“Waiguoren!”

Just a 30-second rant.

I went to dinner two night’s ago alone (as usual these days) and a Taiwanese family was at the table next to mine. Their 6-year-old boy wouldn’t stop staring at me (the laowai death stare is far less common here than in China, of course). Suddenly, he just shouted out, “Waiguoren, waiguoren! Ta bu hui shuo Zhongwen!” His family just smiled lovingly at the apple of their eye, while I sat there feeling singularly self-conscious. I said softly, “Wo hui shuo Zhongwen” (though it’s not quite true, yet), which shut the little sucker up.

Then last weekend I had a craving for a greasy American cheeseburger, and went to the Friday’s in Ximen. (Not recommended; Ruby Tuesday’s at Warner Village is way better.) The hostess on the ground floor pointed me up the stairs, and then I heard her speak into her little microphone, telling the hostess upstairs I was coming. “Waiguoren qu lou shang,” she said. (A foreigner is coming upstairs.) It just got me thinking, why not a customer is coming upstairs? Can you imagine being in a Friday’s in America and hearing the hostess refer to you as a foreigner, or as a black man or as a Chinese man? Can you please seat this Chinese man? (Although I’ve never been to a Friday’s in the US; maybe it’s a global policy to refer to Friday’s customers who can’t speak the local language very well as “foreigners.”)

Was thinking about this all week. it feels good to get it down on “paper.”

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 129 Comments

Richard,

I post a thread in a chinese forum, to ask native chinese people’s opinion on “waiguoren”.

They are all speechless. As it is really nothing to explain further.

No rude element, trust me, a word as pure as crystal.

🙂

January 22, 2006 @ 7:37 am | Comment

I don’t agree with everything Xin says … but she’s/he’s clearly NOT simply a product of the indoctrination that all Chinese get. He/she is trying to think out the issues. So, don’t give him/her too much of a hard time!

(For Xin: I really suggest you read up a bit more about conditions in Tibet before China’s invasion, from sources that are not published in mainland China. Your information there is seriously out.)

January 22, 2006 @ 7:43 am | Comment

Xin wrote,
“As for tibet, I do know what happened before libration, a crap slavery society, where slave owners use female slave back skin to make drum; where use slave skulls to build religous shirne.”
Where on earth did you get this crazy story from? I know that Tibet before 1949 was not the utopian Shangri-La that it is often made out to be in the west, but slave skin drums? Maybe you are confused about the nature of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is often the case that ritual implements are made out of the skulls or bones of religious teachers who have passed on, but I have never come across any stories of human sacrifice, slave skull shrines and the like.

January 22, 2006 @ 8:07 am | Comment

Xin, I understand there is nothing rude about the word waighuoren in and of itself. As I said, the issue was a.) the child screaming about me in a public place while the parents smiled; b.) the girl thinking I didn’t understand and alluding to me in Chinese in a way she wouldn’t if she thought I did understan. She spoke fluent English; she wouldn’t have dreamed of saying in English a foreigner was coming upstairs. Not the end of the world. Just a 30-second rant, a bit of bemused irritation. Let’s let it go…

January 22, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Comment

How did this thread morph into a discussion of Tibet? This blog has no illusions about Tibet, no idealization of the Dalai Lama, and no “Free Tibet” motif. I think it’s time to close down this thread.

January 22, 2006 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

this is my second day to visit this thread. apperently, as i can say, some of guys here just keep talking things they know nothing about.

i am sure some guys keep sending trash comments are never been to Tibet before and know nothing about the princess wencheng in 1000 years ago. let me put it in this way. China is huge and much older than most of the countries in this world. just think about it: USA has a history not more than 300 years. Can USA still be there after 3000 years? why don’t your guys show some respects to China especially in her culture instead of barking the trival things like a child’s attitude and their parents’ reaction? next time when you complain about China please read something more valuable or do some investigations by yourself. hope that make sense.

