On being a gweilo


(Seth, the god of wastelands, tempests, anarchy and foreigners)

So before I start going gonzo, what exactly is a gweilo? You could, of course, instead of reading this post go and google search that term and you’ll be served by the interwebs with a thorough description.

Now that’s not my task here. I am not offering an encyclopaedic definition. I’m not competing with Wikipedia here. What I intend to do here is to offer some clarity on the “gweilo” as a phenomenon and why it would be necessary for one to go gonzo.

A gweilo is, to give a concise explanation, just a Cantonese slang term for foreigners. Now even though the Cantonese themselves do not see much harm in using it to refer to those of strange distant lands outside of the Middle Kingdom, those strangers themselves have considered it offensive. Looking at the characters, it could be literally translated as “ghost man”, or a “foreign devil”, to put it less mildly. The West right now is going through what could be described as a cultural ‘war’ where everything from pronouns to video games characters and genitals is problematized. Asia has picked up on that too, but to a far less degree and definitely not dominating public discourse like it does in our hemisphere. Words like these will not go out of fashion anytime soon in the Orient.

In any case, considering an outlander’s physical presence as being like the intrusion of a disembodied spirit is not and was not limited to the Chinese. In the America’s, the arrival of the Europeans was at first treated in a similar fashion. In ancient Egypt, Seth was the ntr or netjeru ( i.e. god, to illustrate it to a Western audience in somewhat comprehensible and relatable terms ) of the intruder, of storms, of war and therefore of chaos. Seth, as that deity that stood for the red and hostile lands beyond the Nile, stood in stark contrast with Horus, the supreme monarch of the fertile black soil which gave Egypt its name, Kemet. Now this sounds kind of xenophobic, doesn’t it? The foreigner as that which causes disarray, a disorderly presence akin to the entry of the devil himself?
Could be, but then we betray ourselves as having a narrow dualist picture of the world ourselves, easily triggered by our surroundings which do not always consider us harm. It is only logical that anyone who is unknown to a particular people and himself unfamiliar with the country’s customs upsets the everyday and predictable course of things and might as well come from another planet or dimension.

Looking at it from the angle of the ancients, disorder was not avoided or the entity standing as a symbol for it demonized. This process of condemnation of the very being ( or non-being, rather ) of chaos only happened much more recently and it could be said that the increase of individual and collective insecurities around the evermore dynamic ancient world only aided in such moral dualism. ‘Devilish’ entities were seen as a part of the whole. Disturbance as a necessary part of growth. In Nordic culture hail, although destructive, was considered to be a severe but a much needed correction. A foreign influence then could be an invitation of catastrophe, much as the proverbial fires of hell alter the world’s order. But also, after this hit, a new fertile soil resulting from the collision. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. A far more adult perspective I find personally, compared to the squeamish and frightened attitude towards disruption of later times. So what the “foreign devil” to me means then is nothing more than the Other that plays his or her constitutive role in the operation of self-actualization. That does not make me welcome discrimination or disenfranchisement, but it does make me assume that role without much recoil. So that’s why I refer to myself as a gweilo in this ongoing project. In Dutch we call this “geuzennamen”. Geuzen were the noblemen who combatted the Spanish during the 80-Year War in the Low Countries. Now in French “gueux” does not refer to anything noble, but means “beggars”. Charles de Berlaymont, advisor of Margaretha of Parma, patronizingly called them as such with their plight to end the whole religious infights in the region. His words: “N’ayez pas peur Madame, ce ne sont que des gueux” or “do not fear Madame, they are nothing but beggars”. Hendrik of Brederode, one of the noblemen, then declared himself proudly to be a beggar. Many times in history we see insults reappropriated as an honorific title. Think of fauvism, punk and nigga. Now they are carried with pride. I see no harm in being a gweilo. In fact, I wish to play my role well.

Gonzo as a style of journalism seems to perfectly match with the identity of the outsider. It is a form of writing that is generally avoided by most employed journalists, who stick to objectivity and generally avoid the first-person perspective, profanity and wish to get an answer to a set number of specific questions. Started by the notorious Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most important countercultural figures of the 20th century, it was described in his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as followed: “But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”
I have no clue what the story is going to be either. Stranger in a strange land. I don’t feel like writing a travel blog on tips where to eat or what sites you should definitely have on your bucket list. I have no idea what to expect or where to go. And even if I’m going, I have no clue what awaits. A limited budget and no brochure I’m willing to have as a guide. I’ve become my own psychopomp on a story safari in a concrete jungle.

So what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So I will have to drum it up on my own. Free trading with my surroundings, like the Brits loved to do here. What’s this Chinese Dream中国梦they’re now talking about? William of Rubruck preaching the gospel of Aiwass in the Oriental metropolis. Do it now: pure Gweilo Gonzo journalism.

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