'First, I'll need tenure. And a big research grant. Also access to a lab and five graduate students — at least three of them Chinese.'
- Professor Ogden Wernstrom, Physicist
Those are Professor Ogden Wernstrom’s demands when asked to save the Earth from a giant garbage ball approaching through space in the Futurama episode, A Big Piece of Garbage. Portrayed as an obvious antagonist, Wernstrom seems greedy and exclusively concerned with his own career advancement. He also seemingly regards grad students as just another commodity to further his own goals, with Chinese students as particularly valuable or useful assets.
This specific view on Chinese researchers as not much more than pricey pieces of high-tech equipment was provided by a cartoon villain 20 years ago, but it arguably still falls into the questionable category of 'it’s funny because it’s true': it indeed resonates with prejudices that extend beyond the Futurama universe and into real-world academic discourse.
One place where similar views on 'non-western' researchers can be found is the discourse on scientific misconduct. High-profile scandals of scientific fraud and plagiarism regularly make the news headlines, and the frequency, causes and consequences of scientific misconduct are at the centre of much academic and public speculation. Whenever we talk about the presumed causes of deviance, we make deeply normative claims about the allocation of responsibility and blame. Much more than just the goal and result of neutral scientific inquiry, these causal explanations are a powerful mechanism of social exclusion, constructing a fault line between an ‘us’, who value and live by the rules of the community, and a somehow inferior ‘them’, who break the rules.
In the Identities article, 'Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens', I analyse 31 expert interviews with people responsible for handling scientific misconduct cases at universities, journals and other academic organisations and show that violations of research integrity are frequently blamed on so-called foreign scientific cultures that allegedly are more prone to misconduct. Researchers from those 'foreign' cultures are characterised in two different ways in those causal stories: at times they are depicted as backwards, uncivilised and uneducated; and their knowledge production is seen as generally inferior to western science. Such a depiction draws heavily on well-established themes of Eurocentric knowledge.
However, at other times, especially with regard to Chinese researchers, they are characterised as advanced, highly intelligent and productive, yet lacking a moral consciousness. In comparison to the idealised 'western' researcher, they appear almost cyborg-like: highly efficient, technologically advanced and rational, but also immoral, emotionally cold and ultimately interchangeable with one another. Such views are also consistent with established stereotypes of Asians as a hypersuccessful 'model minority' that pose 'implicit threats to the upward mobility of others' (Cardozo & Subramaniam 2013).
Of course, a factor like 'academic culture' will probably have an influence on researchers’ (deviant) behaviour. This example, however, shows that the way this 'culture' is currently constructed and discussed leans heavily on stereotypes and reproduces exclusions already present in the scientific community. As such, it doesn’t speak much about the actual working conditions of Chinese (or Mexican, or Egyptian, or Russian) researchers, but says a lot about the collective imaginary of 'western' academia. Apparently, it still looks a lot like Wernstrom’s ideal scientific life, where the advancement of white (male) researchers counts more than the fate of the rest of the world.
Cardozo, K. & B. Subramaniam. 2013. Assembling Asian/American naturecultures: Orientalism and invited invasions. Journal of Asian American Studies 16: 1–23.
Blog post by Felicitas Hesselmann, German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
Read the full article: Hesselmann, Felicitas. Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1538065
Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
Our research, as discussed in the Identities article, 'Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China', revealed that it was the ways that Chinese people employed laowai, instead of this label itself, that contributed to the discomfort of American expatriates.
First and foremost, our informants who were generally called laowai were those who did not look Chinese, so Chinese Americans and other Asian expatriates were not generally labelled in this way. Our interviewees who were called laowai felt this term conveyed a variety of negative ideas about Westerners.
For example, some said it assumed they were incapable of speaking Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture; as one interviewee put it, ‘You don’t understand it because you are laowai’. The term implied that Westerners are essentially different from the Chinese: ‘[They say]: “We Chinese people are physically not capable of drinking cold water; our DNA is different”’. Furthermore, interviewees told us Westerners were assumed to be morally corrupt and badly behaved, qualities one informant summed up thus: ‘[They think]: you must have five girlfriends, because laowai are very kaifang [sexually promiscuous]’.
From American expatriates’ perspective, these othering practices reflected Chinese users’ motivations, including constructing Chineseness as an identity based on bloodline descent, justifying their assumptions that the West and Westerners were essentially different from China and the Chinese, and attempting to maintain the superior and positive Chinese self by stigmatising Western others during intergroup encounters. Ultimately, these American expatriates experienced Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai as a way to separate them as permanent outsiders, a form of what some scholars have termed ‘Occidentalism’, involving non-Western individuals’ othering of the West in a reductive and misrepresentative way (Buruma & Margalit 2005).
Our research indicated that othering was deemed unacceptable by those subject to it, even when the specific term employed was seen as positive by users from the dominant group. We did not intend to make a value judgement on Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai, but hoped to arouse the attention of Chinese scholars, educators and institutions to the impact of othering of expatriates on the Chinese mainland, considering the increasing number of these migrants in this region.
Buruma, I. & A. Margalit. 2005. Occidentalism: the West in the eyes of its enemies. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative Term?’ (2007). People's Daily Online, December 21 2007. Available at http://en.people.cn/90001/90780/91345/6325229.html.
Mao, Y. 2015. Who is a laowai? Chinese interpretations of laowai as a referring expression for non-Chinese. International Journal of Communication 9: 2119–2140.
Blog post by Yang Liu, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China; and Charles C. Self, University of Oklahoma, USA
Read the full article: Yang, Liu & Self, Charles C. Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589158