A Noble Quest

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 4 August 2017

Retaining a connection to home is an important part of life for many migrants.

Likewise, while New Zealand is the only home their children have ever known, many migrant parents wish to instill in them a sense of cultural connection with their ethnic heritage.

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Ishani Noble left Sri Lanka with her family in 1973 when she was 5 years old, settling in Palmerston North where she was raised.

Ishani, an accountant, met her future husband Peter Noble in Wellington.

Now their three children are older, Ishani and Peter (who’s Pakeha) have decided to undertake a “Noble Quest” in the form of a two-week odyssey to Sri Lanka.

For their three kids, first impressions of Sri Lanka weren’t glowing.

“When we landed in Sri Lanka I was like, ‘Can we go back to New Zealand, Mama, can we go back? It’s too hot! I was yelling in her face…” says nine year old Chrishan.

Anusha, Arunan and Chrishan in Sri Lanka

Anusha, Arunan and Chrishan in Sri Lanka Photo: The Noble Family

The Noble’s quest began in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, where Ishani was born.

They then travelled up to the Northern Provinces, where most of Ishani’s family hail from.

For decades, the north of Sri Lanka was wracked by a bloody civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, a militant group seeking to create an independent homeland for the Tamil people who are the ethnic majority in the north.

The war ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and is thought to have cost up to 100,000 lives.

Although Ishani and her extended family are Tamil, almost all of them left the country during the conflict.

Ishani and Peter's eldest child, 13 year old Arunan, grasped some of the horror of the war and its lasting effects on Sri Lanka.

“It’s kind of like a house,” he says. “The New Zealand economy is a house built of bricks with a nice foundation. But in Sri Lanka they probably had a decent foundation like wood, but then the civil war happened and someone put an axe through the wall. Now they are struggling with twigs to keep themselves up.”

Returning to Sri Lanka with her children and husband and experiencing the country as a tourist has been very different to previous trips she made in her own childhood with her parents, Ishani says.

Another key part of the trip for Ishani and Peter was allowing the children to see the reality of poverty.

“Growing up in New Zealand they’ve never seen a day of want in their lives,” she says. “The purpose was for them to experience poverty and to see people who have a lot less than they do.”

Part of the family policy on the trip was to avoid contributing to that poverty and to help alleviate it as much as they could.

The kids enthusiastically adopted, says Ishani, particularly when it came to tipping one boy who worked at a restaurant the Nobles visited.

“Every night Arunan would check ‘Mummy, did you tip him? How much did you tip him?’ He was quite concerned that I made sure this young boy was tipped enough.”

All three children related the experience of seeing one young boy chasing after their van, trying desperately to sell them jackfruit.

“It just shocked me seeing a five year old boy running across the road,” said Chrishan. “It made me feel sad and... guilty”

Arunan thinks that personal experience of poverty has been life-changing.

“Going there has made me want to look out for fair trade items,” he says.

Chrishan wants to return to Sri Lanka to give the poor people money, but he acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to alleviate all the suffering from poverty in Sri Lanka personally.

“That’s how life is. Life is hard, life ... sometimes isn’t how you want it to be.”

All up, the Noble family’s quest was a successful one, says Peter.

“It was great. We were really privileged to have Ishani’s uncle and aunt to go with us and I think that made the trip much more meaningful for all of us.”

While the three kids say that visiting Sri Lanka was an interesting experience, they are unanimous the highlight of their trip was a visit to Legoland in Malaysia on the return leg.