The Contempt of the Powerful and the Term Laowai
03 Feb 2008
A recent post on LanguageHat called Bad Language got me thinking about the laowai (老外) issue again. Yes, it’s a rather tired (often overly emotional) discussion, but I think that LanguageHat’s very rational view on the topic offers a new perspective on the matter.
Basically, LanguageHat’s view is this:
1. When the privileged and powerful use originally neutral terms for groups of people “beneath them,” their contempt naturally creeps into the language they use.
2. Those groups targeted by the contempt-laden language object to it more and more over time, until politically correct alternatives come along.
3. The privileged and powerful are presented with the new language, and “PC language is a cheap substitute for actually treating people equally, so they usually go ahead and do it.”
Makes sense to me. But how does the laowai issue fit in?
Here are some key differences:
1. The laowai issue is cross-language, cross-cultural. We’re dealing with the way Chinese people talk about foreigners, in their own language. Just to make it absolutely clear, a similar thing would be Americans objecting to Mexicans calling Americans gringos when they speak Spanish. (I don’t believe the two examples are actually equivalent, though.)
2. When we look at which Chinese people use the word laowai, we’re definitely not dealing with the privileged and the powerful of Chinese society. Most often, it’s exactly the opposite. Some might claim that the educated of Chinese society don’t use the term laowai, but I maintain it’s the Chinese who have significant contact with (often hypersensitive) foreigners that avoid the term laowai. It’s pure pragmatics.
3. On average, foreigners get excellent treatment in China. It’s not uncommon for Chinese people who give extra favorable treatment to foreigners use the term, and it’s also used by the guys that yell “hello” and laugh at the “big-noses.” So the term is not a part of a larger picture of negative discrimination.
Again, this brings me back to my previous position: the term laowai in Chinese is not inherently derogatory, nor is it used in the familiar pattern of other offensive labels for groups of people outlined above.
I’m not looking to rehash the previous debates. If that is what interests you, please see this post.