Lost Kingdoms: Stories of Identity, Belonging, and Our Layered Past
People say, "How can you be German? You don’t look German." Well, what does a German look like? If you ask them in that moment, how does a German look like? Hitler? Is that the only image you have in your head? So I can’t be German?
For my family it was normal that we lived the way we did. But we were questioned by other people. You only start questioning yourself because of other people questioning you. Because if no one asks, you think thats just how the world is, right? And then you realise, no, it's not normal to give your kids away, and only see your parents on holidays. And then people think that you’re lacking certain skills of upbringing and say, "She’s rude because her parents aren't there. She’s got a temper because nobody’s keeping her in check."
My character is me. My brothers are totally different. My upbringing had nothing to do with how I eventually turned out to be, but people always try to blame your background and your social life.
Because of the mix of our family and not really having a heritage, and also growing up in the circus where nationality and language wasn't important, either, Identity for me was a weird question because I never felt national. I never had connection with religious people; I always felt connected with the freaks. You meet people and either you get along with them and then its fine, or you don’t.
And things like where they’re from and how old they are and whether or not they’re disabled or whatever. It's totally not of interest.
My grandfather brought them over from Sri Lanka, so they're already 100 years old. And after my grandmother died, the Sri Lanka fans in my family kind of died out. We didn’t care about Sri Lanka until I decided to go there and retrace our madness. And then when I moved here I decided I’m going to take those because they were in the cellar and I said I'm going to take them and put them up. My mom didn't want them.
But I love them because I grew up in my grandma’s house and I looked at them half of my life. When I had the chance to put them up in my own flat, I thought Yes! Of course! This is me.
My grandmother could see that we were suffering for being different, but she never made it an issue. She always told us the other people were stupid for not understanding us, or the other people haven't traveled so they haven't seen dark skin, so you have to be nice to them because you have to teach them that brown people are nice. You get this pressure that since you’re the only brown person in school, you have to behave best to represent all the brown people that these people will ever meet in their lives. Because if you’re an asshole then they’re going to think that all brown people are like that. You grow up and you don’t realise until much later that it's all BS, but it's how society works.
When I went to school at 7, I thought wow, I can finally live like normal. I can be like everyone else. That’s what you think until you realise that you look different. And then you have a totally different story to tell.
Being a circus kid in school, I was always the odd one out. If something was missing, "Oh it must have been the gypsy. You know they steal." To them, I was traveling folk. I was a gypsy. I was always to blame if something was wrong or if something was missing. If something happened, I was the scapegoat.
But I didn’t actually care because I knew it wasn’t me so I could stand above it. But only to a certain degree. You do it to such an extreme that you become arrogant because you start to stand above anything that anyone says. You stop taking things personally, which includes things that you should take personally because they were actually meant for you. But because you get so much input all the time, you don’t care anymore and you just think, “Oh, whatever you say.” It changes you.
I realised this when people said, “You’re really arrogant.” And then I started thinking about it and then I realised yes I am because people don’t know why I'm not taking their BS. Maybe I should explain. But then, why bother? It becomes really difficult. It starts when you’re in your 20s, when you have friends who actually start telling you that. That's the time when friends will tell you, "Why were you so rude to that person?" And your friends might understand but the person doesn’t understand. The person just sees this arrogant, stupid girl and thinks, “What does she know?”
"Where are you from?"
It's always the second question. "Oh, you’re from Berlin! Oh, but where are you from?" I would say, "Dagmar!" Which is my mom’s name, and they start thinking, is it a country? Is it a city? They eventually ask, "Where is Dagmar?" so I say, "She’s at home! With pops!" And then they get totally confused. This is what you get for asking stupid questions.
I know I piss them off. I know it's unfair. They’re honestly asking because they want to know because they want to start putting you into a certain box that fits them. Yeah, I'm not giving them the benefit of the doubt that it might be an honest question. I always think, why do you want to know? Which box are you going to put me in? If I tell you I'm Turkish, am I gonna be an Islamic force girl that's in ISIS? You don’t want to give anything away because you've had enough experiences where the moment that people hear where you’re from, they put you in a box. You don’t want that, so you start telling them you come from "Dagmar."
Our parents generation was the one that started traveling, because before that Americans were in America, Chinese were in China, Germans were in Germany. Nobody really traveled. So our parents were the generation that started the traveling, immigrating somewhere, going somewhere else. For them in was more like survival instinct: they didn’t fit in anymore, or they needed a job for their kids. We grew up with Lollapallooza. Everything was fine, no worries, no wars. And we were the ones that started to think about, we don’t belong here, where are we from? We didn’t want to be like our parents and fit in. We were the ones that decided that we are earthlings, like we are not from wherever. We really started that and there’s no long-term study about that, but I think that for my kid and his friends, that question never pops up, where are you from?
