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外国人 = 白人? Does 'foreigner' mean 'white' in China?

If you’re a foreigner in China, you no doubt hear these words at least once a day: 外国人 and 老外 - ‘foreigner’. You’ll hear them on the street as you walk past people, people will use them to refer to you, or sometimes even to get your attention (as my estate agents are fond of doing).

Usually they’re translated into ‘foreigner’ in English, although their usage and connotations are very different to ‘foreigner’. I seldom used the word ‘foreigner’ before I came to China. Whilst I’m here, I only use it to refer to the group that I’m a part of. Back home, I associate it with close-minded conservatives, who read the Daily Mail and complain about “forrins”.

The word ‘foreigner’ in English just seems a bit rude. If I really had to indicate that someone wasn’t British I’d try to find out what country they were actually from and use that. But I just can’t think of a situation where that need would come up; I’ve never really needed to talk about ‘foreigners’ as one group contrasted to British people alone.

Nationality and race

I think the distinction between “Chinese” and “foreign” is much bigger in China, probably due to the fact that China’s population is 92% of Han ethnicity. Anyone who sees me here can immediately be sure that I am not Chinese, just by looking at my face (although people often mistakenly think I’m mixed race. I even got called a ‘mongrel’ in Yunnan once, much to my delight).

When people from other countries do look different so consistently, having a general term for them makes more sense. There’s also the historical distinction between 華 and 夷: ‘China’ and ‘the barbarians’ (everyone else in the world).

It’s not just Chinese people that routinely make this distinction, either. Nearly all the foreigners I know in China refer to themselves as foreigners, hang out together, and are proud to be 老外.

But is that what it really means?

It seems, though, that 外国人 doesn’t just mean “someone from outside China”. It’s not equivalent to ‘foreigner’ in English. More often than not, I think, it actually means specifically ‘white people’.

A friend of mine said she was with her Chinese friends, one of whom pointed out “这里中国人、外国人、韩国人和日本人都有” - “There are Chinese people, foreigners, Koreans and Japanese people here”. Surely if 外国人 means ‘foreigner’, Koreans and Japanese people wouldn’t need to be listed separately?

Also, in my (admittedly limited) personal experience, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Chinese person refer to a black person as 外国人. It seems that more often than not, the word 黑人 - ‘black person’ - is used.

I’ve now had two conversations with taxi drivers who point out that the foreign students at 海洋大学 are mostly “Russians, Koreans and black people”, as if ‘black people’ are a country. One seemed confused when I said that the black students I know at 海洋大学 come from England, America and France. It’s only two conversations, but they do suggest that 外国人 isn’t quite the same thing as ‘foreigner’.

I’ve asked a few Chinese people if 外国人 includes not just white people but people with other skin colours as well, and they all say that it does. It seems that if asked directly, most people will say that 外国人 simply means ‘not Chinese’. But I’m tempted to say that in actual use it really refers only to white people.

This is pure conjecture

Of course this is nothing but speculation on my part; I’m basing it entirely on my own experience. I’m not trying to make some wider point with this, I just find it interesting that the term doesn’t seem to match up very well with the concept of ‘foreigner’ in English.

I’d be interested to see what other people think about this one. Please share in the comments!

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