There’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I first came to New Zealand and finally remembered after talking with a neighbor the other day.
Today’s column is, as the title suggests, about the word “gaikokujin”.
I live in New Zealand, so naturally to New Zealanders I’m considered a gaikokujin. In English, “gaikokujin” means foreigner, right? Even so, I haven’t been called “foreigner” even once in New Zealand.
Is “gaijin” rude?
In Japan, it’s been said that calling someone who isn’t Japanese “gaijin” to be rude. Even with the realization that the word “gaijin” is rude, I used the words “gaijin-san” and “gaikoku no hito”.
I don’t know how it is in other countries, but you never see or hear the word “foreigner” used in everyday life in New Zealand. Even though there are many immigrants, no one uses the word “foreigner”.
So, exactly what meaning does the word “foreigner” hold? Here is what was written in an English dictionary.
a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own. 《informal》a person not belonging to a particular place or group; a stranger or outsider.
The “someone who was born outside the country they are in” part has the same meaning as “gaikoku no hito” in Japanese, right? Still, the nuance of “bugaisha, yosomono” (outsider, stranger) is still there.
So, I’ve come to think that, to a person not from Japan, words like “gaikoku no hito” and “gaijin” probably have the nuance of “bugaisha” (outsider) and must sound rude. I can’t think of anyone who would feel good being called an “outsider”.
If so, how do you say “gaikoku no hito” in English?
The other day when I talked with a couple in the neighborhood, they expressed it as “she is from ___”. I recognized again at that time, “Yeah, they really don’t say ‘foreigner’”.
And it’s not just this particular couple. Even when talking about acquaintances or people from other countries in conversation, “foreigner” isn’t used as a adjective to describe them. When trying to express someone wasn’t born in New Zealand, people won’t say “He is a foreigner”, but things like “He is Chinese.” or “She is from Australia.”, specifically referring to which country they are from.
If someone isn’t sure which country the person is from, words like “immigrant” or “from another country” are used. The expression “He’s a foreigner” isn’t used even toward people you are unfamiliar with.
In Japan, even exchange students from overseas are called “gaikokujin ryuugakusei” (foreign exchange students), but in English, “international students” is pretty standard. “Gaikokujin ryokousha” (foreign tourists) are referred to as “International tourists/visitors” and the word “tourist” is used when there is no real need to specify someone is foreign.
Are Japanese living in foreign countries treated as foreigners?
As a Japanese person, if a person from overseas in Japan were to talk to you, what would you do? I bet you would think “I have to reply in English…” and feel a strange sense of nervousness and unfamiliarity toward that person. Even without actually saying “gaijin-san”, the way you treat that person will differ.
I’m Japanese, so it’s pretty obvious that I am foreign compared to other people in New Zealand.
I can only say this from my experience of living in New Zealand, but I get the feeling (in a good way) that people think “so what if you’re foreign?” People don’t try to speak to me in English more slowly just because I don’t look like a white person, and no one has ever asked me “do you speak English?” People interact with me so normally that when I first came to New Zealand I wished they would have spoken a little more slowly.
"Gaikokujin" doesn’t equate to "Foreigner"
I feel that in Japan, even though we say “the saying ‘gaijin’ is rude”, we continue to say things like “your Japanese is good for a foreigner” and “you can use chopsticks well for being a foreigner”. It’s like an unconscious barrier in our minds that says “that person isn’t Japanese”.
I feel that in society in New Zealand, importance isn’t placed on whether your a New Zealander or not, but who you are as a person yourself. That’s why, unless in a specific situation where it’s necessary, there’s no reason to actually say your nationality and in the case you need to express you aren’t a New Zealander, you wouldn’t use the word “foreigner”, but specify where you are from.
This difference of course changes greatly depending on the history and ways of each different country, but I certainly feel uncomfortable referring to people from overseas as “gaijin” (foreigners). The nuance of “stranger” unconsciously comes to mind. To sum things up, instead of using the word “gaikokujin”, why not try using a phrase like “He’s from New Zealand.” when you need to specify where someone is from?
(Original article in Japanese: ”外国人”を英語にすると？｜英語コラム065)