- we've created our own sort of people that are in between, and I think we have -- all the first cousins on that side have a really interesting connection from that way, even though we live so far away. So when they both left, and they left Sri Lanka, and he decided to go, and he ended up doing the same thing, but he really wanted to come New York because, not just because of the job in the end, but because he really was 6:00interested in seeing live jazz, and that's why he came, because he said, "Well, I could go here or there, but, like, I could go, like, see live jazz," and that's something he always wanted to do, which I think is funny because he tried to be a musician, but he's not. He took clarinet lessons when we was, like, much older in life, but that was a bad mistake. He just likes -- he's just a viewer, so I thought that was pretty cool. But, so -- his family is more like -- I feel like we have more in common just because there's sort of a history of, like, mixing in his family, so I don't have to explain anything to those cousins, which is nice, I think.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: What about the other side of your family?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Well I didn't -- so again, with this sort of, like, whenyou realize you're from New York, you realize everyone knows about it, I didn't realize that other people didn't -- that I was very different from everyone else 7:00until people -- when you're at school, people say "Oh, what is that?" and they talk about our name, because it's really long, and on paper, it's a lot to look at, and especially when there's like three kids in front of you who don't particularly look brown or foreign, and so we don't present as foreign, people say "What is that?" And you don't understand that that's a weird question until much later. Like only very recently, in college, did I start getting really annoyed at it, because I was so used to saying "Oh, that's my last name," instead of saying -- instead of pronouncing it to people, now it's very much like "What do you mean? What is that? Where are you from?", "I'm from New York, where are you from?" Like it's kind of -- I was very used to giving the whole spiel about it, like -- and not getting upset. And I don't get upset now, I just get annoyed. But -- so you don't realize that you're not like everyone 8:00else until much later, at least I didn't. Just because we were sort of pushed in it, and our school wasn't really that mixed when we were in elementary school. My sister and I went to an all-girls Catholic school for kindergarten through eighth grade, and it wasn't as mixed as -- it's probably not very mixed right now either, but -- so you're thrown into a whole group of kids that, there's, you know, we had -- there was a fair amount of racial and ethnic diversity, but no one really talked about it, and it wasn't -- I guess it wasn't put on display, I guess, maybe like it was in later years, but no one really talked about it, and everyone assumed that you were white, so there wasn't really anything to talk about. And the only thing to talk about was this really long name on a piece of paper that they didn't understand, because it didn't match what they were seeing in front of them.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Interesting.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: And I don't think that -- it's funny, I don't think that9:00my mom's family ever thought that there was something weird -- not weird, or like -- I don't have to explain anything to them either, because I think after a while, they just forgot, to be honest, like they forgot. Like one of my mom's cousins, very Brooklyn Italian side, first cousins on her -- my grandfather's side, said to my dad, "Well, Prasanna, you don't really have a color," and he does have a color, but they're just like him so much that they don't perceive him as foreign. They say a lot of racist things around him, and expect him not to notice, but he doesn't -- I think they've forgotten, because they like him so much, that they forget that he's brown. I don't -- it's just -- it's weird. And kind of cute, at the same time, because they're all incredibly fake tan, so they're probably the same. But I think there's -- I think it also was easy 10:00because he came to the United States and it was just him, you know? It wasn't "Who are we going to spend Christmas with?", he was like "Can I spend Christmas with you guys?" It was easy, you know, they sort of took him in, which I think was kind of cool and nice. And growing up on Staten Island was also interesting, because the Sri Lankan population steadily grew as, sort of, time went on, but I -- it was different because we were sort of part of that community, but sort of not, so it was good because for a lot of kids, like friends of my parents, they -- who are growing up now, they have, like, Sinhala School, and other things, but that didn't exist when I was little. But I think 11:00for a lot of people, it was all a really good thing, but I also feel kind of outside of that community as well, just because -- I don't know, that's -- we don't speak Sinhala, none of my sister or my brother, and so I think that's really the barrier to getting into all of that, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: You said that, about your name, it didn't start tobother you until recently.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Was there a reason that that shift happened, do youthink? Or is there a story behind that shift happening, or--?