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.

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John Pasden

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

Comments

  1. I don’t think the analysis was thought out very much, if at all. Of course it’s common for racist words to go “up” from oppressed groups. Or between racial groups where you can’t classify one as being in a position of power over the other. It happens all the time and it’s just as common.

    And racist words can happen without the race being present – if I’m hanging out with a bunch of American white people, there’s plenty of racist words I could use for Chinese people.

    Chinese newsgroups are littered with racist writing against foreigners, I’m sure you’re aware of examples of Chinese racism against foreigners. How are racist words any different? They’re nothing more than an abbreviated form of common racist archetypes. It’s like you’re claiming that it’s impossible to form words to express common sentiment, as a linguist you know that’s nonsense.

    And what’s with the digs at political correctness?

    That said, I don’t think “laowai” is such a big deal, although I wouldn’t want to be friends with the sort of person who would use it. It’s the verbal equivalent of being pointed at by a stranger, while walking down the street.

  2. To be honest, I never really gave much thought to the use of the word until reading this post. During my time studying in Shanghai I never considered the word itself positive or negative, but I found the way it was used to be somewhat annoying (having a Chinese pointing and yelling “laowai”). In my opinion as it’s the way it’s used that bothers me, you could probably do that with pretty much any word, though while in China, “helloooo” and “moneyyy” are at the top of the list.

    Now, being quite a tall guy (over 2 meters) I found it far more annoying to hear Chinese tell their friends “他很高啊!” everytime I walked down the street but I just took it in stride and replied “你很矮啊!”, usually causing laughter among the group (focused on the guy I replied to). I like to think that at least some of these people realized that they weren’t being very polite and thought about it before saying something similar again but I suspect that I’m being overly optimistic about that. I wonder if replying to 老外 with 老内 or 内国人 would work the same way…

    A French friend of mine used to work in a Chinese supermarket (in France) and there was one black guy working there that all the Chinese coworkers referred to as “黑鬼子” to the point that he accepted it as his nickname without knowing the actual meaning. Obviously when he discovered the meaning of the word he wanted them to stop using it but they insisted that even though it means “black demon”, they way they used it was not actually insulting, though it’s tough to see how.

    Though this case does make me wonder, if ‘laowai’ used to have negative connotations but doesn’t now, could the same happen with ‘heiguizi’ given enough time? IMHO no, due to the actual makeup of the characters which have a more negative meaning unlike the neutral-sounding ‘laowai’.

  3. I haven’t read the whole debate, but has the issue of minorities “taking back” a word come up yet? Like the “n-word” in rap songs or “queer” in the GLBT community?

    I think we should take back “Laowai.” Aesthetically, it sounds nicer to me than waiguoren… we could start a “Laowai is Beautiful” movement.

    If enough foreigners start referring to themselves with pride as Laowai, it could become “cool” even to the Chinese. Mandarin seems to be a language that’s very malleable, especially in matters foreign. It’s time we stopped being passive commentators and took on a role as lingual activists.

    If anyone wants to rally with me, I’ve come up with some corny protest calls:
    “四三二一, 叫我老外没问题!”
    Kiss me, I’m a Laowai.”
    “俺爱老外!”
    “What are you? I’m a Laowai! What kind of Laowai? A proud and beautiful Laowai!”

  4. LaoWei is simply a colloquial name for foreigners. Chinese prefixes Lao to pretty much any one-worded designation to a region to refer to the people from that region. This regional designator applies to a province, a race, a country, or all foreigners. LaoGuang = Catonese, LaoMuo = Mexicans, LaoHan = Koreans, LaoMei = Americans, etc.

    So, don’t get too bent out of shape here.

  5. Jeffrey D,

    Let’s take the conversation in context. If you read the article I linked to, it wasn’t even focused on racial slurs. LanguageHat actually started with “cripple” and “midget” and mentioned “the n-word” as well. I brought in laowai and gringo as my own thoughts. Neither post was any kind of comprehensive analysis of the origin of racial slurs. I’m not sure which words you’re talking about, but more examples might be interesting.

  6. Jonathan,

    Actually, I wrote a paper for my sociolinguistics class on “reclaiming” racial slurs. I wrote about English, though. (Wang Lihong wants to reclaim “chink” by calling his music “chinked out.”)

    As for reclaiming the Chinese word… Well, it only makes sense if it’s actually a slur. In my experience, using the word laowai when I speak with Chinese people in Chinese isn’t “reclaiming” anything… it’s just talking in Chinese the way the Chinese do.

  7. I agree with Jeffrey D that being called ‘laowai’ is the verbal equivalent of being pointed at on the street. It’s not harmful in itself, but what the hell is wrong with just calling me xiaojie? I just want to be considered a person first and formost, just like everyone else, and that is my objection to the word laowai. That being said, it’s not a bad word, or derogatory in itself.

    But I do object to anything containing 鬼, and other words that are in fact derogatory. People say they don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but I am not a demon and don’t want to be called one.

  8. I think average Chinese are oblivious to Western hand-wringing over word use. Take advantage of the opportunity to live in a place where (remaining Marxists aside) people don’t turn language into a political battle. I’m with Shakespeare: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet;

  9. here’s a question to those of you with a Chinese SO: do you use the term when referring to foreigners? I have to admit I do all the time.

  10. Prince Roy,

    I do. I use waiguoren too.

  11. I would like to read more about the origins of the word. Although I have often felt the word waiguoren is used when talking to me and laowai when talking about me.

    With regards to reclaiming the word, many western foriegners already refer to themselves as laowai, even a little bit in jest. Take a look at some of the blog titles out there. I also find it interesting that neither word applies to overseas chinese, regardless of how obvious their nationality.

    In any case, its usually how the word is said, not that it is said at all that bothers me.

  12. I wasn’t aware that racism was the prerogative of the powerful nor that one cannot be racist other than deliberately. Apart from those gaping flaws, you’ve got a point.

    Frankly, I think there’s a lot of excluded middle going on here.

  13. Every time I see/hear this debate I wonder why the question is always what discriminatory label is more appropriate, or whether the intent behind the discrimination was malicious or not. No matter the intent, lumping everyone who is not ethnically Chinese (or in more common usage, all light-skinned non-asians) into a single category demonstrates a fundamentally flawed world view. Waiguoren, laowai, or yangguizi — they’re just different words for the “them” half of the “us/them” mindset that seems so common in China.

  14. In terms of degree of derogatoriness, I would rank Ghost as the most, Big-nosed as second, Laowai as the least. Laowai is not neutral, but only slightly derogatory. Laowai is more or less an actuate description of a foreigner since the second word means “foreign”; the first word “Lao” which means “old”, is usually not used in a negative way in Chinese language. The word “foreigner” – no matter where you live – generally associates with someone who is an outsider, or someone who does not belong, which can be insulting by itself.

  15. People who are foreign to China but are not called laowai: Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Singaporeans, Malays, Thais, Filipinos, Indonesians, Polynesians, Indians, Africans, plus anyone descended from people from any of the above places. And, of course, foreign nationals of Chinese descent are not laowai. So, please explain again how laowai means “foreigner”?

  16. The word “foreigner” – no matter where you live – generally associates with someone who is an outsider, or someone who does not belong, which can be insulting by itself.