My grandparents took a lot of Jews out of Germany in the elephant train cars. Well, they were opened but the moment the officials got a trunk in the face, they said, “OK! Thank you! It's fine, thanks!” And you wouldn't assume somebody was hiding in there because of those huge animals. So they transported a lot from Germany to Bulgaria to Russia and they even took some to Portugal. My grandma initiated it all. She said, “Come on, we have to help all those people. I'm off the hook because nobody knows because you changed all the papers, but what about all these other people? We need to do something." Of course, it was at their own risk. You know, it's whether you get killed by the Nazis or killed by the elephant. If the Nazi finds us, he’s definitely going to kill us. If we're nice to the elephant, maybe's nothing will happen.
My grandfather left Sri Lanka saying its a shitty island, everyone climbs palm trees and picks coconuts. There was no reason for us to go back. He never taught my father anything Sri Lankan. So my father was brought up by his Jewish-German -- well, now it's Polish -- mom, who wasn't practicing her religion because of the time, and then being married to someone who was more or less a Buddhist, she didn’t feel the need to. So, lots of tradition was lost. My father was tradition-less. He was not brought up with traditional language; it was this mish-mash of German-English that they were talking in their household and then the outside world they were communicating in more than one language anyway, Italian or French or depending on which country they were in. And also for me, I had nothing I could refer to for being Sri Lankan when I was growing up. We didn’t even cook the food. I knew what the flag looked like. And it was called Ceylon and that was it.
Our family name is so un-typical Sri Lankan because they mixed it all up. I’m sure my grandfather made a joke because he said he first name is “The shit house by the patty field.” That's his name. If you say it in Sinhala it sounds really nice, but if you say it to a Sri Lankan, it means “Shithouse by the patty field.” Why would he say that?
I wish I could have met him, but I'm the one who got his soul so I know he must have been a really weird guy and he must have liked to take the piss out of people. For example, his turban. No one in Sri Lanka wears a thing like that. No one! He invented his whole life, I think, based upon his imagination, whatever he was, back in Sri Lanka.
Then he came to Germany. Nobody knew anything about Sri Lanka so he could say anything. Nobody could read the language so he said his name is yadda yada yadda and then they wrote it down. Eventually our name must have been shortened because there is no such thing as Puncha Vidane. "Puncha" means “small,” and “Vidane” is… it’s usually Vidanagama, or Vidanelage or Vidanemiyaka. Theres no such thing as just the "Vidane." So it was very difficult for me in Sri Lanka to find any paperwork about my family.
When I walk around Sri Lanka they think I'm a Sri Lankan that was abroad and that I'm snobbish because I don’t speak my own language anymore. By the time they get to know my story they're actually very friendly. They feel for me because they're so proud of their own country. They would never think of leaving. First of all, they don’t have the money but second of all, they are so proud of their country. For someone to come back and appreciate that they have a great country and wanting to belong to it is always astounding. They ask, "How come? You’re from Europe and you have such a great life that we hear about.” But no, it's no Disneyland and we have our own problems. Then they're very friendly, but not in the first few seconds. Never ever in the first few seconds.
When I went to Sri Lanka the first time I had very short blonde hair. And the blonde hair made it obvious to them that I was a tourist. Even though I had dark skin, I had blonde hair. They didn’t look at me, they didn’t talk to me. The moment I had brown hair and I went again, totally different behaviour. I would walk into a shop and it was immediately, “Can I help you?” Or they would speak to me in Sinhala right away. And when I was struggling, they would roll their eyes and “tch!” And I know exactly what they'd be thinking. But it’s not my fault! I wish I could speak your language!
I have one box only for (my son’s) stuff when he’s ready I thought I would give him his box when he has his kid because I think then you’re gonna start thinking about when you were a kid. Now he doesn’t think about his childhood but when you become a dad you start comparing and then I think it’s nice to have pictures of your childhood.
But arriving at this monastery was kind of fun. I arrived and said, I’m looking for somebody who can tell me something about vidane. And this younger monk went off and came back with the oldest, basically, and the guy looked at me and I said sorry, how good is your English but do you know anything about the Vidane family? And he sat down and closed his eyes and he started talking in singhala and the younger monk was translating. And he was totally immediately in trance and reciting, out of his memory, what he has been told. And it was really like… even now. even just now I’m getting goosebumps because we were standing there and he was telling us my grandfather’s story. Like with small details, other bits that were a bit floppy but.. definitely the guy was talking about my grandfather. That was really amazing. And I knew, OK, he was from here, from this area. So he didn’t lie about being from Kandy. But everything else was pbbbth. My grandmother, also during the war she destroyed so many of the papers so I don’t have original birth certificate none of that exists anymore so I don’t have anything with his Sri Lankan name on it. I only have the European version already written in latin, and its already false information.
the normal folks think that its stuck up. Why don’t you speak your own language? And for them its kind of.. we’re poor people and our kids couldn’t go to a school where they learn English. Why do you show off like that? I mean it really is like you’re putting yourself above them because the moment you speak English you know that they won’t be able to understand you fully. So yo are dividing yourself away from them, right? On the other hadn’t those people don’t know that you’ve been abroad for such a long time, that maybe even your parents were for sure, that they spoke different Sri Lankan and if you speak Sri Lankan to them now they would still be different levels.
I’m kind of glad that lots of people left soil Lanka or had the opportunity to leave, study abroad, and come back with a broader mind. I think it’s very good for the island.