An Asian American Experience
By Rodney Smith
OOV: You are the chairperson of the Clark County Democratic Asian American Caucus, but you are not from this country. How did you get where you are now?
SS: I was born in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very small island in India. It has a population of about 20 million people. Sri Lanka has a very rich documented history of about 2500 years and has one of the richest cultures in the whole world. Not only because of its culture, but also because Sri Lanka was colonized for about 400 years by the Dutch, British, and Portuguese. S o it has a very rich culture. Now it has much more western influence.
OOV: Are your people called Sri Lankan’s?
SS: Sri Lankan is where you’re from. There are 2 ethnic groups- primarily Sinhalese and Tamilians. They speak different languages. I speak Sinhalese.
OOV: What was it like for you growing up in Sri Lanka?
SS: Very simple. We were content with whatever we had. We didn’t have luxury items. We walked 3 miles every day to the bus stand, took the school bus to school, played sports, came home to study and went back to school. Education is one of most important things in the country. It has a literacy rate of about 90%. Our education system is based on the British system but there are more American universities popping up. So there is an opportunity for the people to go out of the country and study if they have the means to do it.
OOV: Did you come from a wealthy family?
SS: I wouldn’t say that my family was wealthy but my father was very, very hard working. My father has a doctorate and ran an insurance company and my mother was a principal of a school.
So they have a very strong footing in the education. My brother has a PhD now and he is a lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia.
OOV: How did you get from Sri Lanka to America?
SS: At the age of 15, I had the opportunity to leave the country. I went to Australia to play cricket on a scholarship for a couple of years and then came back home. (Cricket is a British
sport which baseball originated.). I was involved with extracurricular activities in school starting with cricket but I was also on the debating team. I was given a scholarship called, American Field Service (AFS). You could go to any country that you wanted to but I chose Australia. The AFS is a worldwide organization celebrating their 100th anniversary this year. When I came back home, my high school was closed due to war trials, so I went to a two-year college which is affiliated with the United States called ITS (Institute of Technological Studies). It is affiliated with the University of Houston. After I finished my two years, I went to Idaho.
OOV: Since the climate in Sri Lanka is warm and tropical, why did you pick Idaho of all places and how many Sinhalese were there?
SS: My goal was to study and I wanted to study. I knew the distractions of the big city so I decided on Idaho State University in Pocatello. There were only 28 thousand people in that city. After two years, I got to know pretty much everybody and they knew me. I stood out like a sore thumb because there weren’t too many people of color there and I was one of three Sinhalese. Well, I didn’t lose focus at all, but I met a lot of friends. It was a very healthy environment
because all of my friends were good people. They were all members of Ladder Day Saints (LDS). They looked after me very well. We weren’t drinking or partying. We just had good fun. They did try to get me to convert to LDS. I went to the church many times. They even got me an LDS Bible and the Book of Mormon in Sinhalese. I was on the Dean’s List and I got scholarships but I had to work three jobs. That’s what I did because I had to get some more money for my living and all that stuff. I worked in the cafeteria on the early morning shift for breakfast and I was the department manager for the students. I did maintenance at midnight,
so I would go back and clean the apartments. After dinner I maintained the study hall. When I graduated, I moved to Bozeman, Montana (Laughter).
OOV: Did you get much snow in Sri Lanka?
SS: (Laughter) No, what happened is right before I graduated I was recruited by K-Mart to be a recruiter for them. They recruited me in management training. I graduated and the next day, I started work. I didn’t have to wait one day without a job. I asked them where I had to go and they told me Bozeman, Montana (more laughter). I packed up and stayed in Bozeman for about three months.
OOV: Which three months were those? Let me guess: Jan, Feb and March?
SS: December, January and February.
OOV: I would have only stayed three months too!
SS: (Laughter) Then, I was transferred to Las Vegas as the operations manager to the first K-Mart in Las Vegas on East Sahara. Later, I moved to another retail operation called Home Base as the general manager but after a year I decided that it wasn’t for me. There were long hours and I couldn’t have a regular shift so I moved into real estate, where I’ve been for the last 15 years.
OOV: Tell us about the Asian Caucus, how many different groups of people comprise the caucus and your recent celebration.
SS : We were chartered in 2008. Since then we have been working diligently and had many rallies during the Obama Campaign. Right now we have: Sinhalese, Indians, Pakistani’s, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, we just reached out to Japanese groups, Polynesians from Hawaii, Afghans, Myanmar and Thai. Asian Heritage month has been celebrated since 1977. This was the first large celebration in Nevada. It’s basically to commemorate the Chinese people who worked on the completion of the railroad in May of 1869 and the first Japanese people who came here in May of 1843. It has grown into a more diverse group. It is no longer just about Japanese and Chinese; it is about a whole lot of groups now.
OOV: Will you join together with other groups in an effort to help bring about that one America that Senator Edwards has spoken about?
SS: It’s already happening. I am working with the Black Caucus very closely. I also work very closely with Si Se Puede (the Hispanic Caucus). Working together is so important because. I
have learned to deal with ten different countries with ten different agendas in order to come up with what is best for the whole group. It’s good time to be an American!