    I disagree. Had you replaced “foreigner” with “outsider” then you’d have a point but the way you relate “foreigner” to “someone who does not belong” is definitely NOT the way I think of the word, nor anyone else that I’ve met.

    Brad – While I agree that the us/them mindset in China can be excessive, just imagine being Chinese a few centuries ago when white-skinned people were just rumors. You obviously have a name (or names) for all the Asian foreigners because you’ve had contact with them for centuries, so when this new type of person showed up I can easily see a word being made to call these people by which doesn’t include what I already knew. There’s nothing racist about it, it’s just coming up with a new word for something (in this case a race) that hasn’t been encountered previously. Now, I can’t pretend to know the origin of the word laowai, but it seems pretty likely to me that this is why there’s this divide between whites and foreign Asians in the vocabulary.

  17. If I hadn’t read things about it on the internet before going to China, I never would have known it was potentially derogatory. In my Chinese class at Nankai University we were taught 老外 as a colloquial/informal term for foreigner.

    One teacher did mention once that it wasn’t expressly polite to use the term laowai, but that it wasn’t at all mean.

    But this is just what they teach at Nankai, there are obviously many other opinions on the subject!

  18. Two remarks.

    1) I personally use the word “高鼻子” quite often when referring to myself or other westerners when talking Chinese in informal contexts. It hardly ever raises any eyebrows and that in itself interests and amuses me.

    2) I do feel that there is a slightly derogatory connotation to “老外”. At least the Chinese people I know well (not that many I admit) seem to avoid the term in polite company.

  19. Prince Roy: Me too.

    Brad: The original meaning of laowai may well have been simply foreigner, but it has come to mean white person. Now, for all your groups of people not referred to as laowai: They could all be called waiguoren, and the all also have their own terms, and several of them, just like us white folks, have a set of neutral and derogatory terms, e.g. 日本人/日本鬼子,黑人/黑鬼子。So I guess we’re all equal again then?

    And: “No matter the intent, lumping everyone who is not ethnically Chinese (or in more common usage, all light-skinned non-asians) into a single category demonstrates a fundamentally flawed world view.”

    Change the ethnic and skin colour terms, and you could be describing any country in the world.

    I think us laowai have got to stop being so hyper-sensitive.

    John: As for the “privileged and powerful”- Aren’t they often just a majority group? Let’s go back to LanguageHat’s original examples of cripple and midget: These words were used by the non-cripple, non-midget majority of people, and it’s that majority that gave them “priviledge and power”. The issue was not that the Kennedys and Rockefellers and Bushes were sneering at cripples and midgets, but that the able-bodied, average-heighted majority were. Sometimes membership of a majority group is all that’s required.

  20. I’ve understood 老外 to function as verbally reinforcing the in-group/out-group distinction, which is especially strong in China. It’s not always derogatory, though sometimes it is, but regardless, it always functions to reinforce/perpetuate labels for who is “in” and who is “other.” It doesn’t encourage a common human solidarity that transcends racial/cultural/national lines. 老外-talk “others” us.

    That said, our actions as non-Chinese in China often “other” us at least as much if not more than 老外-talk. I see 老外-talk as just a symptom of a much deeper general Chinese cultural dynamic – that extra-thick line between Chinese and everyone else that Mainlanders prescribe (and that foreigners often unconsciously adopt and perpetuate).

    Anyway, interesting post/discussion John. I’ve been sitting on a big post about this, but it’s not quite ready. I’m not interested in (re)starting any big debate about it either, but understanding it and deciding how to respond to it – not 老外-talk but the whole insider/outsider dynamic in China – I think is an interesting and worthwhile discussion.

  21. Ron Frost Says: February 4, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    I wasn’t aware that racism was the prerogative of the powerful

    This is exactly the point I came here to make. The example that immediately sprung to mind when I read John’s post was antisemitism – you can hardly argue that most antisemites are a privileged group looking down on a powerless minority.

    I disagree with John’s first point as well – just because Chinese people are “talk[ing] about foreigners, in their own language”, does that mean that it’s any less discriminatory? There are plenty of offensive terms in English for Chinese (or Indians, or French, or Mexicans…), but I don’t see any reason why the majority of those groups not speaking English makes it OK to use them.

  22. Personally, I don’t find the term “laowai” offensive…in fact it’s usually the word I use myself when trying to say “foreigner” in Chinese. This is somewhat off topic, but I do find it a bit amusing that Chinese people here in Chicago still refer to us (Americans) as “laowai.” Sometimes I try to get a rise out of my Chinese friends by reminding them that they are in fact the laowai here in mei guo. It’s all in good fun though.

  23. Nice post John!

    I usually find myself agreeing with you more times than not, but this one is different. Have you discussed this with your better half?

    It is a racist remark. Plain and simple. Inarguable. 100% dead certain.

    Now, if you want to argue the point that people can use a racist term with being derogatory, I would concede that to be a matter of personal beliefs.

  24. LaoLao is onto something there. Earlier this year, Tory councillor Ted Pateman was drummed out of office in South Cambridgeshire for the following comment:

    “There are all sorts of wogs here–I don’t differentiate between them but treat them all as if they were English.”

    Broadly laudable sentiments? Yes.
    Also a teeny tiny bit racist? Also yes.

  25. gotta agree with tora. i used to be upset by its usage, until i realised that the real problem i had was that i come from a country/culture/whatever where it’s just plain rude to point out foreigners. but pointing to a sikh or vietnamese person walking down the streets of chicago or calling ‘foreigner’ in the same situation has a very different feel (to me at least) than if it were to happen in china. i think its a result of the history of consciousness of diversity in america that makes me feel this way.

    basically i think for me it’s just a gut reaction to being pointed out as a foreigner, something that i’d never dream of doing in my previous geography.

  26. With all due respect, I can’t agree that it’s a privilege/power thing. Works both ways and crossways.

    Frankly, I’d rather be referred to by my name, rather than as ‘laowai’, ‘waiguoren’ or ‘DVD/CD’ (by which most people on street corners call me). The more Chinese people travel abroad the more they will understand this.

    Course, I have my own theories about (specifically) Chinese culture, where people do things, rather than think about them. That is to say, cultural habits are acted out, not rationalized. So most people who use the word laowai (i.e. the jackasses on the street corner) have never thought about what it actually means. Westerners are different in this respect in two ways: 1) our PC-obsessed culture makes us overly excited about words, labels, and people’s feelings (whereas my wife’s cousin was treated to several rounds of the 胖 ‘pang’ – fat – treatment the other day); and 2) those of us learning the language piece words together by characters and breaking down the meanings, often through reading and writing at a much earlier stage than a Chinese child, who only learns the characters after years of use.

  27. The Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (a major Chinese dictionary) says that laowai is “an address for foreigners,” then sees fit to add this comment on usage: “banter, wisecrack, teasing” (含谐谑意).

    Of course it derived its humorous effect because of a pun: “laowai” used to mean “dilettante” (waihang).

    I think it’s helpful to make a comparison. I wouldn’t compare it gringo either. I would compare it to something like calling any vaguely Asian-looking person a “disoriental.”

    “Hey look — it’s a disoriental.” (on the street.)

