Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Riffing a bit on my post about friendship in Taiwan over a week ago...I was chatting with a local acquaintance about the phrase "外國朋友" (or 外國人朋友) - literally "foreign friend".

"It should be pretty good," he said. "In the past, Taiwan didn't have many foreigners, so if a Taiwanese person had a foreign friend, it was some kind of honor."

"An honor? To have a friend who is not from Taiwan? Any friend? Of any age, from any country?"

"Yes. So they are trying to be very nice when they call you 'foreign friend', it's like a friend but higher."

"Hmm. But it seems to me that to say 'foreign friend' makes it clear that that friend is different or set apart."

"Yes! It's true!"

"So to me that sounds like 'these people are my friends, and this foreigner is my foreign friend, like I'm not really a friend the way anyone else is."

"Yes. But it's an honor to that person."

"That local person or that foreigner?"

"That local person, and maybe the foreigner too."

"I guess...an honor, OK, but I don't really want to feel 'different' or 'higher' or have any special honor for being a foreigner. People are just people, you know? 人就是人. 'Higher' doesn't mean 'closer', in fact it feels like there is some distance."

"Yes, probably there is. Maybe that could be a language or culture issue."

"I guess. I know it is hard, and there are a lot of language and culture barriers. But still, I would rather be just a friend. Like people are just people. Have the chance to be closer, not higher. Not some special foreign friend. Anyway it's clear I'm a foreigner, there's no need to actually say so. Nobody will ever mistake me for Taiwanese."

"That is true!"


Fortunately, none of my friends say this in my presence (I have no idea, if they mention me at all, if they refer to me as a foreign friend when I'm not around, though). I have heard it, though, and heard myself referred to by others as someone's "foreign friend". I don't worry too much about that because I don't really know the people in question, so that's different from a real, actual friend. I try not to say "Taiwanese friend" unless there is some specific reason why I need to mention that they are Taiwanese (to explain something about an anecdote or joke, for example) or, as in my last post on friendship, I'm actively trying to dissect friendship norms with locals compared to those I have with other expats.

It makes me wonder, though. How much am I a friend and how much am I a foreign friend, and will that ever change? Should it? Is it even a big deal? Is there a bit of distance and maybe a bit of bragging inherent in the phrase foreign friend or am I overanalyzing it as I do everything?

Dunno. You tell me.


J said...

Reminds me of a principle from sociolinguistics: more formal equals more distant.

Little Dog said...

you think too much. people nowadays refer you as "foreign friend" mostly probably because they try to alert others that you can be different. some care should be taken in dealing with foreign friend given the different cultural backgrounds. it is an act of consideration which is not to diminish friendship in any way.