By Derek Sandhaus
Good news for all you laowai‘s out there, Shanghai is heaven!!! At least it is according to the online edition of the People’s Daily, which featured a
fluff hard-hitting piece on how Shanghai has become the refuge of the foreigners, ballooning from 4,000 to 60,000 in the 2000s. The argument goes something like this: more expats = Shanghai is clearly heaven. The reasons cited include: job opportunities, high-wages/low costs, and easy entry/exit requirements (huh?).
Reasons ignored include: Line 1 during rush hour, that person coughing on the back of my head on the bus, and being frowned and hissed at by old women.
Which brings us to Exhibit B, also from Xinhua’s golden child (People’s Daily English Edition) an opinion piece entitled “Is ‘laowai’ (老外) a negative term?” To summarize, the author was shocked to learn that foreigners don’t like being called ‘laowai’ (venerable outsiders), which he believes is not negative in connotation. The article then goes on to explain why Chinese used to dislike foreigners, but love them now, which is why they call them laowai instead of ‘yanggui’ (洋鬼, or “foreign devils”). The author concludes by suggesting that Chinese should pay attention to these ‘trivial’ matters (foreigner’s feelings) and perhaps use the warmer and fuzzier ‘laowai pengyou’ (老外朋友, or “foreign friend”) instead.
We think that this author really missed the boat on this one. To paraphrase George Carlin, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘laowai,’ its the racist asshole using it that’s the problem. Yes, ‘lao’ is a term used out of respect in China, but you don’t feel respected when a group of people are using it while pointing at you and laughing as if you had a third eyeball. It’s like that condescending boss you had when you were 17, you didn’t feel like a leader of men when he said ‘go clean the toilets chief.’
It just isn’t about the words, people feel like ‘laowai’ is negative because they receive negative treatment. The double-standard that exists between Chinese and everyone else is the country’s worst kept secret. Foreigners get insulted (to their faces) regularly by people who think that they don’t understand Chinese. Adding ‘friend’ to the end doesn’t seem to soften the blow either. ‘Cracker’ isn’t really that much worse than ‘cracker friend.’ Until it’s just ‘friend,’ how are foreigners supposed to feel welcome?
This isn’t to say that we don’t like it here, we’d have left long ago if we didn’t. We just always thought heaven was supposed to be more inviting. Maybe we’ll just need to go to hell for that (rumor has it that they have central heating).
Photo by staffh