Taipei, Taiwan 27.09.2016 – For many of you who are reading this blog, you are undoubtedly aware of what the word ‘Laowai’ (老外) means. It is a simple way to describe someone foreign to Taiwan (That is isn’t Korean, Japanese or Chinese). On the surface it makes sense. The logic is that it is difficult to distinguish foreigners from one another.
In other words, all foreigners look-alike. Whether you be German, British, Slovakian, or Nigerian, you guys, black or white, look the same. I have had friends explain to me that it is easier and less time wasting to refer to the foreigner in the room as a ‘Laowai’ out of easiness. Hence I use the phrase ‘being the laowai in the room’ like ‘being the elephant in the room’.
That logic can be turned back to some people in America finding it awkward to point out Kevin from accounting in an office party because besides his skin being black, there isn’t anything else all that distinguishable about him that could lead to him being pointed out quickly to a workmate. For easiness, you would say, ‘the black guy over there, that’s Frank‘ (Kevin, see can’t even remember the name).
But the word foreigner is used in so many different scenarios it lends itself to be a word that can have a myriad of meanings. It is impossible to go through the many different meanings and times the word ‘Laowai’ is used in whatever context, but it is safe to say, it is pretty much a word so commonly used you can almost forget what it means.
However, what does the word truly mean? Well, the first character ’老’ (Lao)means old and the second one ‘外‘ (Wai) means outside. The meaning put together means ‘foreigner’. The ‘Lao’ can be used as a term of endearment. ‘Lao’ placed is placed in front of many different words and it creates a sense of endearment. At the same time the opposite is true, it can also be used to be insulting, though the with the etymology of this word, the term was definitely used to place a positive emphasis on the second character ‘Wai’ meaning outside. So, in other words again, you are an outsider, but with a good place in our minds.
That is as simplistic as I can get with the word ‘Laowai’ and on the surface, as I have said, it is a pretty harmless word. There are two camps who agree it is offensive and another that disagrees. I am on the middle ground for this issue because unless you have settled in a country where that terminology is commonly used, then what say have you got?
My argument is as follows; Laowai can be used in an offensive context, in the same way calling someone a foreigner in Europe or North America in a particular context can be offensive. Large newspaper tabloids have done a great job at this.
In Ireland, we had news reports pertaining to the rise in the crime rate in Ireland as being a result of Polish immigrants. The article was trying to spell out that the rise in immigrants to Ireland was causing crime rates to go up. This link was really weak and the reality was that it wasn’t Polish led crime, instead the rise in the crime rate was a result of the economic crash in 2007-2008. That news story eventually broke a few months later. But the damage was done. The attitudes towards foreign nationals in Ireland was dampening throughout the recession.
But the point that I am trying to make is that , foreign nationals who came to Ireland integrated by in large. Unlike Asia, you need to have a good understanding of English to work in Ireland. Though, you could probably pass with enough English to say ‘Me no English’ and still work. The use of English is pretty much essential if you are living in Ireland. Foreign nationals who do not speak good English or refuse to part-take in greater society, usually don’t last very long in Ireland leave.
And this brings me to my big point of why I generally feel like I should be on the fence when it comes to the word ‘laowai’. The majority of foreigners in Taiwan and China do not speak an adequate amount of Mandarin. When I say adequate, I mean enough to have a conversation or be able to read a children’s book.
The idea of expecting surroundings to fit to an individuals needs or deficiencies is quite ignorant. It works in many ways, not just for expats in Asia, but for anyone living abroad and not wanting to indulge in local culture. For many of us in Asia, living here is not permanent. Whether it is visa problems, not wanting to be an English teacher for the rest of your life or being kicked out for over-staying, a lot of the people who come here end up leaving. I can say from experience, the majority of people I became very good friends with in Beijing are gone.
So, how can a word like ‘laowai’ really be changed in the greater scheme of things? There is no need to change it. The foreign population in Taiwan is in and around 640,000 people according to the National Immigration Agency in Taiwan (With a very large amount of the foreign population being from Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand). Within that 640,000, Westerners make up barely over 2-3% of the total amount of the foreign population.
Perhaps the issue isn’t society at large, but ourselves. The vast majority of us are not going to stay here. I am not sure just how true that is for Taiwan considering Taiwan was just voted the best place for an expat to live and from experiences so far, I can attest to this being absolutely true (Minus some bureaucracy).
The only tripe I have seen in regards to cultural attitudes towards foreigners is the music video below. It reinforces both positive and negative stereotypes and has black face. It is in no way a representative of greater Taiwanese society’s view on foreigners, but there people in society which would agree with the states. The thumbnail for this music video is embarassingly just a screenshot of the YouTube video without a cropping to hide the timeline at the bottom.
The word ‘Laowai’ to me use to mean a sense of exclusion. It gave a feeling of Otherness that can set you a part from the rest of the people around you. Some people can enjoy this aspect and feel somewhat special, but it isn’t something that is worth having the hassle over. If one is living in Asia for a short period of time, the word will mean very little insofar as it simply meaning ‘me’.
I have stopped taking a hostile view of the word. It’s meaning of otherness is warranted for foreign nationals who don’t adopt the local language or culture. Even in Ireland, my Mandarin speaking friends would still introduce me as their ‘laowai’ friends, despite the fact i’m not a foreigner in my own country. It’s usage is exclusionary but not in the sense of setting you a part. It is exclusionary to pick you out of a bunch of people, not to discriminate or belittle you.