by Vijaya Chandrasoma
I apologize for writing on a subject with which I have little personal experience. I thought it might be interesting to think about how the concept of “Boy meets Girl” has evolved over our formative years, in my case from the 1950s to the present day.
In Ceylon, we all went to single-sex schools. This is still largely true in Sri Lanka today, 70 years later. I read a recent opinion from the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, unrelated, I suppose, to the Russian dictator, excerpts from which are reproduced below:
“Single-sex schools, in other words, single-sex schools, as well as the unavailability of sex education, not only significantly hamper any opportunity for schoolchildren in educational institutions to establish a constructive relationship ( I would add the word “healthy”) relationship with children of the opposite sex, this also allows the perpetuation of traditional gender stereotypes, which in the long run are likely to generate more social problems related to gender inequality .
Stalin goes on to say that gender-neutral schools and higher education institutions are outdated concepts, which should be replaced. I couldn’t agree more.
While developed countries generally have mixed institutions from preschool age, it may be relevant to point out that the world’s most prestigious universities only admitted women from the mid-20th century.
Oxford colleges, until then exclusively male, began admitting women after the late 1960s, Madeleine being the last in 1988; Yale admitted its first female students in 1969. Many of these universities had constituent colleges for women, a few examples being Girton in Cambridge, St. Anne in Oxford, and Radcliffe in Harvard. Interestingly, female students at these associate colleges did not graduate from university until the 1940s.
In fact, during my brief stay in Oxford, the presence of a woman in a student’s room after 10pm was grounds for expulsion. A more honored rule in the breach unless the breach becomes a little too frequent. As you might expect, every college had a way to escape. The escape hatch at Christ Church was a room in the basement, if memory serves, at Tom Quad, from where you could hang out with your partner on the street, often in the beefy arms of hated Oxford Bulldogs melon, the private university police. The Bullers, as they were affectionately called, were well aware of the location of these escape routes. They were the most forgiving overall and would let you go with a wink and a slap on the wrist. The occupant of this particular room at Christ Church was, as might be expected, a very popular young man, even though he lacked sleep.
I remember another tradition of dating in Oxford, unfortunately not from personal experience. Not too often, some of those evenings ended well in persuading the date to “have fun” in her room at college. These college halls had two doors, with the oak exterior door usually being kept open. However, if one was so entertaining, the outside door was also closed, serving as a warning to your roommate or friends that you should not be disturbed. This practice was once called “sporting the oak,” the American campus equivalent of hanging a tie on your door. And conjured up envious phrases like “lucky bugger” from passers-by.
Single-sex schools in Sri Lanka and the lack of sex education have caused problems for adolescents. Many of us have let go of our excess energy and frustrations by playing strenuous sports. We have been kept completely in the dark about all sexual matters. In truth, during my formative years, I was so naive and innocent that I thought my little man’s only function was to urinate! It was much later that I realized that a God, with a cruel sense of humor, had created the pleasure and waste organs in our bodies to be fungible.
I took a crash course in sex education when I went to London when I was just 17. Although I learned the theory behind this complicated exercise, I had no opportunities for consensual practice, as I lived in a totally Sri Lankan environment, filled with parents, siblings and even a maid. from Ceylon, Kusuma, to our rented house in Highgate. , North London.
After my mother left London, I bonded with other Sri Lankans in similar circumstances, living in nearby excavations, often in the same building. Meeting members of the opposite sex continued to be a challenge for all of us. Some of us found slim choices in the pre-college educational institutions we attended. In addition, there were affordable dance halls, which provided for social interaction between men and women. These dance halls had become increasingly popular after World War II, thanks to a combination of increased prosperity and more free time for lower orders. New musical styles, like ragtime and jazz, have been added to the eternal fox trot.
The ability to participate in dancing, a skill I never learned in Colombo, was a sine qua non at these establishments. So I thought about becoming a Sri Lankan Fred Astaire and looking for my Ginger Rogers by enrolling in the most prestigious Arthur Murray School of Dancing in Oxford Street. A few lessons later, my teacher abandoned me, her unforgettable last words being, “I thought you were light.” She pointed out that I had two left feet and no sense of rhythm. The effort to teach me to dance would have been well above his pay grade.
