I’m on an extended visit back to my hometown, Vancouver, a Canadian city full of Chinese. Chinese is the second-most commonly used language after English. My wife and I were running around a Chinese mall for fun to practice Mandarin and buy some Chinese DVDs when we overheard Chinese people talking about us in Mandarin saying, “Those foreigners are speaking Chinese!” I thought it was funny that even in Canada, Chinese people would call white people “foreigner” (in this case: “外国人”).
I blogged about it and got some interesting responses from both Chinese and non-Chinese about the terms they often used for North Americans in North America and in China. Here’s some of what they said:
Yup, we still refer to non-Asians as 老外 (“old-foreigner”) or sometimes, even, 鬼子 (something along the lines of “foreign devil”). Nowadays, though, the term simply refers to those who aren’t Chinese… [click here for a dictionary list of all the Chinese used in this quote]
It’s definitely a widespread thing to call locals [in Canada] 老外 or 外国人 . . . [dictionary list]
Old habits die hard. You are right, it would be good that some of these problematic phrases that offend the uninitiated and make the rest of us laugh do get phased out. But judging from the example of Hong Kong where the Cantonese for White people is still 鬼佬 after a century and a half of British rule, I am not sure things will change anytime soon. Although it is being discouraged for PC reasons, there are usually no malice intended with the use of the term. It does not equate or is deemed as derogatory, unlike say, calling a Chinese a Chink in English-speaking countries. 外国人 or 外国朋友 or 加拿大朋友 etc., are the polite alternatives.
Many of my good 外国朋友 who’d lived in Hong Kong for at least 15years and up with PR status are addressed by their local friends, colleagues, Church associates as 鬼佬 John, 鬼佬Peter, or 鬼妹Mary, and their children 鬼仔 Junior and 鬼妹仔Jane. I know it sounds wierd, but that’s how it is in Hong Kong. [dictionary list]
I have a group of Chinese and local friends who all speak Mandarin when we get together. So far, we’ve come across other words that aroused laughter. We made a list including 老外，外国人,当地人，本地人， 国语，国内 and 国外。 We established the following rules of usage: In China, 老外and外国人 hold their original meaning, 国语 means Mandarin, while 国内 means China and 国外 means everywhere else. However, in Canada, we get to call my Chinese friends 老外 and 外国人, to the exception of when we find ourselves in an authentic Chinese restaurant or a Chinese supermarket, where they receive 老外 immunity. At all other times, we locals are referred to as 当地人. 国语 can either mean French or English, 国内 means in Canada, and 国外 is outside of Canada.
Laughter and fun is had by all. [dictionary list]
I’ve long joked about the use of 外国人。 I will sometimes say “你们外国人……” when referring to Chinese here in the U.S. and it never fails to bring them up short.
I also once (in jest… we were kidding around) called a girl “zhong guo guizi” [中国鬼子] after she jokingly referred to me as “mei guo guizi” [美国鬼子]. It was astonishing how she pulled up short and in all seriousness said, “Oh, you can’t say that.” [dictionary list]
I personally am not usually offended when I hear these terms; they make me laugh more than anything. But I’m not totally clear on what these terms really mean; perhaps there are some derogatory or racist undertones sometimes? Should I be offended sometimes? I don’t know. It’s suspicious to me that my Mandarin teachers seem to get a little uncomfortable if I use the term “老外” too much, and that Chinese people apparently don’t like it when these terms get applied to them (“中国鬼子”; “Chinese devil”).
I want to hear from Fool’s Mountain’s Chinese and non-Chinese folks about several related questions:
- How should foreigners “hear” these terms? How are these terms meant by Chinese speakers? How should they be understood by foreign hearers?
- Are any of these terms derogatory or racist? (Always? Sometimes? Never? How to tell?)
- Do you think it’s appropriate for Chinese people to use these terms, or would it be better if these terms were phased out?
- What if foreigners started regularly referring to themselves and other foreigners as 鬼子, 鬼佬, (etc.)? How would that sound to Chinese folks? Would it make them uncomfortable (Sometimes? Always? In certain situations?)?
- Do you agree or disagree with the quoted comments? How would you explain them?
- If a Chinese person wanted to be derogatory against foreigners, what terms would they be likely to use? Are these terms commonly used?
– Joel (http://ChinaHopeLive.net)