Tuesday 13 November 2007

Finally someone mentioned it!

"If making the right impression is paramount, however, I would like to contribute another suggestion that could go a long way. Living in Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, for the last four years I have been continually struck by the vast gulf that seems to exist in people's minds between Chinese and foreigners.

I first discovered this through my hobby, photography, which led me to wander through the city's working class neighborhoods, where at every turn I hear cries of "lao wai."

The words constitute a slightly uncouth slang for foreigner. Literally, they mean "old outsider."

Quite often, these murmurings are accompanied by a mocking, sing-song uttering of the English greeting "hello." The tone is unmistakable, and it is not friendly. This is not to say that it is hostile, either, rather it is said in a way that suggests that foreigners are not merely an object of novelty here, which should certainly no longer be the case by now, but also of slight ridicule. "

This quote from Howard French's "Letter From China" gets a big FOARP "Hell yeah!", for years I have wondered whether the journalists based in China were living in the same country that I was.

In the past their reports would usually include the same cliched stories about quaint customs and impeccable manners that largely disappeared from China when the people who practiced them either fled the country or suffered the greatest penalties for their 'petit-bourgeois' behaviour. Since China's growth became a solid and undeniable fact writers have switched to reporting the economic strides that China has taken in the past two decades and comparing this with the Maoist principles of the past. This, however, is the first time I have ever see someone write about something that is the central fact of life in China for many foreigners and which foreign reporters cannot help but have noticed if they only had their eyes and their ears open.

The simple fact is that foreigners in China are continually subjected to the kind of racially motivated ridicule that Chinese in the west rarely ever face. It is not friendly, it is not that they want to talk to foreigners, it is rarely because they want to practice their English, nor is it due to any of the other reasons that apologists love to bring up, it is simply due to an "Us and Them" mentality whereby foreigners are simply seen as less than people.

As for the term "laowai", it is somewhat more polite than many other names which are given to foreigners within their hearing, but it is not simply another word for 'foreigner'. Hong Kong people do not love being referred to as 'xiangganglao' nor do Taiwanese enjoy being called 'taiwanlao' even though these are just variations on the same theme.

Mr French would like to see this behaviour discouraged by the government, but it is firstly not in the government's interest to make people more sympathetic towards their 'foreign friends', and secondly they almost certainly hold the same views that the majority of the people do, and that's a great pity.

1 comment:

Ji Xiang said...
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