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The "Laowai", Racism and Personal Space in China

"Laowai". That's pronounced "Lao-why." It means foreigner. To me, it means "dog." It means an individual who isn't really human. That's how it feels when the Chinese say it in reference to me. They never say it directly to me, always among themselves. You aren't privy to their conversation, but you can see the degree of entertainment that they enjoy when you're in their presence.

Don't get me wrong, I've been around people who speak languages that I don't understand all of my life. I'm not the kind of guy who assumes that people are talking about them just because I can't understand the language. But, with everything else going on here, I just can't shake the feeling that this term, Laowai, is a negative.

I'm told that as I spend more time here in China and come to a deeper understanding of the Chinese culture, my perceptions of things such as the term Laowai will change. That's probably true, but it is interesting to note my responses to these terms. Right now, I don't like it.

Being thrust into a challenging cultural situation 15 thousand miles away from home brings up all kinds of human frailties. The benefit of travelling so far away from home is that you can end up discovering yourself, which it appears I'm in the process of doing.

Funny thing is, the Chinese are actually pretty playful with the Laowai. A convoy of military personal carriers passed by today while I was out on my bike. As usual, one of them had the courage to say the only English word he knows... "hello!" I looked up and, taken aback by all of the jungle camouflage and what looked like riot gear helmets, images of Tianamen Square and Kent state flooded into my mind. I did the first thing that came to me. I flashed them a peace sign. A few of them flashed it back.

It was too much for me. Way too funny. Where is my camera when I need it? As the other two trucks rolled by, each carrying another thirty men in its bed, they all began to flash me peace signs. All the while, I'm turning into a Richard Nixon giving them peace signs with both hands.

Being the Laowai gives you a certain amount of power. You can do things that they can't. You're free from social convention. In time, I'm sure that I'll make more and more good use of this freedom.

There's another situation here that brings out some very human responses. The sense of personal space is very different here. In fact, from what I've seen, there is none. That means that its perfectly polite and accepted to stare, point, and even gawk at foreigners.

My responses to this is very intense.

From the men, I perceive it as an act of aggression. My response is to tell them to leave me alone, or even shove them away. My desire to do this is quelled fifty times per day.

From the women, it is an act of seduction. My response is far more positive needless to say. Other desires are quelled fifty times per day - maybe forty-nine.

In reality, I'm sure that their intent is neither aggression nor seduction. When I'm out and about, I just have to relax, take a deep breath and let go of my need for privacy.

I see other non-Chinese on the streets sometimes. You can tell which ones have been here long enough to assimilate and those who haven't. Those who haven't walk with an air of impenetrability about them. Either they put on a fixed stare off into the distance, or they keep their heads down and try to remain invisible. Either way, they're trying to put up a vibe that keeps people from entering their realm. You can't do that when you're surrounded by thousands of people every moment that you're outside of your home. Thousands of people who were never told that it isn't polite to stare. And so they stare. Oh, boy do they stare.

You can try to make yourself impenetrable with heavier clothes, sunglasses, and my personal favorite, travel at night. You set up camp and live deep inside your own heart because you can't hide your race, and you can't hide the fact that you're a Laowai.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 16, 1998 12:31 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Stray Images of Kunming, Part Three.

The next post in this blog is The Kunming Street Artist/Begger.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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