Penance for a lazy LaowaiWritten by Julen Madariaga on September 14th, 2009
It has been a while since I last wrote, and now I feel the typical blogger’s guilt, the same that drives some weaker souls to start all their blog posts with unasked apologies. But worry not, we are not that kind of blog. We don’t ask for forgiveness here, and that is because we already punish ourselves even before facing the public. What better penance than playing the role of a lab rat for a sociological experiment? Using our own body to test in the open some potentially lethal phenomena?
What follows contains shocking images made public here for the first time. Sensitive readers are advised to close this website now before reading on.
The laowai phenomenon
Everyone familiar with China has heard of this phenomenon. When a person with non-Asian features wanders in the country he gets hundreds of local fingers pointed at him, as he is promptly and thoroughly informed that he is a foreigner (“laowai !”). Even in the 21st century, after 30 years of reform and opening, this behavior is prevalent in most areas out of the foreign-populated centres of Shanghai and Beijing.
Although some foreigners still take offense, it is by now widely acknowledged that the “laowai call” is just a neutral form of expressing curiosity in a country that is almost entirely uni-racial. It has also been explained as part of a socializing device that consists of stating the obvious to each other, like “Hey, you are back from work!” or “hey, you are a laowai”.
But enough theory now. This Summer we took a completely different approach and decided to test the Chinese people’s humour by entering some of the most dangerous bumpkin infested areas of the country wearing the garment in Fig 1. The sampling areas selected were: the tourist village of Zhujiajiao and a fake market in Shanghai.
The challenge was phenomenal, and the reaction of the public was correspondingly massive and spectacular, with whole streets turning their heads or popping out of windows to share in the excitement. It was a great performance of what I believe is called “Kazakh humour”, its main characteristic being that nobody is sure who is laughing at who.
Among the passers-by we discerned and duly registered in the log book the 3 following attitudes:
- Conspirational – Those who were laughing with us.
- Malicious – Those who were laughing at us.
- Annoyed – Those who felt they were being laughed at.
Fortunately, the Chinese passed the humour test remarkably well, falling mostly into category #1, with some children and local lowbrows accounting for the #2s. We didn’t encounter any crazy patriot accusing us of hurting people’s feelings, which confirms my previous notion that those people can only be so silly when under the anonymity of the internet. In any case, this T-shirt is a must if you want to be famous in a mid-size Chinese town in the first 5 minutes of your arrival.
Some more pictures of the experiment:
The next challenge
If you liked this performance stay tuned for the next experiment. We have obtained the necessary gear to boratize this time an altogether different social group. Equipped with the 7” mangy moustache and the genuine garment in Fig 2, this specimen will make its appearance at the next fashion show in the exclusive M1NT bar. How will the high society in expat Shanghai (more than 50% clad in fake Paul Smith) fare in our test?