Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gaijin, laowai, farang and mat salleh

The other day I was pleased to spot a new restaurant in Tokyo near where I am working since there aren’t too many choices for eating there in the evening – but was immediately disappointed by a sign saying it was off limits to foreigners. Whether trying to be encouraging or humourous I’m not sure, but my colleague commented: Don’t worry, it probably doesn’t mean you!

No Foreigners signs are not unusual in Japan, especially outside bars or in advertisements for apartments to rent. The only law specifically prohibiting racial discrimination is an international one that Japan signed up to in 1995: The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. There is some doubt about whether it has much force, especially since many Japanese laws, such as gender-equality legislation, require people to ‘make efforts’ without punishing them if they don’t. However, it was used successfully in 1999 to obtain compensation for a Brazilian woman who had been refused entry to a shop with a No Foreigners poster on the door. In web forums participated in by foreigners living in Japan, many people express shock at these bans, although some are sympathetic to bar-owners and apartment-owners wanting to avoid the possibility of foreigners getting aggressively drunk or having noisy parties at night and failing to dispose of their rubbish properly.

Replying to a Youtube complaint by Meaphe about her difficulty in finding an apartment, for example, Gimmeaflakeman and Tomoko advise her that it is ‘nothing personal’ and that there are many places that do rent to foreigners – some that rent only to foreigners, indeed.

Debates about whether foreigners should expect the same rules against discrimination in Japan as they have in their own countries, and whether it is better to be openly discriminatory rather secretly so, are interesting, but in this blog on language around Asia I want to concentrate on various words for ‘foreigner’ and what they seem to mean.

Gaijin (外人 – literally ‘outside person’) is one of the first words foreigners learn in Japan. When gaijin were rare, many of them got annoyed to hear this word constantly called out. The old lady who ran the public bathhouse I used when I lived in a provincial city used to address me as gaijin-san whenever she wanted to tell me off for not drying myself off properly as I stood in front of her naked and steamy. In most of Japan today no one notices gaijin much, and most non-Japanese don’t seem to mind the term. However, Arudou Debito, an American-born naturalised Japanese whose campaigns include a lawsuit against a Hokkaido bathhouse that banned all foreigners after having trouble with foreign seamen, believes the term is harmful because of the simplistic way it divides the world between Japanese and everyone else. He uses the example of a group of Japanese tourists he heard in Italy referring to locals – rather than themselves – as gaijin.

My own feeling is that for most Japanese, gaijin are Europeans or North Americans, especially white ones. Asians and Africans are more likely to be called gaikokujin (外国人=outside country person), which sounds more formal but to my ears is less friendly.

This distinction has a parallel in China, where the formal word (also 外国人=wàiguórén) is heard less often by white people than 老外(lǎowài = old outsider). Depending on the context, lǎo can mark respect (老师= old teacher), disrespect (老东西=old fool) or nothing much at all (老虎= a tiger regardless of age), and thus there are frequent discussions about whether lǎowài is acceptable. Like gaijin in Japan, many lǎowài in China use the local term about themselves and prefer it to the suspiciously sweet wàiguópéngyou (外国朋友= foreign friends). Dark-skinned foreigners are more likely to be called (黑人= black person).

Hong Kong and Singapore Chinese have a longer experience of living alongside Europeans than do mainlanders and have a variety of words for them. In Singapore, where the biggest first language is Hokkien, white people are most commonly referred to as angmo (红毛= red hair) and opinion is divided as to whether it is harmless or insulting. The Cantonese term gweilo (ghost man) is considered racist by many people in both Singapore and Hong Kong. I was reprimanded for saying it by an Italian long-term resident of Hong Kong who finds it typifies the deep racial divisions there. Singapore-based blogger Aussie Pete suggests its use in a sports game in Australia would lead to a player being suspended. Yet I often hear foreigners themselves using it. Is it because they don’t know its historical associations, coming in to being when there was great hostility against Europeans? Or is it that by making fun of it they make it less harmful, just as gay people in the 1990s started to use the previously insulting word ‘queer’ about themselves?

The term farang is also used by many farang in Thailand. Its origin may be the same as the word for Frenchman. Like gaijin and lǎowài it refers mostly to white people and there is disagreement about whether it is harmful. Mat salleh, which somehow got transformed from the name of a rebel leader who killed a lot of white colonialists into a name for white people themselves, is generally regarded by both locals and foreigners in Malaysia as harmless and even affectionate. One contributor to a web forum commented that it doesn’t sound so affectionate when referring to noisy, drunken foreigners, however. The same could be said for farang and indeed most of these terms: it depends on what is in the mind of the person who says the word and the one who hears it at the time. I had never thought that Indon was anything more than an abbreviation for Indonesian, for example, until I used it in a text message to an Indonesian friend. He was upset because it is often used by Malaysians to insult Indonesians and there had recently been tension between the two countries.

There will always be terms to group people who are different from ourselves, and sometimes they will be used innocently or affectionately, and sometimes maliciously. Gaijin, lǎowài, farang and mat salleh can be considered part of the English of Asia since they are words used by both foreigners and locals in the English spoken there, but clearly they have a range of meanings and should not be used without some thought. There has always been racism around the world, but when white people start complaining about racism in Asia there must be many Asians who think about the old days when European colonialists put up signs in Shanghai parks saying ‘No dogs or Chinese’. Indeed, Debito didn’t get much sympathy from the largely Chinese and Korean audience when he complained on Japanese TV about discrimination against white people (including white people with Japanese citizenship) in the Hokkaido bathhouse.

As for that sign at the new restaurant in Tokyo, it is interesting that it is in Chinese and Korean, as well as ungrammatical English. Just like the landlady I visited about renting an apartment with a No Foreigners sign, I suspect my colleague was trying to tell me that it does not mean ‘your kind of foreigner’. But I think it will be better if I don’t try to find out what kind of 'foreigner' it does mean.