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.