Offensive Laowai T-shirts

13 Oct 2005

Chinawhite recently linked to some t-shirts for laowai in China.

Some of the shirts are mildly amusing. I wouldn’t wear any of them. The shirts feature such phrases (in Chinese) as:

– Here comes a laowai. There goes the laowai.
– Too expensive!
– I’m not a laowai, I’m a “foreigner.” [more on this issue] – I don’t want a watch. I don’t want DVDs. I don’t want a bag.
– I will never give you any money. [in weird grammar] – Don’t think that just because I’m a foreigner I’ll buy your stuff for 5 times the normal price.

I don’t find the shirts themselves very interesting, although I certainly understand the “inspiration” behind the shirts. What is interesting is the Chinese reaction to the shirts. There’s a fairly famous example of a foreigner causing a bit of a ruckus in Nanjing with a t-shirt listing rules for how the Chinese should interact with a foreigner. In that case “the people of Nanjing were angered because, reading between the lines of the T-shirt message, they saw a message of unwarranted arrogance and white supremacy. ” Obviously the messages above have the potential to piss off the Chinese as well.

I’m not one to wear t-shirts designed to provoke anger or outrage. Still, if you want to buy one of those shirts (mainly one of the latter three) and wear it around China, I’d be very interested to hear what kind of reaction you got.

Note: I have already posted an entry about this entitled 老外的T袖衫 in my Chinese blog, asking my Chinese readers what they think. I may write a future post about their responses.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I really like #1 and #4 (though I’d only wear #4 while walking down Nanjing Lu or other places like that). The rest are a little to “asshole laowai” for my tastes.

  2. I do not think that the grammar of the fifth one is weird. I think it’s plain wrong.

  3. If that girl you displayed four posts previously can mock American stereotypes of Asian people (me love you long time) in a public forum like a magazine, then foreigners in China can mock Chinese stereotypes of foreigners (I bet this idiot will buy my stuff at 5 times the normal price) in a public forum like Nanjing Road.

    =)

  4. Todd,

    I’m not sure, but I think it may be Cantonese grammar? Or maybe Mandarin with Cantonese influence? So while it may be strictly wrong, it’s not so uncommon.

    But I don’t really know what I’m talking about when I get into Cantonese…

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: October 13, 2005 at 11:48 am

    I see nothing wrong at all with the “offensive” T-shirt. The Chinese who were offended are just showing off their extreme insecurity again. (The Chinese psyche sadly remains a mixture of extreme arrogance and insecurity.)

    Having said that, however, some of the other T-shirts (not the 10 Admonishments) were pretty damn stupid. “I will not give you any money”? WTF?!! If there’s one thing I learned traveling abroad is no matter how poor a people are, they will always have a sense of pride.

    And there’s NO WAY in hell I would wear an offensive T-shirt either in China or America. I’m too chicken$%#@. I like my teeth and face as they are. Haha. Again, I would LOVE to wear an anti-Che Guevara shirt, but wouldn’t risk it here in southern California!

  6. I do have a 老外来了, 老外走了 and a 没有啤酒不快乐 t.shirt. Both were bought for me by Chinese friends. I wear them very seldom, but when I do the reaction is always one of amusement..

    I do agree some of the shirts can be pretty offensive. However, they are all sold by Chinese people, particularly in Yangshuo..

  7. There’s also this shirt that Michael made a couple of years ago: http://www.cafepress.com/livingin.13426225

    I don’t think anyone actually bought one, though.

  8. Todd’s right; not that my Cantonese is up to much, but that’s not Cantonese grammar as far as I can tell.

    I probably would’ve thought these were kind of cute when I was living in Harbin; it was the kind of town where I could cause traffic accidents just by walking down the street — this happened twice. What’s nice about living in Beijing is that even if people aren’t actually much more cosmopolitan, they’ll want to appear as if they are. I’ve gotten a couple of halloos, mostly from bikeshaw drivers around Houhai, but nothing even approaching what I got in Harbin — or in Shanghai, for that matter.

    That said, I’m still tempted to get a bunch of t-shirts made up with a big 哈罗 on the front. In blue and orange, natch.

  9. Brendan,

    Again, I don’t know Cantonese, but this page (see 3.2.2) seems to indicate that the Cantonese word order is of the “give money me” variety:

    http://www.hku.hk/linguist/program/contact12.html

    Confirmation either way from a native Cantonese speaker would be nice.

  10. Brad,

    I like Michael’s t-shirt better than MTO123’s. Maybe the 不想要 instead of 不要 strikes me as sufficiently less rude.

    Brendan,

    I think the 哈罗 shirt sounds good! I don’t know… it somehow feels playful to me rather than arrogant or intolerant. That should be the official Bokane.org shirt. I might buy one.

