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Having groups of people shout out “foreigner” — or mzungu, gringo, farang, or the local equivalent — can be harrowing.

GRINGO, Mzungu, Farang.

This is what they say when we pass by.

We are foreigners: different color skin, different shaped eyes, different hair, just different. They are words of not belonging, of being in an out-group (as opposed to an in-group), of otherness.

I came across a quote in a book by writer Douglas Mack not that long ago. “Implicit in the question ‘Where are you from?’ is the accusation ‘You don’t belong here.’” Here I’ll take it further and say that being called gringo, or gaijin, or gweilo can feel a lot like being reminded that “this is not your place.”

Negative, or descriptive?

Whether you deem these terms to be negative or just descriptive depends on how they’re being said, by whom, and in what circumstance. Does it sound threatening? Is it being shouted, or just called out? Is there a history of conflict between people “like you” and people “like them?”

Or is it just shorthand? One March a few years ago, night and rain fell suddenly upon me on a bike trip on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and I took shelter in a half-empty roadside cantina. “Whose bike is that?” someone asked. Es de la gringa (It’s the gringa’s). And it was. It was an easy way to identify me.

Some people grow so accustomed to their foreign nicknames that they start to use them themselves.
Linguistic re-appropriation

Some people grow so accustomed to their foreign nicknames that they start to use them themselves, much as parts of the gay community use the word ‘queer’ or environmentalists have come to use ‘tree hugger.’ This linguistic re-appropriation essentially strips the word of negativity. It’s also a way of accepting something you are very unlikely to be able to change.

What they call us

Below are six terms you might be called in your travels, and how people have come to appropriate them, and sometimes even make fun of themselves by using them.

Gaijin — used in Japan, generally for white people. Its etymology means outsider, or unknown person. Its use in mainstream media is now falling, as it is considered to be politically incorrect, but some westerners living in Japan have embraced the word, regardless. For more information, read here.

Mzungu — used in southern, central, and eastern African nations to mean “white man” or “white person,” though the word is of Swahili etymology and describes a person who wanders, rather than the color of that person’s skin. Mzungu is flexible in that sometimes it will be used for people in positions of power, including those who have the money to travel. People report its use to describe people from the Indian subcontinent, African Americans, and even people from southern, central, or eastern Africa, if they hold a high position. One long-term Africa-dwelling mzungu describes her experiences with the word here and a short-termer describes his here.

There are farang dating sites, farang real estate sites, and a Team Farang Facebook page with more than 9,000 likes.

Farang/Farenghi — Farang is a word used in Thailand to refer to a person of European ancestry. Farang has been embraced by much of the expat community, which is big and growing, with large numbers in Chiang Mai. There are farang dating sites, farang real estate sites, and a Team Farang Facebook page with more than 9,000 likes. There are people who prefer not to be called Farang, but it is generally taken to be a neutral term with other, more negative terms used when an epithet is intended. Similar versions of this word, such as farenghi, are used in South Asia. I have a friend whose Punjabi-speaking family in India affectionately refers to her as masi farenghi — foreign auntie, because she lives in the United States.

Laowai — Used in mainland China meaning, roughly, “always foreigner,” though it is often misinterpreted to mean “old foreigner,” as explained here. There is some debate about whether it is neutral or derogatory by virtue of being impolite. A more neutral proposed term is waiguoren, which is occasionally heard, though not as much as laowai.

But is Laowai offensive? Jesse Appell, who is studying comedy in China on a Fullbright research grant doesn’t think so, and he made a Gangnam-style parody called Laowai Style, featuring foreigners in Beijing. The video has almost 40,000 hits after just about two weeks.

Gweilo/Gwailo — A Cantonese word mainly used in Hong Kong whose underlying meaning is “ghost man” but which has been taken to mean “foreign devil.” Some argue that the term has not lost its negative connotations, but given the number of blogs named something with gweilo or gwailo, it seems the term either is or is on its way to being reappropriated as a more neutral term. The expression sai-yahn is more neutral, but not as commonly-used.

Gringo — A term used in much of the Spanish-speaking world, except Spain (where the term yanqui is preferred). It refers to, roughly, an American, an English-speaker, or a person of European descent, depending on who is saying it. The usage varies by country, as does the out-group acceptance of the word, but in general, it is considered to be only mildly and occasionally derogatory, and there are scores of blogs written by self-proclaimed “gringos.” In some countries, the term is also used for light-haired and light-eyed people, where those traits are uncommon, such as in Peru.

Acceptance

Many foreigners still bristle at being called a particular name, feeling that it erases their individuality, or shows a lack of respect. Or they look to the etymology of the word (such as that of gweilo) and feel that it can’t possibly be meant to be neutral.

But if you’re going to be in another country, you’re going to have to shake off some of your cultural assumptions. And while it’s interesting to think about whether terms are re-purposed as friendly by other foreigners, or are meant with affection, or to include, rather than exclude, you, it is important not to put too fine of an American-based spin on it.

We, in much of the English-speaking world, are taught from childhood that name-calling is rude. And you definitely don’t call people out based on their appearance.

But plainly seen from the vast number of names used around the world to describe foreigners (and I haven’t even touched on toubab, gadjo, guiri, gubba, haole or pakeha, or many others), name-calling, much like Gagnam Style (and all the parody videos), is, simply put, a cultural phenomenon.

Culture Guides

 

About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • Anonymous

    In northern Nigeria, white folks are called “Bature!” in public. It literally means “European,” but applies to all fair-skinned people.

