Laowai Time Warp

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)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Great Post!

  2. For the benefit of us “Chinese ex cognoscenti”, what’s the difference between laowai and waiguoren?

  3. Tim P,

    Tsk, tsk… You have revealed that you didn’t click on all those links and read everything!

    Laowai is informal. Waiguoren is somewhat formal.

  4. maybe the neutrality/offensiveness may be in the ear of the speaker/listener. Kind of like in the US with all the brouhaha over the years of certain terms used by whites for other races and vice versa. Many whites never thought they were being offensive when they called an Indian woman a ‘squaw’, or bandied about the term ‘redskin’. Or called a Chinese person ‘Chinaman’. Now, ‘oriental’ is on the slippery slope. Or called a black person ‘colored’/’negro’, etc. It was usually those such addressed who found the terms offensive, much the same with laowai.

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: May 18, 2005 at 2:31 am

    I think as long as people don’t call you dabizi, you’re okay. 😉 I wonder what other terms there are, insulting or otherwise, there are for foreigners in China. Gui? That’s a very common term for non-Chinese in America since in America the Chinese ARE the laowai. But gui is mostly used alone or as heigui; I almost never hear baigui. Like, “Man, there were a lot of gui at Ranch 99 Supermarket today!” Or “That heigui won the Oscar last year.”

    It’s sort of funny how a once negative term is now an okay term, which isn’t the case in America. Instead, we have terms that were once innocuous, but due to the PC police, are now rendered taboo. Like Prince Roy have said, “oriental” in America now is considered suspect; I even had an Oriental get annoyed because I called her oriental, which is funny since East Asia IS the Orient so why get pissed off? Yet the same broad wouldn’t mind being called a “person of color,” which, in my IMHO, is the most insulting, ridiculous term ever invented. Still, the most schizoid terms are applied to black Americans: first nigger, then negro, then colored, then black, now the tongue-twisting African American. This last term, of course, is almost NEVER used by black Americans themselves but rather ever-more-senstive . . . uh, European-American liberals. Haha.

  6. ÍÐµÄ Says: May 18, 2005 at 4:20 am

    For what’s it worth, everyone can add the comments I received to the sample on this same topic two months ago on my (now pretty much defunct) blog.

    I had several comments from Chinese that claimed that the term “laowai” was a positive term, not even neutral. Anyway, we can add those to the growing sample size.

  7. Oriental is not just on a slippery slope. It’s just wrong. But then again, I don’t consider East Asia to be “the Orient” either. The Orient is some place you go to get spices from the “natives.” In school, they no longer refer to the Orient unless you’re reading some story about pirates and whatnot. And since those aren’t very accurate descriptions of East Asia, it doesn’t seem right to call people from East Asia oriental.

  8. Just want to add one thing. I think Laowai is predominantly used to referred to whites.

    (1) A Chinese American, even if born in the US, would not be considered a Laowai and would be treated very differently in China compared to a white American.

    (2) A Japanese or a Korean (or someone from Pakistan or India) is not usually referred to as a Laowai. This is from my previous experiences. Although, technically, it’s not grammatically wrong to do so. Instead, a Chinese would say “hey look a Japanese!” (for instance, if not something worse)

    (3) I don’t know if this is some sort of implicit racism. But I think if what I observed is true (at least in Shanghai), then this implies that Laowai has more of a positive connotation. The other issue is keep in mind being white in China (unfortunately?) represent power: this is historical. So, the racism Hank faced in a small town is VERY different from the racism a black person faced in the civil right era (for instance.) I’d say that small town Chinese were more AFRAID of Hank and JEALOUS of him than feel superior to him. Obviously this translates to hatred as well. Even though the issue of “Laowai” seems a bit trivial, you are actually touching on some of the perenial topics in comparative studies of sociology.

  9. I am getting to agree with Da Xiangchang more and more. Even dabizi I would not find offensive in itself. I was in Vietnam a few years ago, getting a haircut. I was lying prone on my back having my hair shampoo-ed (making a verb from the noun), when a young girl, maybe 13 or so, came up to me and put her hand on my nose and said in Vietnamese, “tall (or high, depending on how you want to translate the Vietnamese) nose.” I laughed, and the gal giving me the shampoo laughed and we all started to have a conversation, etc. Who really cares? Da Xiangchang is correct, a foreigner in China has power right now, and a white foreigner has a lot of prestige and power.

