What It’s Like to Be an ‘Invisible Expat’

The expat author, Surekha Yadav, with her Sri Lankan husband, Savan Wijewardene. NGEOW SHANGLIN
The expat author, Surekha Yadav, with her Sri Lankan husband, Savan Wijewardene. NGEOW SHANGLIN

Here’s a confession: At the entrance to some of Sri Lanka’s tourist attractions, I have been known to stand a little closer to my Sri Lankan husband and hope fervently that my dusky complexion will allow me to slide through as a local and skip paying the exorbitant entrance fee for foreigners. The fee for foreigners is sometimes more than 70 times the price that locals pay—entrance into the ancient Sigiriya fortress, for example, is 3,600 Sri Lankan rupees (about $27) for foreigners and 50 rupees (38 cents) for locals.

I have been successful on quite a few occasions, where the bored ticketing lady glances at me and waves her hand. After all, I look like a Sri Lankan—except I’m not. I have no Sri Lankan heritage, my family has been Singaporean for generations and my forebears are mostly from India. I can’t speak Sinhalese and the one time a friend in Colombo texted me to say, “That plan is shape” (everything is good), I was left as confused as visitors to Singapore must be when they encounter Singlish.

Being an “invisible expat”— an outsider who looks like an insider—is an interesting position to occupy. Unlike the traditional images evoked by the word “expat”–American or European families in Asia moving into enclaves and having bake-sales on Sundays–the contemporary expat comes in every shape, size and color.

For me, this has worked to my advantage and disadvantage. Taking a tuk-tuk alone can lead to awkward conversations, with the driver insisting I speak Sinhalese and my meek explanations in English only confusing him or confirming his suspicions: Here is an arrogant Sri Lankan who has forgotten her roots. At other times, I end up saving money and hassle as I find myself paying local rates and being ignored by tourist-trapping touts.

More than simply saving money, my invisibility also means that I’m less likely to be treated like an outsider. I find myself invited to weddings, temple functions and birthdays more often than other expats. It has certainly worked in my favor in a few instances at work, where the odd nugget of information has slipped before a business meeting because no one realized that I was the Singaporean consultant they had been expecting.

Being an invisible expat, however, can also have an adverse effect on some of us professionally. Melissa Patel, a British development consultant of Indian descent, arrived in Colombo several years ago and was greeted largely with confusion by her new colleagues. Her Sri Lankan co-workers had been expecting a project manager from England and were “disappointed to find themselves dealing with another Asian that looked exactly like them,” she says.

Back home in Singapore, we host plenty of invisible expats.

“People speak to me in Mandarin and I don’t know what they’re saying—sometimes they grumpily switch to English, especially when I am ordering food at the kopitiam (local coffee shop),” says Hurbert Leong, a Canadian entrepreneur who has lived in Singapore for two years. Hurbert went from perhaps standing out a little in Canada to seemingly blending into a country he had never seen until he was over 30 years old.

“Well sometimes I get people calling me Jiayangkwaizu,” says Justin Chen, a logistics manager from Bristol, U.K. now working in China. “It means a fake foreign devil—usually they are joking. With my colleagues, my landlady, I’m an inept foreigner but local officials though sometimes try to treat me like a local and seem annoyed by my insistence that I barely speak Mandarin, while other expats sometimes ask me to teach them about Chinese culture. I don’t really fit in anywhere.”

Personally, I think my experiences as an invisible expat have left me more amused than alienated, but I understand why not everyone enjoys it. The resentment can sometimes be palpable if you’re a foreigner who looks local on an expat package—you may find local colleagues questioning why a person who seems to be one of them earns more than they do. And yet, looking like a local in Asia can mean you don’t exactly fit into the average expat rugby team or into the typical expat community.

But for me, the experience is empowering. During my tuk-tuk rides, travels, and quests for late-night city suppers, I can watch the city from my privileged perspective as an inside outsider—leaving me free to wonder why they overtake with such reckless abandon, what exactly does machang (mate) mean and why it needs to be said so often.

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