FOREIGNERS IN CHINA

LAO WAI AND FOREIGNERS IN CHINA

20111107-Wiki C  TVKeye_Luke_1968 TV Famiy Affair.JPG
Chinese-American actor Keye Luke
made to look like a Chinaman
for a 60s TV show Family Affair
Among the derogatory slang words for foreigners are dabidze ("big nose"), kaifang ("too open with feelings"), gweilos (Cantonese for "foreign devil" or “ghost person”), guizi ("devils"), yang guizi ("foreign devils") or waiguoren ("foreigners"). In northeast China, foreigners are called "old hair" because usually the only people with light hair are old people. A term of disrespect directed at Russians is "second class light-hairs."

The most polite word for "foreigner" is laowai or lao wai, which literally means "old outside" or “people from elsewhere.” In addition to being stared at tourists have to get used to hearing laowai shouted at them whenever they walk by. Beijing has two types of “lao wai“. One type are the wai di ren that come from various parts of our motherland, numbering 8 million. The other type are the wai guo ren who come from various parts of the world, numbering about 200,000. “Wai guo ren means “people from another country, foreigner” and “” wai di ren: means people from another part of the country, from out of town, outsider, non-local, migrant.” The former are regarded as “elite, magnanimous, and high-class,” whereas the other kind are often ridiculed as: “You’re a country bumpkin!” [Source: China Smack, July 21, 2013]

Chinese who marry foreigners are still often seen as “traitor” to their race. In China foreigners are often seen as white. Blacks fall into their own category. Chinese Internet forums were then filled with anti-Western diatribes that the ruling Communist Party appears to allow.

Migration issues include the Tibetans who cross into Nepal. The government tries to prevent this out-migration from occurring and has pressured Nepalese authorities to repatriate illegal border-crossing Tibetans. Another activity viewed as illegal is the influx of North Koreans into northeastern China. Some 1,850 North Koreans fled their country in 2004, but China views them as illegal economic migrants rather than refugees and sends many of them back. Some of those who succeed in reaching sanctuary in foreign diplomatic compounds or international schools have been allowed to depart for South Korea. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006 *]

Expats in China

By some estimates 1 million foreigners live and work in China today, and their number has increased at a rate of 10 percent a year over the past decade. Adam Taylor wrote in Business Insider, “Tom Carter, both an expat and "laowai" in China since 2006, chronicles the expat experience as editor of "Unsavory Elements" (a Chinese nickname for foreigners, perhaps one step above "foreign devils"). Featuring 28 essays from foreigners, the book is meant to show some kind of unifying experience amongst a relatively disparate community. While most of the essays are by relatively established writers (the New Yorker's Peter Hessler is one notable example), they offer a good glimpse of the variety of the expat experience in China. [Source: Adam Taylor, Business Insider, August 2, 2013 ~]

Carter told Business Insider: “China’s expat scene [...] is like a great big rowdy saloon from America’s Wild West days with dusty explorers, try-your-luck prospectors and even the occasional outlaw laowai riding in from the hazy horizon to find their fortunes in this final frontier … or simply to get in adventures that no developed country like Japan could ever offer...China truly has become the new land of opportunity, where westerners of all walks, defeated by this ongoing global recession, have replaced the Chinese as the world’s economic refugees; a “floating population” of blonde-haired, blue-eyed migrant laborers blown in by fate and free-trade treaties onto the red shores of China, destitute and dragging plaid peasant bags bursting with emotional and financial baggage. ~

“Mark Kitto, a contributor to the Unsavory anthology, writes a humorously-vain account about how local authorities wanted to immortalize his likeness into a statue – and as soon as they did they tore it down! I think this story is an apt metaphor for China’s historical love-hate relationship with foreigners, where one moment they are idolizing westerners like superstars and the next they are fumigating us like some invasive species (an analogy that Jonathan Watts touches on in his essay). ~

If you look back at history, China is one of the few countries that have instituted systematic purges of “foreign devils” over the centuries, most notably the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Christians during the bloody Boxer Uprising and the Cultural Revolution persecutions of any Chinese who associated with westerners. Foreigners in China have advanced (some might argue regressed) over the centuries from unremitting missionaries and exploitative opium operations to backpackers and businessmen, but the purges continue to take place to this day at the whim of the ever-capricious Communist Party, including last year’s state-sponsored looting of Japanese businesses and vehicles, and the campaign’s official government artwork of a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigners.” ~