I later found out that one of my left feet had straightened up after the alcohol, which gave me the courage to take the dance floor after a few drinks to participate, as the song goes, in “The vertical expression of a horizontal desire”. Even then, the formal dance steps remained a mystery, so I focused on slow music that allowed me to sway in one place.
Meeting after my return to Colombo was not easy either. I had missed that time in a teenager’s life, usually between the ages of 16 and 20, where they met members of the opposite sex at parties and dances, and formed clandestine relationships that often led to marriage.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a beautiful young lady shortly after my return, who was innocently optimistic enough to support me despite my many addictions and failures. Marrying him a few years later was one of the smartest things I ever did, even though I was stupid enough to have ruined even that relationship.
She finally came to her senses and kicked me out, 30 years old and three beautiful children later. She had, too late, understood the truth of this old English proverb, “do not be fooled by the first appearance of things, for the spectacle is not the substance”.
In America, before the advent of the Internet, it was not difficult for singles to find partners for any type of relationship, permanent, transient, or fleeting. The schools were mixed and there were lots of opportunities in the workplace, sporting activities and gymnasiums. The ubiquitous sports and singles bars were also viable options, especially because people increased their physical attraction with each successive drink. By closing time, even the simplest had paired up. You might as well wake up with a bad surprise in the sobriety of the next morning.
With the advent of the Internet, online dating has become the most popular method in the United States for meeting partners. Unlike Sri Lanka, where “Personals” target marriage only, these dating sites offer a database of other people seeking companionship of the sex of their preference for casual relationships that can lead to a more permanent engagement. Or not. No conditions, no commitment necessary or assured.
The latest figures show that over 35% of all marriages in the United States are the result of online dating. Statistically, these internet marriages also seem to have a better chance of success than those obtained through traditional dating.
About three years after my divorce, I started using a dating service infrequently. Not with the desire for an emotional / physical relationship, but to enjoy the company of women on the occasion of a movie or a dinner, without commitment. The need for such company was not that great in Los Angeles, as there were many friends within the Sri Lankan community that I could visit on a lonely evening.
The need for friendship and companionship became much more pronounced when I moved to Phoenix, where I didn’t know anyone outside of the workplace and sometimes felt hopelessly alone. So I joined a dating service and met a bunch of extremely weird women, many of whose profile pictures, similar to Facebook’s today, were often taken decades ago and hardly looked like their current resemblance. It would take a book to recount the many and often strange adventures I have had with many of these ladies, but I really enjoyed the early dates of these encounters.
The conversation on these first dates invariably revolved around the circumstances behind the other’s marriage failure / marriages. I outdid myself those evenings, and since we lived in different worlds, I didn’t have any friends or acquaintances in common. I could invent all kinds of lies, any story that tickles my imagination, for the fictitious failure of my marriage, with confidence these lies would never reach the ears of anyone in the Sri Lankan community.
My favorite story was that my marriage ended because of my ex-wife’s persistent drinking problem and things got intolerable when she started playing horses. I embellished the story by describing my noble efforts to get it out of its addictions, to no avail. Gambling and alcohol were sometimes replaced by drugs and infidelity, depending on my perverted mood. The sympathy I received at these first dates was most gratifying. Even though I say it myself, I deserved an Oscar for these wacky role-reversal performances.
I hope that many who know my ex-wife, even my ex-wife herself, will find this obvious duck deliciously infuriating. I rely on their tolerance and sense of humor. I have no doubt that her God who created her as the sweetest and purest woman I have ever known will understand, in his omniscience, the irony and spare me any cruel though deserved punishment.
David Bowie said, “Growing old is an amazing process where you become the person you always should have been”. Based on that nugget of wisdom, I eventually aged well enough to become the man my ex-wife thought I married. 50 years too late.