Fake foreigner

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I just now stepped out of a Singapore cab.  There are many different ethnic groups in this cosmopolitan city, including Chinese (Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, etc.), Indian, Malay, and so on.  The driver of this particular taxi was Chinese.  He was slight of build and very high strung.  He asked me what I was doing on the campus of the National University of Singapore.  "Were you here to give a lecture?"

"Yes," I said, "and to do research."

"On what subject?"  Since I got into the cab in front of the business school, he probably thought I was there to give lectures and do research on finance, marketing, or the like.

"On Chinese language, literature, thought, religion, and culture."

"What?" he said with incredulity.

"Yeah," I said matter-of-factly.  "Mainly I teach Chinese language and literature."

"What?  You know Mandarin?"

"Yes," I replied, "but I usually teach Classical Chinese."

"How is that possible?" he asked.

"It's my job, my vocation."

He was stunned.

As he drove me back to my apartment, I noticed a strangely conspicuous, handwritten sign hanging from the middle of his dashboard.  In big, red characters that were easily visible from the back seat of the cab, the sign listed about ten categories of jiǎ 假  ("fake; false") individuals that he didn't like to have in his cab, including jiǎ shàngděng rén 假上等人 ("fake gentlemen") and jiǎ gāojí rén 假高级人 ("fake high class people").  But the most severe scorn of all was reserved for the last category on the list:  the dreaded jiǎ yángrén 假洋人 ("fake foreigners").

When I started to read out the categories of fake persons that the cabby detested, he almost crashed the car.  After he composed himself, he blurted out, "You can read that stuff?"

"Of course," I said.  "That's what I do for a living."  Whereupon we switched into Mandarin and there ensued a most animated discussion about why he hated all of those different types of fakers listed on the sign.  Finally, we got down to the last one, the jiǎ yángrén 假洋人 ("fake foreigners"), and I asked him what he meant by that.  "A 'fake foreigner,'" he said, "is a Chinese who comes into my cab and speaks English to me.  A 'fake foreigner' is also a Chinese who speaks English to his / her children.  Such people are beneath contempt."

"But what about the Minister Mentor [Lee Kuan Yew]?" I asked.  "He doesn't really speak Chinese, does he?  Is he a 'fake foreigner'?"

The cabdriver very quickly changed the topic (it is against the law in Singapore to slander the Minister Mentor).  Not wanting to get the cabby in trouble, but still wishing to urge him not to be so unremittingly negative, I suggested, "Why don't you put up a new category on your list, the zhēn yángrén 真洋人 ('true foreigner')?  Am I not a 'true foreigner'?"

He looked at me with wide open eyes, thought for a moment, then laughed (I felt triumphant in getting him to crack a smile), and exclaimed, "Nope! You're a jiǎ huárén ('fake Chinese')!"

Whereupon we reached my apartment and I got out of the taxi.  "Have a good day," he shouted out merrily — in English.


  1. arthur waldron said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:33 am

    People form hierarchies–it is our hard wired, default condition.

    If Chinese can make sushi why can't white boys teach Chinese? I have had experiences like Victor's and I say the same thing–it's what I do for a living, simple as that. Make no big deal of it. A billion people know Chinese and a small fraction of them are white (and black) boys (and girls)

    The real absurdity is the astonishment of the huaren. No one is amazed when someone with an Asian face reads or speaks English.

    Even this rare and wonderful Singapore cabby could do that!

  2. Hongyu said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    Hi, just wanted to clarify – it is not against the law to slander the (ex) Minister Mentor per se, it is just against the law to slander people, full stop, although it's not really a criminal law but rather one enforced through libel lawsuits. There are some issues with how strictly these libel laws are construed, and with the fact that the political elite has used these laws fairly regularly to sue political opponents, but there is no explicit lese-majeste law in the same way that Thailand does, for example. Singapore is not that much of a police state!

    The cabby was probably just being paranoid, and in that he is quite rare – most other cabbies will happily rant about the political establishment, including the Minister Mentor.

  3. Hongyu said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 6:45 am

    also, most Singaporeans can speak English – English is the primary language of instruction and exchange (as you probably know, teaching in NUS), so I would say the more remarkable thing in Singapore is not finding Chinese who can speak English (something really unremarkable) but with finding a taxi driver who so freely declares his contempt for the probably 90% of the Chinese population who speak English and (mostly) speak Chinese poorly.