January 22, 2006 @ 9:38 am | Comment

“i am sure some guys keep sending trash comments are never been to Tibet before and know nothing about the princess wencheng in 1000 years ago”
If I understand your logic, then China and Tibet are one unified nation on account of a marriage that took place
in the Tang dynasty. I’m not sure that holds water. Do you think that China is the property of Mongolia because of the Yuan dynasty?

January 22, 2006 @ 9:55 am | Comment

i’d like to back up mr. right on his experiences in america. why don’t westerners believe a chinese person when everyone’s rushing to richard’s defense about a ratty little kid?

when i was a kid i was chased around by the local boys by bike on my paper route and called a chink. i can tell you it was scary, trying to hold onto my little life and my newspapers.

my american great uncle (by marriage) liked to call me a chink. to him it was a term of endearment. he was a seargent during wwii, so it must have been nostalgic. i was too young to understand that it was derogatory. even when i did understand it, i brushed it off. he seemed like a nice guy, always making us great thanksgiving dinners.

ok, all of this happened in the 70s, before PR. but certainly the word chink didn’t die out a 100 years ago, as some experienced china watchers like to claim. as for the present day, i still read in forums that chinese and kids shouldn’t be allowed to count when they click on all those valuable google adsense ads, like the ones on this blog.

foreigner in chinese is not only neutral, it’s honorific. all foreigners are guests in china. it’s only in asian countries where a foreigner is considered a guest. in england, to call someone a foreigner is extremely derogatory, sufficient cause to start a fistfight. please check your language and culture before you decide what the word actually means. using a literal translation means you haven’t done your homework.

laowai, again is a term of endearment. lao just mean ‘old’ like one has known each other a long time. it’s also a bit informal, thus reducing the space between people. you use it when you ask your old dad for money, your old mom for something good to eat and a laowai for a cigarette.

now when someone uses ta ma de laowai or yang gui ze, that’s when you should start ranting and challenging people to duels, cut off their balls and subject them to total public humiliation.

if people can’t pick up on the meanings of these rudimentary chinese words, how can you criticize a chinese person for his english grammar? at least he’s using all the words correctly. i also like to compare apples with apples. can any westerner with a masters in chinese step up please? let us scrutinize your use of the chinese language and grammar. this won’t be so hard since chinese grammar is so much easier than english.

January 22, 2006 @ 11:16 am | Comment

“Do you think that China is the property of Mongolia because of the Yuan dynasty?”

I like it :o) Problem is, China will one day claim everything as far West as Iran on the basis of the Yuan dynasty.

January 22, 2006 @ 11:18 am | Comment

“foreigner in chinese is not only neutral, it’s honorific. all foreigners are guests in china.”

It is indeed an honour to be charged more than a Chinese citizen for goods and services.

January 22, 2006 @ 11:23 am | Comment

I don’t have time to address all of the above points. But on the issue of Tibet:

Is Tibet itself, as envisioned by the Dalai Lama, a dictatorial theocracy as bad as the Taliban? His Holiness is invited to so many events in the US, as if he is some sort of mini-Jesus. But I mean in Tibet, people are asked to worship his Holiness unconditionally, and people’s corpses are used as sacrificial materials for the eagles? And according to American standards of freedom and democracy, Shouldn’t Tibet should be overthrown immediately after it declares independence from China?

The ONLY reason, the ONLY reason Tibet independence is such an issue is because it is independence from China. If Tibet does become Independent, and if the Dalai Lama somehow begins adopted an Anti-US mentality, he and Tibet would quickly be thrown in the same bunch as Iran and other evil theocracies by the US. This is all international politics.

On other issues:

Xin made a great point about using your own set of values to analyze another culture. Doing that is bound to get to you reach ridiculous conclusions.