    Going back to what John said, then the word laowai itself is just a vehicle that expresses the sentiment of the population. In the large Eastern cities and areas where foreigners are welcomed because of the wealth that comes along with the foreigners, the laowai is a neutral-positive term as native speakers use that term to refer to the other class of people called foreigners. In Western, poor China where there are fewer foreigners and therefore no benefits from having them around, but they still carry all the power and prestige of being a foreigner, then “laowai” is a negative term.

    Actually, there is nothing new here, and as people who once were strangers begin to intermingle and work together, the strangness disappears and the terms of disrespect become terms of respect; that is, until recently. Now, the progressive liberals have co-opted all terms with new terms, thinking they have solved some problem. Actually, I think this phenomenon in modern English speakers is related to lawyers. Lawyers need victims, victims is what gives lawyers the excuse to expropriate wealth from others. And so lawyers give a small bonus to those who cooperate with them, and now everyone wants to be a victim. What a bunch of losers.

  10. Coward: Why is oriental plain wrong? It is a Latin word, if it originally meant monkey, or dwarf, or dipshit, I can understand the “wrongness” attributed to it; but it is “East” in Latin. Why is one word for East plain wrong and another acceptable, it appears to me to be rather arbitrary and capricious on the part of the complainers.

  11. 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.

    I was having a conversation with my co-worker (from California) about Chinese imigrants. When she got to the word ¡°waiguoren¡± she got as far as ¡°foreign du-¡± and then switched to ¡°foreigners.¡± I smiled at this and let her continue.

  12. ¡°So, the racism Hank faced in a small town is VERY different from the racism a black person faced in the civil right era (for instance.) I¡¯d say that small town Chinese were more AFRAID of Hank and JEALOUS of him than feel superior to him. Obviously this translates to hatred as well.¡±

    Well said, and an accurate observation. I might add that fear, envy, and hatred culminate in suspicion about me here, which is totally understandable, because who the hell in his or her foreign mind would stay here in this small city for five years?

    However, point of clarification: I don’t find the use of laowai directed toward me as particularly offensive. Sure it gets my attention, but I generally hear it in the following context:
    “Look a laowai!”
    “Look Mama a laowai!”
    “That laowai looks good!”
    “That laowai very big!”
    “Why is that laowai talking to that Chinese?”
    “That laowai has a lot of hair on his arm.”
    “Laowai, ha ha ha ha ha!”
    “Laowai, looks strong!”

    For those Chinese who know me, they don’t call me laowai. They use my name.

    I can think of many annoying things about being a foreigner here, but being called laowai isn’t one of them.

  13. Hank: That is rather rational and to that extent represents my feelings also.

  14. when talking amongst themselves, i’ve often heard my chinese friends here in america use the word “waiguoren” for americans. in america. i think chinese folks in general have a unique ethno-centrism that western cultures overcame centuries ago. zhongguo is still the middle kingdom, as in the center of the world.

  15. Kikko Man Says: May 18, 2005 at 11:16 am

    A while back, in Gainesville, the word negroe would have certainly been considered neutral, right? How about the other “n” word?

    I have had plenty of Chinese tell me that laowai does have a negative connotation. Waiguoren, waibing, waiguo pengyou, are all obviously more polite. Do any of you out there get called yang guizi or yangren? My favorite is dabizi.


  16. In Taiwan, they just about never use laowai. Waiguoren is the standard neutral term. However, much to the chagrin of non-Americans, when the locals in the countryside want to point at and laugh at a white person, they invariably say Meiguoren!” which is ironic since there are way more Canadians or South Africans than Americans in the countryside.

  17. Hank,

    I’m glad to hear you don’t mind the term. I used you as an example because your situation is pretty widely known among those who read China blogs, and I think the kind of experiences you had correspond well with the type of place that would use “laowai” as a xenophobic epithet.

    Thanks for setting the record straight.

  18. I’ve had a similar experience as yours, John. It was involving the phrase “guilao” though, which many Cantonese folks claim is just a neutral term for “foreigner” nowadays.

