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Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) is an island country south of India in the Indian Ocean. Its largest city is Colombo. Sri Lanka has beaches, rainforests and tea plantations alongside ancient Buddhist ruins and large cities. Many of its people are poor, live in rural areas, and depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Sri Lanka has diverse ethnic groups, languages and religions. The Sinhalese account for nearly three quarters of the people, with Tamils comprising about 14 per cent and Sri Lankan Moors (of Arab-Tamil descent) about 9 per cent.
Between 1983 and 2009 there was civil conflict in Sri Lanka with government forces opposing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In the post war period, relations between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities continue to be affected by the experience of war, with some Tamils seeking asylum in other countries.
Buddhism and Hinduism retain caste structures so there is some social class hierarchy, especially in rural areas and among older Sri Lankans.
Women tend to hold a higher position in society than in other South Asian countries. In 1960, Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to elect a female prime minister.
Sri Lankans take great pride in their nationality, particularly in its distinction from India.
Sri Lankans have been in Australia since the late 19th century. It is believed that many migrated as labourers or gold prospectors.
Following independence in 1948, the Sinhalese-dominated government removed the English language from official status in the country. Many Sri Lankans of European descent, known as Burghers, then emigrated to Australia.
There were further waves of arrivals in the 1970s (from all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups) after the removal of the ‘White Australia’ policy and then again during the years of the civil war (1983-2009). People seeking asylum in Australia in recent years are usually Tamil.
Over the last five years most Sri Lankans have arrived in Australia as skilled migrants. Over 70 per cent of the Sri Lankan born population have some form of higher education, such as a university degree.
Like many Australians, Sri Lankans enjoy watching or playing cricket.
Life revolves around the family for most Sri Lankans. In a collectivist society, connections with extended family are deeply valued. Older members of the family are highly respected.
Three or four generations often live together, with the male side of the family connecting the relations. The mother holds a significant amount of household authority. As a token of respect, it is customary to address any elders as ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’.
Among the principal ethnic groups, language and religion determine identity. There are two official languages of Sri Lanka: Sinhala and Tamil.
English has recently been re-introduced but only as a link language. This is evident throughout the country, with most signs written in all three languages.
Ethnicity and religion are often closely linked in Sri Lanka. Those who identify as Buddhist are typically of Sinhalese ethnicity, while those who identify as Hindu tend to be ethnically Tamil. Those who identify as Muslim come from various backgrounds, predominantly Sri Lankan Moors.
A small population identify themselves as Christian.
Amongst the Sri Lankan-born community in Australia, however, about 21 per cent identify as Catholic, 41 per cent as Buddhist, and 19 per cent as Hindu.
A person’s religious affiliations are a sensitive topic. Avoid discussing alternative religious views, such as Christianity, unless you know the person well.
Politics and the civil conflict are sensitive topics of conversation. Also drawing parallels with India can be offensive.
Titles are important. The eldest person present is expected to be greeted first. Greetings that involve hugging and kissing should be avoided unless you are well acquainted with the person.