Saturday, May 26, 2007

More Evidence on Laowai

Last month saw another outbreak of the venerable laowai debate over on H-Net Asia. Andrew Field, one of the editors, summarizes. And here is one of the many debates on Forumosa more specific to the Taiwan context. I take the view that laowai is mildly offensive when used in your presence because it is an insider term directed at other insiders.

A comment by Ma Ying-jeou using a related term I think provides additional support for my view. Bruce Herschensohn, a conservative US academic has been widely reported in the Taiwanese media as saying that if elected, Ma Ying-jeou would move toward a "One country two systems" solution for Taiwan. Ma, who has consistently opposed this type of proposal because it is ballot-box poison in Taiwan, was understandably annoyed and described Herschensohn as a "laomei 老美 who doesn't understand what is going on."

I don't think there can be much question that an exasperated Ma reached for a dismissive and even pejorative term to frame Herschensohn's comments for Ma's constituency. The key I would argue is the prefix lao which, at least in this context, has overtones of contemptuous over-familiarity with the pathetically misinformed outsider American. Laowai works in similar ways.

Ma's characterization of Herschensohn is of course in itself exasperating because it shows Ma abusing that familiar trope of "those foreigners who are incapable of understanding us Chinese." Yet more evidence, in my view, that despite his jogging and excellent English, Ma is not the friendly internationalizing 'just like us' kind of guy that much of the foreign community thinks he is.


Tim Maddog said...

Saturday's Taipei Times revealed Herschensohn's complete thoughts more clearly than Ma was willing to:
- - -
Herschensohn was quoted in the interview as saying that he would not be surprised if Ma adopted the "one country, two systems" policy if he were elected president.
- - -

... which makes Ma "Dead corpse on the balcony" Ying-jeou a big, dissembling crybaby.

Remember when Ma used the same "It's a Chinese thing, you wouldn't understand" argument in his pathetic Hardtalk interview? Here are the words that came out of the horse's mouth in response to a question about his belief in "one China" and "unification":
- - -
Ma: No no no no no. You don't understand what these terms mean because you are not very much affa.. familiar with Chinese affairs and Taiwanese affairs.
- - -

You can see and hear him say those words just past the 20'50" of this RealPlayer video. In fact, host Stephen Sackur demonstrated a much clearer understanding of the situation than Caroline Gluck does from Taipei (which seems to put her a bit too close to Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] headquarters).

So, yeah, Ma was using "laowai" in a negative way, because Herschensohn hit too close to the truth -- and that's where it hurts Ma the most.

Tim Maddog

Feiren said...

Tim, you are spot on with the Hardtalk interview. Ma's building a real track record with his xenophobia.

I'm increasingly unclear though as what was actually said. Were Herschensohn's comments back-translated to the Taipei Times? Or am I quoting him in translation. Ma's response sounds like it must have been in Mandarin though.

Tim Maddog said...

Google may be helpful here. A search for the phrase 「搞不清楚狀況的老美」 (from the China Times article you linked) and Ma's name (in Mandarin) brings up a whole bunch of relevant results, leading me to believe those are probably the words Ma spoke. Finding Herschensohn's exact words isn't as easy, but I did find that he has been saying many of the exact same things since at least July 2006.

Here are the subheadings of Herschensohn's section of the page linked above:
* The Kuomintang (KMT) was a Real Dictatorship
* The KMT Party Acts as a Proxy for the People's Republic of China
* Democracy is the Enemy of the KMT
* If Chairman Ma becomes President it may result in "One country, Two systems", like the Hong Kong Model
* If you ever make policy from fear… you are going to lose

Friday's Liberty Times gave the Herschensohn vs. Ma story this headline [translation mine]:
- - -
美學者:馬若當選 可能接受一國兩制

American academic: If Ma is elected, it is possible that he could accept "one country, two systems"
- - -

That seems to be the "interview" to which the Saturday Taipei Times was referring.

I hope that helps. If I find more info, I'll pass it along.

Tim Maddog

Andrew said...

Interesting connection of the "laowai" discussion to contemporary Taiwanese politics. I agree that the terms "laowai" and "laomei" can be used in a pejorative fashion, as is no doubt in the case of Ma Yingjiu, but I'm not sure that they are intrinsically pejorative. I still hold thru 20 years of experience that "laowai" is generally used in knee-jerk reaction to seeing a Western face. It only takes on a pejorative tone when the user is ill-disposed towards Westerners.