  11. I have a “ting bu dong” (i don’t understand u) t-shirt bought in the yunnan province and i love it!
    i’m happy to hear i can buy them in other places in china because i’ve been asking for this “laoway lai le, laow way chu le” and everyplace i asked begun laughting so much and didn’t find it offensive… still i don’t have the t-shirt, where can i find it in shanghai???

  12. I like these shirts but I wouldn’t wear them in China, because I think most of them are stuck-up. I only wear them in the US for the irony value (“I’m being purposefully obnoxious but nobody can understand this, so why am I wearing this shirt anyways?”).

    How about a “lao wai chu mei zhu yi”?

    I had a “lao wai lai le / lao wai zou le” made up at the little shop across from Alibaba’s in Tianjin. It rocks. Has anybody else gotten a shirt from there?

    The shirt that Brad posted is rad. The shop in Tianjin had a (front) “bu yao”, (back) “shen me dou bu yao”, but I like the specificity of the above better. It might even be best to personalize it to the offers you get on your daily routine.

  13. sorry i’m not a ‘native cantonese speaker’ but i can hold my own here in HK.

    yep that 5th shirt in question isn’t cantonese but it’s close to what we’d say to over agressive beggars! 😉 actually we’d say it like this 我永远唔会给钱你啊!

    put in front of a verb,唔 is a negative , so we say 我唔爱你 (i dont’ love you), 我唔想上学 (i don’t want to go to school). practise it and have some cantonese fun!

  14. If that girl you displayed four posts previously can mock American stereotypes of Asian people (me love you long time) in a public forum like a magazine, then foreigners in China can mock Chinese stereotypes of foreigner

    Nope. It’s a double standard.

  15. you should see greg’s shirt:

    我没有小弟弟,我有大哥哥

    that one about laowai and waiguoren make is just stupid

  16. woops, that’s alf, but I’m stealing time on John’s computer…

    I could probably even post my own posts if I wanted to…

    MY POWER IS BOUNDLES

  17. Could someone please explain the significance of “Here comes a laowai. There goes the laowai”. I must be missing something….

  18. I got one of the ten commandments ones and had a custom “Wo bu dong” t shirt made in Yangshuo back in 98. The “WBD” generally got a laugh. I would wear it under my regular shirt and expose it as a punchline, generally on the first day of class for a new group of students. When I wore the 10, it had English on the front and Chinese on the back. I would show the English first, and then the Chinese on the back, and it was good to get a discussion going. It had the general gripes of a foreigner, “Yes, I can use kuaizi” sort of things on it. The people I talked with were generally curious as to why we would get exasperated. They saw it as being polite, the first opening statement of a conversation. I had to explain that the repetion got old after the first hundred times. For me, the repetition was bad.

  19. Phil,

    Where I was in China, whenever you a foreigner walks down a street or alley and is approaching a group of people that is what you here. After you pass said group of people you are still hearing it. In Hangzhou they liked to number the laowai–like if there were five foreign teachers walking down the road we would hear a “wu ge laowai, wu ge laowai, wu ge laowai” chant that was not unpleasing to the ears, sometimes admid the “wu ge laowai” chants we would throw down b-boy style and start breakdancing on hastily constructed break dancing surfaces to the delight and amusement of our fans/gawkers.

  20. These T-shirts are lame and one would be ill-advised to wear one in China unless you have a predilection for polemics. Basically, it comes down to freedom of expression – a noble idea that exists nowhere, and much less so in China. While the silly messages of the T-shirts understandably irk some Chinese, you might find that what actually irks them is foreigners’ arrogation of the right of free speech in their host nation while their gracious hosts have none. How many of you have heard this: “It’s not that what he said is untrue, it’s that he’s a foreigner and so he has no right…”. However, I do think it a good idea to give annoying and conservative relatives overseas T-shirts with strange messages like “Me so Horny” in Chinese, telling them that the characters are the lines to an ancient Chinese poem – who knows, with the judicious systems in place in developed nations, with some luck, they might even be arrested for hate crimes…

  21. Dammit. We let Alf stay here for the night, and he starts impersonating me while I’m out. I changed his name from “John” to “Alf,” but the comments stayed blue. Oh well.

  22. Actually, the KTV Pimp shirt is the best one.

  23. So did Alf make that post?

  24. ha! “i will never give u any money” is not wrong, it is just ghetto which is what cantonese dialect all about. The real original cantonese for me is actually gangsta talk. Now I finally understand why my parents wouldn’t allow us to speak cantonese at home while i was growing up in HK… it indeed sounds very uneducated and unrefine. BUT, if you want to cuss someone out real bad, there is no better chinese dialect than cantonese. It will degrade you so bad to the bone that u would want to kill yourself if u got cuss at by one of the true cantonese people. haha!!
    Anyway, i think most of these T shirts are offensive and sound very arrogant.