  4. Karin said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 7:31 am

    Welcome to Singapore! How come I have never met such interesting cab drivers before lol

  5. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    @Leonardo Boiko: Don't feed the trolls.

    [(myl) Indeed — especially because their rumblings are likely to be ephemeral.]

  6. B.Ma said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    OK, so my father couldn't speak Teochew and my mother couldn't speak Cantonese, and neither could speak Mandarin but both could speak English long before they even met. Should they have both learned Mandarin (which according to you linguists is a foreign language) just to stop being "fake yangren"?

    A "white boy" can definitely teach Chinese, but I think people want a native speaker, and it's less likely that a white person will grow up speaking Chinese natively. You do have organisations like the British Council sending UK-born Chinese to China to teach English, and in the past there was the native English teacher program in Hong Kong which had a significant proportion of overseas Chinese as well.

    On the other hand, I have never met a Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese who could not speak that language despite being born and growing up in the western world, whereas with Chinese it really seems to depend on parental factors which I can't pinpoint.

  7. SimonMH said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    I don't hear 洋人 very often: 外国人 seems to be the preferred term here, or as one gentleman said down his mobile only yesterday: 我在酒吧,你会看到,许多洋鬼子.

  8. JR said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    @arthur: "No one is amazed when someone with an Asian face reads or speaks English." Uh, how do you know that? Do you have an Asian face? Most every Asian-American you talk to will have a story of someone commenting with surprise, "Oh, you speak English so well!" or "So, where are you REALLY from?" Especially if you have traveled or lived in various parts of the US.

  9. David Scrimshaw said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    Your cabbie's disdain for Fake Foreigners reminds me of the disdain people in Ghana have for LAFA – Locally Acquired Foreign Accent.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    He sounds like a Singapore cab-driver equivalent of Holden Caulfield, with his list of "phony" types.

  11. julie lee said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    Another Chinese term, which I like, for a foreigner (Westerner) is LAOWAI 老外 "old foreign(er)", the "old" a term of affection, as in LAO WANG (old Wang), LAO CHEN (old Chen). So someone might say: "He doesn't understand China. He's a LAO WAI (a foreigner)."

  12. Joseph said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    @JR: YES! Even my parents have some concern (often echoed by potential employers in East Asia), whether I, ethnically east asian, am 'qualified' to teach English language and/or literature, because of my vice for not being aryan (despite the fact that I was born/raised in Canada, with an English Lit degree). This colonial attitude, while thankfully waning in recent years, is still very strong within certain populations of East Asia, in my experience. People like to run on stereotypes, and the image of foreign languages invariably evoke foreign ethnicities.

    @B.Ma: re CH vs Jp/Ko/Viet:
    As a counter-example, Kazuo Ishiguro is a famous contemporary British author who apparently doesn't speak Japanese… . I don't know what your sample set is, but there are probably several factors influencing that perception. As a historical/numbers game, the number of 2nd-generation Chinese in the west greatly outnumber the the number of 2nd-gen Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans. There's also probably the cultural pressure (the smaller the community, the higher the pressure to preserve that community), to say nothing on the natural cultural value placed on being able to preserve the language abroad. And of course, there's also the question of your test for fluency — someone who speaks 'fluently' at home, is not necessarily able to conduct business professionally in that language, which is yet again, different from being able to participate in mature conversations on things like economics or history.

  13. komfo,amonan said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    "[Lee Kuan Yew] doesn't really speak Chinese, does he?"

    Um, is it uncontroversial to assert that Lee Kuan Yew doesn't "really" speak Chinese? What's going on there?

  14. blahedo said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

    @B.Ma: I think the waves of immigration from China significantly predate the waves of immigration from the rest of East Asia; the percentage of ethnic-Chinese Americans with American-born grandparents (and even further back) is much larger than the corresponding percentage of ethnic-Korean Americans, ethnic-Vietnamese, etc. If we assume that immigrants are more likely to raise their children bilingual than later-generation folks, that would be enough to explain your observed discrepancy.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    @B.Ma: in my experience you're just wrong about Japanese-Americans. World War II provided a strong inducement (in the form of unconstitutional incarceration, dispossession, etc.) for Japanese-Americans to prove that they were American and not Japanese, and they did that by switching almost completely to English. The generation of Japanese-Americans born during and after the war (most of whom were the grandchildren of the original immigrants) mostly grew up knowing only a few words and phrases of Japanese.

