On the True Meaning of Laowai

My last post, which I referenced on H-ASIA, seems to have "stirred the glue" to use a Shanghainese phrase (dao jianghu).  Apparently there were some complaints about my treatment of W.T. DeBary, whom I greatly venerate as a scholar and a person.  I have removed the references to him in my previous blog, which indeed were out of place and could be misconstrued as mean-spirited.  An homage is in the works as a means of atonement.  One scholar from UCSD also wrote to H-ASIA complaining about my use of the term "laowai." I quote him here:

 In "Chinese scholars and Cold War Politics?  How the Ivies Stack Up,"
Andrew Field writes that he appreciates Qin Shao's contribution because
"until now the conversation has been  dominated by laowai."  "Laowai" is
slang (sometimes derogatory) for "foreigner."  So in the context of this
discussion thread, Qin Shao, as a PRC-born scholar in America, is actually
the "laowai," and Bob Hymes is not a "laowai" because he is in his own

On his blog, Field calls Harvard professors Bill Kirby, Henrietta
Harrison, and Philip Kuhn "all noticeably laowai."  Actually, only
Harrison is a laowai in America, but you would have to meet her to know
this.  The others are American, not foreign.  The only thing "noticable"
is that their names do not sound Chinese to Field.

My point?  I am a laowai when I am in Tianjin, but I am not a laowai in
California.  I propose that we judge people based on their scholarship and
teaching, not on what we speculate their nationality to be after guessing
the origin of their surname.

Jeremy Brown
UC San Diego

While I appreciate Dr. Brown's main message, which is that we should focus on scholarship and other professional attributes rather than ethnicity or national background (my sentiments exactly--as you will see below), I stand by my use of laowai and offer the following explanation:

In my experience, the Mandarin word laowai, which literally means "old outsider," does not in fact mean foreigner in the strict sense.  A much more accurate translation for this term would be "Caucasian."  Japanese and Koreans are rarely if ever referred to in China as laowai, and neither are foreign-born Chinese.  Nor are people of African descent. 

For many years, I too felt uncomfortable about the use of the term laowai.  For those of the Caucasian persuasion who have been to China, this is a term that one encounters daily, whether on the streets (often children will point at you and yell "laowai" to their parents), in public places, or even in the privacy of people's homes.  I have often sat at the dinner table listening to my in-laws discuss the ins and outs of laowai behavior.  Being Shanghainese, they call us naguonin (waiguoren in Mandarin), meaning "foreign country person", but if they were from Beijing, there is no doubt they'd be slinging the term laowai about. 

Over the years, I've come to terms with this term.  Not only has it lost its derogatory connotations (if it ever had them to begin with), but it also doesn't bug me to be called the "old foreigner" anymore because I don't believe that's what they're saying at all.

One further proof of this is that Chinese people (that is, people who were brought up in China) will still refer to us as laowai in our own countries, when in fact they are obviously the foreigners!  This can only be explained by the supposition that laowai simply does not mean "foreigner."  It means "white person".  I often mention this to Chinese friends, and most people I've talked to about it agree. 

I've no doubt that eventually laowai will be as well known in the English language as gaijin--the Japanese equivalent--is today.

 This brings me to another point of this discussion, which is:  Should we be comfortable about having laowai dominate the teaching of Chinese history in America (or Australia, England, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter)?  My simple answer is, Yes, with qualifications.  There is no reason why a person like myself can't master the history and language of a country completely foreign to my own national and ethnic background. 

When Chinese people whom I meet for the first time find out what I do for a living, they often express surprise and shock, first that a laowai would be interested in their history and culture (which is becoming more and more common and therefore less surprising these days) and that this person might know more than they do about their country's history.  I'm sure many of my Caucasian colleagues in Chinese studies have had the same experience.

As for the question of representation, which was the original subject of the H-ASIA thread, I'd say that Chinese people from any particular geographical background ought to be represented in the field at its highest levels in numbers that are compatible with their overall engagement in the field.  In other words, if there are as many people from Mainland China studying Chinese history and earning PhDs in our universities as there are from, say, Taiwan or Hong Kong, those scholars ought to be just as represented at the highest levels of academia as others. 

If they are not, then there must be certain reasons why they are not.  On H-ASIA we have already discussed some possibilities--language, financial background, and even "qualifications" (which can be interpreted in various ways), but it strikes me that there may be other ideological reasons why people from the Anglo-American colonies (Hong Kong and Singapore strictly speaking, though I agree with the Chalmers Johnson view that Taiwan is a soft colony of America) are fairly well represented in the history departments of leading American universities while Mainland Chinese are not.  This is why I brought up the subject of the Cold War and its legacy.  However, it would take a serious bit of sleuthing--maybe even a book's worth--to determine whether or not this speculation is accurate.  If anybody is up for the task, that is.