Waiguoren (外國人) is an interesting word that doesn’t simply mean “foreigner.” Waiguoren’s polysemic meanings as a word are diverse, meaning, it has multiple meanings depending on who the person is saying it, and the person hearing it. As much as we like to simplify the meaning of words as having definite meanings, I think this is somewhat too simplistic for otherwise complex words that are attached to how society in Taiwan sees itself in relation to the world.
The word is not inherently negative and at it’s most basic, it only really means “outsider.” However, this definition is still too simplistic and it ignores the idiosyncrasies of what the word means to both non-Taiwanese and Taiwanese alike.
Waiguoren doesn’t mean foreigner
A lot of people argue that the word just means foreigner. I agree with this to an extent but it’s obvious that the word means something different because of the context that I’ve always heard it being used in.
For example, in Ireland, my Mandarin speaking friends often referred to me as their “waiguoren” friend when they introduced me to others. This always stunted me because in Ireland I’m not foreign. In my hometown I was still called the “waiguoren” by friends.
Despite knowing that I was an Irish person in Ireland, in my hometown no less, I was still referred to as a waiguoren.
Then, it hit me.
They didn’t mean I was a “foreigner” but that I was not ethnically Taiwanese or Chinese. The meaning of the word waiguoren in this instance didn’t mean foreigner, and in many instances, it doesn’t mean foreigner. It means “you aren’t ethnically us” and this did take me some time to get use to.
An example is to see how people refer to Japanese and Koreans as being “Riben ren (日本人) and Hanguo ren (韓國人)” because they are easy to distinguish by their ethnicity. Despite being waiguoren, they are still distinguished because they can be distinguished on a superficial level.
People will say that if they can’t guess someone’s ethnicity or nationality, then they need to use the word waiguoren as a way to distinguish them. I argue that this isn’t a great response. Refer to them as “that person”, but please don’t refer to them as being the ‘other’ in the situation.
The word foreigner is fine when used for things like “foreign-relations” and “foreign affairs” but when a person is foreign or waiguoren, this generally lends itself to othering them into being not us, but “them” and this can separate people.
Waiguoren is not an inherently negative word
I don’t get upset or uppity when someone calls me a waiguoren, but I also don’t accept it because it’s not inclusive. But, it will take time to see anything change, so I’m not going out of my way to tell people to call this or that.
I’m also not expecting the little sweet a-yi’s or ama’s that I talk to in the park every other day to start calling me Mr. International. When they call me waiguoren and ask me about my family and girlfriend, there is a level of affection, and I have never taken it negatively. Why would I?
Sure, it would be nice if they didn’t refer to me as waiguoren, but I also understand that it’s not meant as a negative thing. The polysemic meaning of words goes both ways. I’m not going to go out of my way with the a-yi’s, taxi drivers, lecturers, that one woman at the bubble tea store that asked if the waiguoren needs help, or even in a bar where someone asks me if they practice with me, to tell them why that word is not inclusive.
But I still think it’s worth bringing up as a discussion in the right place for understanding how Taiwanese see themselves and the world.
Waiguoren and othering
Othering in Taiwan isn’t always something awful as you will probably read up on if you Google othering. I am still treated with dignity and respect in Taiwan, but that might also be because I’m white, and I haven’t experienced what it is to be a person of color in that regard.
Being called a waiguoren doesn’t single me out much past my ethnicity and people tend to be more likely to want to help me because I’m foreign in their country.
But the only problem is, I live here. I’m not a tourist or an expat. I’m legally a resident of this island and it can be somewhat a Groundhog Day scenario when you have to explain to someone why you speak Mandarin, where you come from, why you’re here, do you like Taiwan, and then that’s their curiosity satisfied. You know the little conversation I’m talking about, I have it several times a day if I’m active in the city.
I know some people reading this will think I am only being critical of people, but believe me, I know I am treated very well here. I am from the North of Ireland, I know what being othered is like. I’m not saying this stuff to just stir the pot, but as a genuine concern that Taiwanese society should be more self-aware of itself in relation to the rest of the world.
It’s hard to have an International mindset when the world isn’t sticking up for you
Of course, it’s difficult to have an international mindset when China is encroaching on Taiwan, and the UN won’t even admit Taiwanese students to functions. But surely this should only drive home the point that Taiwan needs to become more internationalized.
I understand, foreign nationals and international workforces are still relatively new to Taiwan (well, except when a lot came over in 1949). I also understand that it’s important to give people time to grow to see their country as not just being a case of us and waiguoren, but more like we and the world.
It’s important as international people to share our experiences in Taiwan, and to not only criticize but to show people how they can open themselves more than they already have in a massive way.
Believe me, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think Taiwan was worth it. Taiwan is worth it, and the people here are my kind of people, but I still feel it is necessary to give something back that isn’t taxes or my free time lining up for a free sample somewhere on a Saturday afternoon.
Far from being just sensitive, I think people that want to discuss what the word waiguoren means to them is important. For many locals, they don’t think about the word the same way many locals don’t think about naturalization laws in Taiwan, or what the process for getting a work permit is like.
Why? Because it doesn’t affect them. If we don’t point of these things, nobody will. It isn’t just a case that we are guests here and have respect how we’re seen, we have to partake in the discussion to show people we’re here and we’re open to them.
I’m not saying let’s go out and lecture people and to tell everyone waiguoren doesn’t mean foreigner, but it’s important to start the discussion and see what we can all learn from each other.
I know some people are fine with being called foreign, and many of them enjoy it, but if you’re okay with being called a waiguoren, that’s fine, but don’t put down people that want to have a discussion on it. Join it, explain why you think the word and it’s meaning is not othering, or that being othered is something that naturally happens in in-groups. I’m all ears and I hope you’re too!