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I guess it just started happening so much -- I guess notmuch more, or I guess I was just becoming more of myself in college and you start becoming very hyper-aware of lots of different things, and taking different classes. You then start thinking back, "Wait, that's -- like, I can't believe people used to do that to like, two little -- you know, two and three, 12:00two little kids," you know, just because you can't pronounce it, doesn't mean that I can't or I won't, you know, like, help you through it, or it's not a big deal, you know? Because that's -- it's such a -- I mean, even at home, my dad, everyone calls him Doctor Wick. They don't call him Doctor Wickremesinghe, and that's a huge -- it's like a persona, almost, like it's not -- and a lot -- it's weird, and then you don't realize it's weird until you get older, that the people just truncate your entire name, because it's easier for them. Yeah, but I guess later on in life, I just became much less -- like it's not funny, like, to me, because people are like "Oh yeah, it's really long," it's like "Yeah." But then there's also the "Oh, where are you from?" and it's like -- you know, people have a certain sense of -- people aren't aware of the amount of agency 13:00that they're taking to ask that question, and then if you -- it's like me asking you back, "Well what does your last name mean?" Like just because you think this is one you haven't seen before, doesn't mean that we all don't have a story behind it, you know. So I think I was just fed up with that, so I stopped being like "Oh yeah, it's hilarious, there's a lot of letters." And professionally, I think I've been aware of it much more, especially when I introduced myself, I just started a new job, and I introduced myself, I would not include my last name, just because I didn't want people to then have this whole separate conversation about where they think I came from, so. But I've been trying to sort of, when I meet other people in professional situations, trying to just jump on in, but yeah, people just leave it out when they introduce me also, I think because they're afraid they're going to say it wrong. But without it, I 14:00think a lot of people would not -- I guess they would totally disregard that whole half of our upbringing, because they wouldn't -- they don't perceive us, like my sister, my brother and I, as an "other", so I guess it's like -- it is really annoying, because people think that you're coming from somewhere else, but without it, you would lose that, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: And you don't want to lose that.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Right.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Yeah, I'm always sounding my name out for people too.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, it's just -- I don't know, just ask for help, youknow, it's fine. Yeah, but I guess our first names are all pretty easy when it comes to Sri Lankan names, but -- I guess my mom was sort of all in. She didn't really want any Christian Italian names in there, I guess, which is also -- I 15:00hadn't realized that until I got older, because you realize those things later in life too. But I guess that was her own decision, I think. I think she was totally fine with that. She sort of jumped on board and was all -- all in.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: When you say "all in", do you mean about the names,or generally about Sri Lankan --
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I think about the names, but the interesting thing is,like, my dad's mom was Dutch, so he himself is also not your typical Sri Lankan either, because his mother was a Dutch Burgher, his father was Sinhala, so they also have a mixed background just because of colonialism and the aftermath of that, and so it's not like she was really marrying into a very traditional Sinhala family, they were already mixed to begin with. My grandmother's family 16:00were -- they were in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years, but they had -- there was not -- they didn't intermarry. At least that's as far as I know, but -- and also I think, because he came here alone, it was different. I think, again, like he was much more part of, like, a New York family than she was part of a larger family, just because they were so scattered, and everyone here was sort of, you know, New York, New Jersey, Brooklyn, that was it, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: You mentioned your cousins --
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: -- and how they're mixed too. So do you see -- arethere commonalities in your experiences, do you think, or--?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I think so, but it's also different because they -- theirmoms are the ones that sort of hold that -- held their Sri Lankan-ness, I don't know how else to say it, but so I guess you get different things from your mom 17:00than you would your dad. So like my oldest cousin, Kamala, she knows Sinhala, and that's like, in my eyes, like that's the prize you get, like, for having a mom that is that half -- that side of the half, you know? But we're all -- I mean, but we're all -- the thing that I like most is that we all look alike, which is kind of silly to say, but it's like, nice, because you don't get that around, so -- it's like meeting another zebra in the middle of the forest. (laughter) But it's nice because we're -- just the similarities are comforting, even though we grew up very far away from each other.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: When you said that the prize for having your mom beis language, why do you think -- what do you mean by that?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I think that if you have -- I guess it's -- maybe it'sjust my dad, but I guess it's like the mother gets, you know, like they're in 18:00traditional, I guess, home more, raising the kids more, so you get that different side of your family history, I guess. Like I know a lot more about my mom's family history than I do about my dad's, I guess. That's just -- and that's also their personalities, but I just -- in my mind I think, well, like, you do mom stuff with your mom, and my dad is not very traditionally dad in any sense of the way, but I guess it's just his personality that it didn't transcribe that way, or it didn't transpire that way.