Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is celebrated during May. During this month, we recognize the histories, cultures and contributions of those who came to the United States, and the generations who have enriched our history along the way. As we begin to highlight the importance of this observation, we are excited to introduce Dr. Asitha Jayawardena, staff physician at Children’s Minnesota’s Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Facial Plastic Clinic. We celebrate and are thankful for their shared story.
By: Dr. Asitha Jayawardena
One of the first things I learned about being Sri Lankan, was that our people, the Sinhalese, descended from lions. It’s a story I never questioned, as I was only a child when my grandmother first shared this parable with me. It was one of those concepts, perhaps like American kids choosing to believe in Santa Claus, that even as I grew older and understood the absurdity of the story, I chose to believe anyway. In fact, nothing I have ever known about my country, my people, has caused me to question its accuracy. Some days I even wonder if somehow part of this story could be true?
Since we moved to the United States when I was only a few months old, the legend of my home country only grew. I grew up in Iowa and the only Sri Lankans I knew living in the state were my brother, sister, Ammi (mom) and Thathi (dad). We spent a month every summer with my grandparents in Sri Lanka where I became immensely proud of my heritage and my culture.
My Thathi’s family comes from a humble background. His parents told me stories of how they would save their only chicken from the market for my Thathi so he wouldn’t be hungry in school and could do better on his tests. He aced his exams and ultimately became a surgeon who practices here in the U.S. Remarkable.
My Ammi’s mother told me how her husband, my grandfather, similarly worked his way up the scholarly ranks, ultimately receiving a scholarship to study at Oxford in England. He represented Sri Lanka to the United Nations and served as Sri Lanka’s U.S. ambassador. Inspiring.
What I knew about Sri Lankans was that we were ambitious, proud and determined to change the world.
What really cemented this story though, was hearing my grandparents tell me how in 1996 our tiny country shocked the world and won the cricket world cup. We were nobodies to anyone outside of Sri Lanka, but since the day we won, Sri Lankans have never been more proud to be Sri Lankan. Little me was so proud to wear my Sri Lankan cricket jersey, with the gold lion embroidered across the breast.
To me, being Sri Lankan meant you could do anything. As far as I knew, I was the first Sri Lankan to go to grade school in Iowa! Because nobody had set a precedent before me, the sky was my limit. There was no reason I couldn’t be as remarkable as my dad or grandfather.
Of course, my Indian friends teased me. ‘Nobody has ever heard of Sri Lanka’ ‘Why don’t you just tell people you are from India, it’s the same thing?!’ These comments only made my more fiercely proud of where I came from.
In 2014, nearly a decade after the tsunami, Sri Lanka met India in the final of the Twenty20 World Cup in Cricket. Two of our legends were retiring and one was a former captain named Jayawardena, my namesake. We beat India, and our captain was carried off the field with his long black hair, dyed blonde like a lion’s mane, flowing behind him. Our cricket team was full of Sri Lankans sporting blue jerseys with a bronze lion on their chest. This time I was old enough to understand and share the joy my grandparents described as we watched together, across the world from each other, with proud gold lions close to our hearts.
My success is a direct product of those who came before me. My parents, my grandparents, a cricket team, and maybe a long time ago, a group of proud lions.
They taught me to be remarkable. They taught me to be inspiring. They taught me to roar.
I am Asitha Jayawardena and I am Sri Lankan.