The term ‘mainlander’ refers to people from China. Over the years, impacted by political disputes, personal opinion and difference in habits, it now holds extremely derogatory and demeaning implications.
Its definition in Mandarin dalu ren, meaning ‘people from China’ has less of an abusive tone; although some Hongkongers, communicating in Cantonese, will make it clear from the beginning of a conversation or a meet up that they are in fact not from China.
Particularly in Hong Kong, distinguishing between whether someone is from China or Hong Kong is crucial. The simple mistake of forgetting could lead to humiliation or instigate unnecessary criticism. International businessmen, students as well as sales associates in Hong Kong have grown accustomed to this expectation.
You may ask why is the separation so significant?
The explanation is inherently embedded in the way China and its people are portrayed to the rest of the world. Travel reviews, personal blogs and online forums often depict people living in China as uncivilized and backwards. The terms in Mandarin are bu wen ming and luohou.
Squat toilets, rampaged with cockroach infestation, recent scandals of gutter oil use are only a few of the explanations people use to describe China.
The term is not only politically incorrect but also sustains Hong Kong-China disparities. It connotes a distinction between the superior and inferior – Hongkongers and mainlanders respectively – and paves a platform for abuse.
What many Hongkongers need to consider is what life was like a few decades back.
Twenty years or so before the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was not what it is today. It experienced problems of hygiene, environment, and corruption—similar to existing challenges the Chinese government faces. As much as we like to forget, people did spit on the street without care and food poisoning did happen from hawker stalls.
It was only after the restructuring of its public sector, the transiting of rule from the British and countless reforms later, that people’s expectations in Hong Kong developed. Laws were introduced to discourage spitting, smoking in public areas was prohibited and the possibility of a child peeing in public became unthinkable.
Why should Hong Kong’s way of life be used to compare those in China?
Talks on China today still centre on its rapidly developing economy; foreign direct investment in China is still supported by countries looking for a chance to integrate themselves in the Chinese market. Can China’s way of life not experience the same changes then?