Born: Sri Lanka
Primary languages: English, Sinhalese, Tamil
Work: President of Empire Tea Services LLC, manager of the Nuwara Eliya Tea Estate in
Education: Bachelor’s in biology from Acquinas Univeristy of Colombo,
Family: Wife, Cheryl Paranavitana; daughters, Dilhara, 32, and Nivanka, 38
Hobbies: I play a lot of tennis. I play a lot of badminton, and then I sing. I was the Senior Idol winner in Columbus five years ago at the Mill Race Center.
● Why did you come to the United States?
My first exposure to the U.S. was when I was selected to represent Sri Lanka in a Rotary International group study exchange program. It was for business and professional people, and that brought me to Columbus and all of the little towns in southern Indiana. I lived with different families. I got to see the way of life here — industry, schools, hospitals, everything. It was a two-and-a-half month program.
● How and when did you come to live in Columbus?
I never thought I would come back to live here because I was very comfortable back at home, and everything was ticking. I was pretty mobile. But then we had a huge crisis in our country. It was a Marxist rebellion group that was trying to overthrow the government, and it paralyzed the country. Education was disrupted for kids, universities were at a standstill, and people were not attending universities. Hospitals were shut down. It was a tragic, horrible time for two years from 1987 to 1989. In 1989, I decided to leave because things were getting so bad that I thought the government would topple. Fortunately, I still had a visa to come back to the U.S. That visa was still valid so I took my chance and came over.
● Talk a little bit about your community involvement.
Church is primarily our focus. I was a warden of the church, and I still sing in the choir. I’ve been singing in the church from the time I came to the U.S. Most of my work is that and at the Mill Race Center whenever they ask me to perform.
● What were some of your first impressions of the U.S.?
How orderly everything was. How easy it was to get everything. You could get a phone just like that. Everything was so easy to get done. To get a kid to school was no big deal. You went to talk to the principal and the next day the kid was in school. It couldn’t be simpler. You want to get an apartment? You just sign on the dotted line, and the next day you’ve got an apartment.
● What were some of the most difficult things to adjust to?
I think it was not being able to play cricket and also, even to start playing tennis, I did not know anybody. Finding friends I found difficult because I was focused on getting myself going, starting something. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I first came. I had to start something, so I started a tea room in downtown Columbus where the old city hall was. It was a bed-and-breakfast inn called the Columbus Inn.
● How have people reacted to you in Columbus?
I found that people were very, very nice to me, although there were very few Asians at that time. We felt very comfortable here. People were extremely nice.
● What do you miss the most about your home country?
I think friends and family and traveling. It’s a beautiful country, and I still go every year. I’m so glad that the business that I’m doing is contributing in a very, very small way to the economy of that country because I’m importing a lot of the tea from there.
● You have been in this country for a long time. How do you stay connected to your home culture, friends and family?
I still have my connections there with people who are all CEOs and big-shots in all the tea companies. I have these connections back home.
● What advice do you have for other people coming to Columbus?
Skype and the Internet helps you keep in touch. There isn’t that sense of isolation, that sense of being away from home as much as it used to be. What I would say to people is not to be bashful in reaching out to other people. I think I really didn’t reach out enough. That’s probably why we were not as comfortable as we would have liked. When you’re warm with someone, that warmth is returned.
● What is your favorite place to visit, or is there a place you haven’t been that you would like to go?
California. That area is just amazing. I love that climate, and it’s a beautiful place. I haven’t been to New England and that area, but I’ve been everywhere else. If I wanted to see a new place, I would go to New England. I would also like to see Yellowstone. I love to travel.