“That’s all I have. Go back to your country. Fucking Indian,”
I froze for a little. She was a pale-skinned, White woman with blonde hair, probably in her mid-forties. I was a brown-skinned, twenty-something with black hair. I had black eyes. I spoke English. I spoke English at home, at school. I picked up bits from American TV shows. I spoke English with a mild Chennai accent. It was a scorcher in Sydney. I was working at my friend’s grocery shop when the pale-skinned White women ran away with the Red Bull can. She paid me 3 dollars. The Red Bull was 5 bucks.
Life as a Saudi Expat – War Brought A Sri Lankan To Saudi Arabia
In the 1980s, in Nallur, a tiny suburban town of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, my mum’s house was burnt down to ashes even before I was born. The streets of Colombo were on fire when my parents crept into tiny chicken coops to seek shelter. To hide from the rioters who were after their lives. My parents were Tamil. Back then, being Tamil was enough reason to be killed.
The war started in the ‘80s and ‘ended’ in 2009.
But by then, my parents had fled. Remember what Warshan Shire said, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
Years later, I was born in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. While it isn’t as famous as Riyadh or Madina, Al Khobar had wealth. It was fancy yet humble. From time to time, Sri Lankan women fly to Saudi Arabia to work as housemaids in upper-class Saudi houses. My father, however, had an executive job in one of the top companies.
I grew up in a compound where Indians and Pakistanis lived. I went to an Indian school. At home, I spoke English because my parents spoke English. In school, I learned Hindi and Malayalam. Languages of India. In school, where only boys were present, I sang the Saudi National Anthem first. Next, I sang the National Anthem of India, Jana Gana Mana.
“Jana gaṇa mana-adhinayaka jaya hai Bharata bhagya vidhata,”
“You are the ruler of the minds of all people. Dispenser of India’s destiny.”
I loved these words.
Life As A Saudi Expat In India
When I was 17, I went to Chennai, India. I studied to be a computer engineer in one of the top universities in South India. I had Indian friends. Indian friends from Kuwait. Indian friends from Dubai. Indian friends from Riyadh. Indian friends from India, from Chennai, from Bangalore, from Delhi. Indian friends from every corner of the world.
In Chennai, I learned Tamil.
The language that could connect me with my roots.
India was love. The bylanes of Chennai where I had searched for the best mutton curry with idiyappam. The hostel mess with bland food. Paper dosai. Masala chai. Cricket. Cricket with friends. Learning Tamil with my South Indian friends. Testing my Hindi with the fairer, north Indians. Boarding a train for the first time. A crowded one. India was home. Second home.
Almost 5 years later, I returned to the kingdom. My first home. I had finished my degree and started working in a software company in Saudi Arabia. A year later, my dad decided it was time for me to leave to Sydney.
Life as a Saudi Expat – Leaving Saudi Arabia For Australia
The day before my flight to Sydney, I went for a walk. I kept walking as if there was no tomorrow. I went to my favorite shawarma shop. I went to my second favorite shawarma shop. My third favorite shawarma shop. I went to malls. I went to supermarkets. Supermarkets where I jumped on a trolley as a little kid so my dad could take me around. Supermarkets where I spent hours. I looked at the desert. Layers of sand, in different browns. On my last day, on our national highway that often took my young self to fancier Bahrain, I teared up. I left Saudi Arabia with a broken heart.
It was the last day home. The very last day.
Growing up in the Gulf as a young male, especially in Saudi Arabia, is a fancy affair. It’s all fun and luxurious until you are exposed to the outside world. Until you leave your comfort zone to somewhere you’ve never been before. Somewhere that is different to where you grew up. In India, I was Indian. I looked like an Indian. I spoke Tamil. I spoke Hindi. I spoke Malayalam. I was an Indian to every other Indian.
Being born in Saudi Arabia to Sri Lankan parents and taught in an Indian school, it’s no doubt that I always had a crisis with my identity. Unlike many other countries in the world, being born in Saudi Arabia doesn’t make you a Saudi national. Being born in Saudi Arabia isn’t enough reason to have that privileged passport. Am I Saudi? Am I Indian? Am I Sri Lankan?
Life As A Saudi Expat in Australia
I loved being called Indian. That was until I left for Australia. In downtown Sydney, my Thai classmates thought I was Indian.
“I’m Sri Lankan,” I told them.
“Yeahhhh! Same thing,” they would often say.
I played cricket in Sydney suburbs. When I was idealizing Rahul Dravid (the Indian batsman) to save a cricket match for my team, the White Aussies would often sledge me, “wanna hump a Shiela you black Indian?”
When your roots are from a tiny island in the Indian Ocean below the giant that is India, you are also an Indian to the world.
But, I’m Sri Lankan.
Sri Lanka isn’t India. It isn’t in India. It’s not part of India. It is Sri Lanka. Another country. An island.
An island so tiny that the world has forgotten we exist. We live our whole life shadowed by our giant neighbor. My Bangladeshi and Pakistani friends could often relate to this feeling. We are Sri Lankans. We are Bangladeshis. We are Pakistanis. We aren’t Indians.
I loved feeling Indian in India. But I hated being called an Indian in Australia. I experienced the racism Indians and us brown people would often feel in a ‘White country’ (although Australia isn’t exactly a country of White people).
“Indians are cheaters,” I was a victim of stereotyping. Once on a train in Sydney, I was sitting next to an Indian. We were the only ‘Indian-brown’ people on that train compartment. While the White officers weren’t bothered with anyone else, they stopped for a moment to check our tickets. Directly or indirectly, racism and ignorance were a part of my everyday life in Australia.
