Are you an adoah? And do you like being called adoah by friends, co-workers or complete strangers on the street? And maybe even by your wife or husband?
Whatever your feelings about this colorful and humorous Taiwanese slang word for “foreigner,” read the following with a sense of humor.
Although the term is used to mean a “foreigner,” it is mainly used to refer to Westerners. Japanese are never called adoah, nor are Indonesians, Indians, Vietnamese or Filipinos.
While many Taiwanese academics and politicians have been critical of Kuo Kuan-ying (郭冠英), a former government press officer in Toronto who was fired for using such words as taibazi (台巴子,Taiwanese rednecks) and wokou (倭寇, Japanese pirates) in blog posts written under a pen name, most Taiwanese still feel it is okay to use the word adoah to describe Westerners.
But some people feel that the word adoah rankles and should be avoided in public and forbidden on the airwaves.
Over the last few years, a few expat Internet forums have discussed the expression, with both supportive and scornful reviews and plenty of humorous rejoinders.
One popular opinion is that the expression means “prominent nose” and comes from an old Taiwanese term — dok-dok — meaning “prominent” or “high” when describing noses.
Most Taiwanese say the term is not a slur or an insult, but more of a compliment than anything else, although delivered with a dollop of humor.
Some expats feel that while 60 years ago adoah might have been a humorous and friendly word for Westerners with a “high” nose bridge, people, especially TV hosts such as Jacky Wu (吳宗憲) who use the term on TV shows with abandon, should drop the word.
Chen Chun-kai (陳君愷), a professor of history at Fujen Catholic University, said in an e-mail: “Although most Taiwanese truly think adoah is a humorous word, if most Western foreigners in Taiwan hate that word ... then that word is no doubt a bad word and should not be used anymore by our people.”
Chen added: “Confucius said: ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.’ So if we Taiwanese don’t like to hear Mainlanders calling us taibazi, then Taiwanese should stop using that word adoah in reference to Westerners. There is no need to keep using the word adoah anymore, if those who hear the word don’t like it.”
“We Taiwanese are still crippled by a long history of linguistic and ethnic slurs, even now. We need to fight for our freedom and establish a new nation with justice. If we can achieve this, I believe that we will also learn more from people in other countries,” Chen said.
Another professor, Chi Chun-chieh (紀駿傑), who teaches in the Department of Indigenous Cultures at National Dong Hwa University, said by e-mail: “I must admit that I never thought that adoah was a bad or negative term, and I am sure that people here use it as merely a humorous word and not in any negative sense at all.”
“However, and this is important, this common usage does not mean that adoah is a good term, even though it is not used in a negative or pejorative way,” Chi said.
“The most important thing about language when it is used to refer to different national or ethnic or racial groups are the subjective feelings of people being addressed,” Chi said.
“In terms of the word adoah as it is used to speak about or address Westerners in Taiwan ... the shape of a person’s nose is not relevant compared to his or her more important personal characteristics,” he said.
Martin de Jonge, a Canadian expat who has lived in Taiwan for more than a dozen years, pointed out another way of looking at the issue.
“As I come from a country where the government has a long history of crafting, launching, tracking, monitoring, refashioning and relaunching information campaigns designed to facilitate intercultural understanding by informing, sensitizing and enlightening its various cultural groups, I sometimes take it for granted that obvious social dysfunction here in Taiwan should iron itself out in due process and in due time time by the local [Chinese-language] media and through public statements from leaders,” Jonge said.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who has lived abroad since 1992, Liu Yu-hsia (劉玉霞), the Taiwanese editor of the Taiwan Tribune in New Jersey, a newspaper for Taiwanese expatriates, said: “It’s been many years that I have not heard this term adoah. I used it when I was little. I agree with you. Adoah is a little insulting and insensitive from an American’s viewpoint. It is just like calling somebody ‘fat.’ However, when Taiwanese call a Westerner adoah, it is not meant to insult the person.”
“But the point is, if the person being addressed or spoken of doesn’t like the term, then it shouldn’t be used,” Liu added.
“Taiwanese people are not as sensitive as Westerners to some terms associated with a person’s body, such as weight or height or the eyes. Some Taiwanese also feel uncomfortable when they are called ‘fat’ or ‘short’ or ‘small eyes,’ but in general, Taiwanese are not so sensitive,” she said.
“The next time someone refers to you as an adoah, tell him or her, seriously, that you don’t like to be described in that way. I believe that person will not do it anymore,” she said.
When asked if Taiwanese expats in the US ever call their neighbors adoah, Liu replied: “We usually don’t, because there are so many adoah here. Sometimes we call them laowai, but we forget that the actual foreigners are us.”
The jury is still out on whether the word adoah serves a useful purpose today or not. The real judges will be the Taiwanese themselves.
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