    I was walking home with a friend of mine and one of her students saw us and asked her “What are you doing with that guilao?” I answered her in Chinese and the poor girl flipped out and ran home. Later, she called my friend and told her “I’d never have called him a guilao if I knew he could speak Chinese!”

    Turns out that she’s from rural Guangdong, not Shenzhen/Hong Kong, where everyone claims it to be a neutral term now.

  19. I’m not sure that asking Chinese people is a good way to measure a word’s negativity. There are issues of national pride and a desire to spare the laowai’s feelings. I think I agree more with those who want to look towards the word’s use in deciding whether it is a slur or not.

    Living in the fairly small town of Dongying I have to say that most of the time when I hear laowai no disrespect is intended. The times when I am recieving a light teasing (usually from children or drunken middle-aged men) that’s the word of choice.

    I’ve never heard it used it in a respectful tone, though.

    my estimate: on a scale of 1 (positive) to 100 (negative) laowai scores about 55 or 60.

  20. My experiences match Hank’s and Green Apron Monkey’s. It’s not really about the word itself, so much as the attitude of the speaker and listener. Alright, so I’m in Beijing, but my first two years where spent in Changsha and Taiyuan. “Laowai!” was a fairly common exclamation that I heard as I wandered about town in those two cities. Mostly it was about surprise to see this rather pale-skinned, curly-auburn-haired monster wandering around, as well as your usual mix of ignorance and curiousity, not about putting me down or anything racist.

    And yes, I have been called ‘Yangguizi’. It was clearly not meant in a positive or neutral way. I have also heard ‘yang’ used in a neutral sense as a prefix on several occasions, although it doesn’t seem particularly common.

  21. Coward’s point is that the associations that are called to mind by “Orient” and “Oriental” are out-dated and stereotyped. Sensitive language users are aware of associations/connotations, and hence consider these words suspect. Really, relying on the literal definition of a word is a very ineffective way of judging its connotations. I don’t think anyone would like me to call them an “animal”, even though humans are technically animals.

    (Although that’s not to say that words like guailo which have an uncomplimentary literal meaning are not also problematic).

    green apron monkey: asking random people would indeed have the difficulties that you mention. That’s why when I wrote my first article I only asked good friends who I could trust to be honest with me.

  22. perhaps off topic a bit (i don’t have any feelings about the laowai debate, i’m a foreigner in china, but not white!), but i wanted to debate
    What John said about “Chinese can be especially sensitive to how they are viewed by foreigners.”

    If this were entirely true, wouldn’t Chinese not squat on the side of the road, hock a big loogie or rip off foreigners?

  23. Hank said:

    ¡°That laowai has a lot of hair on his arm.¡±

    I had some kid today tell me (without using the word laowai) that the hair on my arms was fun. I wonder, then, how I can ever be bored.

  24. dezza,

    Can be, man. As in, “not always.”

    I expect this type would be the more educated type, not the type you describe.

  25. I think I agree more with Prince Roy and Da Xiangchang than anything else. Certainly one’s perception of what the word means–how it’s interpreted by us as foreigners–counts for something. For one thing, most of the time when I hear people call me laowai, I don’t get the feeling that it’s polite. And in addition to that, I’ve read some comments (I forget if it was here or there) about how children will point their finger at you, say laowai and then the parents will think it’s funny and cute. I can’t imagine my parent’s reaction if when I was 4 or 5 years old I saw a Chinese person on the street and pointed my finger at him and shouted “LOOK! A CHINESE PERSON!” Somewhat related, the word “HELLO!” now sort of carries the same connotations for me as “LAOWAI!” On a few occasions, I’ve actually been called ¡°Ò»¸ö hello¡± when walking around by myself or with others. That is impolite in every way shape and form. So maybe I’m not concerned about respect or disrespect, I’m more concerned about what’s polite and what’s not polite.

  26. Matt: it matters only if you want it to matter. Some people will like you, some will not like you, most are indifferent. Why waste your time on bovine scatology.

  27. I’m glad Matt brought up the politeness angle, which I touched upon in the post that John linked to and elaborated further down the comment thread.

    There might’ve been many subconscious factors at play when John’s friend stopped just short of using the word laowai. I sure hope, however, that one of them was an innate recognition that it’s not polite to call an entire demographic of total strangers by a nickname, neutral though that nickname may have become.