“The anthology is a well-balanced mix of family-friendly fare – such as Alan Paul’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation”-esque road trip across Sichuan with his family, and Susan Conley and her children using street food as a means to acclimate – as much as the backpackers behaving badly, or should I say Gweilo Gone Wild, contingent, like Dominic Stevenson tossed in a Shanghai prison for drug dealing or Susie Gordon during her decadent evening of ketamine, cocktails and karaoke. Admittedly, my own story, about a boy’s night out to a brothel, has made the most ripples: Time Out Shanghai called it “offensive and implicitly exploitative”, which I accepted gracefully as their professional interpretation. I was prepared for this critical fallout and decided to martyr myself because, as the editor, it would have been disingenuous to exclude a story about prostitution, which is rampant in China. But then the Time Out review online was overrun by clique of “fem-pats” (not my phrase; I borrowed that from one of the website’s comments; I think it refers to those angry, lonely, single female expats in China who are overlooked by western males seeking Chinese girlfriends) who, not even having read the book, knee-jerkingly called for my “arrest and deportation from China” because, they believed, I patronized an underage prostitute.” ~

On expats that leave China, Carter siad: “Regarding the so-called exodus, I don’t believe that more foreigners are departing China than arriving. Sure, certain western corporations are looking for the next burgeoning nation to exploit now that China’s economy is on a downturn. But good riddance to the expense-account expats. Of the laowai who are leaving because of pollution or whatever, in the past year it’s become a kind of trend to publish your “Why I’m Leaving China” goodbye letter. What most people don’t know is that Mark Kitto, who is to be credited, or blamed, for starting this trend, never left! And this fact speaks volumes about our love affair with China, a love-it or hate-it kind of place, to the point that even when we want to leave, we really can’t. I had this happen to me too, where after living here for four straight years I moved to Japan for a year, and then to India for another year, but each time I found myself drawn back to China. I now concede this is where destiny intends me to be. But of the authors in this anthology who have left, such as Pete Hessler to Egypt and Jon Watts to South America, the fact that they can continue to write so passionately about China is a testament to how close to our hearts this culture and its people are. ~

English Teachers in China

Carter told Business Insider: “Respected writers such as Peter Hessler and Michael Meyer got their start as English teachers in China. And yet there is this stigma surrounding English teaching where we are utterly despised by the white-collar expatriate community and even by our own Department of State. Whether this is due to our perceived status as bottom-feeders detritivorously foraging Asia for any job that will hire a white face, or because they think we are aiding and abetting America’s successor, I don’t know, but the derision towards English teachers is palpable. [Source: Adam Taylor, Business Insider, August 2, 2013 ~]

“I too got my start in China as a teacher (after responding to an ad on Craigslist which turned out to be a scam and left me homeless and jobless my first week here) and eventually wound up teaching 1,500 primary school students entirely myself, a baptism by fire if there ever was one. I then went on to teach business English to companies in Beijing. Honestly, I can think of no other career path that places you so directly in the heart of Chinese culture and society like teaching does, or gives you a better ground view of the future of this country. ~

“For this reason, I was adamant about including at least a couple stories from the classroom, including Michael Levy’s account of being offered vast sums of money by the principal of his school to write college entrance exams for his students, and Matt Muller’s observational piece about being in a class full of indifferent high school students with no ambition for higher education. When read together, these stories offer a contrasting glimpse into China’s widening economic disparity, from perspectives that no executive and no journalist could ever obtain.” ~

Preferential Treatment and Status for Foreigners in China

The journalist Paul Mooney wrote: “Following is an animation on the ChinaSmack website titled "Preferential Treatment and Status for Foreigners in China." This Chinese-languge animation exaggerates all the perks foreigners in China enjoy, but it does highlight the unequal treatment of migrant workers. [Source: China Smack, July 21, 2013 |::|]

Foreigners in China are called lao wai (or laowai). “Lao wai” is short for “people from elsewhere.” Beijing has two types of “lao wai“. One type are the wai di ren that come from various parts of our motherland, numbering 8 million. The other type are the wai guo ren who come from various parts of the world, numbering about 200,000. “Wai guo ren means “people from another country, foreigner” and “” wai di ren: means people from another part of the country, from out of town, outsider, non-local, migrant.” The former are regarded as “elite, magnanimous, and high-class,” whereas the other kind are often ridiculed as: “You’re a country bumpkin!” |::|

