Why Do Non-Chinese People Call Themselves Foreigners?

Is Saying “Foreigner” Bad English?

When a Chinese person makes a grammatical mistake it’s easy to identify as “chinglish” (Chinese English). However when Chinese people say things that are grammatically correct but simply not what a native speaker would say it’s a lot harder, and more subjective, to  identify as correct or incorrect English.

The word “foreigner” is a perfect example of this. To me it is one of the most successful chinglish words. So successful that many native English speakers who have spent time in China start to use it.

1. The word foreigner is not used by native English speakers

Although the word foreigner is sometimes used by native English speakers in native English speaking countries it’s usually considered derogatory. In formal situations you’ll never see it. News presenters and newspaper articles will not refer to people from other countries as foreigners. When you go through customs at an airport in Britain they don’t have a queue for “British” and a queue for “foreigners”. The queues are usually for “British passport holders”, “EU passport holders” and “non-EU passport holders”. Sometimes it’s “British citizens”, “EU citizens” and “non-EU citizens”. Sometimes you’ll see “nationals” instead of “citizens”. One thing if for sure though; you’ll never see a big illuminated sign saying “foreigners “(外国人 wài guó rén in Chinese) . Everytime I see one at a Chinese airport it feels very wrong to me.

At London Heathrow airport the word

At London Heathrow airport the word “foreigner” is not to be found

2. Foreigner has no real meaning to native English speakers

Just over a year ago I was talking to Jason James, director general of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese foundation, in London. During conversation he said something about “foreigners in Japan”, after which I had to bite my tongue very hard to not make a sarcastic comment along the lines of “yes I hear there are 120 million foreigners in Japan”.

Joking aside it is a legitimate problem with the word foreigner. Why would a British person talking to another British person in Britain refer to himself, in English, as a foreigner? He was obviously using the word foreigner to mean “non-Japanese”, in the same way many English speakers who have spent a long time in China use it to mean “non-Chinese”. My question is this: would a Japanese person using Japanese to talk to another Japanese person in Japan ever refer to themself as a 外国人 (gaikokujin), even if it were within the context of another country? I highly doubt it. I know for certain that Chinese people would never call themselves a 外国人 (wài guó rén) when talking to other Chinese people in China. In fact I have Chinese friends who continue to call Americans “foreigners” even when they’re in America.

The fact that the English word “foreigner” changes meaning so easily in the minds of native English speakers suggests that it never really had a strong meaning in the first place. For Chinese people it has a much stronger meaning. I often test Chinese people by saying to them “when you speak English you sound like a foreigner” and every time they get very happy. Even in the context of another country and speaking English to a British person the word “foreigner” doesn’t change meaning in their mind; it still means “non-Chinese person”. The word “foreigner” changes meaning for native English speakers. It doesn’t change meaning for Chinese people. This is because native English speakers don’t really use the word “foreigner”, and so when they go to China they adopt the Chinese meaning.

3. Foreigner is a racial term that is useless in English speaking countries

Foreigner (wài guó rén) is not used to describe Korean or Japanese people a fraction as much as it is used to describe people of other ethnicities that look much more different to ethic Han Chinese. As much as they like to believe otherwise Chinese people can’t instantly tell if a person is Korean just by looking at them (much to the annoyance of an ethically Korean American friend of mine).

Many Chinese people instinctively call Mike Suit a

Many Chinese people instinctively call Mike Sui a “foreigner” on the basis of appearance

I once worked at (金苹果学校, Gold Apple School) in Shanghai. I was teaching first grade and one class had a child whose father was British and another class and a child whose father was American. Both children had Chinese mothers, both spoke Mandarin as their first language (their English was actually worse than a lot of their classmates’ English), both had Chinese citizenship and both had lived in China all their lives. However, they were still referred to as wài guó rén (foreigners) by their classmates because they looked different. Meanwhile there was another class which had a Korean child who could not speak, read or write any Chinese and spent most his time writing Korean words in his exercise book. Not once did I hear this boy be called a wài guó rén by his classmates, they always said he was a hǎn guó rén (Korean person).