    “Sir, there’s a disoriental waiting in the lobby to see you.” (not knowing you speak Chinese.)

    Actually, in a place like San Francisco in the U.S. where Asians are ahead of Whites in income, education, etc., there is probably already this kind of slang term. Though obviously you can’t press the comparison too far because the societies and histories are vastly different.

  28. I was interested to hear a Chinese acquaintance say that he thought the term “黑人” (heiren, literally “black person”) was insulting. This was a little surprising to me, given that “black” is considered neutral in English (at least for the time being, as LanguageHat points out). But clearly this acquaintance was picking up on the anti-black racism which is rampant in China, and associating it with the word. This fits the pattern which LanguageHat describes, where an originally neutral word is tainted by contempt.

  29. Some above commentators say that they prefer to be regarded as individuals, or simply human beings, rather than one stereotype or another.

    But even in the West, ethnicity is a big issue, even if some people pretend that they don’t care. A good illustration is dating.

    For instance, if you say you’ve met a girl, then the first thing your friends want to know is whether she is asian or caucasian. Even if they don’t ask you directly, the question remains. Sometimes the last name gives it away. Sometimes other details, such as her relatives in Hong Kong, give it away. Or sometimes your friends will wait until they meet her, to find out. But still the question is on everyone’s mind, and you might as well give it away in the beginning.

    I’m talking about big city here. So in small cities, ethnicity is all the more prominent.

    It’s not about prejudice or racism. Ethnicity simply determines social expectations. For instance, most caucasians are not interested in karaoke or bubble tea. And you wouldn’t use the same lines on a caucasian girl as you would on a Chinese girl. And vice versa. (For example, most Chinese girls I know are very big on comfort.)

    And if someone is asian, you would want to know to which subcategory she belongs, such as ABC, FOB, Mainlander, Honger, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, etc.

    Now some people might object, because each person is an individual, and therefore cannot be neatly stereotyped. But even if a person totally defies social expectations, she is still viewed in terms of social expectations. For instance, if a Chinese girl has entirely adopted western customs, then what does that say about her? Or if a Chinese girl has remained typically Chinese after living overseas many years, what does that say about her? (Not that either mode is better or worse, but the fact is that both modes exist in relation to social expectations.)

    Chinese proverb says, “Things gather by categories; people live according to communities.” Nature is diverse. In nature, no two plants or animals are entirely alike. It is natural that different ways of living and different customs exist. It is natural that people hang out with those who are similar to them.

    Therefore, instead of denying the existence of ethnicity, perhaps a better approach is to acknowledge its subtle influence on communal life. That way, true harmony can manifest.

    I’m reminded of the saying, “God made you as diverse nations, so that you may know one another.” This is true wisdom.

    Note:

    You might be interested to know that originally Hanzi was slightly derogatory. Now, Hanzi refers to someone daring and manly. The etymological opposite, Huzi, was slightly derogatory, and remains slightly derogatory, but is used mainly for endearment or humour. Although Huzi was originally the diminutive of Hu, meaning barbarian, it usually refers to Chinese bandits.

    Some people above mentioned that Laowai includes many diverse people, but they are lumped into one group, whereas East Asians such as Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese are differentiated.

    Apart from historical reasons, I think Laowai conveys a sense of unpredictability. Most East Asians are culturally similar to Chinese. Therefore, they understand how social expectations work in Chinese communities. Furthermore, their customs are similar to Chinese customs. This is why East Asians often hang out together overseas.

    Laowai, on the other hand, often do not appreciate Chinese customs, even if they speak Chinese fluently. For instance, they don’t understand the importance of symbolisms or subtle social gestures. Because their mentality is so non-Chinese, they are lumped into one group.

  30. Abstract: exactly! People can extrapolate from ethnic stereotypes bizarre and obviously untrue statements like “Various East Asian ethnicities hang out together overseas” or “Westerners don’t understand social gestures, even if they speak Chinese fluently.” Or even that some “God made you as different nations to know each other” line is a very wise quote. Do you really believe all that?

    Obviously race/nation of origin is worth mentioning, but for it to be front & center in social interactions with people can be frustrating and is at times goofy.

  31. Jeffrey:

    You say “obviously untrue statements,” but these statements you’ve quoted are entirely true.

    For instance, “Various East Asian ethnicities hang out together overseas.”

    Usually, people of the same ethnicity gravitate toward one another. When there are few people of one ethnicity, those people will gravitate toward the most similar ethnicity.

    You can observe this on any university campus. Actually, this phenomenon intensifies in adult society, because in school, people of different ethnicities are compelled by circumstances to associate, whereas in the real world, people usually stay in their comfort zones. (For instance, in most major western cities, there are distinct ethnic zones.)

    “Westerners often don’t understand subtle social gestures, even if they speak Chinese fluently.”

    I can attest to this personally. I’ve had several opportunities to be a guide for several westerners visiting China. Often, they laugh at the most inappropriate times. Sometimes, they bring up peculiar anecdotes which result in severe awkwardness. Othertimes, they do things which would usually be classed as pretty funny in the West, but are considered very offensive in China. All of these, even though these westerners were very sincere, good-natured people. One of them was a linguistic genius who learnt Mandarin in two months.

    Not that I have anything against westerners. Furthermore, I am of the view that culture can be learnt and mastered. It’s not something mysterious and elusive. Furthermore, the same cultural misunderstanding happens to non-westerners visiting the West.

    Anyway, I’m not suggesting that ethnicity should be the “front & center in social interactions.” I’m just pointing out that taking ethnicity seriously is not peculiarly Chinese. Nor is it a sign of backwardness. And that despite a facade of political correctness, ethnicity is very important in the West.

    Lastly, I’m pointing out that sometimes it makes sense to observe and adapt to different customs and worldviews.

  32. I want to add that some of my above comments are half in jest. Perhaps I’m reacting to being teased for years in western bars because “Chinese men can’t handle liqueur.”

    Nevertheless, I detect an irony here. Because for some people, not paying attention to ethnicity is sophistication. And then, they turn around and criticise Chinese people for a lack of sophistication.!

    Second, be careful what you wish for. Many laowai here say that they don’t like people pointing them out. But can these laowai really handle a fully-Chinese lifestyle? (No privileges, no extra pay, no help)

    Learning Chinese culture is actually the easier part. Many non-Chinese (including some with Chinese blood) have an excellent grasp of Chinese culture, such as Kynges, Buruma, etc. But obviously no one regards them as Chinese.

    Many Laowai resent being called Laowai, but how many of them can envision themselves becoming fully Chinese in the future? I mean becoming culturally, political, socially Chinese. Identifying personally and emotionally with China.

    If you can do this, then clearly you are Zhongguoren. But if even you yourself do not regard yourself as Chinese (or at least sympathetic toward China), how can you expect other Chinese people to regard you as anyone other than Waiguoren?

  33. Abstract: Your college example isn’t true – at least at my college, Chinese speakers hanged out with each other, Korean immigrants had their crowd, etc. Having lived in Honolulu and San Francisco, there aren’t “generic Asian immigrant” spots, there’s Korean bars, Chinese clubs, Cambodian churches, etc. Koreans and hipsters are the only people who’d ever go to a Korean karaoke spot or a soju bang.

