“That’s right, I’m a foreigner!” 对,我是外国人!

Once upon a time we went to an all-Chinese mall in Vancouver, Canada to practice Chinese. We overheard this group of college-age girls say, “Hey, those wàiguórén speak Chinese!” Wàiguórén (外国人) meaning “foreigner.” And never mind who was in whose country.

Anyway, saw this shirt tonight and had to share. Reminds me of the mzungu shirts worn by wàiguórén in East Africa during bad reactions to culture stress. But with a twist. And not worn by a mzungu/wàiguórén:

外国人!” — 弗 2:19
“That’s right, I’m a foreigner!” — Ephesians 2:19

Aside from just being funny, it’s also interesting because of China’s general love/hate relationship with wàiguórén/the West. Just this week I come across usage of “fake foreign devil” 鬼子. And not to mention Chinese Christianity‘s complicated relationship to the English language, Western culture and Western Christianity in particular.

Maybe the t-shirt’s just a Bible joke and not meant to reference any of that. Or maybe it’s deliberately redefining the terms. Either way the joke’s historical-cultural context is hard to ignore. Because historical-cultural context is always hard to ignore. At least for this 外国人

P.S. –
And lest anyone feel like accusing this guy of being a fake foreign devil (鬼子), I should point out that not only does he not speak any English, he doesn’t even have an ‘English name’. Dude is just not interested in “sniffing after foreigners’ farts.

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10 thoughts on ““That’s right, I’m a foreigner!” 对,我是外国人!”

  1. When I was back home in California one summer, my wife’s aunt (who is from mainland China) also was visiting her daughter who was living in America. I can still remember clear as day when my aunt was talking to my wife about the people in America as laowai, even while she was living in an apartment in California.

    I’ll never forget the look on her face when I reminded her that she in fact, was the laowai. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of that.

    1. I would have liked to see that!

      I still don’t have a great understanding of “老外”‘s connotations. People seem to sincerely believe it’s not in any way derogatory. But if I use it in reference to myself or other foreigners I often get a reaction that I don’t get with “外国人”. And there are other instances where we’d consider a particular Chinese way of speaking is racist/derogatory and the Chinese wouldn’t (and we’d say they just don’t realize it). And there are yet other instances where we deem certain kinds of (English) talk racist, even though it’s not (and we’re just hypersensitive due to our history).

      I can see being a 老外 in my own country because it’s sort of a special term for whites/Westerners. But 外国人 is just “foreigner”; that makes them the 外国人 when they’re in our countries. Middle Kingdom Syndrome!

        1. That’s how I see it usually used, too. Though my impression is that 老外 is used in more informal contexts. Other than that, the only other difference I see is when I say “老外“ and it makes people giggle.

  2. It is a common mistranslation to equate the Chinese word 外国人 with the English word ‘foreigner’. That’s not what it means.

    There are two types of people in the world: 中国人 and 外国人. Just because a 中国人 goes to another country does not suddenly make them not-Chinese any more. Chinese stay Chinese no matter where they go in the world. The people who are not Chinese are 外国人, regardless of where Chinese people encounter them.

    The English word foreigner is a relative term. It changes its meaning depending on who is speaking. The Chinese word 外国人 is not relative. You are a 外国人 no matter where you are in the world, be it China, Canada, or Timbuktu.

    1. That’s a fair point, Harland, although consider the following image:

      Once upon a time, there was a maple grove. In the maple grove were brown-spotted maples, white-spotted maples, and purple-spotted maples. One day two purple spotted-maples walk into a chattering group of white-spotted maples. The white-spotted maples chitter and click their branches together, and then point at the purple spotted maples, and together proclaim, “Look! It’s those Purple-Spotted Maples! You know what that means! Look at those Purple spots!”

      One of the purple-spotted maples becomes embarrassed and returns to the other purple-spotted maples, while the second purple-spotted maple shrugs its tall leaves and waddles into the middle of the white-spotted maples, curious to know more about this new place he has discovered in the maple grove.

      The white-spotted maples explain to the remaining purple-spotted maple, “This is our land, and you are different. You see, you have purple spots, and we have white spots. What do you like better, purple or white?”

      The white-spotted maple shrugs his broad branches, and then replies, “I think both are great! Although to tell you the truth, I’ve never noticed there was a difference!” The white-spotted maples laugh small little laughs that sound like whispers of wind. “Oh, you Purple-Spotted Maples are so cute!”

      See, I think the problem that lies here isn’t the logical underpinnings of the word, “waiguoren” itself, but rather it’s a more complicated battle between two different axioms. The first axiom is linguistic – the core meaning of the word – “outsider” of the “Middle Kingdom”. Therefore, if China is indeed the “Middle Kingdom” (or the center of the world – or even more simplistically, just That Place Called Zhongguo) then the word really does just mean That Person From That Place Outside Zhongguo. Which means they could very well use it outside of China, because the truth is still relevant.

      However, there is a second axiom that is founded upon cultural perception (at least in my experience). That being a “waiguoren” is an outsider, and has the connotation of someone who doesn’t belong. When a “waiguoren” is walking down the street and people turn their heads, stare, point, and whisper, they aren’t just proclaiming that person is from Kentucky or Texas when they are in fact from Arizona – they are making a value judgement about that person that attempts to encapsulate some essence of who they might actually be with a single word.

      Of course, perhaps the feelings of being an outsider are exacerbated within the feelings of the outsider. When my wife travels to America, she feels like everyone is watching her and judging her for being Chinese, when in fact (if asked) those people say they didn’t even realize she wasn’t an American. How far you can take that analogy to the experiences of non-Chinese in China however, I think is limited, although the gulf is lessening in more metropolitan urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. One blessing I have in Tianjin is that few people look at me or stare at me or even really notice I’m there anymore – one of the blessings of cities that have more than 10 million people.

    2. I think I get what you’re saying, and it’s what we’re seeing when we get called “外国人“ in Canada. We could either say 外国人 doesn’t/shouldn’t be understood as “foreigner” like foreigners think it does/should, or that many Mainlanders suffer from a severe case Middle Kingdom Syndrome (and I mean that playfully – obviously everyone’s ethnocentric to significant degrees). If a Mainlander goes to Waiguo can gets called a 外国人… I think it’s good for them! :)

      Unless there’s another Chinese word better suited to be translated “foreigner” in the relativistic sense? 外地人 doesn’t really work, does it?

      Ha, also reminds me of when I get asked if I speak 外语, or asked particulars about 外语。Like there are really only two kinds of people/cultures/languages.

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