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Opinion: Laowai is a Four Letter Word

Posted: 06/3/2014 12:00 pm

laowai foreigner t-shirt[The following is a blog originally published at Sinopathic on December 23, 2013 as written by terroir, and is reprinted here with permission.]

It’s thrown around by our colleagues, the jianbing seller, taxi driver, your students, and maybe even your friends. Even though it’s such a ubiquitous term, nobody seems to be quite sure what “laowai” really means. Should you feel good to be referred to that way, as a member of a prestigious club? Or should you be taken aback at being singled out as something different?

Some may say that “laowai” is a neutral term that doesn’t contain any inherent meaning other than “foreigner”. If there are any negative connotations in the word, they stem from the context in which the word is used. But this ignores the latent meaning of the word, shrouding it behind the banality of daily repetition that grinds its significance into unfeeling, bureaucratic indifference.

Taken literally, “laowai” written in Chinese is 老外 (lǎowài). Individually, its components are 老 (lǎo) meaning “old”, and 外 (wài), meaining “outside”. “Laowai” most definitely does not mean “foreigner” in Chinese; instead, that term is written as “外国人” (wàiguórén) which is made up of “外国” for “foreign” and “人” for “person”.

There is no English equivalent of “laowai” in English; this mostly stems from the fact that most English-speaking cultures don’t inherently view the world as being divided between themselves and everyone else (most, I said).

There may be some confusion to what “laowai” actually means due to its individual components. “Old” is universally regarded in Chinese culture as a sign of respect. If someone is called “Old Wang”, then the Wangster is a person of a dignified position, regardless of his age. With this same thinking, a “laowai” should be a position that is equally respected—something absolutely true if it wasn’t for the second half of the term, “outside”.

Family is the most important component of Chinese society. As a way to endear themselves to others, many Chinese will address strangers with family roles; for example, to call a fellow man a “哥们儿” (gēmenr) is to afford him the respect of not just a fellow brother, but an elder one. After family, the respect commanded by any one person starts to thin out the further away they are located from the family home: friends, business associates, co-workers, neighbors… until it becomes a question of geography.

Being an outsider is pretty much the lowest scale to occupy on the Chinese social hierarchy. You are not trusted; your customs and habits are strange and unfamiliar; you are the unknown that stands in contrast to the family circle; your existence is a contradiction to all that which is Chinese.

So when when taken together, “laowai” means “respectable outsider” and not the “Hey, old whitey!” that Lonely Planet tried to convince me of at a more naive stage of my stay here. One could take it as as a backhanded compliment if one enjoys masochism in their majesty, but the word “laowai” is basically a system of control to always alienate a foreigner. No matter how well you speak Chinese, no matter how much you pander, no matter how much you love China – you don’t belong.

Respectfully speaking, of course.


Editor’s note: If you’re still not convinced, we’ve found a very simple process to both confirm the opinions expressed here as well as to give yourself the social advantage anywhere in China. Please use responsibly.

  1. The very instant you are personally referred to as a “laowai” during a conversation, stop everything. Interrupt the other party if you have to. Doesn’t matter if it is pouring rain and you are negotiating a fare for a taxi—grind the conversation to a standstill.
  2. Without raising your tone or showing any anger, pointedly demand answers to these questions: “Who are you calling a laowai?” (你叫谁是个老外?Nǐ jiào shuí shìgè lǎowài?) “Who’s a laowai? Am I a laowai?” (谁是个老外?我是个老外吗?Shuí shìgè lǎowài? Wǒ shìgè lǎowài ma?) “Where’s this laowai?” (老外在哪里?Lǎowài zài nǎlǐ?) Be firm, but not emotional.
  3. Do not waiver. Do not stray from your objective. Repeat yourself dozens of times if necessary. Do not change the subject, or allow the subject to be changed. Do not say anything other than the script in step #2. Again, do not escalate the situation by getting angry.
  4. Results will vary, but what we’ve seen is a slow grinding of cogs in the brain, after which the offending Chinese person will slap the brakes on and put it in reverse like a pizza delivery guy in the wrong driveway at the 29th minute. You may get an apology, get called the revised label of “foreign friend” (外国朋友, Wàiguó péngyǒu) and a conciliatory “好了好了好了” (Hǎole hǎole hǎole). This person will now try to quickly resume your original conversation to forget this unpleasantness, albeit at a disadvantage.
  5. Enjoy your new respect.

Photo: iQiLu

  • Jason Cox

    First of all laowai is overly racist as it applies only to white people. Black people are heiren, East Asians from other countries are not laowai and forget about South Asians. Secondly, the term is meant to be friendly in this racist way: white people are cool. So they don’t even realize what they are saying when they use it. Finally,你叫谁是个老外?Nǐ jiào shuí shìgè lǎowài? Is grammatically flawed; as my teacher said, if you have a 是 you need a 的. So I would stick with 谁才叫老外? Or 你叫谁叫做老外?

    • jasoncullen

      The phrase ‘white people’ is the English phrase that applies only to white people. Therefore, by your own twisted logic, it’s overtly [sic] (overtly?) racist. Ergo, you and all you damnable laowais are racist.

  • Kevin McGeary

    Laowai is a nationality and therefore should have it’s own national anthem.

  • Amanda Roberts-Anderson

    I hate the terms laowai and foreigner. I work for the Shenzhen Daily and I don’t allow the word “foreigner” to pass my desk unchanged. I always change it to “expatriate” or “International,” depending on the context.
    PS, good article. Thanks for the in depth.

    • jasoncullen

      And I hate foreigners who get upset about other people using their language. You went overseas, you bought the visa, you handed out a passport to get on that plane, when and where in that sad little magic kingdom we call your imagination did you never expect to be called a foreigner? Well, you ARE a foreigner, and your little pet peeves are not journalism. (Hey, it’s the Shenzhen Daily, no surprise here!) ‘Expatriate’ means ‘outside der Vaterland’, which is SOOO much better! And ‘international’ doesn’t mean foreign; it means BETWEEN nations. An international symposium makes sense in an academic context, a foreign symposium does not. But you could invite a host of foreigners to an international symposium and ask them to tell other people how speak their languages. What could be more Anglo? Waging linguistic imperialism while standing up for whitey rights! Yay, Shenzhen Daily!

      • Amanda Roberts-Anderson

        I expect to be treated with respect no matter what country I am in. It has nothing to do with Anglo imperialism, but common courtesy. And I never said international means foreign, I said it depends on the context. I wouldn’t say “foreign speakers;” I would say “international speakers,” for example. Also, English is not the native language of China, so if they choose to use it, they need to use it correctly. I don’t use offensive Chinese words and then say “well, in America I can speak Chinese how I want.” I don’t use words they find offensive out of respect. It’s called common courtesy.

        • Brian227

          Why do you expect to be treated with respect as of right? Courtesy, sure, but respect? What have you done that you deserve it from complete strangers?

    • Just sayin

      Shenzhen daily wechat account always uses 老外. I.e. “Expat in china” section in Chinese 老外在中国. Just sayin

  • Mangrove

    ….. and I’m just a lowly Guailo.

  • Pu Li

    Surely the basis of racism is the intent to offend or discriminate. Laowei is a throwaway term not intended to do either. I certainly don’t feel the need to confront people who use it.

    This is possibly because I left my prissy Western values in Manchester airport.

  • Pingback: Chinese People Share Embarrassing Stories of Foreigners Who Understand Chinese | TheNanfang

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