One of the first terms that every foreigner learns after landing in china is 老外 laowai, which means, essentially, foreigner. Even if a foreigner eschews every single other chinese word, they cannot avoid this one. That’s because it is hurled around so much whenever a foreigner is around, you cannot help but notice it, and, over time, actually hone in on it. When you hear that word, you know people are talking about you.
So while technically it has a very innocuous meaning, it has gotten tangled and confused and interpreted and re-interpreted through the years. Each foreigner gets their own feelings over the word, and it’s usage, which was recently illustrated by this blog entry about several well-known expats. Not only are there about 10 foreigners discussing the word on the article, but there are over 70 comments, showing what a hot topic this is indeed.
So what’s the big deal? Well, for starters it is the way the word is often said. Not kindly but also not not cruel, per say, but in a manner that isn’t friendly. You usually hear it as your walking around, either in hushed whispers from those around you, or openly brazenly by people pointing and laughing at you. Most foreigners begin to resent this word pretty quickly just due to the implication that people around you are talking about you behind their back, and laughing. It’s not a comfortable feeling.
And while the word isn’t necessarily rude, like the infamous former moniker yang guize “white devil,” many foreigners do find it rude and prefer the other common word that means foreigner, waiguoren. This seems to play out especially in children who, educated and learning “proper” Mandarin in school, tend to stick to the more polite waiguoren, while older people, or less educated folk, say laowai. I see it time and time again in my small city. A group of middle school-aged kids will be talking about me saying waiguoren, while the group of middle-aged ladies right next to them are saying laowai.
But there’s another layer to it all for foreigners of different ethnicity. Like the writers in the blog post mention, I too have seen the term laowai used only for white, western foreigners. My black friends get called heiren, or black person, more often than not, even if they are also americans like me. So is there some inherent racism in the meaning of the word, as it is commonly used today? My asian friends (not from China) typically get called the name of the country they are from. Like, Japanese or Indonesian. I rarely hear the word laowai when people are talking about them. (They are more often called liuxuesheng, or foreign students.)
I’ve also had a funny experience with the word outside the country. I was in Thailand, where many chinese vacation, at a store and there was a chinese family nearby. They were looking for something, speaking chinese, and I overhead them saying, “It’s over there by the laowai.” (They meant me.) I wanted to turn around and shoot back “In Thailand your a laowai too!” (but I was too shy). It brings up a point that supports the “for whiter westerners only” theory, as if I was black, or asian, or a local thai, they probably would have used another word. And they certainly didn’t consider themselves a laowai, even though they were from a different country. I wonder if they would have called themselves waiguoren. I’m not sure.
As for me, my feelings about the word changes. In the beginning, I had no clue and it didn’t bother me. Over time it began to really annoyed me and as I learned about other words, like waiguoren or waiguo pengyou, foreign friend, I began to hate the term laowai. For awhile I was offended like many other foreigners and it would make me mad, though I think for the fact that people were whispering about me as I went about my day, rather than the actual word.
These days I’m back to not caring. Sometimes usage bothers me, but more when it’s said in a unfriendly way than the actual word. I also really get annoyed by the use of heiren, when chinese people talk about my black friends (we have a lot of my campus and the locals are especially bad about it) and in those cases I try to stress the word laowai, so they get the hint.
In my daily life I use laowai, but I’m a lazy american so I tend to prefer short words. (Waiguoren is a whole syllable longer. Who has time to say that?)
What about you? For foreigners living in China do you hate the word laowai? Had any bad experiences with it, or do you not care either way? I’d like to know how you feel.
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