    Similarly, your example of “fluent Chinese speakers can’t understand social gestures” ends up being one guy who studied for two months and laughed at an inappropriate moment, it makes no sense. It seems you have severe racial prejudices, and you’re cherry-picking or even imagining examples to rationalize them.

    And my earlier post was made not knowing you were Chinese. I should have presumed, because the “Westerners don’t do karaoke or bubble tea” thing stuck me as really weird and not true, if a little trite – they’re both on every third street. Although for all I know they haven’t hit America’s flyover country yet.

    I don’t entirely disagree with what you’re saying, but you’re way, way to severe about it, and you state things as supporting facts that you really don’t know about and aren’t true.

  34. Jeffrey

    I regret having posted my previous comments, because I wrote them as light-hearted, half-humorous reflections on ethnicity and the West. To turn the table on the discussion, so to speak. Apparently, they aren’t well-taken.

    When I wrote my previous comments, I felt they were quite optimistic, because I presume that different cultures can coexist harmoniously.

    However, you take my comments way too seriously. Moreover, the details, to which you object, are plainly true.

    College campus

    As I’ve said, people of the same ethnicity tend to hang out together. For instance, when there is a large Korean population and a large Chinese population, they hang out separately. But when there aren’t enough people from one ethnicity, they gravitate to the most similar ethnicity. For instance, there aren’t that many Japanese kids where I live. So they tend to hang out with Chinese kids.

    It is quite perverse to deny cultural similarities amongst East Asian nations. There is a reason why Japanese and Korean soap operas are so popular in China, but not in the West.

    Social gestures

    Because of my work as a part-time translator, I’ve had the opportunity to act as a guide for four westerners in China. A short list of cultural misunderstandings: not knowing how to respond to praises and disses, not able to tell praises from disses, not knowing how to receive gifts, not knowing when to act formally, mistaking shows of strength for weakness, unable to recognise courteous refusal, etc.

    It’s like being colour blind. You see a lot of things. Somethings you see more than normal folks. But there is just that subtle layer of interaction which you just don’t see.

    Of course, the fact that laowai are distinguished from everyone else work in their favour. Because everyone assumes that laowai subscribe to different behavioural norms. So people leave with impressions like, “Laowai dislike excessive formality,” etc.

    I’m in no way picking on laowai. Similar cultural misunderstandings happen whenever you enter a different culture. It’s just life. And it’s nothing which can’t be learnt. All it takes is an open attitude and a willingness to adapt.

    And anyway, if Chinese culture were not different from western culture, then laowai would not go to China in the first place, now would they?

    Karaoke and Bubble Tea

    Obviously, this comment was made in gest. But where I grew up, karaoke and bubble tea are two of the biggest ethnic cliches, alongside asian kids acting like gangsters when their curfew is ten. (Ironically, there are real asian gangsters where I grew up, and a shooting takes place every few weeks.)

    Some cliches are false, but this cliche is actually true. There is no bubble-tea shop downtown. You can find them only in Chinese areas. I’m not a bubble-tea fanatic, so I haven’t visited all of them. But the ones I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a caucasian buying bubble-tea. Instead, there is usually a long line-up of Taiwanese kids. Moreover, the signs are mostly in Chinese, so it is pretty clear who the demography is.

    Now I quote from you “And my earlier post was made not knowing you were Chinese. I should have presumed…”

    Why does it make a difference if I am Chinese? But obviously, it does, which proves my point – that ethnicity matters as much in the West as it does in China, except some people pretend that it doesn’t.

    Not that it matters, but I grew up in the West. I’ve been around. I’ve lived in more places in the West (small-town, big city, Canada, US, Europe (France, England, Germany)) than the vast majority of westerners. Moreover, my persistant interest in western occultism and folk traditions bring me to many western currents of which most westerners aren’t even aware.

    So I agree with you that stereotypes don’t always work.

    Throughout this discussion, I’m reminded that for some people where I live, “not speaking Chinese” has become an euphemism for caucasians. This is because some people are very uncomfortable with terms like asians, caucasians, Chinese, non-Chinese, etc.

    So when I tell them about my girlfriend, they ask me “Does she speak Chinese?” I sometimes play with them, saying “Yes she does.” Of course, she is Canadian Blonde. But she speaks a bit of Mandarin. It’s always funny to see their reaction when they meet her.

    It’s just a quirk of living in the modern, multicultural West.

  35. I’m going to retract my above comments. While my arguments were made for argument’s sake, I realise that some laowai take fitting into Chinese society very seriously. Some of my comments can be read as discouraging and isolationist. But I should be encouraging laowai to fit in rather than otherwise.

    Plus, I too was once a stranger in a strange land. Much of my life was spent in small-town Canada and US where I was the only asian (or almost).*

    Since my ass was saved several times by the White Man and the White Woman – when I had absolutely nothing – perhaps I can stand to be a bit nicer to laowai, now that they are strangers in my land.

    (But I stand by my observations that the West is as ethnic-sensitive as anywhere. Anyone who denies this hasn’t been to the real world.)

    I hope that everyone makes plenty of friends and have a good time in China.

    *(Actually, my first few years in Canada, I lived in an all-white neighbourhood. This was because the homeowners had an unspoken agreement to keep out asians. But anyway…)

  36. Why does it make a difference if I am Chinese? But obviously, it does, which proves my point – that ethnicity matters as much in the West as it does in China, except some people pretend that it doesn’t.

    You have either never lived in the “West” or are just tripping my friend. Just went shopping in Xujiahui shanghai – and was treated in most stores like a alien being descended from the planet zog. How many store in New York do the assistants run into the back room shouting that someone of a minority has entered the store. Answer: None. Zilch. Squat. Zero. Oh, I get it, we are just PRETENDING it doesn’t matter…or we are just OVER IT – by and large. Vote Obama (as yet unlynched during the southern primaries!).

  37. Abstract: In a discussion about how foreigners don’t like being called “laowai,” why would you insist on using the term? To be a jerk?

    Please don’t view all white people as friendly as a whole because some white guy helped you in Canada. That is really really silly.

    Again, about Bubble Tea, maybe it depends where you are in the US. In the Bay Area or Honolulu, where I lived before, they were at every mall and near colleges or wherever young people are – as well as (and more so) in Chinese Areas. Everyone 30 or below has had them, Chinese or not.

    I mentioned “I didn’t know you were Chinese” because you were turning things to a Chinese people v. Westerners standoff, when I was just saying that the facts you mentioned were incorrect. Regardless it was just an observation and didn’t have any other relation to the rest of my posting.

    I stand by my point that you personally are very quick to ignore facts, and very fast to make broad generalizations that are silly and based on racial prejudice – and that you’ll make up or ignore facts that don’t fit in with this world view. Really why don’t you stop being concerned about whether people in the US are prejudiced or not, and be a little more concerned with your own prejudices.