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: So do you think you grew up with more, like, Italian-ness?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Oh, I think so, just because, like, grandparents werehere, and that's -- it's just, you know, it's the other more dominant family, we have more people here. (laughter) My dad used to make wine in our backyard, and he used my mom's grandfather's wine press. My dad has a lot of hobbies, and 19:00that was for a couple of summers, winemaking was it. And so he would go to these grape, like, grape markets, and other places, like out in Brooklyn and Queens, and like, people were like, "Oh, Prisan, like, you know, like, you are Sicilian." He'd be like, "No, no I'm not." But it's the same, like, you know, if you see someone, and they have the same interest, you sort of -- you just see them as very much like you. So I think the stuff like that was pretty typical. So like on Christmas Eve, my dad makes linguini and clam sauce. He makes it, and he uses my mom's grandmother's recipe, so. So he's -- I think he just jumped right in as well, when it comes to all these other things. Yeah, but the 20:00Italian side of my family is also really interesting, like everyone's family is interesting, just because I guess that's also a more typical immigration story, where they did kiss the ground when they got here. It was really bad and sucky in Italy, so they left. But -- and I think it's -- that's sort of traditional Italian New York experience, that this is true for a lot of people. And then, you know, somewhere, it ends somewhere in Brooklyn, and here we are. But that side, yeah, there's a lot of differences there too, as well. My grandfather's family is from Sicily, and my grandma's family is from Naples, so not so different, but sort of an island-mainland sort of mentality. But they were also 21:00really different families. My mom tells a lot of stories about how she always thought that everyone at her -- on her father's side was yelling when they were speaking to each other, because that's how they spoke. They were always very gregarious bunch who were speaking in Italian, but she thought everyone was fighting, but they weren't, they were just talking, you know? And her mom's side of the family was more -- you know, it was the second generation of Italians, and they were very much more of an American kind of life and lifestyle. That was very different from the way that her dad grew up. He was one of six, and her mom was an only child. So even though she -- my grandma did grow up with a lot of cousins, it was very different. I feel like it was a big sort of Sicilian upbringing and then sort of quiet American Italian existence, 22:00and then they sort of came together.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Are they both -- did they both grow up in Brooklyn too?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, they grew up in Brooklyn too, yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Where in Brooklyn is this?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: In Bensonhurst, in Bay Ridge, yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: And that's where your family still lives, is that correct?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: So my -- all my mom's cousins are there. My uncle is inNew Jersey. My grandparents aren't alive anymore, but that's where my grandma was still living, yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: So you have -- you have like a family presence.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, still, like it's my mom's cousins that are there, yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: I was going to ask, in terms of -- because you saidyour dad makes this, like, clam sauce --
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, so -- I think it's interesting, because when itcomes to food, like, he loves to cook. But he doesn't just love to cook, like, Sri Lankan food. It's mainly -- I mean, it's mainly pasta, I mean. So, you know, he does all the cooking for Christmas, and so does my mom, so I think, you 23:00know, food is -- people always look at food, I think, as like one of the -- one of the things you sort of get from your family. So I think there's a lot to get from both sides.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Did you grow up with Sri Lankan food too?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: We did. Not -- he would make it for, like, specialoccasions, but as we got older, there were more and more Sri Lankan restaurants opening on Staten Island, so we would get it often at, like -- sort of how you get, like, Chinese takeout. And they grew from really small, sort of like, mom-and-pop things to like more established restaurants. And now there's like, I don't know, like, five or six, you know? So in one way it was great, because you can get it all the time. In the other -- in another sense, he doesn't cook it as often just because he can go get it. But he does cook it, like, I would say, like maybe like on demand, like if he really wanted it, but it's just 24:00really easy to get it, and it's pretty good, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Does your mom cook it too?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: She doesn't. Everyone -- that's a question that I gotrecently. I started this job, and someone was interrogating me about my last name, and they said "Oh, does your -- did your mom learn how to cook Sri Lankan food?" and I was like, "No, my dad cooked it." Like -- I don't know, like, I guess he was thinking like, oh, like if your dad didn't cook, but -- I think because he's such a cooker, like he's -- there would really be no need, and he'd be like "Please, you're screwing it up," like that's just the personality that would come out, you know, like, "Please don't try." (laughter) But yeah, so he does most of the cross-national cooking, but my mom -- so it's sort of like tag team, like they'll both cook a fair amount of Italian, but I guess he's the only person that cooks Sri Lankan. Yeah. 25:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: I was just wondering because, like the way youdescribe your dad, it sounds like he's really embraced the sort of, like, Brooklyn Italian --