    By the way, doesn’t anyone find it amusing that the dictionary cites the adoption of laowai by foreigners as the rationale for the word’s loss of negativity? If we’re to take that seriously, then we only have people like John to thank for improving the Sino-Waiguo relationship 🙂

  28. Tom,

    Most of the time when I hear the word laowai, there’s no impoliteness. If I ever hear the term used rudely, it’s usually by someone I’m completely ignoring anyway.

    I don’t buy the “it¡¯s not polite to call an entire demographic of total strangers by a nickname” theory. The Chinese use the term. It’s neutral. I see nothing wrong with using it. The Chinese certainly aren’t going to stop using it; it’s not worth being unhappy over. Why disapprove of it (which accomplishes nothing besides possibly amusing the Chinese) when you can be helping to diffuse the lingering negative connotations?

  29. Man, there’s been a lot of ink spilled (uh, bits encoded?) on this topic lately.

    My two bits: laowai is only offensive if it’s being used to address you; otherwise it’s merely an annoying reminder that you look different and are probably making someone’s day just by walking down the street.
    ÀÏë×Ó used to be decidedly offensive, but now seems to be just a generic, albeit impolite, term for white people (and particularly Russians) up in the Northeast. I remember a couple times in Harbin where guys would come up in my face, say “ÀÏë×Ó?” quizzically, and walk away, presumably having satisfied themselves that, yes, it was a hairball. (One time I replied to the guy, rolling my r’s and putting fourth tones on everything, that I was a Uyghur.)

    Calling foreigners “hellos,” on the other hand, which seems to be a southern thing (I haven’t encountered it in the North, at least, except for a vendor with what sounded like a Zhejiang/Wu accent), strikes me as being no different from calling Asians chinks or gooks, both of which were also imitative slurs. (“Gook,” I believe, comes from the Korean reading of ¹ú as in ´óº«Ãñ¹ú, but I could be wrong.)

    Actually, does anybody know of Chinese terms for Uyghurs? I’m talking about racist or imitative ones here, not άÎá¶ûÈË or н®ÈË. That’d be a much, much more interesting topic of discussion than this one.

  30. Luo Dawei Says: May 19, 2005 at 1:03 am

    Brendan has an interesting question. Are there colloquial/regional derisive terms for China’s minorities (Uigurs, Mongols, Tibetans …) like the US does for just about every ethnic group that has immigrated here (US).

    My wife, who grew up partly in Gansu£¨À¼ÖÝ£©, said they (Han) used to look down on the Tibetans who would come into town because they all stink.

  31. Surprisingly there are not many nicknames (such less formal words as we are talking about here) for Chinese minorities. The only ones I can come up with are ÀÏά×Ó(laoweizi, Uyghurs)£¬ÀÏë×Ó(laomaozi, Russians and Chinese Russians)£¬»Ø»Ø(hui-hui, the hui minority, i.e., Chinese muslims not including the Uyghurs). I will not render jusdgement on the connotation of these because Brendan is right we can go into a much lengthier debate over each of this and the arguments will be all the same. However, the cold truth is these are not frequently used phrases, much less used than laowai.

    Please do not extrapolate the lao connection here to support any of your overanalyses of laowai. In Chinese this lao word is used everywhere, far more frequently than in any other language. There is a rather sharp contrast between Chinese culture and cultures of several English-speaking countries. Chinese, particularly Mainland Chinese, like to call someone or be called lao something, partly due to the tradition of reverence towards old folks. In contrast, in say US, calling someone esp. a lady old is extremely insulting. The lao address phrases cannot be translated to old anything! Try and translate laoshu (ÀÏÊó) or xiaolaoshu (СÀÏÊó)! This difference in cultural ideals should not influence the present discussion of whether or not laowai is impolite or negative. Unfortunately I do sense that some of you just might be influenced by the lack of appreciation of this difference in their stands against the lao connotation in laowai.

  32. JFS you rock dude.

  33. Sorry I had to look up “bovine scatology.”

    bovine (adj.)