  38. Kristene Says: April 5, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Why is the term “Laowai” so offensive to some people? I don’t completely undestand this… if you look at some of the ways Chinese people address each other you’ll see that this isn’t meant as a bad way of addressing people…

    For example, Laoshi, which, of course, is teacher, but also in the ways a married couple addresses each other. Laogong for husband, remember that this litterally translates to “old grandpa” and Laopo for wife, which would litterally be “old grandma” and also keep in mind that young couples – even those in their 20s – address each other in this way and they are actually used as terms of affection…

    looking at these kinds of examples, I don’t get why Waiguoren are soooo offended by the term “Laowai;” they don’t mean anything bad by it… in my head personally I sometimes translate “lao” as meaning “experienced” or “(person) to be respected” such as in the “teacher” context.

    不过这些就是我自己的想法而已啊。You all have every right to interprate in whatever way you choose I guess…

  39. Abstract Says: April 15, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    Look, Jeffrey D and Andrew C,

    While I think I’ve painted myself into a corner in this discussion, especially since this is an expat blog, I don’t really see how anything I said could be at all offensive.

    All I’ve said was that people are by nature different, and that political correctness merely disguise that fact.

    And as I’ve above emphasised, the fact that people naturally fall into stereotypes is nothing related to prejudice, in the negative sense of the word. Stereotypes are sometimes true and sometimes false.

    Actually, I have plenty of experiences to prove my point. Not that I’m going to walk through them here, since that would just cheapen my memories.

    Anyway, Andrew C, you said “How many store in New York do the assistants run into the back room shouting that someone of a minority has entered the store.”

    Well if you don’t speak the language, then obviously people will have problems. If I walked into a store in New York pretending I don’t speak English at all, then again people will have problems (although they might be far more used to it).

    “You have either never lived in the “West” or are just tripping my friend.”

    What is up with you two keeping insisting I haven’t been to the West? Especially since over three-quarters of my life has been in the West.

    My experiences may be different from yours, but they are every bit as valid.

    Maybe it’s karma. Because as a kid, I hated it when people thought of me as western. Anyway…

    Jeffrey D, you said “I mentioned “I didn’t know you were Chinese” because you were turning things to a Chinese people v. Westerners standoff”

    Well it was already a Chinese-Western standoff. Since most posts above insisted somehow that Chinese people are provincial and backwards because they use the term laowai.

    This is why I got in the conversation in the first place, because this is what I dislike most about expat forums.

    You see, in the US and Canada, for instance, most people are really good to immigrants. Especially to images of hardworking immigrants, striving hard to learn English and fit in – most people really sympathise with these images.

    The same is in China. I feel really good whenever I see a visible minority, whether European or American, making an effort to fit in. Especially when I can help them in some way, such as to point out directions or even introduce them to new friends. I feel really good about this.

    On the other hand, when an immigrant comes and makes patronising remarks about the host society, then you begin to wonder why they are there at all.

    This is the same in the US, Canada, and China.

    I think quite a few expatriates forget that they are guests in this country. They should learn to mind their manners.

    Since I know that most Laowai in China are very good people, who are sympathetic toward China and Chinese people, I didn’t want to offend them by criticising the arrogance of a few expatriates.

    This is why I introduced all these long-winded arguments about the West. So to turn the tables a bit.

    Frankly, I would not like to see China become as PC as the West. Not that the West is as PC as some people here portray it. All my bestest and oldest friends are Canadian, and they make a point of being politically incorrect. (lol, for instance I’ve been told at multiple occasions that asians can’t drive because they lack the proper nerve endings, etc.)

    But I like my people the way they are. And I hate for anyone to impose artificially a western mores onto them.

    Jeffrey D, you said “Please don’t view all white people as friendly as a whole because some white guy helped you in Canada. That is really really silly.”

    Well, the only reason I made that remark was because I feared I was being too harsh on expatriates. I was feeling really guilty, because Canada has always been good to me. I feared my comments, which contained nothing intrinsically offensive, hurt the feelings of good-hearted expatriates trying to fit in.

    For days I did self-examination. Maybe I was too mean to Laowai? Maybe I should make extra efforts to ensure Laowai I know are having good times? Maybe Chinese people should adopt PC?

    Thanks for alleviating my guilt, Jeffrey.

    Lastly, again with the bubble tea thing.

    Look, I was speaking out of my experience growing up in Vancouver. Not the US. So many good times. Back in high-school, every now and then asian students would saunter out of the classroom, ostensibly to use the washroom. After a few hours, they would one by one return nonchalantly, each holding a cup of bubble tea.

    And then all the white students would be absolutely mystified. What’s up with asians and bubble tea?

    The same with Karaoke. For some reason, my best friends from childhood till now have always been white. Even though I was good friends with many asians also.

    My best friends were perpetually mystified by asians going to Karaoke every Saturday. I never understood this Karaoke thing either, until I went to one with some friends in Hong Kong a while ago. Now I know what it’s about.

    Look, just in case you have misunderstood everything I wrote in my long-ass posts – I’ve never said people in the West were prejudiced. I define prejudice as a negative thing, whereby you believe someone to be inferior and unworthy of association. Stereotyping is different from prejudice. It’s a natural human reflex, which is neither a sign of development nor backwardness.

    And anyway, this whole PC thing is inherently anti-white anyway. Just to clarify, I’m actually very pro-white. I feel that white people should have their own advocacy groups. It’s only fair.

    Asians also lose because of PC. Not only are they discriminated against by affirmative action, but PC also perpetuates the mold of the “model minority.”

    So everyone will be a lot happier with slightly less PC, or a modified version of PC in any case. Not that I want to get into politics on this blog, lest I be swept into another bitter argument.

    Well, whatever, ren bu zhi er bu yun, bu yi junzi hu? (To refrain from anger even though others don’t understand you, does this not befit the superior man?)

  40. Since I’ve written so much already, I’m going to write some more. There’s nothing so condusive to verbosity as self-righteous indignation, I guess.

    Clearly, labels and ethnicity is a very heated subject here. I guess some people just buy into PC a lot more than I do.

    I feel really funny, that I am now called to defend myself against accusations that I am prejudiced, either against expatriates or westerners in general.

    Actually, these accusations were so foreign to me that, when I first encountered them, I felt very guilty. I did hours of self-examination. At bars, I quietly sipped Paulaner, reflecting on my possible biases, while my friends (Americans and Canadians) made rowdy mirth. Instead of writing and translating (my job and hobby), I researched books on racial relations.

    I sat thinking: How can I possibly be anti-westerner? Especially when all my oldest and bestest friends are white?

    Since then, I’ve regained some clarity – you know what, I’m gonna be true to the people I grew up amongst. My bosom friends, my community.

    I don’t know amongst what folks you guys grew up. But I won’t pretend that everyone was PC all the time. Actually, none of my friends, either asian or white, were ever PC. Most people made a point of being non-PC. Not that I consider this a problem. Someone makes a crack at your people – well you make a crack back. It’s just good-natured fun.

    Actually, if a friend of mine suddenly decided to get PC with me, I would feel really awkward. What kind of stunt is he trying to pull?

    Nor will I pretend that ethnicity was never an issue. Wherever you go, if you live in a multicultural community, you will find that ethnicity is a strong factor in determining you friends. I remember a younger me, constantly having to decide whether to hang with my white friends, whose ideas of fun appealed to me far more, or to hang with my asian friends, with whom I share natural solidarity.

    I’ve also gotten into scuffles over ethnicity, although this was more the exception than the rule.

