Confessions of a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Sri Lanka

“Do they like Asians there?”, I asked.
“No, not really”, she bluntly replied.

That was 6 weeks ago and I distinctly remember thinking that I could handle the stares, the stereotypes, and the judgement in Sri Lanka. I passed the “Chinois! Chinois!” test twice with flying colours in Morocco and beat the “Jambo….Mzungu!” level in Uganda. The big boss, Sri Lanka, would be a walk in the park.

What I got right was that the racial challenge in Sri Lanka was going to be the big boss. What I got wrong was the fact that it was going to be a marathon.

When I walk down the streets in Sri Lanka, I can feel eyes on me like a hawk (though nothing will beat the stares I got in the Mumbai airport). Half of me wants to wither away and the other half of me wants to yell at them and say “YES I’M NOT WHITE MOVE ON”. 100% of the time, though, I try to ignore the stares and, in turn, stare at anything else but them. I’ve come to learn that ignoring something is my speciality.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m going to be here for 7.5 months instead of the month I had spent at a time in Uganda and Morocco. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have as strong of a local support network that I had on my Global trips. Or maybe it’s the pressure to be perfect working for my first international NGO. Or maybe it’s just my brain weaving tales of self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all the time that I feel like an outcast as a Chinese-Canadian girl. Working in an office that advocates for gender and ethnic equality makes me feel secure, hanging out with the staff makes me feel valued, and making new friends is exciting. It almost makes me feel like…a white girl…?

Growing up as a Chinese girl in the classic Canadian suburb meant that I grew up identifying myself more as a white Canadian girl than a Chinese-Canadian girl. I grew up abandoning my race, culture, and values because I was embarrassed to be identified as one. In time, living in Canada was easy because I found a way to identify as both, as a Chinese-Canadian, who has a knack for living a “white life” – and I’m okay with it.

But the reality is this. Though I am a Westerner, I am not white. I am a Chinese-Canadian girl, who is, on the surface-level, very different. I have stereotypes attached to the colour of my skin, jokes cracked about the shape of my eyes, and a preconceived notion that I should be good at math, be a business woman, and, potentially, lie and cheat my way for money. I am not white, and I will never be able to know the benefits or drawbacks of being one.

Here in Sri Lanka, women are second-class to men. Foreigners, especially female foreigners, are at a disadvantage because of our “loose morals” and tendency towards prostitution. And race can, unfortunately, put a damper on things

I will feel the consequences of my race but I will try my best to chip away at the stereotypes.

After chatting with my roommate, she reminds me that we should be in it to win it for all of the ladies in Sri Lanka (and beyond) who don’t have a voice to fight against patriarchy. Despite my skin colour, her skin colour, or anyone else’s for that matter, we are all human. The things our eyes have seen, the stories our ears have heard, and, even more, the stories that we are writing for ourselves have so much more value than the colour of our skin or the shape of our eyes.

Yes, it has, at times, been hard in Sri Lanka and I’m sorry to report to you that it’s not all unicorns, rainbows and fairies. Regardless, at the end of the day, I’m grateful for the people I’ve met so far, this beautiful country, and my supportive friends and family.

If you’re following my journey in Sri Lanka, do be reassured about this:

It will be hard and tough as balls (do people say that?). But if you think I’m only going to put 50% because I’m a Chinese-Canadian in Sri Lanka, you are hella wrong. I will find my way and I will put in 100%. And then 50% more.

That’s 150%.

See, I am good at math.

Personal mandate: Prove the stereotype wrong.


2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Sri Lanka

  1. annbala September 22, 2015 / 6:31 pm

    Hi Sarah, are you in Colombo? I’m an ex-global person myself. I totally understand how you feel! I am a Tamil – Canadian and I have been to Colombo to visit family many times. I get the stares too. But you know I got similar stares in Malawi and in Kenya when I was there. Its not so much my skin color (as I am dark skinned) but my attire and way of talking that made me stand out. In Sri Lanka, even when I wore traditional Tamil clothing I was still easily distinguished. I found that the staring only stopped when I was with a male companion. (There’s patriarchy for you!) My female cousins took me on buses and pushed guys away that stood too close. They gave them bad looks and made a disproving sound to boot. I tried to use that with guys at stores that made me feel uncomfortable. A disapproving look is more powerful and easier understood than a polite smile I found. My visits in Sri Lanka are always short so I can’t recall if the staring stopped or if it got dampened over time….But in Malawi I became (at least in my area) part of the fabric after a few months and had a good time despite being “white” or western. I tried to tell them that I was both brown “like them” and Canadian. And joke with them about stereotypes. In Malawi I felt things got quite good by month 3 and then at month 6 I was incredibly sad to go. I am sure something similar will happen to you. Best of luck. But if you need a reprieve go to cinnamon gardens area. I found that I was more likely to run into expats in that region of town.


    • sarahtam93 September 23, 2015 / 12:09 pm

      Thanks for reading Annbala! Yes, I am in Colombo and traveling around the country for field visits until late April. You’re right- just as how our race or gender can distinguish us from others, so can our mannerism. Like the story you brought up, I am so glad to have strong Sri Lankan women around me who can stand up to patriarchy in their own way. Though, because I’m Canadian, I’m (so far) opting for the polite smile instead of the disapproving look. We’ll see if I change in the next few months! In time, I’ll learn the ins and outs of Colombo and find ways to maneuver way – like you did in Malawi. Thanks for the good wishes and I will be sure to check out Cinnamon Gardens. Always great to hear from an ex-gobal person!

      Liked by 1 person

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