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Playing The Coloniser's Game

What it is like being interviewed by White people as a Sri Lankan girl


I sit in the waiting room of the office, pinching a piece of my white chiffon shirt between my thumb and forefinger as the clock noisily ticks around its perimeter in the background. I smile at the twenty-something sitting across from me, attempting to dissipate the obvious air of competition between us. Wiry red hair, transparent-framed glasses, pale skin with noticeable, brown freckles, sitting on flushed cheeks. Plaid shirt, unbuttoned, over a plain, white t-shirt; long navy pants but not long enough to cover his neon polka-dotted socks. Yeah, he may as well have been sitting by himself in the corner of one of my Structural Editing classes.

We sit here in the waiting room of our potential-employer’s publication house, across each other, legs crossed in different ways with different airs: me overcompensating for taking a place in the participants’ league; him, not responding because he doesn’t need to.

‘So cold outside today,’ I burp out.

He glances at me before going back to the dictionary. If I hadn’t caught it, I would have missed his swift, forced smile. ‘Mm. Yeah.’

‘Did you bring a Style Guide?’ I ask. Stop it, I plead to myself. You don’t need to talk to him to ease the tension.

He closes his dictionary shut, responding with a blank look now, no smile. ‘Of course.’

 ‘I almost forgot mine – I’m so nervous.’ I giggle slightly.

He finally seems to let his guard down. His shoulders visibly droop. ‘I know, me too. I do really badly at interviews. Like, so bad, I puked over my shirt five minutes before I went in for one. I clogged their sink.’

I don’t find that funny, but I’ve already assumed this position of bootlicker, so now I must see it through. ‘I’m not so bad, although I hate exams for a job. Feels like I’m back at uni.’

The receptionist interrupts our conversation, beckoning me inside for my interview.

‘So, you’re from Sri Lanka! I love your name,’ says one lady, leafing through my resume.

I smile, pleased with my parents.

‘Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.’

I begin the rattle of my life – interesting things about childhood and my love for reading and writing – a lot more interesting things about me being organized and some more positive buzzwords for an interview – more interesting personal visions for the future.

My interviewers nods once I was finished. The lady beams and says, ‘oh, I love Sri Lanka, I was there on my honeymoon.’

One man turns to her and says, ‘I’ve been there, too – how great is the food? My wife’s teaching me how to make the Jaff – what it it? Jaf?’

‘Jaffna,’ I helped.

‘Yeah, the Jaffna crab curry. Just gobsmacking.’

I smile. I’ve never had the curry, but don’t dare say it.

‘Now, in Sri Lanka, you’ve studied in English?’ he asks.

‘Yes. I went to a private school, so all my studies were in English.’

‘Is that your main language?’ the lady asks. ‘Sorry, we’re just asking because you will be editing and working with, you know, English.’

‘Yes. I mean, I do speak other languages, but it’s the only one I can speak this fluently.’

There is a pause between the interviewers as they glanced at the brown man, who has not said a word so far. It is clear they are expecting him to lead the conversation.

‘No but, I mean, your native language?’ he asks. His accent is indecipherable. He has had vast experience camouflaging.

‘It’s my native language in the sense that I spoke it – speak it at home mostly. I’m pretty abysmal with all those-other language – the other languages … that I uh, can speak. Or understanding …’ My cheeks begin to rise in temperature as I want to hit myself for fumbling over my words. Grammatical errors and stuttering over my speech, curving my accent in order to make it comprehensible. It’s a boiling curry threatening to explode.

The lady who had first spoken takes over. ‘Well, I mean, look. This job is quite challenging, you’ll have a lot of responsibilities and all the proof-reading will be done solely by you. Why do you think you’re fit for the role?’

I regain my composure and answer confidently for this question that I am actually ready for, no doubt repeating a few words over and subconsciously switching between accents. ‘And this position was also advertised as entry-level, so I think I would be perfect as I just graduated with a Masters’.’

‘Yes, I mean we say entry-level, but we do expect a certain bit of experience under the belt, you know,’ one of the men says. ‘It would just be a waste of time and resources on the company if we were to train you first-hand. I mean, that’s what internships are for.’

 ‘Didn’t you work at all while you were in university? Most students take on voluntary positions to get a head-start,’ the lady asks.

‘Not in my field,’ I mumble, sounding considerably distant, as I think about the impossibility of fitting an unpaid position in my schedule, along with completing school work on time and making everyday expenses meet, all the while footing international-student fees. ‘But I did work in Sri Lanka while I was in university. Full-time. It was related – it’s on my resume,’ I say, nodding towards the resume the lady was holding.

The man purses his lips together sympathetically. ‘Well, the good thing about us is we contact all our past-applicants if future roles open up. So, we loved you, and I think you’ve made quite an impact on us,’ he closes a file that was in front of him. He turned to his colleague. ‘In fact, I may need some tips on where to go in Sri Lanka. My wife and I have plans on visiting again.’

When I walk back outside and enter the waiting room, my fellow competitor and/or friend stands up meekly. He has his hands in his pockets, meeting me with an eager look. ‘How’d it go?’

I smile, but not as brightly as I did when I first met him. ‘Good luck,’ I say, and usher myself out of the building, thinking he doesn’t need it.

Not really. 

Main artwork produced by South Asian Today's designer, Nikita Ann, @nikitaann97


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About the author

Sakina Aliakbar was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and has since moved to Melbourne, Australia where she completed a Master of Creative Writing. She writes for screen and in prose, ranging between fiction, creative non-fiction and non-fiction, predominantly focusing on issues surrounding culture, identity and sexuality.

 

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