    I remember standing together with my Taiwanese friends to resist discrimination. I remember all the little but most heart-warming favours we did for each other. I remember how we defended one another, both against oppressive teachers and bullies.

    I also remember having crazy adventures with my white friends. The exhilaration, the freshness of the night, the unlimited possibilities of the night. These are memories you just can’t forget.

    The fact that people tend to gather along ethnic lines is all the more reason to treasure inter-ethnic friendships. It is all the more reason to preserve a tolerant atmosphere where people can be free to be friends.

    So I don’t understand all this PC stuff.

    First of all, since in everyday life, most people I know aren’t PC. And second, since by making ethnicity a taboo subject, you really deprive people of who they are.

    I’m Chinese. That’s who I am. I’m always happy to let people know that I am Chinese.

    I don’t see how being called Laowai can be a problem, unless you resent being European or American. The equivalent for me would be to object to being called Asian.

    On a less personal level, I still haven’t made up my mind about PC. On the one hand, it is elitist. It is unfair (anti-white), illiberal (a modern taboo), and annoying.

    But on the other hand…I remember back in the days when fights broke out regularly between asian and white students at my boarding school. But now, everywhere I turn, I see more and more intermarriages (maybe one day even my own!). Everywhere I go, I see a diversity of people hanging out together.

    So maybe PC is working.

    I’m quite satisfied with how things are right now, so I guess I should be content.

    But my friends love me for telling the truth, rather than for conforming to the details of official ideology. So I’ll keep speaking my mind – PC or not.

    Whatever I write here, I’m sure to offend some people. But I hope, since I’ve written from the depths of my experience, that my critics will actually think about what I say, before launching a knee-jerk attack.

  41. Abstract Says: April 16, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Well, I doubt anyone will read my long-ass posts, but I still have a lot to say on this subject. And my thoughts continue to evolve.

    More specifically, concerning objection to the term laowai – let me make a comparison.

    These days, the term “oriental” is supposedly non-PC in Canada and the US, except when referring to the culinary arts. But many older people are simply accustomed to say “oriental” instead of “asian.”

    Some asian community leaders protest this. Frankly, I don’t know the history behind the word, but on a personal level, I can see nothing wrong with it.

    There can be nothing wrong with the term “oriental” unless there is something wrong with originating from the Orient.

    Simply, if I insist on making a fuss about the term “oriental,” both my asian and white friends will be confused. In both theory and practice, I see no reason being offended by “oriental.”

    Now concerning the term laowai, it’s merely a diminution of the term waiguoren. By protesting the term laowai, one replaces an intimate term with a colder and more formal one.

    Which makes no sense at all, if you want to blend into Chinese society.

    Some commentors above say that they would not associate with people who use the term laowai. This is also crazy, because I don’t know any regular Chinese person who doesn’t use the term laowai.

    Actually, while I was growing up in Canada, my family didn’t use the term laowai. Instead, we referred to non-Chinese people as waiguoren and specifically-white people as Jianadaren (Canadians).

    So when I returned to China, I often had conversations as follows:

    Me: This friend X of mine is a waiguoren.
    People: What do you mean waiguoren? You mean laowai, right?
    Me: Yes, exactly.

    So you see, it makes no sense to object to the term laowai, since it is a positive term, being intimate, friendly and casual, especially as you can combine laowai with pengyou to form laowai pengyou. Or laowai xiongdi.

    On the other hand, the phrase waiguoren pengyou is very awkward.

    Relating to PC culture in general, I’ve noticed that these days Anglo-Canadian seems to the preferred term for white Canadians, just as African-Canadian is the preferred term for black Canadians.

    Which again makes no sense at all, since a large proportion of white folks come from backgrounds like Ukrainian, German, Dutch, Russian, Polish, French, Scandinavian, etc. The same with African, because Egyptians are surely African, but they aren’t black.

    Is this what the whole laowai controversy is all about? Is this what we’ve come down to, that terms like white, black, asian, or even Chinese in the future are all verboten?

    If our intentions are good, why can’t we say what we mean instead of dodging the issue?

    Even I, when I’m writing letters or articles, often have to pause and decide whether to use the term Anglo or white, the first of which won’t cause offense and will be less of a distraction, the second of which is what I actually mean.

    Again, I’m not an expert in this arena. I’ve never taken a course on race studies. So I admit ignorance in terms of history, philosophy, and politics.

    But my initial speculation is that Chinese people are far less burdened by race because Chinese people have always dominated China, and so they have far greater self-confidence. Furthermore, they don’t have the white guilt about slavery and discrimination.

    Although I seem to the exception, in that having reflected on a number of personal events relating to friends and family, I have developed a sort of asian guilt. I begin to wonder – maybe I’m not doing enough to facilitate Europeans and Americans in China? Maybe Westerners do suffer from anti-Western discrimination in China? Maybe I can learn to become a better host? Maybe I should work harder on promoting Chinese-Western friendships?

    But what I do know is that if a subject can’t be broached, it cannot be resolved.

    Therefore, it seems very ironic that some Westerners try to impose their liberal guilt, which resulted from many unhappy events in their native land, onto the Chinese public, which is innocent of these tragedies.

    There is more I want to write, but I will pause and ponder for now.

  42. It is my fervent hope that all Western visitors to China have a good time. I assume that most Western visitors are good people who wish to make friends with Chinese people. When they choose to leave, I hope they leave with a good impression, which they convey to their friends and families back home.

    I would hate to think that there is a Westerner somewhere who is having bad time because of cultural misunderstandings. Or because someone is taking advantage of his unfamiliarity.

    My sentiments are probably common to the vast majority of Chinese people. But perhaps I feel them much stronger. For one thing, while I grew up in Canada, I always had a good time. I want to be as good a host to Westerners in China, as Canadians were good hosts to me.

    But I also have a personal reason. (I sure hope no one in my circle is reading this!)

    I had a best friend while growing up in Canada. We were best friends since elementary school. We were really close. In fact, we were almost like girls – since we spent everyday together and talked for hours on the phone after school.

    One time we took a trip back to Beijing for two months. Before this time I had developed serious grievances against him. I resented him deeply, even though we were as close as ever.

    Anyway, during the vacation, I expressed my discontent by arraying all the little sharp, hidden weapons imbedded in Chinese culture against him. I totally took advantage of his unfamiliarity with Chinese culture and lack of Mandarin fluency.

    This is all ancient history now. In any case, we had a good time. And I doubt he cares anymore either.

    But sometimes I think about this, and I feel really bad about this. And this is why whenever I see Westerners walking around in China – I sure hope they have trustworthy Chinese friends who won’t let people take advantage of them.

    All sentiments aside, however, I feel it is incumbent for Westerners to fit into Chinese society, rather than to expect Chinese society to fit in around them.

    For instance, on this Laowai issue – I really don’t understand why some Westerners imagine that they know the Chinese language better than Chinese people.

    If you ask the vast majority of Chinese people whether Laowai has a negative connotation, they will deny this. They will say that Laowai is a more intimate form of waiguoren.

    So I don’t understand why some Westerners insist that it is negative.

    For instance, let’s say I am an accountant. I moved to the West. People naturally refer to me as an accountant. But for some reason, I insist that the word “accountant” is an insult.

