From Century Weekly | by 鲍昆
Corner of the kitchen, on the wall, guarded by the God of Wealth
Many friends come back from foreign countries would often talk about their thought-provoking experiences. More often than usual, we would hear our fellow countrymen discuss the passing local citizens as laowai when chatting with them. Any man with a little logic and common sense would feel weird about this kind of saying and would ask the question who on earth laowai is.
Laowai was invented to refer to the blue-eyed and golden-haired foreigners who came to China from an alien land in the early 20th century. This title, used in China, was an appellation for the special visitors and it was defined by the relationship between the home and the away. They are special because we are the masters, our skin color is different from theirs; on the contrary, they are the guests, at least, there is a contrast in the number of people, being majority and minority. With this logic, when we (Chinese) go to foreign countries, we become the minorities and the outsiders. Clearly, when going overseas, we should be called the “laowai”. Then why do our fellow countrymen not have such concept? Is it that that we are simply used to it (calling the westerners laowai)?
This set of photographs was shot by Tan Zhenlin, a Chinese American born in New York in the 1980s. Perhaps these photos can give us a new perspective to reflect the laowai concept. Photography is titled Foreigners in Paradise (Heaven) raises the question “why do we see the U.S. as paradise instead of home?”
In Tan’s eyes, those who have the same yellow skin and black eyes as her live in the U. S., even though from the outside, they live in the American styled houses, (Tan Zhenling forgot to take pictures of so called shabby American style housing) But inside, all the furnishings and decorations are all Chinese styled. These scenes are very familiar in many Chinese families, piles of groceries everywhere, very messy. The most brilliant thing is auntie’s stove wrapped in foil, putting traditional Chinese concepts in the modern United States where consumerism was created. The characteristics of Chinese people, Chinese culture harshly appeared in the total opposite American environment. That claustrophobic atmosphere of the room also constituted a kind of metaphor of alienation.
The teenagers in the community play on the playground, where the other side is the temple where Chinese come to pray
These people are called “American Chinese” in the U.S. but “Chinese Americans” in China, eventually landed on the paradise in their eyes and immigrated here. Many of them, stuck to their old cultures. Tan Zhenlin said, “The generation born in the U. S. like me, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants, are often bothered by the complex mixed feelings of old and new.” Who is really “laowai”? She hopes to explore the complex and contradicting identities of Chinese American families thought her photography.
In a sense, Tan Zhenling was using her camera to untie her inner knot, because this feeling was not new to her, not new to a person who was born after the 80s, in fact this feeling has been around for more than a century. In the 19th century, during the great western development, out of the 300,000 Chinese have been deceived to come to the United States, tens of thousands were tortured to death and the ones stayed alive remained in the United States. Now there are Chinatowns everywhere in the U. S., which is an important trance of history.
Common townhouses in Brooklyn
Cantonese takeout food
Chinatown seems to always have been trying to prove the truth, once a culture is away from its mother, because of the lack of “soil” that is most vital to the cultural life, the basic dynamic of its growth stops. Meanwhile, once the culture leaves its mother, it tends to remain in the state of that moment, and also able to preserve that state relatively purely. Many interesting phenomenon appear, the overseas Chinese culture remains to more of the original state, and its parent culture has long had many change of courses.
In a multicultural society like the United States, immigration naturalization is purely based on the law, rather than the culture. To a large extent, the population here is formed with “laowai” and the future generations of “laowai”. There is no one model of mainstream way of life. In the 19th century Chinese laborers came to the United States, largely kept the blood and the nostalgia inherent in the bond, they did not experience the process of social atomization like the black slave labors. Where do the the daily spectacle and conflict a new generation ABC (American Born Chinese) display come from? Are they coming from “a borrowed view”? Who are the target audience? In fact, the Chinese community is far from a homogeneous entity, but filled with differences.
Grandfather had just finished eating a simple lunch
Aunt’s kitchen stove
For example the name “laowai” itself is used more in the immigrants from mainland China, and with the reform and opening policy, it is just a memory of expatriates white stereotypes. On the contrary, those once constituted the main body of Chinatown Cantonese population often use the term “guilao” (鬼佬), “laofan” (老番) etc… And for those minorities, there are “heigui” (Black Ghost, for blacks) and “laomo” (for Mexicans)… However all the changes are driven by the force of economy. Before it appeared, the world was relatively peaceful at least not so much drifting, not that many “laowai” issues, we can not forget this while interpreting Tan Zhenling’s photography.