Australia Is Racist, So I Escaped To My Roots: Life as a Saudi Expat In Sri Lanka
I left Australia in 2015. I told everyone that I was on a plane to Melbourne. I was, however, on a long flight to Sri Lanka. As a child, I would come to Sri Lanka once every few years with my parents. We stayed in Colombo. I would run around my cousins’ house and gulp down a glass full of faluda from Bombay Sweets. We’d go to Odel and House of Fashions to shop and attend the morning pooja in a kovil in Wellawatta, a tiny part of Colombo densely populated by Tamils.
Sometimes my father packed dry fish to take back home to Saudi Arabia. The German Shepherds at the Airport (it was the peak war times) would often bark. We were immediately pulled aside and questioned. The bomb squad would run in. (Chill, it’s just fish!) I dreaded coming to Sri Lanka, partly because I never belonged there. And it was never like the Saudi Arabia I grew up in.
In 2015, when a deep feeling of sadness washed over me, and a sense of isolation crept into my veins and ribcage, I flew to Sri Lanka. I was tired of the fast-paced life in Sydney.
I stayed in a hostel for nine months in Sri Lanka. The first few months were boring. I flew to Singapore. I went to Batticaloa, an impressive little town on the East Coast. I, however, failed to see its charm back then. A few months later, at the same hostel I lived in, I met Zinara. In three years, she showed me a Sri Lanka I never knew. It is a Sri Lanka full of mist-clad mountains, dense jungles, paddy terraces, and icy cold cascades. In three years, I learned to love Sri Lanka.
The war was over. The German Shepherds were no more. The bomb squad didn’t run in. My cousins had grown up. They’re now chasing the Australian dream.
But it was all the same.
I never felt home in Sri Lanka. Never.
Zinara is Sinhalese. She speaks fluent Sinhala. Even three years later, I struggle to pick up Sinhala. With a poor vocabulary, I manage my daily commute. I manage to board buses and hop on tuk-tuks.
Do I love Sri Lanka? Yes. Do I belong there? No.
But that doesn’t make me less Sri Lankan.
Life as a Saudi Expat – What I Can Tell You About Sri Lankans, About Saudis, About Identity
1.“Where is your hometown?”
That was an English language speaking test question I had to face. I paused. It’s not because I didn’t speak English, but I had to think twice to answer. “Well…I was born in Al Khobar but my parents are Sri Lankan.” That wasn’t the answer they were looking for. Listen to us Gulf-born expats. Don’t judge us immediately. We are a confused bunch. I learned English first. And 3-4 languages at once. It’s fair to say I’ve never really mastered one. With my mild Dravidian accent, I fail to pass as a native English speaker.
2. Sri Lanka exists.
We are different from Indians. No, Sri Lanka isn’t a tiny India. We speak different languages and different dialects of some similar languages. Once a girl on Facebook asked if she needed to speak “Indian” to visit Sri Lanka. Indian isn’t a language. Learn a few key things before you visit Asian countries, or anywhere else in the world.
3. We are Asians, too.
We aren’t crazy rich. While a tiny fragment of us are rich, the rest of us just survive.
4. Sri Lankans don’t travel
It’s not because we don’t like to travel. It’s not because we don’t have much time. The younger generation loves to travel. But most of us can’t afford it. And we have the world’s tenth worst passport.
Apart from a few countries, almost all the countries in the world ask for a visa from a Sri Lankan passport holder. No, that’s not like an American picking up an Indian visa. A hefty bank balance is a must for many visas. If that’s not enough, prove that you have ties to your motherland so you’d never settle down in the country you’re visiting. Send no-objection letters from your boss. School letters. Cover letters. Book your hotels. Book your flights. Some countries don’t give us a tourist visa unless we have an invitation which is certified by the respective Immigration office. Some countries want us to check for tuberculosis before we travel. We pay a huge visa fee. And even after we provide all these, there’s a high chance of not getting that damn visa.
For over a year, Zinara wants to go to Bulgaria. While money and time aren’t issues, the nearest embassy is in Delhi. And the embassy requires you to submit your documents in person. This one time we were invited to a trip to Laos. However, Laos only opened up visa applications for Sri Lankans two months ago. While Google suggested us that the Lao Embassy in Bangkok arranged visas in one day, the embassy themselves told us that for Sri Lankans, it takes 2 weeks. We couldn’t go on the trip.
Life as a Saudi Expat – What’s Next In Life, Nathan?
For now, I’m here, in Sri Lanka, but I’m planning to go back to my second home. Soon.
Today, I feel that I’m me. I’m wholly myself. Saudi Arabia took me into its hands and gave me a home. India gave me Tamil, a piece of Sri Lanka. I was lost in her aroma. The aroma of wet-green paddy fields. The aroma of piping hot aloo samosas and golden jalebis. Australia sent me back to my roots. Sri Lanka taught me to live and that sometimes, it takes years to admire a country’s beauty. Sometimes, to find its beauty, you have to dive deep into its muddy green rivers. Or get soaked in tea-colored puddles on a national highway.
Today, despite the years of trauma, confusion and identity crisis, I’m embracing the bits and pieces I picked up from different corners of the world.
Today, I’m completely me.
And you? Tell me your stories. If you are ever traveling to Sri Lanka, drop me or Zinara a line. We’ll be here.
About the Author
Nathan was born in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia and now lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from being a marketing professional, he runs the travel blog NatnZin with his partner, Zinara. NatnZin focuses on community-based responsible travel, offbeat corners and culinary experiences. He also creates content for brands.
For general/work inquiries, contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his journey by clicking on the social media icons below: