Dear MeiGui: What's wrong with being a "Waiguoren"?

Originally published in The China Post, 2/28/09

Dear Meigui;

     I want to make it clear up front that religion isn’t my thing, but since missionaries are ubiquitous not only in my Chinese language learning center but also on the streets of Taipei; I hook up with the odd one from time to time to chat over coffee.  Mostly we talk about the pedestrian issues of living in a foreign country; although they never stop hoping for a conversion.

     Anyway, I met this really nice missionary guy in my class last year.  We became pretty friendly before he finally left for a mission in China, only to suddenly return this past Chinese New Year for a visit.

     Now here’s the clincher:  While he was in Taipei, he ripped me off for a hundred US dollars!  He told me that he didn’t exchange enough American money at the airport, and pressured me to change money for him.

     I’m no foreign currency expert, and don’t even do these kinds of favors for trusted friends; however since this guy was a missionary and all, I figured it was okay.

     But get this, when I took the hundred to the bank last week, I got raked over the coals because the bill turned out to be counterfeit.  The bank manger practically accused me of having ties to organized crime.  Nobody believed that a missionary passed me a bad bill.

     In hindsight, I realize a lot of these missionary-types have troubled pasts, so I shouldn’t be surprised about getting conned.  Still why did the bank officials give me such a hard time?  I hardly look like a criminal element – just an average run-of-the-mill English teacher.

-- Wrongfully Accused in Taipei


Dear Wrongfully Accused;

     You wouldn’t happen to have a nose-ring or a visible tattoo of some sort?  As it appears that you were hit with the stereotype – missionary good; English teacher bad.

     That aside, let me tell you an interesting tale from a “Taiwan miracle” chapter of history.

     A ring of counterfeiters reproducing mainland China currency in Taiwan got napped by police and subsequently tried in the courts.  However, the judge threw the case out on philosophical grounds.  According to this judge, the Renminbi was in fact not a legitimate currency as it was being printed by an illegitimate government.  Therefore the counterfeiters had committed no crime – such is the absolute power of perception.

     Don’t take money from strangers.

-- “Two things are infinite:  the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.” Albert Einstein


Dear MeiGui;

     What’s the problem with the term “waiguoren”?  I’m a young Taiwan woman who studied English in New Zealand for many years, and since I returned to work in Taiwan, I often hear my foreign colleagues complaining about this word.

     “Waiguoren” is simply a word Chinese-speakers use to describe non-East Asian looking people.  We don’t call Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese or even Filipinos “waiguoren.”  We call all others, including darker Southeast Asians, “waiguoren,’ because they don’t look Chinese.

-- Word Aficionado in WuLai 


Dear Word Aficionado;

     One question:  While in New Zealand, did local people point at you in public places and scream:  “Look at the foreigner!”?  I don’t think it is the word itself, but the behavior that generally accompanies its usage.

     The socio-political connotations of words can be more than insulting.

-- “Being a foreigner is not a disease.” Alden Nowlan, Canadian poet