Who is “laowai”

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.

  1. ” In the 19th century, during the great western development, many Chinese have been deceived to come to the United States, more than 300,000 Chinese people were tortured to death.”
    I really doubt the number. Does anyone here know about this?

      1. Thousands of immigrants, not only Chinese but German, Italian and Eastern European.

        And “…tortured to death”? Really? Mistreatment of Chinese and other vulnerable railroad workers was rampant. But there is little historical evidence of systemic torture of Chinese workers. The work itself could be described as torturous, but that is not ethnicity-specific.

        What a naive and ill-researched article. By the way, Americans of Chinese descent are referred to in America as “Chinese-Americans”, not “American Chinese”.

        1. I actually think that the author is right.
          Myself was corrected by Chinese American (or American Chinese -???) girl who pointed out the differences in how they are called.

  2. There was an translation error, changed to …
    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.

  3. “These people are called “American Chinese” in the U.S. but “Chinese Americans” in China…”

    That’s simply not true. They’re called Chinese Americans in the US. Just like African American, Mexican American, and so on.

    I understand the point they’re making, but it’s made on faulty premises.

    1. As usaual, comment made by Cuntpu$$y marooned in a self made harbour of racial superiority and a hatred for fellow humans always stink.

  4. And ain’t nobody tortured no motherfucker to death when they were making the railroads. Chinese people just love to see themselves as victims. What a bunch of bitches.

    1. Yes, by looking at the whitedickhead indefatigable quest for wealth and power, being victim is an understatement. Just fuck off and make your mother come tonite.

  5. Also history shows that Chinese love of money also lead to some of the conditions the faced in helping build the western portion of the railroad. Dager pay was paid to people who would do the more unsafe tasks (such as lighting the explosive charges). Thier love of money lead them to be more willing to take the risk of death for hight pay.

  6. America is affordable and ordinary people can spend their old age in decent living conditions with social security checks but it hurts to know that not every Chinese immigrant in America makes it.

  7. I just love seeing comments like this without any explanation.

    “out of the 300,000 Chinese have been deceived to come to the United States, tens of thousands were tortured to death”

    Can we compare this to millions that died in China under the authority of Mao Zedong.

    1. “Can we compare this to millions that died in China under the authority of Mao Zedong.”

      Of course no. Mao made mistake trying to solve security and poverty issue. Perhaps a better comparisonm is how US “solved” their native American problem by simply killing them – a process that started from Jamestown in the 1600s to the 20th century.

      1. A mistake, that is an understatement. Most countries in the world have similiar stories to tell, I don’t question that. While I am not American it seems to me that America takes a bashing at the hands of the self-righteous who conveniently ignore or deny what happens in their own backyard.

        Example. America is known around the world for it’s history of slavery. Well, how about Brazil. That country brought 4 times as many slaves to it’s shores (4,000,000) as did America. They tortured, and slaughtered at the will of the land owner. Is the world continuously reminded of that, NO.

        All I am saying is when we make such comments support your statement with facts and compare them to the rest of the worlds history. As I stated before, every nation should check their own closets for skeletons first…..

        1. How the comparison relevant when the last time I check there is no slavery and no ‘laowai’ labour in China? Don’t conflate orange with apple.

          1. No slavery in China, oh really. Check our history and it is still going on today. We just call them migrant workers. I am sorry but you missed my meaning. I am out of here.

      2. Maybe the PRC is just making a “mistake” today by flooding Tibet and Xinjiang with millions of ethnic Han. Or maybe the PRC just made an honest mistake when it attacked and destroyed Tibetan culutre during the CR. Yes, the US is so bad and China just makes “mistakes”.

  8. Immigration is cancer. China should think twice in the coming decades before tons of poor foreigners move there for jobs and radically alters the demographics. Flame away.

    1. I hired 4 Bangladeshis for the price of 1 Chinese in beijing because they are more productive and they’re currency exchange is far better RMB than the dollar (not really but I don’t pay in dollars). I can get them into any country in the world without an invitation letter for a visa(except the US and S. Korea). I don’t have to worry about holidays, and trips back home for they were easier to get permanent residencies unlike my other foreign workers in China. They are cleaner than the average blue collar worker in China, and they fucking speak english well. In that aspect my chinese workers are overpaid by law I have to keep them in order to keep my operating license which is also worth dick.

      Yes they should think twice because they are the cancer in their own nation.

  9. Chinatown Chinese are massive disgrace. They are virulently racist and tribal. Not to mention that every Chinatown I have been to has been a filthy cesspool. They make for rather sad and uncomfortable parallels to mainland Chinese cities.

    The Chinatown denizens teach their children the superiority of the Chinese people and Chinese culture, all the while not realizing that had they chosen another country to move to, there would be no Chinatown as they would be forced to assimilate.

    American Chinese who grow up in those dens of hatred, bigotry, and oppression are looked down upon by the rest of American society as backward caricatures of a forgotten time. Fucking Embarrassing.

    1. Its true. You have those in the usa and canada and other places that think chinatowns are cultural meccas. There is a term for it. Topologies of ignorance. “I am more asian than you because we have a chinatown”. There is an idiom in the west: horse brigaders. The people in a parade that march behind the horses. Those without shovels might want to read the writing on the wall. Between-the-lines.

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