Chinese have always been hospitable, naturally treating “lao wai” with the utmost of care and consideration. In Beijing, they enjoy “super-national treatment/status” [preferential treatment and status above those of local citizens]. The only thing is, when it comes to “wai guo ren” and “wai di ren“, although there is just one Chinese character of difference, there’s quite a bit of difference in how they are treated when it comes to home purchases, tax cuts, gaokao college entrance examination, education and multiple children. |::|

First, house: If wai di ren want to buy a house in Beijing, you have to pay five years of social insurance or have proof of having paid five years of individual taxes before you qualify to buy a home in this center of the universe. If you happen to have had a break in the middle where you changed jobs and didn’t work for two months, or if your employer unfortunately also happens to be non-local, congratulations, you’ve won the lottery, make another five-year plan [of working for a local Beijing employer paying social insurance/individual taxes to Beijing]. However, it’s much easier for foreigners. You only have to work one year in Beijing, then you can buy a home, sell it, buy, sell, buy, sell, buy, sell~~~~ “I love China!” |::|

Secondly, taxes. One can never get away from paying taxes living in this world. Working in Beijing, any citizen who earns more than 3,500 yuan per month has to pay taxes. Whereas foreigners… due to [government] worries that high prices may result in them unable to get enough to eat or have enough to wear, only if they make more than 4800 yuan do they need to pay taxes. If foreigners want to start a business in China, there are even more preferential treatment and happiness. Not only can you register [a company] smoothly, what is even more important is: 1. No taxes for the first and second year! 2. Half income tax for the third to fifth year! 3. Continued tax cuts after the fifth year (for some foreign enterprises)! |::|

Thirdly, children. As long as you’re a Chinese citizen, you better have less children and plant more trees. Whereas foreigners, you can have as many [children] as you want, you can even have enough to make a football/soccer team and it’s no problem. Naturally, once you have children, they’ll need education. As long as you get a “Chinese green card” [long-term/permanent residency], foreigners can enjoy the same educational treatment that local people’s children get. As for the children of wai di ren, schooling in Beijing? Taking the gaokao college entrance examination in Beijing? Impossible! |::|

Previously there was a report of a wai di child who lived in Beijing with his wai di father, but in his senior year of high school discovered that he could not take the gaokao college entrance examination. So, he could only go to his mother who was far away in America, and after getting an American green card, everything was immediately solved. “Teacher! This is my proof of admissions to the test, a green card.” “No problem! The gaokao welcomes you, and 10 points extra [bonus to final score]!” Though this was fake news, as long as a foreigner has [long-term residency in China], you indeed can participate in the gaokao in Beijing. Once in university, a high-end, luxurious, high-class foreign students dormitory is immediately available for you to move in. With air conditioning, dear! |::|

Wai di ren can only be jealous, envious, and hateful! You see, in order to let foreigners blend into Beijing better, we truly bend over backwards and do everything we can. “Being a foreigner is quite nice.” As for wai di ren, we might as well talk about the problem of achieving world peace. However, what if “laowai” don’t want to live in Beijing anymore? The haze [pollution] that lasted half a year made many foreigners consider returning to the embrace of their motherlands. |::|

Whereas wai di ren… “Darling, I wanna go home…” “Fuck you! You are only allowed to come back after you’ve paid off the mortgage!” “What is this? We’re all “lao wai”, but why is our treatment so different?” Because Confucius once said, “Is it not delightful to have friends come from afar!” It’s just that the further they are from, the more delightful it is! |::|

Views of China on Expats in China

On the above piece, QQ commented: “In many of our countrymen’s noses, even the fart of a foreigner is fragrant. Foreigners saying Chinese people are an inferior people is one thing, but even Chinese officials believe its own people are lower class people. Cowards, weakness from one’s bones. Their children are all in [foreigners' countries], could they afford to not treat laowai better?” [Source: China Smack, July 21, 2013 |::|]

LED R posted: “Laowai loses a bike and we’ll help them find it, but when it’s a Chinese person? Fuck, you can beg and they won’t care, and just make a report of it. If you have a dispute with a foreigner or go to court, China will only severely punish Chinese people. It is precisely because of this that people abroad look down upon us. You see how people look down on Chinese people who go abroad, sigh, I wonder what’s wrong with China. Such a sense of inferiority.” |::|

Another person said: “I completely do not understand, really. Why does a portion of Chinese people so blindly worship the foreign… Truly it is baffling. They’re humans and you’re human too. Where are you inferior to them? There truly are too many idiots.” Bernabéu said: “Abroad, the people who are most bullied are Chinese people. In China, the people who are most bullied are Chinese people. I better hurry and return to Mars.” |::|