  16. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    In my husband's family, which is now in California but traces back to purely Japanese great-grandparents, his grandparents speak Japanese fluently; his parents have only a few words and phrases, except that his mother is learning it as an adult; he and his brother don't speak it at all, nor do their cousins as far as I can tell. He believes this was a response to WW2. His family was not interned as they were in Hawai'i at the time, but they were certainly frightened, and assimilation must have looked like a good strategy.

    He and I have a small stock of Japanese nouns and phrases suitable for sushi, martial arts, and anime, but no ability to actually speak the language. My favorite word is "kaiten", which means the conveyor belt that carries the sushi, and also means to rotate someone like a wheel while throwing them.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    Cambria Press published a book entitled Singapore Stories: Language, Class, and the Chinese of Singapore, 1945–2000 (http://www.cambriapress.com/books/9781604976779.cfm), which discusses how language shaped the class structures of Singaporean Chinese.

  18. M Williamson said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    B.Ma: There are reasons for this. Namely, many overseas Chinese communities have been established for 200 years or so now. Many immigrant populations cease to speak their heritage language after 3-4 generations, with language maintenance only occurring in exceptional situations (if the immigrant community is geographically or socially isolated, for example). Now, the Vietnamese diaspora is primarily the result of what event? The Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. 36 years have passed since then, meaning that refugees who left during the war are mostly raising the 3rd generation now (2nd to be born abroad), which is usually still bilingual. The Korean war is also relatively recent. As far as Japanese goes, I can't corroborate what you said, as less than one third of Japanese in the US speak the Japanese language.

  19. Andy Averill said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    Coincidentally, I was just reading an article about Lee Kuan Yew in my Encyclopedia Britannica — the 1975 edition. He must be pretty long in the tooth by now.

  20. Janice Byer said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    A New Yorker short story about a Dane of Japanese descent in Paris, who fakes his way into a job translating into English a paper in French on theoretical physics, a subject he wouldn't understand in any language is among my all-time favorites. Linked below is "Living Language" an interview with the multilingual author, David Hoon Kim, on how being an American of Korean descent living in Paris helped inform and inspire his themes.


  21. Just another Peter said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    I was mildly amused to have been sitting in a Thai restaurant in L.A. and watching the next table where a Mexican-looking guy was trying to teach an Asian-looking girl how to use chopsticks.

  22. nanette furman said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    German immigrant great-grandfather, married to Chicago German girl. He never did speak English really well. WW I. Rocks through windows. Boom. No more German speaking. I had to learn it in college. Ah, humanity.

  23. Mark Beadles said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    Hamtramck, Michigan, is a wonderfully polyglottal place. There, I once witnessed an American of African descent speaking to a Korean shop owner in Polish. Not sure who the fake foreigner might be in that situation, though :)

  24. Janice Byer said,

    October 4, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

    @ JR, yes! "So, where are you REALLY from?" calls to mind soon-to-be-ex Senator George "Macaca" Allen (R-VA), a California transplant, saying to the young Virginia native he'd just slurred, "Welcome to America".

  25. self said,

    October 5, 2011 @ 2:35 am

    @ Just another Peter

    They don't use chopsticks in Thailand though. This influence from China did not extend that far.

  26. yybb said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

    "洋人“ is the term Chinese Singaporeans use to designate Caucasians (Caucasians only, not just any foreigner). This is considered an outdated term in China where the terms "老外" or "外国人" are used instead. But these two terms, though mostly referring to white folks, may be used for other races as well.

    There is a reference to a "Fake Foreigner" character in one of Lu Xun's works – "假洋鬼子" (Fake Foreign Devil).

  27. Lareina said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    I saw this word on the internet one day and it's called 二鬼子
    I looked it up, and it mainly referred to people from Hong Kong and Macau, and it seems to include those who work for foreigners also (not sure about the latter definition).
    鬼子 was first referred to the Japanese, I still hear 日本鬼子 a lot, nonetheless, I never heard 美国鬼子

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