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Why oh why do you need to ‘Laowai’?

From a reader in Sichuan:

Just an aside (and yes, this will be a threadjack), I was wondering if anyone here could help me out with ‘the great laowai’ debate I am having here. I have been living in China for 2 years, I HATE to be called laowai (because of the informal connotation of lao3, because hey, if you don’t know me, you gotta keep some formality… for example, once I accidentally called my then future-father-in-law laoshu, and he got SUPER pissed, etc). One of my friends who has been here a hella long time agrees, another does not. Waiguoren is a ok. Hell, somebody could call me wairen. Am I being overly sensitive, or should I be resigned to my fate to be people’s dear foreigner here?

Also, where the hell did the term come from?

This is one of those topics that is perennial fodder for China bloggers. (See these posts in 2005, 2008, and 2010 as well as my own take on the subject back in 2006. )  Is Laowai a term of respect or of contempt?

I asked Yajun and this was her response:

After all this time, it’s become a label, a way to separate “us” and “them.” For some people it’s a neutral term. Phoenix TV uses ‘laowai’ all the time because it sounds more casual and colloquial than ‘waiguoren.’ Some people do use it as a way to put down foreigners, assuming that foreigners are ignorant or clueless.  People in the rural areas though, and this is just my opinion, don’t mean anything bad by it, it’s just the only term they know for foreigners.

My somewhat simplistic take on it is: It depends.  Language is not only about the words but about other signifiers which indicate the meaning behind the words.  There is also the all-mighty context.  Being called a ‘laowai’ by my friends over beers is obviously less annoying than somebody muttering it under the breath as an epithet or having it shouted at me from a passing motor scooter by some guy who thinks a tiled squatter is the height of modernity.

For the most part though, I equate Chinese who use the word “Laowai” with the morons back in the US who still use the word Oriental whenever they see someone of Asian descent.  It’s less the offensiveness of the word than the fact that using “Laowai” (or Oriental) screams to the world: “I am too stupid and ignorant to realize the diversity of people who are not like myself.”

In any case, I highly doubt this will be the last blog post to try and reconcile the term Laowai.  But it’s certainly something that people ask about all the time, especially my students.

Of course, we can also indulge in every foreigner’s favorite airport game.  The next time you fly back from China, just wait until you get off the plane and into the baggage claim.  Guaranteed at least one idiot is going to say something like “Aiya, zheme duo laowai” (Wow! There are a lot of laowai”).  At which point you can lean over and in your best putonghua remind them that: “Duibuqi, zai zher NI shi laowai.”  (Sorry, here YOU are the ‘laowai’!)  Silly? Sure. Childish? You bet. But we’ve all done it and it’s a helluva lot of fun.

16 Comments on Why oh why do you need to ‘Laowai’?

  1. Your story reminds me of when I lived in Japan. Some family friends went on holiday to Hawaii, and while they were there their children took to chasing after Japanese tourists on the beach, pointing and yelling, “Gaijin! Gaijin!”

  2. LAOWAI. Tough call. The “lao” brings you in, as in lao pengyou, lao po, lao da, lao shi, but then the “wai” sticks you right back out again.

    I’ve never had any problem with it. But I understand people who do.


  3. I have selective hearing when it comes to a few words in Mandarin, and LaoWai I can always pick out in a crowd.

    My favorite moniker that I’ve been called by a mainlander was USAren. Just rolls off the tongue.

  4. And here I am thinking I was the only one who found petty catharsis in the baggage claim area ‘laowai’ gag. That had me laughing!

  5. try using 老内 in response, really effective

  6. When I was at grad school I hung out with a lot of Chinese and Taiwanese students, and I would always smirk when they talked about the waiguoren at the university. They were maddd cool, though, and it was more a funny story for me than a point of contention.

    I am with you on the equivalency of oriental and laowai. My own way of explaining it was always that laowai is to waiguoren what queer is to homosexual. You could say it, but just realize that you were playing with fire and it is not that value neutral.

    My wife does not use the term, and she cannot really give me a reason why, but it is one of the things I love most about her. She never views my foreignness as an actual issue. My idiocy, on the other hand…

  7. Oh and one more thing I forgot to add: the way laowai is only used for crackers. Blacks and Asians are not quite the same thing, and as much as I complain about the whole laowai thing, I can only imagine what its like to be a heiren (with the accompanying ‘he is so black!’ comment).

  8. i’m just happy it’s not 白鬼, honestly (heard in chengdu not long after the embassy bombing). a lot has to do with how laowai is said, like any term for an ethnic Other. i have been tempted to “laowai!” chinese tourists in the states (and even moreso to chinese tourists in taiwan for the sheer dada factor), but to be honest the ones i’ve come across who make it to the states are generally so well mannered that i feel bad doing it.

    even the term adoga in taiwan can be benign or pejorative depending on context. what comes before or after the term says more about the message being sent than the ethnic label itself. incidentally, most asians get lumped together by many spanish speakers in the US as “chinos,” regardless of nationality.

    what sets me off is the “oh, you speak chinese so well” set conversation, but that’s a separate rant. laowai is fine enough with me, as long as it’s said in a friendly manner.

  9. DavidofSanGabriel // August 2, 2010 at 8:17 am //

    Living in the San Gabriel Valley (now majority Asian), born there in 1954 (when it was about 2% Asian), I always get a laugh when, upon going to a Chinese restaurant, I hear some FOB waiter call me a “laowai” or “waiguoren”. Clearly these terms do not correspond exactly to our “foreigner”. I suppose that they really mean something more like “outsider”.

  10. But all the foreigners in China are not called laowai. The term has a specific connotation which designates only the laowai with brown or blond hair (especially blond), hollow-eyed, and an aquiline nose. That’s nearly the stereotype of laowai for Chinese. Japanese or Koreans are never laowai, nor the blacks who are called “hei ren” (black man) or even “hei gui” (black demon) though he or she may have the same nationality as those laowai.

  11. Funny, seems like the first terms you learn in a foreign language are always the derogutory epithets.

  12. If anyone does that ‘when you see a foreigner shout ‘laowai’ at them from a safe distance’ to me here in the big city, I respond with an immediate (calmly-voiced) ‘nongmin’. If I’m right they’re shocked into silence or laugh (at the shouter/themselves?), if they’re city folks they look satisfyingly embarrassed. And I think who knows, perhaps one less laowai-yeller for the future?

    In the countryside, however, or if it’s a bunch of dust-covered migrant workers off a construction site, then I don’t mind it at all. It’s all about speaker, tone and context I reckon. Hence Hu Jintao’s sparing use of the term at G8 summits, a point I make when city friends try to persuade me it’s actually very friendly and respectful.

  13. I was called 白鬼 once buy a middle aged guy I just crossed on the pavement on one of the main shopping streets in Hongkou,Shanghai. He also looked at me as if I were the personification of all evil. I couldn’t believe what I heard and stopped dead for a while, while anger was building up in me. But I just left it and went home. There is no use in arguing with idiots, especially when your Mandarin is not good enough, in which case you might end up swearing forth and back for ten minutes – like locals do, and a fine sport it is!
    One week later I heard two elder ladies (70 plus) in our small compound arguing. Suddenly shouting builded up like a poultry-house under siege, and when I looked through the window they were hitting each other over the head, before one of them was being led away by family members. I couldn’t imagine this happening anywhere else than in China.

  14. Instead of debating it here amongst yourselves, why don’t voice your opinion in a Chinese online forum somewhere and ask them directly?

    But no, never talk to the Chinese. Better we keep guessing here.

    This reluctance to communicate is what makes a foreigner “Laowai”.

  15. I don’t think the calling Laowai is perogative. It’s a neutral word to call all the foreigners that look to be different from us Chinese. When people don’t know where the foreigners come from and don’t want know their names, they just call the foreigners Laiwai to distinguish from other people. It’s a little like calling someone Zhang San or Li Shi.

  16. Che,

    ??? Have you been reading the comments?

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