Monday, March 07, 2005


Some expats in China get offended when Chinese people call them laowai. I don't; I think it's all in fun, a term of endearment that comes from the same tradition as calling Grandpa "gramps". Laowai is literally "Ol' Outisde(r)". I think what bugs people is that Chinese folks use the word laowai when they're cracking jokes about the foreigners. I see it more as a way to hide discomfort around strangers than a way to disparage them. I won't get angry because somebody is uncomfortable around me.

But there is a Chinese term for addressing foreigners that bugs me a lot. I ran across it again today while digging into my new book, "Foreigners Studying Chinese: Sticking Point Made Clear". The title of the introduction is 写给学汉语的外国朋友, Written to Foreign Friends Studying Chinese. Foreign friends! Argh!

Often-times when I hear "friend" here in China, it has a bad connotation. Let me give you two examples. When I was living in Tianjin, I went to the Great Wall at Simatai a few times with different groups of people. Each time, there were souvenier vendors who walked up the wall with foreign tourists, and then back down with them, and them pressured them to buy a book about the Great Wall. One time, I didn't outright tell the woman tailing me that I wasn't going to buy a book, so when we got to the bottom she was very forceful in making her pitch, as usual. What made me the most upset was that, at one point, she called me her friend. I ended up lecturing her that in my culture, you don't become friends with somebody by following them around for an hour. Maybe it is just because I'm picky about choosing friends, and I value friendship very much. But in any case, it made me angry that she would abuse the name of "friendship" in order to sell me something. Is that all that the word "friend" means?

Another way we use the word "friend" a lot here in China is in preschools: a generic term for adults to call little kids is 小朋友, "little friend". You really don't have to know the kid, or feel any personal connection to him to call him "friend". To me it implies disingenuity and sense of having to take care of the (weaker) person that does not come from having any feelings from the kid, but out of a social duty. I feel like this is often the same attitude people show towards foreigners: don't try to get to know them, just nod and laugh at their silliness, and keep them from hurting themselves, like kids. I believe that the term "foreign friend" is a vehicle for this attitude.

Now, I'm not writing this as a criticism of Chinese people specifically. People who don't speak the local language anywhere get treated like kids. I'm just against using a term of address that propogates and supports that kind of treatment.

So just say NO to 外国朋友!

(This rant was brought to you by the influence of my current read, Rey Chow's deconstructionist book The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and by the inspiration provided by John's tirade against the word "Hello".)


At Mar 10, 2005, 1:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said:

I've heard radio commentators address their "listener friends", and seen books talk about "reader friends". So I think the connotation of "foreign friends" is closer to this (polite but also with a degree of intimacy), rather than "little friends". This broad use of the word friend does bother me a little bit too, but that's just the way the language works.

Actually, I've also written about "laowai" before:

At Mar 12, 2005, 3:14:00 PM, Blogger k said:

While I respect your feeling that 'friend' is often misused, I would remind you that 'friend' is, at best, an incomplete translation of 'pengyou.' Just as 'pengyou' has meanings in Chinese that it doesn't have in English (for example, Chinese people see no issue or contradiction in calling someone with whom a professional relationship is sought 'pengyou,' which, in English, would be a clear misuse of the word), English also has words whose Chinese translations have different connotations. In English, for example, the current McDonald's slogan is 'I'm lovin' it,' and there is no linguistic issue with that: it's an acceptable usage. In Chinese, however, marketers decided that using 'ai,' a translation of 'love,' was too strong and didn't have the same meaning in Chinese it did in English, and so the slogan became 'wo jiu xihuan.' I think I've heard Chinese people expound at length about the word 'love' in English and its misuse in our society, just as you did over the word 'friend' in China.

Just some food for thought...

At Mar 13, 2005, 6:22:00 PM, Blogger Micah Sittig said:

Kit may be right, but I think my post was misunderstood. I'm only annoyed by the word "pengyou" insofar as it serves to propogate the practice of patronizing of foreigners in China (in the US, we might user other words). Other meanings, I'm not so interested in because I don't have much experience with them.

At Mar 19, 2005, 5:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said:

I'm no expert myself but I think it's all about what you're used to and upbringing. What your "mind maps" or expectations are I'd think, if I use the term correctly. Think of the following uses: "brother" used by african-americans, "pumpkin" used as a term of endearment?, and the one that bugged me "so ji" in Cantonese, which I translate to "stupid pig" as a term of affection for a little child - now explain that one!


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