One person posted: “Being friendly and hospitable is right, but don’t blindly worship the foreign.” Another said: “Our countrymen’s mentality of blindly worshiping the foreign was all manufactured by our lousy government officials!” While another pointed out: “Actually the laowai who come to China have all been washed out from their own countries, yet we treat them as treasures, shouldn’t we really reflect on this. When can Chinese people be of one mind, united when facing foreigners, and have backbone!” |::|

GG posted: I’m only going to say one thing: Late-Qing Dynasty. Nothing else needs to be said.” Another said: “The laowai in my office, has violated traffic regulations over 100 times, had over 60 points deducted [from his license], stopped so many times, but the moment they see he’s a laowai, they let him go.” |::|

One person said: “How can we call them “laowai“? So uncivilized. We should greet them with “Hello, Mister Superior Foreigner!” Now that’s the proper etiquette of the Heavenly Kingdom !! Another aid: “Actually, not entirely. I think the government doing this [having such policies] is due to legitimate reasons. The current situation is only temporary. Sooner or later there will come a day where our country will be strong and powerful, walking in front [at the top]. Perhaps it is because we attracted foreign investment and high-level people [foreign talent] that this happens.” |::|

Myanmar Immigrants in China

Myanmar has become a supplier of day laborers in southwest China as well a source of women and children for marriage, adoption and forced labor. Ground zero for this activity is Ruili, a border town in Yunnan Province that is separated from Myanmar by a flimsy six-foot-high fence that is routinely scaled by Burmese while Chinese border guards look on and taxis wait to take them to their destinations. In the middle of all this are some Burmese babies that are taken to China to be sold and Chinese women headed to the Southeast Asia the sex trade.

Kathleen Speake, a chief technical advisor for the United Nations International Labor Office, told the Washington Post. “Some of the Yunnan women and girls think they’ll get a better job in Thailand.” As for the Burmese, she said, “We’re looking at children being trafficked for adoption, and women being trafficked for marriage.”

Kirsten di Martini, a Beijing-based project officer with UNICEF, told the Washington Post, “China is very big and has a lot of border. In the villages bordering Myanmar, there are some people working as matchmakers. And some of them are human traffickers. It’s hard to tell who are the matchmakers and who are the traffickers.”

One Chinese matchmaker in Ruili told the Washington Post that economics was behind the trade. She said that the cost for a Chinese bride was around $7,000 while the price for a Burmese one was just under $3,000, including the matchmaker’s $440 fee.

A pharmacist who comes in contact with many Burmese women who seek car sickness medicine for long car ride with their new Chinese husbands has difficulty telling which ones come voluntarily to marry Chinese men and which ones come against their will but said, “For a woman 25 to 30 years, they come voluntarily. For those 25 and younger. It’s hard t tell if the come voluntarily or were forced...They are forced by their economic situation at home. They have no other choice.” The pharmacist said her personally knew of one trafficker who was trying to sell an eight-year-old girl after already selling her mother.

China Recruits Thousands of North Korean Guest Workers

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China is quietly inviting tens of thousands of North Korean guest workers into the country in a deal that will provide a cash infusion to help prop up a teetering regime with little more to export than the drudgery of a desperately poor population. The deal, which has not been publicly announced by either Beijing or Pyongyang, would allow about 40,000 seamstresses, technicians, mechanics, construction workers and miners to work in China on industrial training visas, businesspeople and Korea analysts say. Most of the workers' earnings will go directly to the communist North Korean regime. "The North Koreans can't export weapons anymore because of [international] sanctions, so they are using their people to raise cash," said Sohn Kyang-ju, a former South Korean intelligence official who now heads the Seoul-based NK Daily Unification Strategy Institute.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2012 *=*]

“Although migrants from North Korea, as well as Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines, have worked illegally in China for years, it is unprecedented for Beijing to issue visas for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, several labor experts in China said. The deal, which provides workers for a region where China suffers no labor shortages, underscores how far Beijing is willing to go to support its potentially unstable protégé. "My gut feeling is that this is the beginning of a larger wave of North Korean workers coming in. It could be quite significant," said John Park, an academic who has written widely on North Korean-Chinese relations. "It will allow the North Koreans to piggyback on China's economic success to jump-start the economy under the new leadership." *=*