    1. Of, relating to, or resembling a ruminant mammal of the genus Bos, such as an ox, cow, or buffalo.
    2. Sluggish, dull, and stolid.

    scatology (noun)

    1. The study of fecal excrement, as in medicine, paleontology, or biology.

    2. a. An obsession with excrement or excretory
      b. The psychiatric study of such an obsession.

    3. Obscene language or literature, especially
      that dealing pruriently or humorously with
      excrement and excretory functions.

    Thanks for that buddy.

  34. Gin, I thought hui-hui predated the word »Ø×å (huizu)? In other words, I thought hui-hui was, at one time in the past, the only word for Chinese muslims. I don’t know what its usage in modern Chinese is, though.

  35. Gin — thanks. The whole ÀÏ thing is a total red herring; it’s like people trying to extrapolate the meaning of “ger” in “monger,” “longer,” and “nigger.” (And I realize that I’m probably implying something by that last example, but trust me — the “ger” in “nigger” is not, not, not a productive complement.)

    ȯȯ is interesting, because it suggests an imitation, like the Greek barbaroi. Anything else?

  36. I had similar experience to the one Matt is relating. In the city where I was living I got used to people pointing to me and saying ¡°laowai¡± and eventhough I didn¡¯t found the word offensive, the way they say it was like if they were so attonish to find a white girl there pointing and laughing.. was kind of inpolite. It got worse when I went to ¡°luguhu¡± where this Chinese man in his 40¡¯s looking at me like if he was retarded opening his eyes so much I thought they were going to fail of and pointting me and approaching up to the point of touching me!
    I tough it in the funny way and whenever they pointed me and say: ¡°laaaooowaaaiii¡± I pointed them and said ¡°zhooong guoo rennnn¡± in the same tone they did.

    So the topic, for me is not offensive the term ¡°laowai¡± it could get to offensive the way they say it and the situation, but I think that ¡°waiguoren¡± is more a politically correct way to refer to the foreigners.

    Mmmm what¡¯s the difference between ¡°Spanish¡± and ¡°Spaniard¡±???

  37. Todd,
    Your point of »Ø»Ø predating »Ø×å is interesting, worthy some research. I have no information on that. This site had a discussion where some indepth comments touched on the history of hui-he or hui-hu people of the Tang dynasty. I can’t find it now.

    All I know is that presently in some areas, »Ø»Ø is used as a colloquial nickname for a »Ø×å person. I do not know if they call themselves »Ø»Ø, though.

  38. it’s interesting that as an american who has only been to china once (and only for 2 wks) that i am bothered by the use of the term “oriental.” i don’t know why i am. maybe it’s john’s influence, though i don’t remember him ever outright saying anything to me about it. but i noticed that when someone referred to some japanese decor as “oriental,” i found it mildly irritating, and discovered that i found it rather ignorant to use that term rather than “asian.” dunno why, or when that change in my thinking occured.

    blk, i love your technique for pointing out their ignorance/impoliteness! that’s awesome.

    jfs, great euphemism! maybe those that prefer to use strong language could follow your example. i had no trouble realizing what you were referring to because i had a prof who used to use terms like “fecal roster” [s#!t list] and “up the proverbial tributary without a viable means of locomotion” [up s#!t creek without a paddle]. fun stuff. 🙂
    (i figured i’d save some people a trip to the dictionary by providing the “translations.”)

    john, to test your theory about the term evolving, you should get a chinese friend to ask some older people whether they feel there is a negative connotation. if a younger chinese person does the asking, they are likely to answer honestly, right? you could also then get more of a cross-section by including in your “study” people who don’t know you. level of education may also play a part, and since you work in the field of education, most of your more personal contact is with chinese who are educated, right?

  39. i found a secret asian man strip that has something to do with the laowai controversy. importantly, he says, “the worst slurs are the ones so normalized that you don’t even notice.” or something like that.

  40. I like the Beijing based band Lao-Why?. A different perspective or what?

  41. WORD VS CONTEXT – I wonder if the word has evolved in the year since you first posted this. One of the challenges I’ve found with learning Chinese is the seemingly totally context driven uses of many Chinese words. I think in English words usually can stand on their own, and despite a particular social situation or context it’s basic meaning still carries most weight.

    For example, the English “Ms.” addressed to a woman is almost in all situations a neutral or courteous word. Compare this to the various ways of saying ‘Ms’ in Chinese and depending on the context, ie. KTV bar or at a business function, the change in meaning.

