Gweilo: What’s in a name?

Gweilo. It’s a name you hear get tossed around a lot. It literally means ghost person, but honestly, it’s just what they call Westerners. The Pale ones at least. I’ll have to ask my buddy from Zimbabwe if he ever got called that. ( Update! he didn’t) But anyway, where was I? Right, Gweilo.

There’s debate on what it means to be called it. Some think it’s a term of endearment, others a racial slur. (I referred to myself as Gweilo to a bunch of locals while playing ball once and they said I shouldn’t call myself something so rude.) Then again, a few locals I played basketball with when I was a foreign student called me that while hanging out. But who knows, maybe they just liked talking shit about me thinking I didn’t know what was going on.

So what kind of name is it? A slur? Nickname? It might just be a regular old name. Bears are bears, cats are cats, and this Whitey is Ghost Boy. Calling it a slur is a step too far. Often times, slurs come from the mouths of those in power. There’s no doubt I became a minority stepping off the plane on Lantau Island. But, calling me powerless would just be signs of a victim complex. In fairness to those who think it’s close on the slur end of the spectrum, some translations for the term come out as “foreign devil”. (Thanks Wikipedia for helping with the research. This blog and my GPA in college owe you everything.)

Gweilo seems like it’s just shorthand for Westerner more than anything. In America, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who looks like me who’d refer to people as Laotian, Malay, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese etc., and get it 100% right all the time. We call them Asian most often, and then by their nationality once we get to know them. (Even though we forget it sometimes.) Sure it’s not proper, but who gives a flying shit? I mean for God’s sake, they’ve got a beer named after it. Gweilo Beer

Most Westerners I’ve met aren’t bothered by it either. Clearly, I’m not, it’s where the name of this blog comes from. 😛 Besides, I know some pale boys back home who I’d call Ghostie too. There’s gonna be a casual racism of foreigners anywhere you go in this world. You can’t always get bent out of shape about that stuff. The thing that offends me more often than anything is the pizza in this place, to be honest. (Seriously Hong Kong, what the shit is this?)

Weird Hong Kong Pizza
Look at this monstrosity in shame Hong Kong. IN SHAME I SAY.

So if being called Gweilo is such a non-issue, why even bother bringing it up? I think it’s just interesting really. Race relations aren’t great back in America, and talking about race isn’t always comfortable. But that might come from the fact that I’m not a minority in America., and talking about race may threaten me in some capacity there. Whereas in Hong Kong, I feel like talking about my race, other people’s race and even just the concept of race is more… open. I don’t know.

I’m sure some of this comes off as whining, maybe even bordering on asking for sympathy. And that’s not what this is about. It mostly came from a genuine curiosity about whether getting called Gweilo meant somebody was talking shit about me. And I think the answer is no, they aren’t saying that to talk shit…


Most of the time.