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yes, he's "Brooklyn boy," as he calls himself. But yeah,he worked in Coney Island hospital when he first came to the states, and he sort of, like, got here, bought a car, and then, like, drove all around, and was commuting from Brooklyn to Staten Island in his -- I don't know what he was driving, but -- so I think that was his first impression of the city, you know, like, being in the car, it was the '70s, and sort of odd hours, shift work. He said that he used to ride his bike around Brooklyn when he lived in Coney Island, and he used to ride around, like in the middle of the night, like when he had time. He said, if you look crazy enough, no one will mess with you, so 26:00he would wear, like, no shirt and an orange, like, winter hat. And he had a flag out the back of his bike. But I think he was also super young, I mean, younger than a professional in the States just because medical school is college for them, so he came over -- I don't know, he was like 26 or something. So I think he was still excited about sort of running around and doing things. Yeah. But my mom went to medical school in Mexico, so there's sort of another -- a lot of her formative time was spent in a different place also. Then she came back to New York in the middle of the '70s, and sort of was like -- skipped a lot of stuff that people -- that was happening here, and then sort of jumped back into it. So, yeah, so my mom also did quite a bit of traveling when she 27:00was in college and after college and then ended up in Staten Island somehow.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: You said they met together when they were working together?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, they met in the hospital. My dad was chief ofresidents? Something like that, and my mom was a medical student. Yeah.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: How do they tell that story?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: My mom says everyone was afraid of him because he wouldinterrogate the medical students, or the interns, I would say. And so you didn't want to get stuck on a rotation with him because he would, like, make you feel awful. And he asked her what the lifespan of a red blood cell was, and she forgot, and felt awful about it. It's 180 days, or something like that. And those were, you know, those were the first words, I guess (laughter). Love at 28:00first sight. But that's about all I really know about that story. Yeah. But it was nice, because, you know, if you grow up in Staten Island, you're so close to Bensonhurst, it's just right over the bridge, so we'd be there, not a lot, but -- not weekly, you know, sort of Sunday family time, we were not that kind of family. But we were there quite a bit with my grandma, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Do you know how her family felt about your dad?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I think that, to be quite honest, it made it a lot easierthat he was a professional person. I think that, thinking back, I'm sure it wasn't as easy, it wouldn't have been as easy if he was, like, unemployed. But I think a sort of older established, like, physician, everyone was like, "Oh 29:00cool, like, that's cool," so, you know. So I think, to be quite honest, that's why it went over, like there was really no issue. And -- I don't know. As my mom says, everyone in my mom's family was like, "Oh," like my mom's name is Laura, like "Laura, get your head out of the books, like you're so, like, book smart, you have no common sense," that kind of thing. And then she was like, "OK, I'm going to college," did really well in college, and then she's like -- and she, you know, unlike her other two cousins, did not leave college with an engagement ring, and so my grandma's friend Sadie said, you know, "If she's not gonna find in college, where's she gonna find?" So she went to medical school, and she didn't find anyone in medical school either, so I guess that also maybe was part of it. And really, I honestly don't know if there was an issue either, 30:00but I guess it all worked out.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Sounds like it. I was just wondering -- justimagining this, like, tight-knit Italian, sort of Bay Ridge Bensonhurst family, you know, where, I mean, even for your grandparents, Sicily to Naples was -- you know, that could be considered like an intermarriage, so just thinking about, like ways of thinking.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, I guess -- I guess it was fine, I mean -- and also,it's not like they had a huge Italian wedding. They signed the license at Borough Hall, you know? Like it was -- they were both older, as well, so --
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: How old were they?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: My mom was 32 maybe? But my dad's eight years older, so,I think -- yeah, so she was 33 when she had my sister, I believe? Yeah. Thirty-six when she had me, yeah. And so it was not like they were arranging 31:00for families to fly over into a destination where they, you know, so ---