I live in America, I read English books, newspapers and watch English TV channels. I know about what’s going on in Iraq, about the Alito nominations, about NSA spying incident, about all the debates between Democrats and Republicans. Yet, I don’t claim that I somehow penetrated the American culture/political system, and can understand these issues much better than Americans do. Why? Because I am not American. I lived most of my life in another culture and have a vastly different set of values and beliefs than Americans. So I don’t attempt to debate American friends and showing them somehow I know better, because I know I don’t know better. I know that everything I read on the NY Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, CNN, Foxnews, NPR, etc are just surface phenomena, and I know that my understanding and perspective on these issues are very limited.

January 22, 2006 @ 12:38 pm | Comment

And, “wai guo ren” is NOT a offensive term in Chinese. If I rank Chinese phrases to describe people from other nations in order of offensiveness it is:

“Yang Gui Zi”/”Gui Lao” , “Yang ren”, “Wai Guo Ren”

In fact, you can also say “Wai Guo Peng You”, meaning foreign friends.

January 22, 2006 @ 12:43 pm | Comment

What many of you exhibit is a general tendency to “misread” China, and apply your own experiences and values to situations happening in China.

The Global Daily magazine in China published a lengthy article last year called “The Misreading of China in 2005”. It lists numerous pieces of news concerning China, and how they were interpreted by the Western media. And then it goes on to dissect each of the interpretations and explain where the misreading lies.

For those of you who read Chinese, here’s the article, read it, it’s quite insightful in my opinion:

http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2005-12-13/10058567538.shtml

Abridged English version:

http://english.people.com.cn/200512/15/eng20051215_228268.html

January 22, 2006 @ 12:48 pm | Comment

stuart,

doesn’t seem like you have too many chinese friends.

January 22, 2006 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

Interesting blog. Now I understand how deep the gap can be between cultures…. Misunderstanding everywhere. Richard, if you are interested, you can setup a Chinese blog, where you can get a lot thoughtful comments from Chinese also, where you can also improve your Chinese. I am a Chinese, I can speak some English but cannot express me very well with English (especially when arguing something)

January 22, 2006 @ 3:21 pm | Comment

From my point of view, here you may know western-educated thoughts, but not real chinese thoughts……. A bias, also, sadly.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

Richard wrote:
a.) the child screaming about me in a public place while the parents smiled; b.) the girl thinking I didn’t understand and alluding to me in Chinese in a way she wouldn’t if she thought I did understan. She spoke fluent English; she wouldn’t have dreamed of saying in English a foreigner was coming upstairs.

HI Richard, I understand the image A might upset you as I already been in australia for 5 years. Turst me, it is NOT a image like “the mother is encouraging the kids to challenge a person from other country.” As for the girl that you said she spoke fluet english. Understand this: native chinese never speaks fluent english unless they have a full time work in english country for more than about 6,7 years. My english came from my mind in chinese first then transferred to english. This is how most of how chinese speak english. When I was in china, I only have ONE hour english class all my life taught by a english native speaker, other time english teachers are chinese. If this girl never live abroad, she must be like what I said, she seems fluent in mouth, but logic in mind is still chinese. If you don’t believe, test this in taiwan as well, for all they learn english in taiwan, “fluent in mouth, mind is still in chinese.”

January 22, 2006 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

Can we call this a brainwashing too? A little better than Communism, but not much. Just my point of view, sure you can delete them, this is your blog, anyway.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:26 pm | Comment

Regarding to Mongolia:
Emperor KangXi in Qing Dynasty once said: We don’t need to build great wall to defend enemy (He meant Russia here) in north anymore, Mongolia is our Great Wall. I will see this is a great honor for my acestors.

When fighting with russian in qing dynasty, fighting opium war with britain, fighting with japanese, mongolian have contributed so much to this country. They are truely chinese now.

