Living in a foreign land takes quite a bit of getting used to. Not only can one find the new culture alien but sometimes even daily human interaction and common place activities we take for granted at home can be awkward and even challenging.

For those of us who call Sri Lanka home, we take for granted the facilities we enjoy and find certain negative practices common place. However, when speaking to Dutch national Niels van Klooster, Country Manager, and Indo-Dutch national VenkatIyengar, Head of Business  Development, we get to view the place we call home from another angle.

Prior to relocating to Sri Lanka three months ago, Niels had been living and working in Cambodia for six months and was surprised by the differences between the two countries. He pointed out that one of the main drawbacks when interacting with Cambodians was a problem with communication as many are not fluent in English. “But in Sri Lanka this is not a problem since many Sri Lankans are highly fluent and have an excellent command of English,” he said.

Niels also observed that in South East Asia, particularly in countries like Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, the locals had a more subservient approach when interacting with expatriates. In Sri Lanka he feels that people tend to interact with expatriates on a more equal level. “I suppose it must be a cultural aspect, but it made me realise that Asia is truly diverse in that no two countries are ever alike,” he commented.

“I also find Sri Lankan culture to be more European oriented. The people are more broadminded with many of the entertainment being more Eurocentric. You understand this feeling quite well when you visit the bars and restaurants throughout Colombo. The people you meet and speak to in these places have western ideas and attitudes and I believe this is because many of them have studied and lived abroad and are therefore more attuned to that way of thinking,” he added.

He also pointed out that the infrastructure in Sri Lanka was highly developed. “The roads,
communication, buildings and even the
entertainment facilities are really well developed

here. In Cambodia this level of development is yet to be achieved and I find living in Sri Lanka to be quite comfortable because the facilities are readily available.”

“One thing I have noticed about life in Sri Lanka is that if you limit yourself to the mere essentials and budget out your expenses carefully, then you can manage to get by. But I have also noticed that on the other end of the spectrum there is a certain section of Sri Lankan society that enjoys an active social life and spends quite freely on whatever they desire. This vast disparity is another interesting aspect of the culture here,” he observed.

When asked if he could see himself calling Sri Lanka home, Niels said that he could certainly see the possibility. However he added that eventually he may want to move back to the Netherlands because he would miss his family and friends back home. “I am quite close to my family and the friends I grew up with, so eventually I believe that I may miss them so much that I might return to the Netherlands.”

Venkat is of Indian origin, but is a Dutch citizen with a very familiar understanding of life in India. He worked in the Netherlands for one and a half years before moving to Sri Lanka five months ago. “I had no expectations when I relocated here so I was ready for anything. I was pleasantly surprised to find Sri Lanka highly developed in terms of infrastructure, transport and communication,” he said.

He said that a common observation he made was that expats tend to fall ill within the first two weeks of arrival. “I suppose it may be the spicy nature of the local cuisine that the expats need to be gradually acclimatised to.”

“Many of my experiences here have been quite positive. I especially find the working culture quite interesting. Unlike in Europe the work atmosphere in Sri Lanka is more relaxed with colleagues interacting on a very personal level. Also work gets done in a relaxed manner but the best part is that the productivity is similar to that of the high stress work environments in Europe. European colleagues are more private and contained and often the corporate culture is more an each-man-for-himself type mentality. It is also a lot more high stress. In my view I think that the Sri Lankan work culture is more positive since many people genuinely seem to enjoy their work,” he stated.

He also finds life in Colombo to be quite convenient. “Not only is everything within a close radius, but the transportation facilities are pretty good. Compared to India, the level of traffic is quite negligible and I find that many Sri Lankans tend to follow road rules.”

Having travelled around the country he had nothing but praise for the diverse geographic aspects of the Island. “I think that Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where you can relax on a sunny beach and within a matter of hours drive across to a cool mountain retreat and experience what the colonial era might have been like.”

But one of the drawbacks for him is the food. “Maybe it must be my personal palette, but I find the food to be nothing special. It’s also quite difficult to find pre-packaged salads and meals in the supermarkets, and common fruits like grapes are quite expensive. Also international branded food items are significantly more expensive here than in India,” he said.

Like Niels, Venkat too can picture the possibility of calling Sri Lanka home. “I can definitely see myself living here. I find life in Europe to be too static and structured. The friendly chaos of Sri Lanka suits me better and overall my experience here has been great.”

Common negatives
Both Niels and Venkat said that a common issue faced by expats was securing long-term accommodation. Both stated that the six-month security deposit required by many landlords was detrimental when attracting foreign tenants because many expats are used to making only a month’s deposit.

Another commonly expressed negative by both was the over-charging of expats. “I think that because many Sri Lankans have a good grasp of English, they have the ability to clearly state the amount they wish to charge and they have a better bargaining power. The problem arises because many expats are initially unfamiliar with the charges locals pay and therefore tend to be charged much higher amounts,” Niels said.

“I don’t think it unreasonable to charge expats double or even three times the local charge for visiting cultural or tourist destinations but I think that ten to fifteen times the charge is quite unfair,” Venkat said.

Common positives
Both commented on the friendliness of the people and their approachability. “When I visit bars and restaurants, many of the patrons freely interact. The people are warm and friendly and are quite willing to assist anyone. Here if you look at someone on the street they generally smile at you, if you smile at a stranger in Europe, they’ll think that something’s the matter with you!” Niels laughingly added.

“If you plan a trip in Europe you can confirm and pay for your entire journey without interacting with a single human being. Even when you embark on your trip, if you follow your itinerary, you can conclude your entire journey without once having smiled or spoken to a person. In Sri Lanka even if you book a train journey, sometimes there may be a delay which will require you to speak to someone at the station to confirm the travel time. This level of human interaction is lacking in Europe, which makes life in Sri Lanka more interesting and diverse,” Venkat added.

 Niels van Klooster
Niels van Klooster
Venkat Iyengar
Venkat Iyengar

Life in Sri Lanka from expatriates’ perspectives (2)