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Do you think -- how has she taken on, like, SriLankan-ness, or Sri Lankan culture?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Well we actually -- we just came back from a big trip. Soit was three weeks in Sri Lanka this past August. And this is the fourth time that my siblings and I had been there, but maybe like the sixth time my mom had been there. So she had gone before they were married, and then once after they were married, but I don't think any of us were born yet. But I think also it's because my dad came -- there was a group of his friends who were here in New York also. So she knew his friends and his friends' wives at that time, and so I think -- sort of, it was less of a, like, "Come see our culture," and more of 32:00a "Let's hang out," I guess. But, you know, again, it's not -- the other thing is, you know, my dad was raised an Episcopalian, and so it's not like -- it didn't come with a community that was Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu that sort of upheld this sort of other mentality, so it was kind of less of a big deal also in that sense, because there wasn't a sort of re-learning of a lot of traditions or other things, and Sri Lankan-ness was really a cultural thing and not a religious thing. In Sri Lanka, there's many different kinds of people, historically, and many different kinds of religion, so I guess she happened to find one that was pretty common for her. I guess not common, but easy to understand at that time. But I think, I mean, I think also it's she really 33:00loves it, you know? It was really great to go back as an adult and try to sort of, like, sit back and watch things happen interfamiliarly, but yeah, it was an interesting trip. Three weeks is a long time. And we always go for that long, but the bad thing was that this year, we were without my brother, and we really missed him, just because he has an important job of, like, wrangling my dad, and that wasn't part of the equation because he was working. But she's definitely -- my mom's great because there's a lot of things that a lot of people sort of, like, sit back and take in terms of, like, oh, this is how culture goes, and this is what things -- but if like, if something's not kosher, she will tell 34:00you, and so it's really good to -- she's critical in the best way because she can be like "Can you believe what's happening here?" you know, like, so it's good because in the one way, we're both outsiders together. So in that way, there's like my dad, and then there's all of us in one sort of grouping, and then there's my siblings and my dad and my mom, you know, and that's how you can sort of break us down that way, so. And then there's my sister, me and my mom, and then my dad and my brother, just to push it a little further.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: (laughter) Sure.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: But it was a good trip because we got to do a lot oftraveling in places that you couldn't go in Sri Lanka for a long time because they had a civil war that is quote-unquote over, but we saw a lot of places where my dad had never been, so it was interesting. 35:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Do you have a -- can you give me an example of yourmom calling out something that's not --
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Well, the weirdest thing about traveling to Sri Lanka, andI'm sure this happens in other places, is that many, many people have servants in their home, just because that's what they do. And when you're a young kid, you don't really realize what's happening. And then when you get older, you're like, "This is kind of strange." It's strange that people -- this is a different sort of employment class, and this is so normal, but it's not normal here, and there's all these class issues that you're so aware of. And I'm sure -- and my dad doesn't think twice about it, just because that's the way he was raised, and for some reason he doesn't really want to think critically about it. So, you know, I can talk to my mom and be like, "Yeah, I really love visiting Sri Lanka, but I really need to visit it without all that," you know, because 36:00it's really hard to see a country when you're seeing it through a lot of, sort of -- people are not holding back, but they're keeping you at arm's length. Like you stay with family, and we'll take you around, and you'll be taken care of, and you know, this nice person will make your breakfast in the morning, and do your laundry, and no one really questions that whole interaction of an entire class of people that really aren't given a lot of agency and voice. But on the other hand, it's a whole, you know, economy of people, and that's how they make their living. But just to talk about different issues that we wouldn't really talk to with my dad. It's good to have my mom there as another outside person being like "Yeah, that's weird," too, and we can talk about it. 37:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: So in Sri Lanka, do you feel like -- you said, solike you have this outsider -- you feel like an outsider. You're saying that your family -- there's your dad, and then the rest of you is the outsiders.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, yeah, so because he's the only one that speaksSinhalese, it puts us at a disadvantage just because he becomes the point person. He becomes the person to talk to anyone that doesn't speak English, anyone that needs to get us somewhere, or find information about anything. So it would be different -- much different, obviously, you know, if we all knew Sinhala. Then we could sort of figure it out. But it's changing really rapidly. You can see, just in the six years that -- or seven years -- that we haven't been there, the amount of English that's everywhere is just -- it's ridiculous. So it's definitely -- you can see globalization happening, which only makes it easier for everyone to sort of travel to different places. But you're losing something with that, you know, level of globalization as well, but 38:00-- so it is definitely still an outsider experience, and it's kind of frustrating, because you're like "No wait, like, this is part of my culture too," like we have in common, but again, you're not reading my as that, so we get put, like, in a different category, you know. "Do your kids eat spicy food?" That kind of deal, you know?
