by Vijaya Chandrasoma
I apologize for writing about a subject of which I have little personal experience. I thought it may be interesting to reflect on how the concept of “Boy meets Girl” has evolved through our formative years, in my case since the 1950s, to the present day.
In Ceylon, we all attended single-gender schools. This is still largely true of Sri Lanka today, 70 years on. I read a recent opinion by the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, no relation, I assume, of the Russian dictator, extracts of which are reproduced below:
“Gender-segregated schools, in other words, single-sex schools, as well as the unavailability of sex education, not only significantly hamper any opportunity school children have in educational institutions to establish a constructive (I would add the word ‘healthy’) relationship with children of the opposite gender, it also allows for the perpetuation of traditional gender stereotypes, which in the long-run, is likely to beget more gender inequality related social issues.”
Stalin goes on to say that gender-segregated schools and higher educational institutions are outdated concepts, which should be replaced. I couldn’t agree more.
While developed nations generally have co-educational institutions from pre-school age, it may be relevant to point out that the most prestigious universities in the world admitted women only from the mid- 20th century.
The hitherto exclusively male colleges of Oxford started admitting women after the late 1960s, with Magdalen 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 at Cambridge, St. Anne’s at Oxford and Radcliffe at Harvard. Interestingly, female students of these associated colleges were not awarded university degrees till the 1940s.
In fact, in my brief time at Oxford, the presence of a woman in a male student’s room after 10.00 pm was grounds for expulsion. A rule more honoured in the breach unless the breach became a little too frequent. Predictably, each college had a means of escape. The escape hatch at Christ Church was a basement room, if memory serves, at Tom quad, from which one could climb out with your partner onto the street, often into the burly arms of the bowler-hatted Oxford Bulldogs, the private university constabulary. The Bullers, as they were affectionately named, were well aware of the locations of these escape routes. They were, in the main, most tolerant, and let you off with a twinkle in their eyes and a slap on the wrist. The occupant of that particular room at Christ Church was, predictably, a very popular, if sleep-deprived young man.
I remember another tradition about dating at Oxford, regrettably not through personal experience. Not too often, some of these evenings had a happy ending of persuading the date to be “entertained” in one’s rooms in college. These college rooms had two doors, with the outer oaken door usually kept open. However, if one was so entertaining, the outer door was also closed, serving as a heads-up to your roommate or friends that you were not to be disturbed. This practice used to be called “sporting the oak”, the American campus equivalent of hanging a tie on your door. And evoked envious phrases like “lucky bugger” from passers-by.
Single-sex schools in Sri Lanka, and the lack of sex education, caused problems for teenagers. Many of us got rid of our excess energy and frustrations by participating in strenuous sports. We were kept completely in the dark about all matters sexual. In truth, through my formative years, I was so naïve and innocent that I thought that the only function of my little man was urination! It was much later that I realized that a God, with a cruel sense of humour, had created the pleasure and waste-disposable organs of our bodies to be fungible.
I got an accelerated course in sex education when I went to London, barely 17 years of age. Though I learnt of the theory behind this complicated exercise, I had no opportunity for consensual practice, as I was living in a totally Sri Lankan environment, replete with parents, siblings and even a maid from Ceylon, Kusuma, in our rented house in Highgate, North London.
After the departure of my mother from London, I ganged up with other Sri Lankans in similar circumstances, living in neighbouring digs, often in the same building. Meeting members of the opposite sex continued to be a challenge for us all. Some of us did find slim pickings at the pre-university educational institutions we attended. Also, 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, through a combination of enhanced prosperity and greater leisure time for the lower orders. New musical styles, like ragtime and jazz, were added to the perennial fox trot.
The ability to participate in dancing, a skill I never learnt in Colombo, was a sine qua non at these establishments. So I thought I would become a Sri Lankan Fred Astaire and seek out my Ginger Rogers by enrolling in the most prestigious Arthur Murray School of Dancing in Oxford Street. A few lessons later, my female instructor gave up on me, her final, unforgettable words being, “I thought you people were light on your feet”. She pointed out that I had two left feet and no sense of rhythm. The effort of teaching me to dance would have been way above her pay grade.