But seems I heard western people crying “Why Why Why do you think you are chinese, you are not! you should be freed, should be independent, should be seperated should be blur blur blur”. China, is always ONE over there. I told you. lol

January 22, 2006 @ 3:43 pm | Comment

richard,

the taiwanese are materialists to the bones. when push comes to shove, they may sacrafice their lives, but not their businesses. the recent election of mayor ma to the head of the kmt means a seachange is already in the air.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:43 pm | Comment

Hi LGD. I like the idea of a Chinese language blog similar to this one. I would like to set it up if I were not very stupid where computers are concerned.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:45 pm | Comment

“foreigner in chinese is not only neutral, it’s honorific. all foreigners are guests in china.”

It is indeed an honour to be charged more than a Chinese citizen for goods and services.

Stuart,

If you are trapped in a moutain or fell in a valley inside china, I am sure chinese government save you as a priority because you are “waiguoren”, which will piss other chinese off.

If the same thing happened in australian, I am sure australian government will give equal chance to be saved, not a priority one, which is, fair.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:48 pm | Comment

China Hand wrote, “The ONLY reason, the ONLY reason Tibet independence is such an issue is because it is independence from China. If Tibet does become Independent, and if the Dalai Lama somehow begins adopted an Anti-US mentality, he and Tibet would quickly be thrown in the same bunch as Iran and other evil theocracies by the US. This is all international politics.”
The Dalai Lama has said that if Tibet was returned to the Tibetans that he would like to see the country turned into a giant peace park. He has also been vocally critical of feudalistic practices in Tibet’s past and is an outspoken advocate of religious freedom and human rights in all countries. I hardly see how you can put him in the same category as the Taliban.
As for anti-China sentiment being the only reason for western countries to advocate Tibetan freedom, I’m pretty sure that the PLA’s genocide and banning of religious freedom has something to do with it as well. Just an idea.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

Guys,

you don’t need a chinese blog, all english version windows XP and windows 2000 can input chinese fonts. Here are a test:
================
ÖÐÎIJâÊÔ£¬ÖÐÎIJâÊÔ
================

if you see ?????, means you haven’t got chinese language installed. If you something look like chinese but weird, means you might need change the coding setting to let program know they are not english. I am using an english version windows XP. Mac OS X can do the same thing.

January 22, 2006 @ 3:52 pm | Comment

Tibet before 1950:

Some people don’t believe what I said “They use slave skin to make drum” thing.

My point here is not to lower tibetan people and their culture.

My point is, it is rather ridiculous to believe “it was once holy land and ruinned by CCP”.

1, USA has a very good living standard in this world, betther than China I believe. Australia is very good too. Why are they good? There must be answer, right? Healthy social system, equal opportunity, higher technology and well education. Now if you belive tibet was even a place american should be dreaming of, would that mean they had these things too? before 1950? Especially a healthy social system and good education? I doubt it.

2, It sounds like, Egypt was not holy country, Rome was not holy country, no other country is holy except, according to dalai lama, Tibet was. How could they be so lucky? There must be bunch of books teaching you how to build a holy society in tibet which have more value than Aristotle or Adam Smith. You know it is not the case.

3, When chinese invest a lot of money to build Tibet today’s economics, western people critisize that government is trying to destroy their religon. My question is, how can you assume, Tibetan young men are enjoy those poor religous life? They are same as you and me, want chat on the internet, go to a bar have some drinks and then pick up a chick? A lot american in fact assume: my kids should be graduated from havard university MBA and pick up hot chicks in a BMW, but tibetan kids are supposed to living in the temple all the time, worship statue all the time, no girl friends all the time. If CCP introduce Internet in Tibet, “No! That’s not good! They are destroying their religon!!” Jesus Christ!

You are free to check whether tibet were slavery society or not before 1950. Dalai Lama was surely not a slave.