“The first North Korean workers under China's new program arrived: in 2012 “in Tumen, a sleepy town hugging the North Korean border. A Tumen-based businessman said he knew of 140 North Koreans who were working in an underwear factory in town. Other workers were reported to be arriving in Dandong, a larger border city on the Yalu River, famed as the crossing point for Chinese Communist troops during the Korean War, and in Hunchun, a border town on a new road leading to the North Korean shipping port of Rason, where China is also developing port facilities.*=*

“Under the new arrangement, each North Korean worker should bring Pyongyang cash remittances of about $2,000 per year. Out of salaries of $200 to $300 per month, workers are likely to keep less than $50. Nevertheless, the jobs are considered a privilege because wages at home are well under $10 per month and food is scarce for many families, experts say. The North Korean government "will make a very meticulous selection process. They will pick mostly people who are very loyal, with relatives in the Workers' Party, so they can be sure they will not run away, and they will be very tightly controlled while in China," said Kim So-yeol, a reporter with NK Daily, a specialty news service in Seoul. Workers also must be married. Kim believes that the workers already agreed to are only the first wave and that as many as 120,000 will arrive this year.” *=*

“The hiring of North Korean workers is not likely to be popular in China. A recent incident in which North Korean sailors hijacked three Chinese fishing boats infuriated many Chinese who believe their government is too indulgent of Pyongyang. And although many parts of China have labor shortages, the northeastern provinces don't. The North Koreans "will be competing directly with local youths for job opportunities," said Zhang Lianggui, a North Korea expert at the Central Party School in Beijing. *=*

North Korean Workers in China

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “China is quietly inviting tens of thousands of North Korean guest workers into the country in a deal that will provide a cash infusion to help prop up a teetering regime with little more to export than the drudgery of a desperately poor population. The deal, which has not been publicly announced by either Beijing or Pyongyang, would allow about 40,000 seamstresses, technicians, mechanics, construction workers and miners to work in China on industrial training visas, businesspeople and Korea analysts say. Most of the workers' earnings will go directly to the communist North Korean regime. "The North Koreans can't export weapons anymore because of [international] sanctions, so they are using their people to raise cash," said Sohn Kyang-ju, a former South Korean intelligence official who now heads the Seoul-based NK Daily Unification Strategy Institute.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2012 *=*]

“North Korea already has a small number of workers in China at North Korean-government run restaurants where young women in traditional Korean gowns sing karaoke and grilled beef and nengmyon, a cold noodle specialty, are served. But most North Korean workers in China are illegal border crossers who do hard labor for $1 a day and bowls of rice. *=*

“As for the Chinese employers, Park said, "There are no better employees than North Koreans: They are obedient, efficient and cheap." The labor deal has not been publicized by either government, both preternaturally secretive, especially when it comes to deals struck by their respective ruling parties. Another sensitivity is that the arrangement could be seen as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. *=*

China Stops Deportations of North Koreans

Seiichiro Takeuchi and Jumpei Momma wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The Chinese government has suspended deporting North Korean defectors in accordance with a request from the South Korean government, according to sources working for Chinese and North Korean authorities.Diplomatic sources said the move indicated Beijing's displeasure with Pyongyang for ignoring China's demand to refrain from internationally problematic actions, such as last week's long-range ballistic missile launch. [Source: Seiichiro Takeuchi and Jumpei Momma, Yomiuri Shimbun, April 19, 2012 |=|]

“A source working for authorities in China's Liaoning Province said the number of North Korean defectors has increased since the death of former leader Kim Jong Il in December 2011. The source said at the peak, nearly 30 North Koreans defected to Liaoning and Jilin provinces in China on an almost daily basis. The source said: "The defectors would lose their lives if they are sent back. We can't overlook this." Although the source confirmed that China has stopped deporting North Korean defectors, it is unknown when the suspension began. Another source working for Chinese authorities said, "From the beginning, North Korea kept China in the dark about the details about its missile launch plan." The suspension is partly because North Korea "has not been considerate to China, which is its ally." |=|

“Until recently, China has said it dealt with North Korean defectors "under domestic laws, international laws and the principles of humanitarianism." As a result, China had sent back any defectors discovered by its authorities, causing South Korea to demand Beijing stop the deportations. According to To Hui Yun, a representative from the Citizens' Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees (CHNK), five defectors detained in a South Korean diplomatic office in China for nearly three years were permitted to depart. In April 2012, the defectors were "expelled from China" and left for South Korea. |=|

Image Sources: Tales of Shanghai, University of Washington, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015


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