I later discovered that one of my left feet righted itself after alcohol, which gave me the courage to get on the dance floor after a few drinks to participate in, as the song goes, “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire”. Even then, formal dance steps remained a mystery, so I concentrated on slow music which enabled me to sway in one spot.
Dating after my return to Colombo was also not easy. I had missed that period of a teenager’s life, usually between the ages of 16 and 20, when they met members of the opposite sex at parties and dances, and formed clandestine relationships which often led to marriage.
I was fortunate to be introduced to a beautiful young lady soon after my return, who was innocently optimistic enough to stand by me in spite of my many addictions and failings. Marrying her a few years later was one of the smartest things I have ever done, although I was stupid enough to have ruined even that relationship.
She finally came to her senses and kicked me out, 30 years and three beautiful children later. She had, too late, realized the truth of that old English proverb, “be not deceived by the first appearance of things, for show is not substance”.
In America, before the advent of the Internet, it was not difficult for single people to find partners for any kind of relationship, permanent, transitory or fleeting. The schools were co-ed and there were plenty of opportunities at the workplace, sporting activities and gyms. The ubiquitous sports and singles bars were also viable options, especially because people increased in their physical attractions with each successive drink. By closing time, even the plainest had paired up. Many to wake up to an unpleasant surprise in the sobriety of the next morning.
With the arrival of the Internet, on-line dating became the most popular method in the US of meeting partners. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where the “Personals” aim only at marriage, these dating sites offer a data base of other people looking for company of the sex of their preference for casual relationships which may lead to a more permanent commitment. Or not. No strings attached, no commitment necessary or assured.
Latest figures show that more than 35% percent of all marriages in the US is the result of on-line dating. Statistically, these Internet marriages also appear to have better chances of success than those achieved through traditional dating.
About three years after my divorce, I started using a dating service infrequently. Not with any desire of an emotional/physical relationship, but to enjoy female company at an occasional movie or dinner, with no commitment. The need for such companionship was not all that important in Los Angeles, as there were many friends within the Sri Lankan community I could visit of a lonely evening.
The need for friendship and company became much more pronounced when I moved to Phoenix, where I knew no one outside the workplace, and was at times desperately lonely. So I joined a dating service and met a bunch of extremely weird women, many of whose profile photographs, similar to those in today’s Facebook, were often taken decades ago and bore little resemblance to their current likeness. It would take a book to narrate the many and often strange adventures I had with many of these ladies, but I did greatly enjoy the first dates of these encounters.
The conversation on these first dates invariably revolved around the circumstances behind the failure of each other’s marriage/marriages. I excelled myself on these evenings, and as we lived in different worlds, had no mutual friends or acquaintances. I could make up all kinds of lies, any story that tickled my imagination, for the fictional failure of my marriage, in the full confidence these lies would never reach the ears of anyone in the Sri Lankan community.
My favourite story was that my marriage had ended because of my ex-wife’s continuing drinking problem, and how things had become intolerable when she started playing the horses. I embellished the story by describing my noble efforts to pull her out of her addictions, to no avail. The gambling and drinking were sometimes replaced with drugs and infidelity, depending on my perverse mood. The sympathy I received at these first dates was most gratifying. Even if I do say so myself, I deserved an Oscar for these far-fetched performances of role reversal.
I am hopeful that many who know my ex-wife, even my ex-wife herself, would find this obvious canard deliciously infuriating. I am counting on their tolerance and their sense of humour. I have no doubt that her God who created her as the softest, purest woman I have ever known will, in His omniscience, understand the irony, and spare me any cruel though deserved punishment.
David Bowie famously said, “Ageing is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been”. Based on this nugget of wisdom, I have finally aged well enough to become the man my ex-wife thought she married. 50 years too late.