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: What category do you think people are putting you in?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Americans, I guess. Or a lot of people thought we wereGerman, (laughter) just because -- but it's different. If we're with our dad, then it's like, "Oh. Oh, you have a white wife, like this is what's happened. This is your Western family." But yeah, there's a lot -- it's still, I think, an outsider experience because -- just because people are judging us on the way that we look.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: And you think they read you as American?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, I think so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Not Sri Lankan.
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: No. I guess it also has to do a lot with the way that we39:00were dressed, and stuff like that. Devika was wearing -- happened to be wearing a skirt and a blouse one day when we were, like, at a big cultural site, and some -- a Sri Lankan man was like "Oh, that's so funny," he said in English, like "You look Sri Lankan." And it's like, "Come on man, like, yeah, because I am." You know, like, so -- I guess it would be different, I hope, maybe, if we were like, in full sari the entire time, but, you know, we weren't, so I -- it's a big part of it. The other -- the added bonus is that Devika and I were both traveling with our partners, so Devika was traveling with her boyfriend, and I was traveling with my girlfriend, so we sort of -- we all sort of looked like a bunch of tourists, so.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Because -- why, because of them?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: Yeah, and so them as being actual true Americans in my40:00mind, like, I guess altogether, it was like, "Oh look, there's your dad," you know, so (laughter). Yeah, but it was also really interesting to travel with them because it's two people that haven't been there, they sort of don't know the deal, and they also can be like "Whoa, what is happening here?" and "That's so cool," or "That's not cool," so it was interesting.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: How do you think people read the whole family?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: We had a -- we were traveling a lot of the time in a largevehicle, so, you know, it's just all pile in, pile out kind of mentality, which wasn't much different than, like, getting in the car and going to a, like, national park, but I think it was definitely like a Western absolutely, like, American.
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: But you think you guys were read as like a bigfamily, or like--?
NEELA WICKREMESINGHE: I think so, yeah. I definitely think so. Yeah.41:00
MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARWAL: Devika, I talked to Devika about the trip, and shesaid it was really int 42:00 43:00 44:00 45:00 46:00 47:00 48:00 49:00 50:00 51:00 52:00 53:00 54:00 55:00 56:00 57:00 58:00 59:00 60:00 61:00 62:00 63:00 64:00 65:00 66:00 67:00 68:00 69:00 70:00 71:00 72:00 73:00 74:00 75:00 76:00 77:00 78:00 79:00 80:00 81:00 82:00 83:00 84:00 85:00 86:00 87:00 88:00 89:00 90:00 91:00 92:00 93:00 94:00 95:00 96:00 97:00 98:00 99:00 100:00 101:00 102:00 103:00 104:00 105:00 106:00 107:00 108:00 109:00 110:00 111:00 112:00 113:00 114:00 115:00 116:00 117:00
Oral History Interview with Neela Wickremesinghe
Neela is 25 years old, female-assigned and female-identified, her father is Sri Lankan and her mother is Italian- American. She went to Smith College and then Columbia University for a master's degree in historical preservation. She just moved back to NYC from Minneapolis and currently has a job working in historic preservation. She is currently living at home in Staten Island with her parents and younger brother.
In this interview the Narrator describes why historic preservation and architecture is important to her. She also discusses her family's recent trip to Sri Lanka and how she experienced this trip and having her partner with her on the trip. She also discusses the ways in which she thinks gender plays a role in how cultural knowledge is transmitted. She tells a story about being in Minneapolis in which she was very close to the scene of a shooting and perceptions of NYC in other places like Minneapolis. She reflects on her experiences at Hampshire College and how it affected her decision to be involved in architecture as well as how her mother effected this decision.
CitationWickremesinghe, Neela, Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal, October 22, 2013, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.068; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Wickremesinghe, Neela
- Architecture Conservation and restoration
- Italian Americans
- Racially mixed families
- Racially mixed people
- Sinhalese (Sri Lankan people)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Minneapolis (Minn.)
- Sri Lanka
- Staten Island (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection