Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Guest Post: Foreigners, expats, and laowais: What do you call someone living abroad?

Today we have a guest post from Amanda on how living abroad has impacted the way she looks at her identity. 

In my whole life I don’t think I ever used the word “foreigner” to refer to a person (except for the band) until I moved to China. In America, we have a strong immigrant culture and an extremely diverse population. Seeing someone with a different skin color from myself or with a different accent doesn’t mean they are any less American than me. If I see a Chinese person walking down the street, I would just assume he was an American citizen. I would have no way of knowing he wasn’t unless he told me. Unfortunately in China, “foreigner” is the common term when referring to anyone living here who wasn’t born here and sometimes it really bothers me. But I don’t know what I should be called instead.

Even though immigrants aren’t new to China, they are still a stark minority. And the more rural the area, the more likely you are to stand out if you aren’t Chinese. Usually the stares, the smiles, the “can I take a picture with you?” don’t bother me, but nothing will rile my ire faster than a child pointing at me in the supermarket and saying with a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “laowai!” – foreigner.

I don’t really like the word “foreigner” when referring to people. I have always thought of the word “foreign” as meaning “something that doesn’t belong.” For example, if I get a splinter, my finger will natural expel the “foreign” object because it doesn’t belong there. Or if a concept is completely “foreign” to me, it is something I can’t understand. But I do belong in China and I am easy to comprehend. I live here; I work here; I am part of my community; this is my home. I am not a “foreigner.”

How about “immigrant?” In America, we have immigrants, but these are people who come to America to live, become citizens, and stay. In China, very few people who move here, even long-term, stay permanently. Last year, columnist Mark Kitto wrote a viral post about “why you’ll never be Chinese” in his manifesto about leaving China (even though that was a year ago and he is still tooling around). In it, he talks about how even people who marry locals, have kids, run businesses, and stay in China for decades are never really accepted. In fact, I have heard several of my friends say “eventually, we all go home.” This is probably true in my case as well. Even though I have no plans to return to America now, I can see it happening someday. So I guess I’m not an immigrant.

The term I am most comfortable with, but I still have issues with, would be “expat,” short for “expatriate.” “Expatriate” literally means “one who lives outside his own country.” I’m generally ok with this term because it’s basically true; I don’t live in the country of my birth or citizenship. But it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Ex,” obviously, means “former” – I am formerly from America. But I am still of that country. Many people think that expats leave their native lands because we hate them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have a much stronger appreciation for America after living in China. It’s easy to call America polluted when you haven’t lived in a place where the smog is so bad that you don’t see the sun for four months straight. It’s easy to criticize America’s schools when you haven’t seen 12-year olds slaving away for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week to get those slightly higher test scores than American kids. I don’t think it is possible to ever really understand just how great America is until you look at it from the outside. I think if you really love your native country, you should leave it for a while to gain a new perspective. Author G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” There really is nothing sweeter than getting off that plane at the Orlando airport every year and being somewhere familiar, even if it has changed somewhat.

So what do you call someone living abroad? While “expat” is the safest bet, I don’t know that there is a word to clearly define us. But I don’t really like to be defined anyway.

Amanda has been living and writing in China for nearly three years. You can read more about her experiences at her website, Two Americans in China.

Editor's note: Amanda has also taken her experiences living (and cooking) abroad and turned them into a fun project that promises to fuse her cultural experiences in delicious ways. She has promised us enough dumpling variations to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner from main course to dessert, and you can support her Kickstarter project to do so. 


  1. The same sort of staring and shouting at people for being foreign happens in Japan (the word is "gaijin" there). The question isn't about what to call oneself though. It is about what one is called. You can call yourself whatever you want, but what is troubling is what they call you, and they will always refer to you as an outsider.

    People constantly criticize the U.S. for its racism and prejudice, but the U.S. is actually one of the most inclusive cultures in the world. You don't know what racism is until you step outside and see how people who are appreciably different in appearance are treated in other countries. The U.S. is the most self-aware country on this issue and has some the strongest laws in order to protect people from minorities. Other countries, especially in Asia, not only have people who act out on their biases on a regular basis, but they also lack laws to protect people from overt discrimination.

    In Japan, when my husband and I tried to get an apartment, there was a note on one of the properties which said overtly, "no foreigners, prostitutes or pets." Businesses can also turn you away for being foreign and companies will deny you legally mandated benefits (such as minimum time off). You have no recourse even if they are breaking the law because you will be denied the processes open to Japanese people.

    People need to realize that other cultures are less inclusive than the U.S., and while prejudice continues to live here, it thrives worldwide. Everyone should spend some time in a culture in which they are viewed as a minority both to understand what it is like to be ostracized, marginalized and denied certain benefits, but also to see that America really is better at this than a lot of other cultures and countries. "Better" does not mean "perfect", but at least it's ahead of the game.

  2. As someone who has also lived and worked in China for 3 years Amanda's post resonates with me. I too prefer the title Expat - if one has to have a title!! The word foreigner brings up images of aliens, martians, etc

    I am from Australia and like the US it is a multicultural country. That Chinese man/women you see may well be a second or even third generation Australian. The same goes for many other nationalities. There is a saying that if you visit every suburb in Sydney then you will meet someone from every corner of the globe!! i cannot verify this saying but it does demonstrate the multiculturalism that is taken for granted in my home country.

    In China I will always be an outsider subjected to racism, prejudice and constantly stared at in the most obvious of ways. With my blond hair I am always going to stand out as the "laowai" with a constant stream of requests for photos wit the "foreigner" As much as I cringe I agree to the photo hoping in some small way to break down the barriers. I do get sick of having to constantly haggle to bet a decent price when shopping - i don't want special treatment I simply want to pay the same price as the locals - a given in my country. I have battled with trying to master the intricacies of Mandarin to no avail - my efforts are laughed at and ridiculed to the point that I have given up. I have come to realise that no matter what I do I will never be accepted.

    So why have I stayed in China despite the racism, pollution, prejudices etc? I guess the short answer is that I have always wanted to experience living in another country very different from my own. I want to immerse myself in a totally different culture, I want to meet new friends with different ideals from my own. Has this happened - NO!! So now I am left musing if this would be the same in any other country. Is it better to go in with the devil you know (at least superficially) or should I take the step/leap and try another country???

  3. I've tried off and on to improve my Mandarin. I'm with a new tutor again and I'm hopeful. But someone told me the other day that they practice with children because children are so much less critical than adults. I'm not sure if that's true in China.

    I think it's also just the lack of politeness that bothers me. I was taught that you never stare at someone and you never point at them. In China, it's the perfect storm of awkwardness: they point, stare, and call out to everyone else "look at the foreigner!"

  4. I have not been to Japan, but I have this vision that it is so much more modern and Western than China. But then people who have been there describe it much the same as China which always bursts my bubble.

    I definitely agree that America is far less racist and inclusive than people give it credit for. People are always complaining about American immigration policies and so on, but I don't know that they realize that America already has some of the most lenient immigration policies in the world. Could the policies be better? Yes. But it's unfair just how much people ignore the good policies we do have. Kind of like how they ignore just how good the schools are and just how clean the air is. Like I said, if you never see America from the outside it is much easier to criticize.

  5. I'm glad people like you exist—who don't assume non-white (particularly Asian-looking folks) in America are foreigners, but I can assure you there are plenty of white (and even non-white) people in America who constantly remind American-born U.S. citizens of Asian descent that (in these racists' minds) they are different, not welcome, foreign... even when they are not foreign (in reality).

    Yes, Chinese people can be rude and extremely offensive or racist, but they don't pretend to be a melting pot and have a statue of liberty to welcome in new people as immigrants.