外国人,但不是外人 – Foreigner, But Not Outsider

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Some time ago, a Westerner introduced himself to me as a 外人 wàirén. I thought, oh, he means 外国人 wàiguórén, and corrected him. It’s normal for foreigners to make mistakes, and in this case, given that the two expressions are so similar, it shouldn’t be any cause for surprise. But at the time I was actually slightly taken aback.

Before I explain why, let’s break down the two expressions. They are actually made up of only three characters.
1. 外 wài – external, outside
2. 国 guó – country
3. 人 rén – person

By saying that he was a 外人 wàirén, what he meant was that he was a foreigner. And I pointed out that he should have used 外国人 wàiguórén, which is the common term we use. What he used – 外人 wàirén – was just missing the middle component 国 guó. So what’s the big deal? Is 外人 wàirén an existing expression? Did he use it correctly or incorrectly?


To be sure, I looked up the dictionary, and lo and behold, indeed, the third definition for 外人 wàirén is 外国人 wàiguórén. Here are the three definitions:
1. 和自己没有亲密关系的人 (people with whom one has no close relations)
2. 指本单位或本组织意外的人 (people outside one’s organization)
3. 外国人 (foreigner)

Hmm, okay, so the two terms are interchangeable. At least according to the dictionary.

I don’t know if it was simply an error in processing new words when he used the term, or if he also knew Japanese and therefore it caused some confusion (外人 gaijin in Japanese does mean foreigner – if you know Japanese, check out this version, where I explain my encounter with the Japanese term), or if he did know that the dictionary states that 外人 wàirén = 外国人 wàiguórén. But I do hope he would introduce himself using the longer version 外国人 wàiguórén, instead of 外人 wàirén .

And here’s the reason. To Chinese ears, the term 外人 wàirén usually is used to mean the first two definitions. So the implication is that a 外人 wàirén is an outsider, someone who is not ‘one of us’, someone not to be involved in what we ‘insiders’ do, or worse, someone not to be trusted. While it is not a negative term per se, it is not a term you would normally want to be labeled with. Imagine yourself still a young kid, and you see a group of kids playing, all of them holding hands with one another, forming a circle. You want to join in the fun, and you move towards them. Unfortunately some of them start making noise, and the leader of the group pushes you away. Alright, this is perhaps a little dramatic, but it should illustrate how someone would feel if he is labeled a 外人 wàirén.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Zhè shǐ wǒmen jiāshì, nǐ zěnme néng gēn wàirén shuō ne?
This is a family affair. How could you tell outsiders?

Tā bú shì wàirén, yǒu huà kěyǐ dāngzhe tā de miàn shuō.
He’s one of us, there’s no need to hide anything from him (we can say anything in front of him).

Zěnme zhème kèqi, nǐ dāng wǒ shì wàirén ma?
Why are you so polite? Do you take me for an outsider?

Gēn tāmen zài yìqǐ, zǒng juéde zìjǐ shì wàirén.
I always feel that I’m an outsider when I’m with them.

It does not necessarily have a negative connotation though.

Say, if you are not part of a company, naturally you are not supposed to get involved in the decision making process. Fair and square, no sour feelings.

Nǐmen gōngsī de shìqing, wǒ zhè ge wàirén bù yīnggāi gānshè.
I’m not part of your company so I shouldn’t be involved in your business matters.

Some more examples:

Sīrén zhùzhái, wàirén bùdé rù nèi.
Private property. Outsiders not allowed.

Tāmen jǐ ge zǒngshi xīxīhāhā, zài wàirén kànlai, shì duōme kuàilè héxié de yí ge tuánduì.
They are always laughing away merrily. To outsiders, they seem like a totally happy and harmonious group.

Tāmen fūqī zhījiān de shì, lúnbudào wǒmen wàirén chāshǒu.
We’re outsiders, so we can’t meddle with their affairs. (Affairs between them as a couple – it’s not up to us outsiders to do anything.)

Granted, a foreigner is from outside (of one’s country), and so naturally is an outsider.

And indeed, in certain cases, it’s obvious we could use both 外国人 wàiguórén and 外人 wàirén. For example,

Wǒmen guójiā de shì, wàirén (wàiguórén) yòu zěnme néng lǐjiě ne?
How would foreigners be able to understand affairs of our country?

Nonetheless, we won’t usually tell someone point-blank that he is 外人 wàirén. Neither have I heard of anyone introducing himself, or other people, as 外人 wàirén.

Here’s a made-up scenario.

There are three characters – 小黄 Xiǎo Huáng, 小林 Xiǎo Lín and John.

Xiǎo Huáng: Xiǎo Lín, zhè shì wǒ péngyou, tā jiào John. Tā shì wàirén.
Xiǎo Lín, this is my friend. His name is John, he is a wàirén.

Xiǎo Lín: Á?

Here, 外人 wàirén would be interpreted as ‘outsider’. Probably 小林 Xiǎo Lín hasn’t been paying attention and 小黄 Xiǎo Huáng simply wants to wake him up.

I guess there’s one possibility why someone would be more than glad to be a 外人 wàirén – when there are sticky issues and you’re more than happy to be excluded from all the mess.

Wǒ shì wàirén, nǐmen de shìqing wǒ jiù bù gānshè le.
I’m an outsider, so I shan’t poke my nose into your personal affairs. (Good bye and don’t bother me.)

By the way, the opposite of 外人 wàirén is 自己人 zìjǐrén. So we could say:

Zhèli méi yǒu wàirén, dàjiā dōu shì zìjǐrén, yǒu huà zhí shuō.
There’s no outsider here, we’re all family. Feel free to say what you want.

To end off, I’d like to use this line that has been used to describe 大山 Dàshān, the famous Canadian who speaks flawless Mandarin, to illustrate my point.

Tā shì wàiguórén, dàn bú shì wàirén.
He is a foreigner, but not an outsider.

If you are a foreigner and a Chinese friend says this of you, then this is certainly one huge compliment! And if you don’t know Dashan yet, here’s one of his 相声 xiàngsheng (cross talk). Oh well, it sure is hard to think of someone who speaks such fluent Mandarin as a 外人 wàirén!

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