    Immigrants and visitors enrich a country. They do so by addition, not subtraction.

    This is also why I don’t understand why a minority of Western visitors insist on criticising Chinese customs, Chinese mores, or the Chinese national character.

    They should understand that while they remain in China, they are not on an equal footing with Chinese people. They are guests, not hosts. It is the host’s obligation to be hospitable. It is the guest’s obligation to show appreciation.

    Chinese society can’t be that bad. I regularly have friends from Canada visit me in China. Many of them express a deep appreciation for Chinese society, because it is conservative and family-oriented. And because it is tight-knit, because it is community-based, because your friends and hosts really take care of you, because of its pragmatism, and because of its moralism. (And because Chinese women are the most beautiful in the world.)

    This is in stark contrast to a minority of expatriates who complain of exclusivism. Actually, Chinese society is not really that exclusivist compared with most societies (e.g. Japan). For better or worse, Chinese culture, in common with the vast majority of world cultures, believes in “my brothers and I against my cousins, my cousins and I against my people, and my people against all the world.”

    And anyway, genuine acceptance must be earned. It shouldn’t be freely given.

    Well, this is all I have on this subject for now. I’ve put my thoughts in a form as reasonable as possible. I hope for intelligent conversation, but if that doesn’t happen, let no one call me biased or prejudiced without thoroughly examining the evidence.

  43. Abstract Says: April 18, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Yet another long post which no one will read…But I really want to sort out my very mixed feelings evoked by this subject, so please bear with me.

    My Vancouver childhood was like a nostalgic film about growing up in old Brooklyn. Except instead of the diverse European ethnicities, such as the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians, my life included the Hongers, the mainlanders, the Taiwanese, the Koreans, the Japanese, and of course the Anglo-Canadians. Eveyday was a big party, and everyone was invited.

    I might be idealising a bit. But this is really the way I remember it. Everyone was really nice to each other, even though they mostly hanged out with their own. I’m particularly nostalgic about all the little traditions, such as looking for illegal fireworks in Chinatown, playing starcraft with my Taiwanese friends in the boarding house, sneaking out after curfew to play go with my Honger friends and Korean friends.

    Again, everyone was really nice to each other, such that even when people were mean – it was amusing rather than hurtful. For instance, I remember the Taiwanese lunch ladies who thought I was punk and refused to serve me, or the Australian teachers who made no attempt to conceal their disdain for asians, or occasional scuffles between white and asian students, or getting threatened by Persian wannabe gangsters.

    Again, somehow these events all became nostalgic memories.

    So growing up in this atmosphere, I was very comfortable with the idea that different ethnicities have different customs and habits, and that the key to getting along is a bit of respect. I was also very comfortable with the idea that you should treat everyone the same way, etc.

    But obviously, not everyone had the same experience. I remember going to a party at my Sanskrit professor’s house. Except for me, everyone there was Indian or half-Indian. And after dinner, the conversation shifted to discrimination and racism. And everyone apparently had lots of personal experience on racism and discrimination.

    I was quite surprised, because I never suffered from racism or discrimination myself. (Or if I had, I just didn’t notice.)

    I remember one of the guys said, “Well, obviously you like Vancouver, since there are so many Chinese people here.”

    Many people at that party were from LA. So there is a regional difference in race relations. I think Vancouver is good in that ethnicity is not a strong socio-economic predictor. Most ethnicities are middle-class, unlike LA, where there is a white/asian upperclass and a hispanic/black underclass.

    But maybe the guy was right. Maybe the reason I’m really casual with race and ethnicities (and bit insensitive about these things) is that there were always a lot of Chinese people. So I never felt singled out.

    Growing up in Vancouver made me feel really good about being Chinese. I felt very accepted by my white friends. But I also liked how being Chinese made me feel very special. I had all this ancient heritage and overseas ties which white kids didn’t. I loved impressing girls with incredible stories about China. I loved going to the Daoist temple in Chinatown. I also liked impressing people with my Classical Chinese skills.

    For me, growing up Chinese in Vancouver was like belonging to an exclusive club.

    So I guess I don’t know what it’s like being an expatriate in China. Maybe expatriates really do feel a lot of anti-western discrimination.

    Since I grew up in the West, my cultural perspective should for the most part coincide with most of the above commentators – at least in theory. But even now, I still don’t understand the big fuss about “laowai.”

    Maybe the laowai controversy is really a flashpoint. I think the much bigger problem might be that many westerners don’t feel accepted in Chinese society. But they really want to be accepted by Chinese people. They want to have more Chinese friends. Not just acquaintances, but really intimate friends.

    But since they don’t have many Chinese friends, whenever someone says “laowai,” they feel singled out as westerners and rejected.

    Most of my western friends in Canada are “fashionably” non-PC. They make the most outrageous jokes about asians. I think it’s a guy thing, to show that they aren’t chained by social constraints on PC. I never felt bad about this. And I guess the main reason was that I felt accepted anyway.

    On the contrary, many of my Taiwanese friends do tell me they experience some discrimination. I think this is because they don’t adapt to western culture at all. And so they don’t feel accepted by westerners. And so they hang out mostly amongst other Chinese people. And any half-veiled crack at asian culture is perceived as discrimination.

    So you see why I have very mixed feelings about the “laowai” controversy.

    On the one hand, I want to be as good a host to Westerners in China as Westerners were for me growing up in Canada. On the other hand, I don’t think acceptance is something you can force.

    Now let’s say, in a most hypothetical scenario, a bunch of expatriates banded together and pressured the government to discourage the word “laowai.” What would happen?

    Well what would happen is that some Chinese people will refrain from using the word “laowai” in front of westerners. But then everyone will keep using the word “laowai” when speaking with other Chinese people.

    Which will only create a greater gap between Chinese people and westerners.

    Plus, to impose western PC culture onto the Chinese language only serves to make an originally-innocent word politically charged.

    Which makes no sense at all.

    I want westerners to have as good a time in China as I had in the West. But I would be very uncomfortable about any attempts to alter Chinese customs in a vain attempt to fit it to Western standards. I think when westerners come to China, they should be prepared to adapt to Chinese culture, rather than to expect Chinese people to conform to an “international” standard.

    And I would hate to think that some westerner somewhere feels rejected because of anti-western discrimination. But I think westerners who want to feel more accepted into Chinese society should also examine their own unrealistic expectations for why they aren’t accepted, rather than to blame it all on Chinese exclusivism.

    After all, when acceptance is earned rather than demanded, it’s so much more satisfying.

  44. I wasn’t really following the laowai discussion because I think about it from a totally different angle, but the comments were still coming to my bloglines, and this last one about growing up in Vancouver is actually really interesting to me, because I was a white kid growing up in Vancouber but who had some Asian friends. It’s actually really interesting to hear your experience, because it’s what I imagine it was like – what I hope it was like – for my Asian friends.

    In B.C. we were indoctrinated from the time we were small with the idea that “Canadian” meant lots of different races all living happily together, particularly Asians. I remember in primaryschool our text books always had photos of mixed groups of kids, which always included some Asians.

