Mainland Chinese workers in Colombo, Sri Lanka

While walking around the streets of Colombo, we noticed that there was a section of the city that had a number of Chinese businesses. While in Sri Lanka, it was pretty rare to see foreign businesses or cuisines, and so when we did see them, they really stuck out. I also noticed a number of workers leaving offices at the end of the work day who appeared to be ethnically Chinese. I wondered to myself if these people were born and raised in Sri Lanka, or if they were coming from mainland China for work opportunities here.

We stopped by a cafe that was tied to our restaurant to get something to drink, and I noticed a man and a woman, both speaking in Beijing accented Mandarin in business casual clothing, chatting over coffee and desserts. They apparently noticed me, too, as I was chasing Kaia around the cafe after letting her out of her stroller. The man poked his head out and motioned to me, asking me in Chinese if I were Chinese from China. I smiled, feeling a bit sheepish about how long it had been since I’d had a real conversation with anyone in Chinese (unfortunately, it doesn’t count to have one-way Chinese conversations with Pookster). I responded, No, I’m American, but my family is originally from China. And he smiled back: Oh, so you’re overseas Chinese (yes, there is actually a Chinese word for this: it’s “hua yi”).

We had a quick conversation along with his female colleague, and from that brief exchange, I learned quite a bit. He said that before he saw me chasing around Pookster, he had assumed I must be here for school (HAHA, I told him I had finished college YEARS ago). He asked what brought us to Sri Lanka, and I told him we came to India and Sri Lanka on holiday but were leaving the next day. From their accents, I could tell they were from Beijing, but I decided to feign ignorance anyway and asked about their background. They shared that they were both from Beijing but here in Colombo for a temporary work project for a few months. I commented how I found it interesting that we had already seen so many ethnically Chinese looking people and businesses here, and he informed me that there are over 100 Chinese companies that have offices in Colombo, so it’s very common for them to send mainland Chinese workers here, either to live and work permanently, or on temporary projects like themselves. Wow – to get to go on a work trip to Sri Lanka would be truly amazing! I asked them if they’d had time to do any sight-seeing between work, as I understood that Chinese work culture is pretty brutal, and they told me that they spend their weekends exploring and traveling to other parts of the country; Galle was one of their favorite quick destinations from Colombo.

It was a short exchange, but it was nice to chat with people who actually live and work there, even if it is temporary. It was also a rare and fun chance for me to have a conversation 100 percent in Mandarin Chinese, which is getting rusty by the day, and which I try to refresh with Udemy language videos as well as YouTube Mandarin refreshers. Every time they asked me a question or said something, I had to spend at least a second or two digesting what they said, figuring out whether I understood their full meaning, and then formulating how I would respond. I wish I had more of this practice every day.

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