The first time I heard myself described as a " gweipo", having been in Hong Kong for only a few weeks, I was taken aback. After checking the dictionary, that is. Gwei: devil or ghost. Po: grandmother, hag, old woman. So, I was a devil hag, eh?
That was not exactly a compliment, seeing as I was 28 at the time.
It sounded harsh and much more negative than the slang (racial slur) for Caucasians I had become used to in China: laowai. As well as being gender neutral (I have to chuckle sometimes when I hear foreign women in Hong Kong glibly refer to themselves as " gweilo women" - for the record, only men can be gweilo: "devil geezer"), laowai is slightly more endearing, perhaps on a par with "Johnny Foreigner", "Taffy" or "Jerry".
Lao means "old" and wai "outside", short for waiguoren: "outside country people". But " lao" doesn't only mean old in years but also "venerable" and it's what many in China call each other instead of Mr and Mrs to indicate familiarity. So, a hell of a lot better than "devil hag".
Wherever I went in China, the streets and markets had reverberated to excited cries of " Laowai! Laowai!" followed by giggling. Maybe they were just pointing out to their friends that I was foreign in case they thought a blond, blue-eyed woman was some kind of weird Asian.
In 2002, I stayed for a month in a remote village in Sichuan province. On the first day I took a walk along a long, empty, ruler-straight stretch of road through rice paddies and sunflower fields. Two peasants stood watching me approach from about a kilometre away. They stared and stared as I came closer and closer, staring still as I passed them. When I was a few metres away, I heard one of them remark knowingly, " Laowai".
"Yep," the other one agreed. Then silence.
I thought of the Sichuan geezers the other day while having a not very good lunch in the food court at Tung Chung's Citygate. There I was, chewing something called "Taiwanese noodles with chicken cutlets", when I smelled the familiar whiff of cheap Chinese cigarettes and heard a raspy voice say, " Laowai". A Chinese tourist with brown teeth stood grinning, his wife gawping behind him.
Suddenly I didn't like "laowai". When I'm visiting them, no problem, but here they were on my turf - not far from my house, in fact - and still thought I was an "old outside".
Not the same. Not the same at all.