Nandanie and Asoke Weerasinghe - From Sri Lanka to Prague in the 1960s

In today's One on One I speak to Nandanie and Asoke Weerasinghe. Both are successful professionals in Alberta, Canada, thanks to their determination and a good education which started with a scholarship to study in Prague. Nandanie studied medicine at Charles University and Asoke engineering at Prague's Technical University. Prague is where they met; they eventually went on to complete their studies in Western Europe, emigrated to Canada and finally got married in their home country of Sri Lanka. They came to Czechoslovakia during the big changes of the mid 1960s. Many doors that closed for Czech students with the Soviet invasion of 1968, remained open for foreign students, granted they were successful in their exams. They had only had one year of intensive study to grasp the complexities of the Czech language. Now they are visiting the Czech Republic again, for the second time since their days as students here. Though eager to eat Czech food and drink Czech beer, the idea was not always so appealing for them. Asoke begins with his first impressions of Prague.

Asoke: "I arrived September 4th of 1964. My first impression was that it was very cold. Although now I know it was not the coldest time of year, coming from a tropical country just stepping out of the plane I felt the cold surround my entire body. The second thing I noticed was that it was a very organized country compared to Sri Lanka. People provided us with all of the information that we needed and people treated us in a very organized manner."

Nandanie: "Of course the weather change was also a drastic change for me, but moreover I didn't have the proper clothing. Even though in Sri Lanka I tried to get some clothing Czechs had a very particular fashion and I did not want to be out of place. Actually I brought from Sri Lanka a winter coat, a mink coat, which I did not know the value of until later. I just threw it out because nobody else was wearing such a coat. The other thing for us was the food. The food for us was so different. Our food is very spicy, as you know, and there was no spice at all in Czech food; I was not able to eat the food for the first few months. And then of course the language, and then the culture, Czech culture which is a Western culture."

I have heard this before from students studying here today from Asia and Africa: the weather is cold, the food is bland. Did you find the culture oppressive at all?

Asoke: "It took me a while to realize how the political situation was impacting the culture and so on and so forth. Fortunately we were sent to a language centre and the teachers and the staff was very understanding and they explained to us the differences in communication. Even sometimes gestures, they would explain to us how it is done in Czechoslovakia."

Nandanie: "For example the way we say yes, and no. I went to the doctor and he got very confused. The way I shook my head to indicate 'yes' was the opposite way it should have been in Czechoslovakia. So he got all confused and then corrected me. Sri Lanka, I think it was a very closed society. The girls did not really have much freedom; they had to always be escorted by parents. Here, of course, the women and men could go anywhere at any time and there was a night life. I was from a village, so I wasn't exposed to the 'klamu' or town life in Sri Lanka anyway."

So in a way for you it was not oppressive at all it was opening new avenues for you as a female. Could I say that?

Nandanie: "Yes, a different way of life totally. I think better in a way. So it was difficult initially but we got adapted very quickly."

Did you notice the gradual liberalization of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s under General Secretary Alexander Dubcek?

Asoke: "Dealing with the students I noticed when we had the opportunity to talk on a one on one basis they expressed their interest in exploring other countries, traveling to other countries perhaps going to study in other countries or even work in other countries. The rules were such that as a foreign student I didn't have any problem, during my vacation I could go to other countries and come back. A vast number of my Czech colleagues were eager to perhaps do the same thing. When it came to the Prague Spring in 1968 people were very excited about the new opportunities they may be getting.

August 1968,  the tank in front of the National Museum
How did the invasion of Czechoslovakia change you? And how did it affect your studies or perhaps your goals?

Nandanie: "I wouldn't say it affected us particularly because as foreign students there was no political pressure on us. As long as we didn't do anything against the Czech government, even as far as our freedom goes it didn't really change because we were foreign students, the same rules did not apply. Of course for Czech students and the Czech people, their freedom got affected."

Despite their being a rule that you could not protest the Czechoslovak government, did you end up protesting at all?

Asoke: "Well I did participate in a student protest. It was a spontaneous situation. At Strahov, where I lived during my studies, there was a power failure on a regular basis. It was during examination time and I could see that students were very frustrated. Obviously for the first few days we all took it easy and went for a few beers and then came home. But when it started getting closer to our exams we realized that constant power failure was creating havoc in our studies. So, students decided to go and complain to the president. We all started to just walk towards Hradcany. The authorities didn't like it very much, students were arrested and they were even battered and charged. Perhaps that was the beginning of more events after that because people realized that they can't even show their displeasure regarding a simple thing such a power failure which deprived them of their studies."

Were you able to forge lasting friendships with some of your Czech colleagues?

Nandanie: "I left in 1972. The Czech government did not like any Czech people having contact with the Western world. Because of that Czech friends did not want us to write to them. So, that was very sad."

Asoke: "I agree with Nandanie's comment. But during the five year period that I spent living in Strahov I have very good memories of my fellow students. They were very helpful. We had a lot of fun together. I think we visited a lot of Czech pubs together and spent a lot of spare time together. I remember my roommate felt bad that I was spending Christmas all by myself at the hostel and he sent me a ticket to come and visit me in his hometown. Looking back it was one of the greatest gifts that I have gotten and I unfortunately do not know where he is. And not only that, some of these roommates when they went home they did not have a lot, but they would bring back home made food and share it with us, which is a sign of a true friend. For me those were the times we were all struggling to exist with very limited resources. And here my Czech friend, instead of having two pieces of beef from home he takes one and says, 'here, enjoy it.' For me it is a story of what a true friendship really means."