Many of you will have heard the saying sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
When people fear and distrust things or consider them foreign and strange, what do they do? One way humans deal with things they are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with is to name them. To label them.
As expats, we’ve answered to a few names over the years. But rather than feeling offended, we’ve chose to embrace them.
Sticks and Stone may Break our Bones
Severe prejudice or xenophobic violence is truly awful and can cause real harm. These things really could break our hearts and our bones. Absolutely, words too can be incredibly powerful and hurtful, especially when used by someone in a position of privilege and power towards someone who is powerless and vulnerable. This is absolutely not the kind of situation I’m trying to describe, so bear with me.
This is about situations where there is no major power imbalance and somebody just aims a label at you based on their culture and the resulting preconception of people from your culture, religion or nationality. In this situation, we are effectively ambassadors for our own kind and have an opportunity to challenge a stereotype by taking ownership of the word and defusing or redefining the preconceptions attached to it by countering with positive, inoffensive and relatable behaviour, reactions or responses.
But Expat Names won’t Hurt us
Most countries have a name for foreigners. Buitenlander, Ferang, Oyibo, Yabanci, Gweilo are but a few of the expat names we have answered to over the years. Gringo, grockle, guiri, and gaijan are just a few more I’m aware of.
Stranger. Alien. Peeled skin. Ghost.
These are the meanings of some of the expat names given to us. Often used in a friendly manner and uttered to catch our attention by a stall holder wanting to sell us fruit or trinkets. Other times the word is used with a scowl of dislike or mistrust. Perhaps mumbled as part of an insult that we do not understand, and yet still we understand just by reading their unwelcoming body language. We can fill the rest in by interpreting their tone and perhaps translating a lone word that we recognise.
The names will have come from somewhere. Maybe they were derived from someone or a group of someones who behaved poorly. Yes, there is often an uncomfortable truth behind the names. We are different, outsiders who often look or sound different to the locals around. But rather than take offence, it is an opportunity. An opportunity to be an ambassador, to challenge the stereotype.
In Turkey a foreigner is a Yabancı, meaning stranger or foreigner.
In coffee shops in Istanbul, I would order my drink “Bir late lutfen” the barista would ask my name “ademni?” But despite numerous repetitions “Nicola” could easily become Bob or Nahila or Wicklenslwefnt and my coffee would go cold while I was waiting in vain for my name to be called.
I changed tack and subsequently when asked what name I would like scribbled on my coffee cup I would smile knowingly and say Yabanci. The penny would usually drop quite quickly and both relieved and amused my ‘name’ would be scribbled on my coffee cup. The barista was happy, I’d made a small attempt at speaking their language, I had been polite and I had made a joke, I would get the right cup and my coffee would be hot and all was well with the world.
We all laugh the same. 😂🤣
In Nigeria we were Oyibos. One explanation behind the origin of this word is that it means peeled skin or skinless.
The oyibo name comes from the idea that a pale skinned person looks like their outer (darker skin) has been peeled off leaving a pale pasty version. It’s true, that regardless of the colour of your skin on the outside, just beneath the surface we are all the same colour. Regardless of our skin colour on the outside, when we cut or ‘peel back’ our outer layer skin it all looks the same colour, as does the colour of blood that runs through our veins.
We all bleed the same. 🚑😷
In Hong Kong foreigners are nicknamed Gweilo. The meaning is foreign devil or ghost in Cantonese slang.
A local brewery in Hong Kong, founded by foreigners, is called Gweilo. They brew a number of beers, including their flagship Gweilo pale ale. It’s a huge success. And guess what – in most countries – we all like beer.
We all drink beer the same. (Unless we are under 18 or don’t drink for religious or personal regions – it’s metaphorical, we can substitute it for tea or coffee or whatever, but I’m sure you get the point). 🍻
We are different and yet the same, make sure your actions speak louder than their words
I am a ferang. I am a gweilo. I am an oyibo. I am a yabanci. Call me what you like, but judge me only by my actions. It’s amazing how quickly you can diffuse a situation with a smile, with an acknowledgment showing that we are different and yet the same.
As expats we are ambassadors representing our countries, and have the power to either reinforce negative stereotypes by conforming to the preconceptions attached to these names. Alternatively, far better yet, we have the opportunity to alter perceptions by embracing these names. Nod. Smile. Own it. Rise above it. Make sure your actions speak louder that their words.
What other names have you been called on your travels, expat or otherwise? I’d love to know. Did they bother you? What did they mean.
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If you enjoyed reading ‘Sticks and Stones’, you might also enjoy our Trailing Spouse Poll where you can have your say on the can of worms that is the Trailing Spouse label. Would a Trailing Spouse by any other name sound sweeter? Or if you need a light-hearted chuckle at some of our expat stereotypes, check out Charity Charity, Entrepreneurial Emma and Botox Betty.