Laowai Time Warp
17 May 2005
The day after posting a link to the great laowai debate, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker. It was the kind of thing I would probably not have paid much attention to were the matter not already on my mind.
My co-worker is in her late twenties and comes from Sichuan. She has been living in Shanghai for the past five years or so.
I was having a conversation with my co-worker about foreigner teachers. When she got to the word “foreigner” she got as far as “laow-” and then switched to “waiguoren.” I smiled at this and let her continue.
After the conversation was over, I couldn’t let it go. I had to ask her: “Why didn’t you just say ‘laowai?'”
Clearly, she was embarrassed. I anticipated this, but I had to ask anyway. She replied, “I was afraid you would be offended.”
“Why would I be offended?” I asked. “Isn’t it a neutral term?”
“Yes, it is definitely neutral. But I’m aware that some waiguoren don’t like to be called laowai.” [Note: zhwj reports similar exchanges.]
This got me thinking. And I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Call me cynical, but I never completely trust one native speaker’s view of her language, and I thought this case was particularly suspect. Why was it suspect? Well, Chinese can be especially sensitive to how they are viewed by outsiders. If “laowai” does, indeed, carry negative connotations, some Chinese people would be worried that foreigners would consider them racist for using it. In short: Chinese people might lie about the connotations of the word laowai in order to avoid being viewed as racist by foreigners.
It seems to me, however, that most evidence indicates that laowai is a neutral term. Todd has recently done an internet study on it, and came to this conclusion as well. This was also the original premise behind Tom Vamvanij’s post that started the debate. Why all the conflicting anecdotes then?
I posit that the word is in something of a state of transition. As zhwj has pointed out with a Chinese dictionary definition (via the Peking Duck post), the word used to have a more negative connotation than it does now:
> Breaking out the dictionary: 《应用汉语词典》(2000年), published by the venerable Commercial Press, says: “老外…(2)称外国人(现在外国人自己也称自己为“老外”,所以已经不含轻蔑意,而是一种诙谐的用法了)
> The parts I’ve emphasized imply (1) in the past the term had a
disdainful flavor to it, although it doesn’t now, and (2) it’s more
jocular or familiar now.
Why would this negative connotation change to neutral? Probably the biggest catalyst would be real-life contact with foreigners. Naturally, you would expect Shanghai and Beijing to lead the pack in such an evolution, as those cities’ foreign populations are quite large. By the same token, we would expect small Chinese towns with little or no exposure to foreigners to cling longer to the “negative version” of the term laowai.
If we are currently in such a stage of transition, it would explain a lot. It would explain why Hank, living in a small rural town, might find the word extremely offensive, while I, in Shanghai, find it totally innocuous. And it would explain the conflicting “real life reports” of different foreigners’ experience with the word.
Understanding of certain words often varies from individual to individual; I think it’s unsurprising for a lexical discrepancy to arise in a country as large and diverse as China, especially with the widening gap between the “rich east” and “poor west.” This might be just the perfect set of conditions to nurture a sort of verbal time warp effect to which the term laowai could fall victim.
Despite my suspicions regarding native speaker explanations, I still maintain that laowai is a neutral term. If it doesn’t feel neutral in your part of China, it may just be a matter of time. Encourage the locals to watch more TV.
Related blog entries:
– Todd writes about seven Chinese words for foreigner.
– Tom Vamvanij asserts that “laowai” has no positive connotation.
– Richard throws a link up and gets lots of comments.
– Todd asks his Chinese readers (in Chinese).
– Adam thinks “laowai” has lost its negative connotations.
Kinda Related: 老外的秘密 (in Chinese; scroll down)