Sunday, January 9, 2011
China and the "laowai"
"You don't know anything about China!"
I've heard that sentence quite a few times in China. One of the first words you will memorize as a foreigner in China is laowai, or foreigner. The word strikes a dividing line between you and the society in which you live. Being a foreigner, by definition you don't know China’s "unique national conditions". You don't know the exceptionalism that arises from a proud, 3000-year-old society, humiliated during the Opium Wars of the 19th century, invaded by foreign powers during the World Wars and mutilated by a ruler who is still praised as the country's national hero. And people will hold your ingnorance against you in the same way as this LSE (!) student does it from minute 44:00.
The relationship between China and the laowai is a very strange matter. On the one hand, Chinese people are extremely interested in American movies, American clothes, Christmas, McDonald's and other parts of Western consumerism. When I walked through central Shanghai, people were staring at me in awe. School girls asked me for a photo. Public schools in China employ foreigners to teach English, from high school all the way down to kindergarten. Clearly, there is an interest to know more about "the West" and about those laowai.
On the other hand, there is a deep inferiority complex toward those laowai. "Lao" itself means "old" and is normally used with a person in a more senior position. By definition, all laowai are filthy rich (which is true in a sense, considering the low value of the yuan). And filthy rich means that they're socially superior. A Chinese person will have to work a lot more than a Westerner to achieve the same social standard.
Put together the fact that Western people in China are filthy rich and that they have no idea about Chinese exceptionalism (or even the language, as the language in many foreign enterprises is English), could there be a desire to strike back at the West? Pay back the humiliation once Chinese money and power really kick off? Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson heard an invisible "We are the masters now" from his interlocutors when he recently went to China. In the EU, Portugal, Greece and Spain are now financially dependent on China. Are we facing a danger of revenge?
As laowai, we should probably spend some afternoons studying Chinese history - so that nobody can tell us "You don't know anything about China!" anymore.
Update (23/02/2011): We could start here, here or here.