Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I have a complicated relationship with the word "gweilo"

Obviously, given that I've used it in my blog name.

 For some background information for the non-Cantonese speakers out there, gweilo is a word used in Cantonese to refer to foreigners. Gwei (鬼) means ghost, and there's a bunch of stuff tied into white skin. Commonly, gweilo is translated as "foreign devil". It is under fairly common usage in the Cantonese speaking parts of China and Hong Kong, and while I don't think it is always supposed to be pejorative, it is not the most polite term to refer to foreigners. Other areas with Chinese cultural history, like Singapore, have their own words as well, like Ang mo.

 Having spent one year in Southern China, and now nearly three years in Hong Kong, I have heard gweilo used often. In China, it was most often heard coming off the back of a passing motorcycle: "Hellloooooo gweilooooo". People would not often use it to my face, and my colleagues in China certainly never used it in my hearing, preferring the much more politically correct ”外国人“ or “外国朋友” (foreigner, or foreign friend). Most conversations I've had with people in China since then have used those terms.

 In Hong Kong I hear gweilo quite often, and often rudely. I use it myself, but I do so with some sense of irony. I know very well what it means, and its connotations. Some people are shocked that I would use it, but my thinking is, if you are going to use it to describe me and others like me, then I should be able to use it too. And maybe they can think about it for themselves, whether they want to continue using it too.

 All that being said, there are settings where it is absolutely inappropriate to use language like that. I would never refer to myself as gweilo in a class, or in a similar professional setting, nor do I plan to use it when I teach later on in my PhD (unless language use in Marketing comes up, but that's different again).

 What brought all this on? Last night, as part of one of my Customer Relationship Management classes at CityU, we had a guest speaker. I won't name him, because I suspect he's the sort of fellow who has a google tracker on his name, but suffice to say, he used to be reasonably well known in Hong Kong, and is now a DBA student at CityU.

 During Mr Guest Speaker's lecture, he kept slipping bits of Cantonese into his talk. While I have some basic Cantonese, enough to get by in the market, quickly spoken asides in a lecture are not something that I will be able to catch. But then he started using "gweilo". The first time, I wasn't sure I'd heard it right, because I thought, "This guy's a professional, surely he would know better than that!"

But no, it continued. I began to wonder if he was just assuming I didn't know what it means, or if he just didn't care. Either way, it felt very much like he was addressing the entire class except me, and there was really a point when I just wanted to say "I'm RIGHT HERE". His whole talk was about staying on top of change, and making sure that communication, and presentation moves with it too, and so many of his points were somewhat ruined for me by his presentation of himself. He talks about keeping up with change. Well, guess what, Chinese are not just learning English, but foreigners are learning Chinese. He talks about presenting things in the right way. Well, I change my language use depending on where I am and who I'm talking to, and above all I try to know my audience.