Thursday, May 05, 2005

Pejoratives for Foreigners

I like to read Sascha Matuszak's columns from Antiwar. They're generally about expatriate life in China - the other country with a "Socialist Market Economy", or whatever the latest buzzword is for Communist states allowing capitalism. And since China is about a decade ahead of Việt Nam, the columns give a picture of what could happen here in a decade here. I have no idea why they ended up in Antiwar - a site whose general fare is what latest screwup happened in the war in Iraq. But I am not complaining. As always, his latest, Laowai and Zibenren, is worth a squizz:

Laowai is a colloquial term for foreigner in China – lao means old and wai means outside. In Chinese, the word lao denotes respect (e.g., laoshi = teacher, laoban = boss) and is a polite way to address older relatives, big brothers, etc.

For most Chinese, laowai is a noun like any other. For most foreigners living in China, laowai is the equivalent of "n*gger." Most countries have words such as laowai for outsiders: gaijin in Japan, le blanc in Cameroon, guilao in Hong Kong, falang in Thailand… no matter who says it or why, the words never sound right to the outsider and always carry a little more meaning than simply "foreigner."

Now, "guilao" means devil, and as stated in the article, white people did act like devils. I think "devils" sounds too cute a term; perhaps the appropriate translation should be "demons" or (even better) "hellfiends". After, a lot of white people acted abominably in China until the 1940s, with opium trading, and gun running, and splitting the country into various spheres of influence exercised by Germany, France, Russia, Britain and the United States. But you also have to mention the Japanese, who acted more appallingly in China than the rest of them put together, and accordingly they get another pejorative reserved just for them:

On the other hand, Zibenren is very clear. Ziben is colloquial for Riben (Japan). Ziben is a curse. It always has been. Most likely always will be. Chinese use it quite often. They've been using it frequently here in Chengdu while hurling stones at the local Ito Yokado and spitting venom after the local Chengdu Shang Bao (Business Daily) reported another "doctored" schoolbook made it past the Japanese censors.

This is a site about Việt Nam. You suspect this is leading up to what insulting terms the locals have for the expats. Well, for me, the biggest surprise is there isn't any such word at all. The Vietnamese have never coined a term like "Gaijin" or "Gweilo", which are now internationally famous loan-words. Or not even like "falang/farang" - as used by the foreigners in Thailand. I've lived here for 2 years, but have heard nothing. And after such time, I would have heard whiff of it. If such a word existed, at least one expatriate would have used it ironically in their email or circular.

Vietnamese does have a word for foreigner: "người nước ngoài". Broken down, the parts mean "Person-Country-Outside" - adjectives come after nouns in the language - but literally, it means "foreigner". It's as concrete a noun as "concrete", and used in all official documents and correspondences. It's not rude at all.

There have been words used in past to describe the French and the Americans, such as "ác độc" (cruel, brutal) and "ác tâm" (malicious, maelevolent). But these are adjectives, not rude nouns... and they were used when [parts of] Việt Nam were at war with these chaps. They're not used now.

So why this absence? Most countries have bad words for damned foreigners. To take my own country as an example, Australia starts with "reffo", and it gets worse from there. Hell, Australians troops in the 60s over here had their own not-so-nice term for the locals: "nigel". (Fortunately, most of these terms are verboten nowadays.) Why not the Saigonese? I dunno.

But I could be wrong. If you know of any naughty words for the expats, tell me. That's what the comments box is for. I'm just unsurprised at the Vietnamese are more polite than the Chinese. Several expatriates of my acquaintance have found the country a pleasant change after living in China or Taiwan.