Photo: David Berkowitz
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, 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.
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.
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.