Understanding fear of the ‘Other’, to know and to heal: perceptions of refugees in forced migration contexts
Othering processes are inherently complex, and in forced migration contexts, national public discourses tend to reverberate with anxieties over antagonism, discrimination and increasing tensions.
As an alternative to this public discourse, which ultimately tends to associate migrants and refugees with social threat, we might examine pockets of private and semi-private spaces from which quieter voices – women’s voices, perhaps – could catalyse more positive attitudes and better informed perceptions with a gender lens. One space where such voices might emerge is in all-women ‘gün’ (or ‘day’) groups. These are periodic, informal gatherings of relatives, friends and/or acquaintances, usually hosted in one member’s home, and are crucial spaces for women’s interaction and socialisation in Turkey. In fact, in my Identities article, co-authored with Hatice Mete, ‘The afraid create the fear: perceptions of refugees by “gün” groups in Turkey’, we analysed conversations from several of these groups in Mersin in order to investigate local women’s perceptions of forcibly displaced Syrians.
What we found, however, were a set of recurring discursive patterns mirroring the public discourse – stereotyping, biased perceptions, ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, scapegoating, and discrimination – which were, if anything, more energetic in the private context. ‘We hate them’, fumed one participant, describing her Syrian neighbours’ apparent disregard for her apartment building’s rules and Turkey’s embattled norms of secular dress, and her circle exchanged approving looks.
What can explain this hostility for those ‘we’ deem as ‘different’ from ourselves? How deep is the declared lack of ‘compassion’ for the vulnerable? To what extent are expressions of contempt literal reflections of reality, or attempts to overdramatise narratives of imaginaries shaped mainly by fear of the ‘other’?
Everyday conversations in private settings enable a flow of emotions which we express as we feel them. Yet the intensity of the expression may not always reflect the sincerity of the intention. Especially if, as in the case cited above, it comes from a woman who we know is, like ‘us’, actually compassionate, decent, law-abiding. Indeed, our research suggests that the tropes in the stereotyping and exclusion may have their source in the speakers’ anxieties about the spaces and relationships on which their lives are focused. Hence, Syrian women were criticised as ‘dirty’, threatening the home’s hygiene, as ‘greedy’ and ‘materialistic’, straining generosity, as ‘immoral’, tempting Turkish husbands to take an (illegal) additional Syrian wife, as ‘too fertile’, effortlessly replacing sons lost to national service and foreign interventions, as ‘disrespectful’ of their seniors, contrasting with (idealised) Turkish youth, and – perhaps most often – as ‘noisy’, advertising rather than minimising their disturbing presence. But underneath the noisy prejudice lay, perhaps, an anxiety about powerlessness: ‘It does not matter whether you’re a guest or a refugee’, declared someone triumphantly, ‘you have to observe us and abide by our rules. We don’t have to live in accordance with your rules’.
When we have limited contact and difficulty in communicating with ‘others’ whom our societies have identified as a source of concern, our real individual neighbours can easily become faceless instances of a category; a blank canvas onto which we give ourselves permission to paint our least palatable emotions. Granted, suspicions remain, and are not helped by the persistence of the language barrier (on both sides) and the intersecting uncertainties in forced migration contexts. Yet if we carefully study these smears on the canvas, we may come to see how the fear of those who create and perpetuate fear can be healed and, perhaps, common ground discovered on which actual relationships could be built.
Blog post by Saime Ozcurumez, Bilkent University, Turkey
Read the full article: Ozcurumez, Saime & Mete, Hatice. The afraid create the fear: perceptions of refugees by ‘gün’ groups in Turkey. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1723311
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