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April 11, 2005

Laowai and Zibenren


by Sascha Matuszak

Laowai is a colloquial term for foreigner in China – lao means old and wai means outside. In Chinese, the word lao denotes respect (e.g., laoshi = teacher, laoban = boss) and is a polite way to address older relatives, big brothers, etc.

For most Chinese, laowai is a noun like any other. For most foreigners living in China, laowai is the equivalent of "n*gger." Most countries have words such as laowai for outsiders: gaijin in Japan, le blanc in Cameroon, guilao in Hong Kong, falang in Thailand… no matter who says it or why, the words never sound right to the outsider and always carry a little more meaning than simply "foreigner."

Asia has a long memory concerning foreigners (especially the bearded, white, armed variety), and most of the words for foreigner in Asian countries reflect the not so savory first impressions left by the gunboat diplomats and their descendants. Guilao means devil, more or less.

In most parts of China, a foreigner is followed by a veritable chorus of "laowai!" when walking down any street. Some people just say laowai to themselves when they see a foreigner – staring dumbfounded and nudging a neighbor and pointing. A very surreal experience at times.

Depending on the mood of the foreigner, the trail of "laowai!" can be inviting or infuriating; depending on the mood of the Chinese, "laowai" can mean curiosity or disdain. In the not so black and white world of men, laowai usually means all four at once.

In the extremely gray world of transitory China, the word laowai with all its various interpretations aptly reflects China's view toward the outside world. Without foreign money and technical expertise, China's economy would stutter – the greatest thing to happen to China in the last 100 years was the "Great Opening" initiated by Deng Xiao Ping. Chinese art and thought, blood and sweat, beauty and skill have reached into the deepest corners of the world like never before in history.

And listening to Chinese speak, the pride is audible – almost every achievement, virtually every important person, from sports figures to businessmen to artists, all are preceded with a plural personal pronoun. Our China, Our Yao Ming, Our History, Our Tea, Our Lao Deng, and so on…

Listening to Chinese speak, one also notices the need to differentiate between our and their. Chengdu Hot Pot vs. Chongqing Hot Pot. Chongqing girls and Hangzhou girls, Lanzhou noodles and Beijing noodles – each village in China has its own claim to fame – be it the best bamboo, the best huajiao, the most beautiful mountain. And if Chinese love to differentiate among themselves, expressing their own identity in a mass of 1.3 billion people and 5,000 years of history, they truly love to differentiate between laowai and themselves.

Any act by any foreigner is a chance for the Chinese present to differentiate themselves from me – if I drop a peanut with my chopsticks, then "laowai can't use our chopsticks." If I order spicy food instead of sweet, then I am strange because "laowai don't like our spicy food." If my friend sings to himself as he walks down the street, then he is normal because "laowai are prone to sing and dance in public."

Identity is a precious thing in today's China – with hundreds of millions of compatriots to distinguish oneself from as well as wave after wave of outside influences crashing against a culture shaken by at least one hundred years of war, revolution, and turmoil.

How Chinese deal with laowai and each other, how the government portrays those laowai and we Chinese, and how our China adapts to guowai (outside of the country) will be decided not by this generation – where curiosity and fear and disdain are all jumbled together, but by the next couple of generations. After insecurities and ignorance have been largely defeated by exchange students and the Internet.

Zibenren

On the other hand, Zibenren is very clear. Ziben is colloquial for Riben (Japan). Ziben is a curse. It always has been. Most likely always will be. Chinese use it quite often. They've been using it frequently here in Chengdu while hurling stones at the local Ito Yokado and spitting venom after the local Chengdu Shang Bao (Business Daily) reported another "doctored" schoolbook made it past the Japanese censors.

China and Japan have unfinished business. As well as booming business – China is Japan's largest trading partner. But with the U.S. nudging Japan toward "normalcy" and Japan inching toward a Security Council seat, the Beijing authorities are now faced with a difficult decision: Hurl a Big "Zibenren!" at Koizumi and Co. in the form of a veto and make the home crowd proud, or avoid the international implications of a smack to Japan's face and face another student-led patriotic series of demonstrations at home.

In '89 it was the students vs. the government and the topic was freedom, something most workers and farmers have little time for. In 2005, the topic might be Japan, which all Chinese have time for. And with everybody on the street demanding an explanation, expect other domestic issues to crop up as well.

Expect a veto.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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