  • Egidio De Bustamante

    in spain the term used is not gringo but guiri. in argentina they use yanqui to refer to people from the USA. in latin america in general gringo stands for foreigner, but it is more often used to point out western white people).

    • Eileen Smith

      when I was in Spain, yanquilandia was how people referred to the US, but you’re right, I never heard anyone call me a yanqui.

  • Jason Sanqui

    You’re lucky you experience this sense of not belonging only when you travel. I have experienced this my entire life. I’m part Chinese and part Nicaraguan (look Asian), born in Nicaragua. There aren’t that many Chinese (or Asians) in Nicaragua, so I always stuck out. People yelled “Chino cochino” (dirty Chinese). Of course, that’s an obviously racist example and I certainly didn’t appreciate it, but like you mentioned, in Latin America it’s more common for people to point out people’s physical differences. For example, my Mom calls my Dad “gordo” (fatso). No harm done.

    In the US, where I moved to when I was a kid, people (mostly white) sometimes ask me where I’m from. This usually means “you look like a foreigner. where are you originally from?” for I have no accent when I speak English, so how could they know I’m not from here. And if I answer the question “Los Angeles”, they then ask “no, where are you REALLY from?” I think this sort of thing happens to many Americans of Latin, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent. Perpetual immigrants, though thousands are born here.

    While it’s true that in places like the US, it’s considered impolite to call someone out by their race, it happens all the time when that particular race is not present or that person is not in the group. For example, in a group of white people they might refer to someone as “the black guy” or “the Asian girl”. But if they’re talking about another white person, then they’ll say “the pretty blonde” or “the tall muscular guy” with no reference to race.

    I moved to China to work and they regarded me as a laowai also, though upon meeting me they were confused. Chinese-looking guy from America? What’s that? Why don’t you speak Chinese? Thanks to Hollywood, all Americans are either white or black.

    • Eileen Smith

      Jason, I’m really interested in how people feel about their identity, both self-proclaimed and how people see them. I actually live in Latin America, and have for almost nine years, so I do experience a smidgen of this on a daily basis. I’m not chilena, but I do have dark hair and darkish eyes, which means that unless someone is playing “spot the gringa,” I can pass a bit. I thought it was interesting when people saw pictures of other members of my family (fair, and blue-eyed), and said, ohhhh, those are real gringoes. It’s a little bit of disenfranchisement right there on my front doorstep.

      That said, no, I don’t experience what you experience, but I really appreciate you taking the time to write about it. Belonging is so important. Are you still in China?

    • Jason Sanqui

      Yes, prior to moving to the US, I thought everyone was blond with blue eyes. So I could see why you would experience some disenfranchisement in Chile.

      I moved back to the US a little more than a year ago. Got tired of living in China.

    • Crystal Kitty Manaf-Naf

      I’ve felt the same way, Jason! I’m a Mexican-Iranian-American and have always felt excluded by my “typical” American counterparts and have always been treated as ethnically different in the US and oftentimes called names (not necessarily derogatory, but nevertheless impolite). I never truly felt American until well into my teens. Now I’m living in Chile and I’m always considered an American or “gringa”, which at first was quite odd.

      I’ve come to terms with my own identity, and I know that I may never be fully accepted as “Chilean” either regardless of how long I live here. How can I expect that when people in my own country treat me like a foreigner at times?

    • Jason Sanqui

      It’s funny how location alters how people perceive you and how you perceive yourself. In China, Americans tended to see me as one of them, but in the US many people might see me as “Asian” only or primarily. I also felt very American when I lived in China.

  • Margaret Snook

    Here in Chile gringo is generally descriptive and even affectionate. I have no problems with being called (or calling myself) a gringa. When I here “yanqui,” however, I am put on guard. I have never heard it used affectionately here and it is almost always derisive and accusatory.
    Regarding name-calling, there’s a strong cultural element at hand in this issue that makes such terms more (or less) offensive depending on the culture. Chilean school kids are notoriously derisive of their classmates with nicknames that would never be tolerated in the US, but which are celebrated for their creativity here, and that carries over into adulthood as well. So when you go to school with “lentil face” (cara de lenteja) and a boy called “grandmother” (abuelita) and called your loved ones “fatty” (gordita) and “little piggy,” (chachito) no one understands why anyone would object to “gringo.”

  • Ricardo Romero Barraza

    Very good piece, from one of my favorite gringas xD.

  • Lawrence Heyman

    Hi, I happened to read this article after reading yours. Not the same theme, but relates to people reclaiming a word. You might be interested in that aspect even if you aren’t an English football (soccer) fan.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/nov/09/tottenham-hotspur-fans-yid-chants

  • David Berkowitz

    As the Mzungu featured in the photo, I got the t-shirt from a souvenir store in Zanzibar. The young woman who sold it to me was mortified by the idea that I would give it to a friend, as she found it insulting. She was even more horrified to learn that I was buying it for myself, but she relented and helped me find one in my size. Her problem seemed to be more with the word “Mshamba,” which has the same connotation as hick or redneck, so she didn’t like the idea of a white guy wearing a shirt that said “dumb, ignorant white guy” (but who else would wear it?).

  • roque_gabriel@hotmail.com

    and no matter where are you from, if you come to ibiza, and you’re not from spain, you’re automatically renamed as “guiri” :) and everyone will call you that by the time you cant realize what does that means.
    - guiris say what?
    - what?
    ¡¡Ò.Ó!!

  • Tyler Muse

    Interesting article. I had never heard of yanqui before. @roque_gabrielhotmailcom:disqus guiri is a new one for me too. Language is constantly evolving!

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