Despite not speaking Chinese my Korean student was never referred to as a “foreigner”

Although the Chinese use of “foreigner” technically means anyone who is not from China, in reality it means people who look different to Han Chinese. This use of “foreigner” cannot be used by native English speakers because English speaking countries are ethnically diverse and multicultural. 100 years ago British people might have believed they could tell what country someone was from by looking at them, but now it’s impossible. There are many British people of different ethnic backgrounds who have lived in Britain all their lives. Their families immigrated to Britain generations ago and now they’re as British as the queen (who is actually of German ancestry). It’s the same situation in almost all English speaking countries.

In English speaking countries we therefore don’t automatically assume we know if a person is from the same country as us purely on the basis of appearance. As a result native English speakers only know for sure if someone is a “foreigner” if they tell you. As a rule of thumb, when a person tells you they do not come from the same country as you they also usually tell you which country they do come from, after which you can refer to their actual nationality. There is no reason to call them foreigner.

4. The implications

Perhaps things will change in China. After a few generations there might be a lot more Chinese people of mixed ethnicity and “foreigner” (wài guó rén) will stop being a useful word, the same way it is not useful in English speaking countries. As it stands “foreigner” is a useful word for Chinese people because they use it to refer to people who don’t look Chinese, which in their minds is a distinct group worth identifying socially, and therefore requires identifying linguistically with a dedicated word. Does this mean “foreigner”, when used in English,  is Chinglish? Is it incorrect to use the word foreigner in the way that Chinese people do? If Chinese people want to speak English and sound like native English speakers do they need to change their way of thinking, their way of viewing the world through their current linguistic lens that divides the world into two neat groups of “us and them”, “Chinese and foreigners”?

This article is open to comments.


7 thoughts on “Why Do Non-Chinese People Call Themselves Foreigners?

    • Good point Chris, I think the difference is between the adjective “foreign” and the noun “foreigner”, whilst the noun can sound derogatory the adjective doesn’t and is used in many formal situations in English. In Britain we have a department of the government called the “foreign office” and universities have departments for “foreign languages”, but I don’t think you would see the noun “foreigner” in these kind of formal situations. Thanks for the comment!

  1. Same here. The only people I hear refer to themselves that way are the ones who just arrived in China and have no clue as to how deep the rabbit hole goes with this word.
    I call the Chinese “foreigners from Asia” now. There is absolutely no connection in their mind between geographic location, nationality, place of birth, or the place that someone grew up and the word “foreigner”. It is 100% racist. I have found that when I treat them exactly how they treat me, they get extremely uncomfortable. (pointing a finger and camera in their face and repeating 老外 over and over again, for example.) They are simply too ignorant to understand how racist they are. You can ask any of them “what if a white family has been in China for six generations, and they can only speak Mandarin, and are Chinese citizens. The answer is always the same, “They’re still foreigners. We can just tell from looking at them. I know you foreigners can’t tell whose a foreigner or not, but we can.”
    You can follow up with, “what if a family from Japan moved here and had kids, would the 2nd generation children be Chinese?” Answer: “Not if they look like us.”

    I also know people from Korea and the Philippines; absolutely everyone thinks they are Chinese and tries to ignore me to talk to them in restaurants, etc. They just roll their eyes at me when I tell them they can’t speak any Mandarin and refuse to give up.

    • I know how you feel. I think it’s more a problem of ignorance rather than an actively malicious racism, so I’d say try not to let it frustrate you too much. For me I’ve made a reasonable amount of money through ESL and other jobs where I’m sure the main attraction was the colour of my skin, so as annoying as I find it I also don’t really want to bite the hand that feeds me. Whenever I hear the word foreigner from someone I don’t know too well I just bite my tongue instead.

  2. Lewis, I couldn’t agree with you more. Your point of view is rarely seen, and it’s a refreshing and welcome change. The question by another commenter “do you call your non-Chinese colleagues “foreign teachers”?”… I don’t know whether they were looking for an inconsistency in your own behaviour or why they made the comment, but I’ve taught in China on multiple occasions and never referred to any colleagues as “foreign teachers” unless their nationality was of specific relevance to the topic at hand, i.e. the need to look after visas, etc, and I always included non-Caucasians in my definition of “foreign teacher”. I also told my students that I’d rather be called 老师 (which is what they call their other teachers anyway) than 外教.

