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Ask about Sensitive Issues Skilfully

Some questions are difficult to ask. It takes a great deal of sensitivity and skill for an interviewer to handle them. Rapport and trust from the respondent are vital. Still, there is no guarantee that the respondent will be willing to take up difficult issues. Below we include an example to show that the interviewer took excruciating effort so as not to offend the respondent. Each question was carefully phrased so that responses to the question would tell the interviewer where the respondents placed a limit on what they would discuss.

Interviewer: By what identity do you like to think of yourselves?

[First Sri Lankan, then Tamil.]

Interviewer: Back in Sri Lanka did you see yourself differently?

Thava (husband): Back home, so different. Provinces, villages. So we have to identify the province, and go further, the village.

Interviewer: Do Sri Lankans here still consider it important to know where you're from?

[Both replied yes, they do.]

Interviewer: Why is it important to them?

Jothi (wife): They want to identify... If you say you're from your town, then they'll go further and ask your family name, and whereabouts... Then they'll get to know...

Thava: many cultures, so many races in Jaffna.

Interviewer: Do you mean castes?

Thava: Castes, yes.

Interviewer: Is it important for people to know what caste you are?

Thava: Yes. Religion and caste.

Interviewer: Is it insulting for people to ask which caste you are from?

Jothi: They don't ask you straight. They'll ask your place and your family.

Interviewer: What do they really want to know?

Thava: Caste. Caste is the most important thing for marriage.

Interviewer: Would it be ok if I asked what caste you are?

Jothi: Sure.

Interviewer: Would you be insulted?

Thava: No.

Interviewer: What caste background do you have?

Thava: In my country the caste is divided by the person's work. Some persons cut the hair, they're a different caste. Some persons wash the clothes, they're a different caste. Some go fishing. Some make the jewelry. So the caste is identified by the person's employment. I think the other generation is not going to ask the caste and feel the caste.

Note that the respondents averted a direct reply to the question in the end, showing how deeply sensitive they are to the topic.

Tamil Interview #2

Exercise:"Be Careful, It May Hurt!"

The following excerpt shows another case of asking caste-related questions. Compare and contrast the line of questioning in this interview with the one above. What does one learn about these Tamil immigrants' views of the caste system?

Interviewer: What kinds of Tamil traditions and practices do you keep?

[Religious activities are important to Vijaya. She goes to the temple when she's offered transportation. She's Hindu and is a devotee of a living Hindu saint in India. She told a long story about the saint: One of her friends was facing criminal charges and a maximum prison term of eight years because of allegations by her co-workers in a day care centre that she had mistreated some children. Her lawyer recommend she plead guilty but she refused. She prayed to the saint and saw a vision. The courtroom was packed with devotees of this saint. The judge ruled that she was not guilty. Vijaya exclaimed: "No one would ever believe it!" Meanwhile this devotee had been writing a book about the saint. Within three days of the verdict she published it.]

Vijaya: I'm quite proud of my culture. I had a cultural pageant. First they said fashion show, but anyway I made it a cultural pageant to show them how our people back home a few decades back dressed in different ways. That is because of the different jobs or profession they chose. Like a farmer will be different from a man who goes out fishing.

Interviewer: Does it depend on the caste?

Vijaya: It depends on the caste and that became the caste system. But I strongly, strongly don't believe in the caste system and I think it has to be eradicated. I hate that.

[Vijaya. cooks Sri Lankan food, but she doesn't usually have time. She considers cooking for one person a waste of time.]

Interviewer: When did you marry and how old were you?

[Vijaya married in 1966 at age of 23. Her husband was 28.]

Interviewer: Was it an arranged marriage?

[No. Vijaya's husband had been her physics tutor. He was Catholic and she Hindu.]

Vijaya: So there was a bit of a stir in my family because…(pause). My brother, who is a doctor now, when he was in medical school, he fell in love with a Catholic girl and got married. It is very, very, very common here in Canada for people to get married when are going to school. But in Sri Lanka it never happens, not even 0.0001 percent I should say of people get married when they are still going to school. They finish their schooling and they get married. Supposing there is a marriage coming while they are in school, that's it. They give up. My brother continued and they had a baby. I really don't know, but that particular family, they were very religious, fanatics I should say. They broke my brother's marriage. I don't know whether I'm right to say that but everybody back home knows what happened. The church wanted her to leave, and when she left there were bouquets sent to her to congratulate her. I always thought churches had to put two people together, not to separate them. So when I fell in love with a person who was also Catholic, my mother, oh, I had to hear so much from her! But I was rather determined and my mom said, "Ok, go ahead, but if anything happens you are not coming back to me."

Interviewer: How did your husband's family react?

