Thursday, April 5, 2012

Laowai, Kwailo And Matsalleh...

While the Chinese people in China call the Caucasian foreigner laowai or literally "old foreigner" 老外, Malaysians normally call him matsalleh or kwailo.

Kwailo is Cantonese slang for foreign devil. The term is no longer meant to be derogatory although it once was. Today, we use the term kwailo in the endearing sense.

I don't know why we Malaysians call Caucasians matsalleh. Mat Salleh is actually a Malay name. But again it is not meant as a derogatory term.

In China, it seems that the Chinese people would stare at the laowai and would not hesitate to shout "hello" to one from across the street. Some would just boldly approach a laowai and ask to be taught English without even a by your leave or an invitation, which would either shock, annoy, piss off or bemuse the poor laowai and sometimes all of these at the same time.

So, it does seem that to the Chinese people in China, all laowais are English teachers who would gladly teach English gratis!

Or just brazenly approach a laowai and start "practising" English, like you can watch by clicking on this link!

Here in Malaysia, the typical image of the matsalleh or kwailo is changing though it is still very much that of the middle aged tourist with an over-sized camera hanging from his neck, a broad-brimmed straw hat on his balding head, wearing a loud flowery Hawaiian shirt and an equally loud pair of Bermuda or khaki shorts.

How does the typical Malaysian react to a matsalleh or kwailo?

In the larger cities like KL, people no longer pay much attention to the matsalleh or kwailo.

Some, however, will try to slink away for fear of being approached and being asked for directions. This fear or shying away is not out of modesty but out of the fear that they may be exposed for their lack of the ability to speak English. No thanks to our current education system that only pays lip service to the importance of English as the international lingua franca.

In the not too distant past, most Malaysians could speak English fluently.

But in the smaller towns and rural areas and in the kampungs the people will likely smile and wave shyly at one.

P.S Click here to watch an interesting video of laowai student singing in Mandarin about his struggle to learn the language.

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