    My theory is that Chinese people, and the Chinese language are more accustomed to this. So when they say it is neutral, it is. If the context is for example talking about foreigners or even you personally in a conversation. On the other hand, when the conversation turns to some disparaging issue, the word turns too. When laowai is used to just ‘call out’ to someone on the street, it borders on non-neutral bad b/c it’s like saying, hey everyone look at that funny cripple.

    It also fascinates me that many if not most Chinese will use the word laowai to describe you, especially if you are their friend. I don’t believe they imply too much negative connotation. Although I also have friends that call their friend ‘Little fatty’ and no one is meant to take offense.

    I found this quote quite a twist of the situation “No socially mature Chinese would use the word to describe a foreigner they’re talking to unless that foreigner is a very familiar friend.”

    Anyway, the reason I don’t like the word laowai when it refers to me, I think is because I still am not able to un-detach words like Chinese do and apply meaning only from context. I know my friends mean no offense, but I just can’t detach from the word the non-positive meanings from other contexts. I’m just not context specific enough. I wonder if this will change after some years and better Chinese.

    The nicest line I’ve heard so far to my ears has been, “friends who are living a Chinese life” by a young Chinese woman. I think this is a sign of the times.

  42. Someone mentioned that the cultural parochialism of the Chinese will eventually diminish with help from various groups including Chinese students who study abroad. Hate to burst your bubble but there’s very little that’s “international” about many of these students. I was recently at a bar with a bunch of people that included two 20ish yr. old Commerce students at University of Toronto. Neither of them could really speak English, and most Chinese who live here(and most probably all over the world) refer to the locals as “foreigners”. Yes, you can take the people out of China, but you can’t….well, you know the rest.
    I was reallly suprised how little people were bothered being referred to as Laowai. The term Laowai is a generic term for non-Chinese, esp. whites
    I think what’s interesting is when we contrast the way most Westerners(I hope) refer to “Chinese” people as being “Chinese”, a recognition(albeit very minor) has been made with regard to a person’s (a) Country of origin (b)culture/history which includes language etc.
    The term Laowai simply says “you’re not Chinese” which can mean “you’re not special” or just the fact that someone is White.
    The idea that one person would describe another person with a generic term which fails to recognize the unique characteristics that make up the other, is a sort of objectification of people as the non-Chines “other”.
    The fact that Chinese people still call non-Chinese foreigners in their own countries shows me that the term has meaning, and represents the gap between Chinese and other peoples who make up Canada etc.
    The fact that

  43. Professor Loco Says: August 12, 2006 at 1:21 am

    What’s wrong with being a foreigner?

  44. While I’m late to the party on this one, I do find it offensive at times. I actually just had a conversation with a coworker at lunch. She referred to a group of foreigners who came in to work on a project as laowai. I said she should say waiguoren. It does depend on the context. I’m friends with the girl and if she called me laowai, I wouldn’t mind because it would be in a more friendly and playful way. However, using the blanket term I do often find offensive. The reason is basically because it is the Chinese equivalent of Oriental. Oriental is considered offensive because it implies that the West is in the center, and Asia (the Orient) is outside. Laowai has essentially the same general connotation. She then went on to say “well it’s not offensive, I don’t mean it to be offensive”. Which then led to the “well, I find it offensive when used in this way, and you can’t tell me that I’m not offended”. Then of course that devolved into “But, it’s shorter, two characters rather than three” Which I replied with, “Chink is shorter than Chinese person, the N word is shorter than African American, Indian is shorter than Native American, but they’re all still considered offensive to varying degrees”.

    I used to live in the far west of Shanghai, in Qingpu, which is a pretty small town with virtually no foreigners. I lived there for a year and a half, and still love to go back to visit. I remember one time when I walked into the mini-mart that I frequented and in which I had made many friends amongst the staff, and some migrant worker kids came in and started talking about the “laowai” and the lady behind the counter started saying to them “he’s not a laowai, he’s qingpuren, you’re waidi ren. how can you say anything?” that shut them up pretty fast, and it also rather cemented the feeling of the offensive nature of the term in certain situations.

  45. … the eye of the beholder.

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