Vijaya: They also didn't like it at the beginning. But, my husband being the eldest--. We were brought up in the city. He was brought up in Jaffna. There the parents brainwash the children that they have to look after their younger brothers and sisters. So my husband always felt that he should look after his eldest sister, who was not married. So he said, I cannot get married until my sister gets married. She was already 29, 30, and it's so tough to find a man. It had to be a proposed marriage. So I said okay, and we got engaged. Two months after we got engaged her marriage was fixed.

Interviewer: Even though you don't believe in caste, were you and your husband of the same caste?

Vijaya: Yes. But he comes from the islands [off the Jaffna peninsula]. We people who are on the land, we really look down on the people from the islands. But we never talk like that. If my mother or my sisters had said something bad, I would have had a lot to say, and I wouldn't have spoken to them again. They know I am very strong in my ways.

Interviewer: Are there sub-divisions of castes?

Vijaya: Even you find that one village—north, south, east, west—people who are north feel they are more proud than the southerners.

[She told a story of how her family was among the first in Colombo to allow a low caste servant to come into their house, but her mother would not allow him in the kitchen. However, when the servant was sick, her mother would feed him. They received a lot of criticism for this.]

Vijaya: People, especially educated types, have changed their views regarding caste. By and by, now it's dying.

Interviewer: How much education did you have?

[Her husband had graduated from university. He was tutoring several people, including the prime minister's daughter. After Vijaya's tuition class was completed he went to Russia for further schooling.]

Interviewer: How did you get to know each other?

Vijaya: My mother was a very strict lady. Of course during the tuition we got to know each other, but we never went out. I was very scared of my mother. As soon as tuition was over, he had to go off to Russia. I told him he couldn't write any letters to me because my mother would kill me. The famous thing there is they write to a friend and the friend passes the letter on to you. It so happened that girl was in love with him too. She wouldn't give me the letters. When there was no response, he knew there was something going wrong. So I thought, let us see what is happening. In the meantime my mother smelled it. He came home. My mother asked me. I said, "Yes." She said, "You can't do it." There was a guy opposite our house. He liked me. I said, "No way." He was a Hindu. He had no responsibilities. He also had gone to Russia. They said, "What's the difference?" What they look at is their status, their job, their religion. But for me the man counts! But I was quite determined.

Interviewer: Did your husband's family ask for a dowry from your family?

[Her husband's family was quite poor. His mother died of a snake bite just before he sat for his O-level exams. He took on the responsibility of looking after the family's financial future. His uncle took him to a good school in Jaffna and promised that he would see him through university.]

R: For them it was like betting on a winning horse, he was so clever. Then they brainwash him and it is engrained in their minds that they have to give a dowry to their sister to get the sister married. The sister was so ordinary. She didn't go to work. Her mother died, so she quit school early and started cooking to look after the other five children. They all felt very bad for this sister. The sister was getting old.

[Vijaya's husband had many marriage proposals which included a dowry and an additional "donation" which could be used for his sister's dowry. Because of this need, Vijaya gave her entire savings of 25,000 Rupees for her husband's sister's dowry. She is proud of this but she has kept it a secret from her relatives.]

Interviewer: You see a lot of weddings since you are a bridal dresser. How are they changing compared to back in Sri Lanka?

Vijaya: Where the ceremony and culture is concerned, they try to adhere to everything! I should say there are certain things which we can't do in Canada and they are still trying to do them. Like inviting people. Back at home we would invite 500, 600, 800 people. They are still inviting like 400, 500 people. Having a wedding back there is cheaper. Here it is $15 per head at least. It is so much money they are throwing!

The girls and the boys have changed a lot! I can quote you some interesting things, which I can't believe I just heard! I knew the groom's party. He got married to a pretty girl. He used to bring that girl here. It was a very big wedding. Now I hear they are separated. These things that we never hear of! It was partly the girl's mother's involvement. It's very unusual of a Sri Lankan girl to do such a thing. Because this girl was very pretty, it must have gone to her head. But this boy was also so silly. I don't know what happened. Such things we never hear of in Sri Lanka!

Another one happened. That boy was here for about nineteen years, the girl I knew in Sri Lanka. I dressed her for the engagement. The girl's party went to India to buy the sari, to print the invitations. Such a big, grand wedding it was going to be! Sunday, the father, mother and the girl came with the engagement photographs and showed me. Wednesday, I hear it is broken. They got a letter from the boy's mother to say the marriage is off. Why? No real reasons given! Later I hear the girl is not up to their level. But I can't see what level they are talking!

Interviewer: Are people who are getting married here still concerned with caste?

Vijaya: Some, yeah. Now I talk so big about caste, but I'll tell you, I am a hypocrite. If my son was going to say yes to a proposed marriage and if they bring a girl from a real low caste, I would think twice. But I tell other people, we have come so many miles away, it doesn't matter.

Tamil Interview #9

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