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.
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).
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).
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”?
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