“Laowai”. That’s pronounced “Lao-why.” It means foreigner. To me, it means “dog.” It means an individual who isn’t really human. That’s how it feels when the Chinese say it in reference to me. They never say it directly to me, always among themselves. You aren’t privy to their conversation, but you can see the degree of entertainment that they enjoy when you’re in their presence.
Mark Rowswell, aka Dashan 大山, working in Chinese language media since 1988
Whether or not laowai 老外 is pejorative depends on context.
Many Chinese will argue that it’s not pejorative at all. Lao 老, after all, is an honorific denoting seniority and informality, such as when used with a surname: Lao Liu 老刘, “Old Liu”. Laowai is often used in a similar way to demonstrate informality, with the feeling that terms like waiguoren are too formal and stuffy. In certain circumstances, however, this informality can be interpreted as showing a lack of appropriate respect. If one were to refer to Hu Jintao, President of China, as Lao Hu, this would normally be interpreted as a lack of respect. In the same way, laowai can be interpreted as slightly disrespectful rather than as a term of endearment.
In some uses, laowai is clearly pejorative, for instance when used as an adjective. “You are too laowai” 你太老外了 literally means “You are too foreign”, but in fact carries the meaning “You are ignorant”.
Perhaps the best measure of whether a word is pejorative or not is to gauge what the subject himself/herself perceives. In my experience, most foreigners do not like being referred to as laowai except in the most informal of surroundings and by close friends who may use the term in a joking manner, similar to the way one might refer to a close Caucasian friend as a “honky” without causing offense.
Personally, I never use laowai to refer to myself or other foreigners.
There is nothing negative about the word itself; it’s all about how the word is used. In this sense it’s similar to “Chinaman”. There is nothing inherently pejorative about this term; it simply denotes “a man from China”. However, through widespread misuse this term became recognized as being racist. Laowai is nowhere near “Chinaman” in terms of negative connotation, but through misuse has also gained a certain pejorative sense.
We hear estrangement and derision in the way people around us pronounced the word laowai. While not the most offensive word aimed against resident aliens in the Chinese lexicons, it is a word intensively involved in narratives of stereotypes and otherness. While some few, mostly older, speakers use the word in a completely descriptive sense, its heavy connotations are such that it would certainly be considered a microaggression or moderately potent slur if China were to adapt American norms of political correctness.
In the United States (and many other developed countries,) even the relatively neutral term foreigner is considered quite offensive when used in a personal context. In China this is the standard term for describing expats, and it carries every bit as much of an us-vs.-them and fearmongering potential. In addition, speaking of foreigners in China taps into a pool of resentment, based on the narratives of their mistreatment of the Chinese people, and their alleged privilegization over Chinese in China. So it goes without saying that using a term that’s generally less descriptive in nature, and therefore even more easily heaped with emotional baggage is not a step in the right direction!
For the majority of the China population it is true that laowai is a word with (usually) unconscious insults. But in a strict sense, it is YOU who is making the unconscious conscious. I believe in most cases, the use of laowai is just referring to a non-east asian face, and there is nothing more involved. Your feeling of offence is from your deliberate interpretation of every use of laowai as a conscious offence.
And why do Chinese use laowai even if they are in another country? Surely it does involve the “you and me” sense, but mostly within a casual context, the word is only articulating the racial difference in appearances between east asians and the rest of the word.
I can understand your frustration to a certain point but it seems also butthurt.
Holy shit this is obnoxious. Some friends of mine and I almost got into a brawl with these peasant Chinese tourists at a temple in Bangkok over this. They were being loud and disrespectful, and when my friend told them to shut up in Chinese they started calling us laowai. I’ll tolerate that shit from peasants in China, but not abroad. Once you’re outside of China, you’re the fucking laowai. Looking back, I wish we would have kicked their asses.
This reminds me of the day that a Chinese person told me it is impossible for him to be racist, because racism is a Western invention and therefore it does not apply to Chinese, only to foreigners…
Try to walk in our shoes. For most tolerant and open adults in the West it wouldn’t come in their minds to refer at a non-white people as a foreigner/outsider (I know people will argue about that point). They wouldn’t be color blind thou, they won’t consider a black person as an African. Just as black native.
Whether or not the word 老外 is pejorative or not, should be up to the receiver (or 老外) to decide. I’ve always heard 老外 used in either a demeaning or exclusionary manner. If a Chinese wants to curse at you or explicitly differentiate you from their society, 老外 is the go to word. (Think: 他妈的老外，滚回英国去！or 傻老外，什么都不懂）
EXACTLY!! CHINESE PEOPLE HAVE NO RIGHT TO TELL US THAT ‘LAO WAI’ ISN’T OFFENSIVE!!! Yea we aren’t as fluent in Mandarin as they are, so fucking what???
For us at Expat Rights, the biggest problem with “Lao Wai” is the OTHERING. We are the ‘perpetual foreigner’ in China. We will never be Chinese. Even if we fucking immigrated and got a Chinese passport.
Speaking of, my daughter, born in China to a Chinese mother, carrying a Chinese passport. Even she is considered a ‘lao wai’. Fuck that!!
CHINA THINKS WE’RE ALL SPIES
SO WHY NOT DRESS LIKE ONE?
and SUPPORT EXPAT RIGHTS! 🎗️
Your consulate doesn’t give a shit about you. We do.
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