January 22, 2006 @ 4:15 pm | Comment

Xin,
I think that you have a point (although I still don’t go along with the slave-skin drum angle). Tibet has been viewed romantically by the west in a way that is not realistic. Maybe you should read a book written by a scholar at Michigan called “Prisoners of Shangri-La.” It is about the difference between the reality of Tibet and Tibetan history and how certain people in the west want to see it as a magical ideal place where everyone is happy and holy all day everyday.
Now I’ll meet you half-way and acknowledge that certain people in the west view Tibet through rose-colored glasses. Would you be willing to admit that people in Tibet should be free to have religion if they want to? Or learn their own language in school? As for the great progress that glorious China is supposedly bestowing upon those poor barbarian Tibetans with such great kindness, did they have to kill so many Tibetan people in order to do so? I have also heard quite a lot about how much the Chinese discriminate against ethnically Tibetan people when it comes to jobs.

January 22, 2006 @ 4:28 pm | Comment

3, When chinese invest a lot of money to build Tibet today’s economics, western people critisize that government is trying to destroy their religon. My question is, how can you assume, Tibetan young men are enjoy those poor religous life? They are same as you and me, want chat on the internet, go to a bar have some drinks and then pick up a chick? A lot american in fact assume: my kids should be graduated from havard university MBA and pick up hot chicks in a BMW, but tibetan kids are supposed to living in the temple all the time, worship statue all the time, no girl friends all the time. If CCP introduce Internet in Tibet, “No! That’s not good! They are destroying their religon!!” Jesus Christ!

That hits the hammer on the nail… great post Xin. And I’m glad Liu Yixi accepts that.

We do accept that religious freedom is good. But Tibetans today are not being deproved of their religion. If you go to the city of Lhasa today, there are actually more temples built than before, more efforts in promoting local customs and religion. Beijing was even so concialitatory as to allow Tibetans to have their own leader and observe all their religious customs, provided the leader is politically loyal to China (which is why Beijing points its own Tibetan Banchan Lama and does not recognize Dalai). You tell me which other gov’t in the world is willing to tolerate and cater to another religion in the same degree as China?

You go to Tibet today and talk to the local there, most people actually WELCOME their new way of modern life, and DO NOT want to go back to the days where they spend 8 hours a day praying the the other 5 hours going through ceremonies for the various Gods. Of course they are still able to do these things today in Tibet in one of the many temples built BY THE GOVERNMENT. Tibetan culture is frequently introduced and promoted in Chinese TV. I like Tibetans, I like their culture, and I’d like to visit Lhasa someday. And the gov’t in China today does not promote a climate of rejection and dislike of Tibet’s culture and religion at all, but instead actively promote it and portray it in positive ways. There are even “affirmative action” policies for Tibetan kids in attending college (their standards are much lower than Han’s). So the idea that somehow the Gov’t wants to destroy Tibetan religion is preposterous.

January 22, 2006 @ 4:39 pm | Comment

“Beijing was even so concialitatory as to allow Tibetans to have their own leader and observe all their religious customs, provided the leader is politically loyal to China (which is why Beijing points its own Tibetan Banchan Lama and does not recognize Dalai). You tell me which other gov’t in the world is willing to tolerate and cater to another religion in the same degree as China? ”
China Hand, I have always wondered why it is that an avowedly athiest Marxist government would select the spiritual leader of a Buddhist sect. If the government really endorsed religious freedom, why would it control and monitors Tibetan religious life and institutions?
“So the idea that somehow the Gov’t wants to destroy Tibetan religion is preposterous. ”
I hate to sound cynical and wish that I could agree with you but here is how I see the situation; the government is not openly hostile to religion like it was in the Cultural Revolution (burning temples and so on) but is much more subtle in how they control religious life. I have been to many daojiao guan and fojiao miao in the mainland and found them to be like a museum (with lots of guards in uniforms) compared to how lively and open religious life is in Taiwan. Things are better than thirty years ago but still not good.

January 22, 2006 @ 4:52 pm | Comment

[…] (I hope) for the reader are never about current events, but about my personal experiences in China and the people I meet […]

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