    I don’t remember acting or feeling different around our Asian friends, but now that I think about it there were two kinds of Asians. There were the ones in my circle of friends who were so well culturally integrated that although in their homes they had their own traditions and stuff, they fit right in at school – their English was flawless, etc. I didn’t intentionally make a point to have or not have Asian friends… your friends were just there – you didn’t choose them.

    But the other Asians – in my highschool they were either girls or overseas students with parents in Asia – were really… timid? quiet? overly introverted? Their English wasn’t bad at all, but they kept to their small tight knit group of Asian friends. I never got to know them.

    Anyway, that’s interesting about your experience growing up. Where in Vancouver? I grew up in North Delta in a neighbourhood that was half ‘East Indian’ and then we moved to Surrey, walking distance from a T&T Supermarket, which we frequented a lot.

  45. Abstract Says: April 20, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Hi Joel.

    It’s nice reading your comments.

    I grew up first in West Vancouver, and then I went to boarding school, and then I moved to the Endowment Land.

    But I changed schools a lot. I went to six different high-schools. In the end I graduated from Churchill.

    Vancouver is interesting because every neighbourhood has a slightly different feel.

    The only time I went to North Delta was at a friend’s birthday, when he insisted on getting donuts from a specific donut place there.

    But I go to Surrey every now and then. I had a lot of interesting experiences in Surrey, such as running into wannabe gangsters and doing sketchy exotic plant deals. But these are stories for another time.

    I presume you’re living in China now? Or are you learning Mandarin in Vancouver? Well, in either case, I wish you the best of luck. Make lots of friends, and have a good time.

  46. I’m in Tianjin with my wife – we’re both language students for a little over a year now. Before that we did a year in Taibei teaching English and finishing grad school.

  47. Hi, Joel.

    I just returned to Vancouver today. I feel so happy. I feel ecstatic whenever I go back to Vancouver.

    As soon as I wake up tomorrow, I’m going to get bubble tea. And then I’ll get Vietnamese noodles on Commercial. And then I’ll go to Chinatown to buy Japanese snacks. And then I might go to Richmond to browse for Chinese shows on DVD. And then I’ll go to the Central Library to read Chinese newspapers (I like Vancouver Ming Pao much better to Hong Kong Ming Pao).

    Yes, I know I know, I could have done all these things in Hong Kong. But it’s much more fun to do them in Vancouver – for me at least. I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I’ve done each of these things at the exact same place a million times, and it gets more fun each time.

    By the way, I’ve noticed a very peculiar phenomenon. Chinese people everywhere call bubble tea Zhenzhu Naicha, but in Vancouver, people call bubble tea Boba Naicha. I don’t know why. Usually when I tell Chinese people this in China, they don’t believe me. For instance, when I told my cousin this, she didn’t believe me. She thought I was pulling her leg. She believed me only when my mom also referred to Boba Naicha.

    Maybe you can tell me if Taibei people sell Boba Naicha or Zhenzhu Naicha? How about Tianjin people? You can use this anecdote now when drinking bubble tea with Chinese people. They’ll be impressed by your worldliness, and your power of observation.

  48. I was told that “Boba” comes from Taiwanese slang for “large breasts.” That it used to be a joke slang for the pearls in Taiwan, but isn’t anymore. Anyway it’s usually called pearls in the US.

  49. Jeffrey D.:

    That’s very interesting. I’m impressed by your grasp of colloquial Chinese.

    My cousin will be disgusted though. I’m going to tell her this while she’s in the middle of slurping bubble tea. She’ll be like “Yuck! Gag me with a spoon!” But in Chinese of course.

    I’ve never heard of “pearls,” but I’ll adopt this colloquialism in your honour. So many good memories with Old Pearls.

  50. As with so many things the motive is what matters, and that is conveyed more by the manner than the content of the expression itself. When someone tells you good things but you get a different vibe from his voice and eyes, you don’t ignore that because of the words. When someone says “laowai” and means something by it other than the mere terms’ literal meaning apart or together, you get that more from the context and the person’s demeanor and inflection, and this makes the term relatively NEUTRAL. Other terms which are similar to this on the more negative side of neutral are “nigger” and then “gringo” and then on the positive side “pal” and then maybe “friend”. The tone makes a varying degree of difference, as does the context.

    Example:

    In a chatroom I noted the following in which I refer to some dude who said “laowai” to his “gf”(?) in reference to me as I passed them in the “no lungs leave clean” computer lounge/smoke vault/ spitoon.

    “The hawking cigarette addict with a small man complex pretends that his symptom of disease (hawing and spitting) can somehow project his smallness and insecurity out of himself onto the so-called laowai, whom his girlfriend(?) secretly wants to fuck while pretending to also have derisive feelings toward said laowai, since she suffers from socially condoned Stockholm Syndrome”

    The analysis is more about him than about a term that exited his cancerous mouth-hole. So… see the point here?

  51. Well said, John. I think we ought to collectively agree deciding when laowai is offensive and when it isn’t is like defining porn: ‘I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.’

    (For those of you who think the term is never meant to be insulting, spend more time outside of Beijing, Shanghai, and other foreigner-friendly cities. I think probably 85-95% of the time it’s used it’s not meant in any negative way, though.)

  52. texinchina Says: January 8, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Gave up on disliking the term a few years ago. This is what I call other foreigners in a discussion with Chinese people. My response is usually “老内“, this usually gets a laugh out of everyone, and then someone usually says something like “哇?他听得懂”! I always get a smile out of this exchange.

  53. Please call me 白人 and not 老外。

  54. I recall in a peiurovs post on Lostlaowai already mentioning the Ministerial briefings were BS. As I know the workings of the government professionally and privately infinitely better than Mr. Devonshire-Ellis will ever know it would be completely unthinkable that such meetings would take place. Delusions of grandeur combined with shall we say sociopath-marketing results in this kind of garbage being published and taken for real. The first time he came up with the ministerial meetings it was already a parade of officials unknowingly being prostituted by Mr. Ellis after having posed on a picture with him. China Briefing is not an accredited magazine nor are its contributors accredited journalists. There is no way they can simply get an interview with an official especially regarding such sensitive issues as policies, budgets and RMB valuation.If Mr. Ellis has a relationship with these officials as he claimed to have he has royally screwed them with these fabrications. How is that for a foreign friend?

  55. Its simple, when you have close Chinese friends or a married into a Chinese family NOBODY refers to you as Laowai and you’ll hear them refer to foreigners on tv etc as Waiguoren.

  56. I live in the San Gabriel Valley, am white, and semi-fluent in Chinese. The fact that so many Chinese living abroad here still refer to non-Chinese as “lao wai” or “wai guo ren” either points to a serious lack of reflection of their own current geography and its implications as to who exactly is the foreigner, or towards what I believe the phrase actually means: non-Chinese.

    Although technically wai guo ren translates to foreigner, it would be idiotic for such a large number of people living where they are themselves foreigners to designate the native population, who are clearly not foreigners in their own land, with such an appellation.

    In light of the statistical probability of foreign Chinese using such words when they are themselves displaced vs. the statistical probability of them being absolute idiots, I can only come to one conclusion:

    Wai guo ren = lao wai = non-Chinese. Not foreigner, as literally interpreted. But just, not Chinese.

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