    I just want to add a few points (some of which you’ve touched on already)…

    When many Chinese migrate to Western countries (and here we could avoid the “multiculturalism” factor for now and say European countries where Caucasians are the indigenous people of the country), they still refer to Westerners/locals as “foreigners”. This shows, and as you’ve demonstrated, that there is a misconception in China about what the word actually means. It shows that, even prior to these migrants/tourists leaving China, they had a faulty conception of what “foreigner” means. It totally wipes out the argument of many (including Westerners) of “Well, let’s face it, if you’re in their country, you are a foreigner.”

    Technically speaking, this is true, we are foreigners when in China… but as you say, so are Indians, Koreans, Japanese and so on. They are not referred to as “foreigners”, so the term is a nonsense.

    Another problem is the regularity in which the term is used. Even if we put aside the problems with the word for a moment… why does it need to come into every single conversation? It seems as though some people have the local/foreign distinction on the brain. They say “foreigner” literally all the time whenever a Westerner has anything to do with the conversation whatsoever. Where I’m from, we’d hardly say the word “foreigner” at all, unless we work within the department of immigration within the government and it’s of particular relevance.

    Once, in Australia, I saw a white Australian ordering takeaway food in a Chinese (Sichuan) restaurant. He said “not too spicy please”, and the restaurant worker said “yes, because you are a foreigner”. Again, the worker seems to have forgotten where he was, and… why is the word foreigner so often associated with inability rather than ability?

    On 老外, I’m often amazed when speaking with people on this issue, they will launch into a lengthy explanation of the 老, how it’s neutral, and even a sign of respect. Then they stop there! No discussion at all as to what the connotations of 外 are, and no entering into debate about an us/them mentality or whether there’s more kudos attached to being a local who knows his/her way around than a “foreigner” who is essentially a perpetual tourist who really needs a little help.

    People who say 老外 is neutral are burying their heads in the sand. If it can so easily be made into a phrase such as 傻老外, then it’s obviously quite fit to be used with a derogatory (贬义词) intention.

    For a long time now, I’ve been debating with people online about this issue. What frustrates me the most is not so much the Chinese themselves, but other Westerners who get defensive and angry *in favour* of continued use of the word/s foreigner/外国人/老外. As I’ll show (two paragraphs down), the issue is important, not unimportant, which is what “debaters” from a pro-老外 position would have us believe.

    I’ve also heard people say “That’s what it’s like in China, 入乡随俗.” To say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a logical absurdity in this context. (A) By calling me foreigner/外国人/老外, you are working AGAINST the principle of 入乡随俗, not with it. (B) Westerners living in China is not an integral part of Chinese culture, so it’s a nonsense to think that any particular term for “foreigner” necessarily needs to be so ingrained.

    There’s a very talented international Chess player, called Zhu Chen (from memory). I sometimes ask Chinese people whether they’d rather I refer to her as a foreigner (because from my perspective, she is) or as (a) Chinese. They always say they’d rather I acknowledge she’s Chinese. On the other hand, there’s a video circulating around on Chinese video websites of an American who stole money from a shop in Shanghai. (I’m not American.) I ask Chinese people whether they think I’d prefer the thief to be referred to as American or as a foreigner.

    If we were talking about Cambodia or some other relatively small country, the problem might not be so important. However, we’re talking about a rising superpower with influence stretching across the world. Given this, I’d rather be referred to by by Chinese (or anyone else) by my name and, if my nationality is important, by the name of my actual country. The word “foreigner” has no meaning whatsoever, particularly online (“cyberspace”!), where there are no countries at all.

    It’s not rocket science. A Persian student I recently taught latched on to this concept straight away: Whatever we would introduce ourselves as, call us that. It’s the safest and most polite way to go. “Hi! I’m Bruce!” That basically means “Call me Bruce, not David.” 甲: Where are you from? 乙: England 甲: Oh, I love meeting foreigners.

    It also is not asking for special treatment. Chinese people call each other by name. Call us by name too.

    • All valid points, I particularly like the last point you made about referring to people in the way that they introduce themselves. I once had a colleague from Hong Kong who would sometimes refer to me as a foreigner but then got upset when I referred to her as Chinese. She would say “I’m not Chinese, I’m from Hong Kong” and I would reply “I’m not a foreigner, I’m from Britain.” I think it’s a problem of referring to people using labels that, although maybe technically correct, are not what they want to be called. I think if you refer to a Chinese person as a 外地人 wài dì rén (person from a different province) or a 农民 nóng mín (person from the countryside) when they don’t want to be referred to that way and given that label then they might understand why you don’t want to be called a foreigner.

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