  25. If you find any Chinese-made shirts that speak to laowai rudely, let me know because I’d love to have some.

    How about…
    “No, you’re not tone deaf.”
    “Prey on innocent girls in your own country.”
    “You are not waiguoren, you are laowai.”

  26. Krovvy says:

    Nope. It’s a double standard.

    Double Standard: a rule which is applied more stringently to one party than to others.

    Yeah, that makes alot of sense, I’m sure Chinese tourists in America are going to be approached for prostitution alot more than American tourists in China are taken advantage of and fleeced. If the girl can make fun of a stereotype she’s hardly going to suffer in the states, then foreigners can make fun of a stereotype they are going to smash their heads into dozens of times in China. The double standard is in saying foreign tourists can’t express their consternation but Chinese women can.

  27. df

    Touché!

  28. Da Xiangchang Says: October 15, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Vincent,

    Not the same thing. First of all, NO Chinese tourist would ever wear a “I Will Not Love You Long Time” t-shirt; only Americans (whether of Asian or non-Asian ancestry) would wear such a t-shirt. If an Asian American wears the t-shirt, she would be subverting the idea that Asian women are all cheap whores a la the Vietnam War era. It’s not a statement that proclaims superiority but rather equality: Don’t treat me like a whore. (Personally, however, this t-shirt is stupid. Why wear your ethnicity like a chip on your shoulder?!!)

    Having said that, however, a laowai wearing an “offensive” t-shirt in China is doing nothing but to be offensive or “cool” or feel superior vis-a-vis the Chinese. It’s therefore INCREDIBLY offensive to wear a t-shirt telling Chinese IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY not to “stare at the laowai” or “I will never give any money to you.” WTF is that?!! It’s the arrogant attitude that some laowais display in China that justifiably piss some Chinese off; attitudes which they would NOT in a million years display in their own country.

  29. Plareplane Says: October 15, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    I am a native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, although I haven’t been lived in Hong Kong (or any Chinese-speaking area) in years.

    The fifth shirt sounds like someone taking a spoken Cantonese sentence and trying to write it down with more “standard Chinese”-ish wording. (I think spoken Cantonese written as is would range from being troublesome to understand or just about unintelligible to non-Cantonese speakers, and written Cantonese seems to be used only informally or for transcribing speech.)

    Just fmi, what would be the most natural way to say it for you?

  30. Imagine a chinese person walking into a restaurant on just strolling down the street and having Americans (or British, French, Africans, whoever) pointing at them and saying: FOREIGNER!!!!!!!!!!!
    the chinese ARE RUDE REGARDLESS of their supposed context
    and anyway, the proper word for foreigner is “wai guo ren”, foreign country person.

  31. Leonard Says: May 20, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Hi,
    While I sympathize with you (non-Asian) being gawked at in China, perhaps you have forgotten China, in general, is a very homogenous looking place. Regardless of language and regional differences, all the people in China or even to the extent of East Asia, have black hair and brown eyes. You (non-Asians) may have hair and eye colors rarely seen in China. You (non-Asians) may have drastically different physical features. You (non-Asians), as a result, is a novelty.

    They point and gawk and you mostly because they are curious. Even metropolitan places such as Shanghai, you (non-Asians) are still a novelty. Just think of the ratio of you (non-asians) vs. the black haired brown eyed Chinese.

    It may be difficult for you to imagine not used to seeing someone who looked so different from you. I still get stared at when I travel through the “middle-of-nowhere’sville, USA” simply because these White folks rarely seen an Asian walking down their street. And let me tell you what the worst than being gawked at: When you walked down the street of a mostly White neighborhood in the US and having the White Americans staring at you until you leave their street as if you’re some potential criminal just because you’re not White. So, just stop whining.

  32. If you take a look at people in Western countries wearing T-shirts with phrases like “I am a virgin (but it’s an old T-shirt”, “Buy me a drink (but you are still ugly)”, “My boyfriend is out of the town”, “I did your boyfriend”….etc…you probably will think in an entirly different way about these ‘offensive’ Chinese Tees….

  33. Koko, that’s nothing! Here in Shanghai I saw a lady wearing a shirt that said in English “Eating me out would be fun”. There was a big Snoopy picture on the shirt, and on the sleeve it said “take the risk.”

  34. Matt Kennedy Says: June 17, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    HAHA. This just brought a memory back to mind …I walked past a girl in Lanzhou who was around 14 years old with pony tails and an over sized bright pink shirt out of the 80s. On it had 4 of those ‘tick boxes’ options, the question being ‘what do you like’. Next to each box was the name of a drug such as ectasy or an option of ‘all of the above’. You can guess which one was ticked. I’d like to see her expression if and when she found out what it meant. Some t-shirt designers somewhere must be wetting themselves laughing as they dispatch the boxes to stores across China.

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