It’s easy to see that LAOWAI means WHITE if you think if a very common scenario – some Chinese friends suddenly notice a foreign person nearby.
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If he’s white, they will say ‘LAOWAI!’
If he’s black, they will say ‘HEIREN’.
If he’s brown/indian, they might say ‘YIN DU REN’
If he’s Asian, he’s definitely NOT a Laowai!
I asked a bunch of Chinese friends about LAOWAI meaning WHITE at a Chinese corner in Hangzhou, and they mostly agreed with me. One even highlighted that the stereotypical image of laowai is ‘golden hair & white skin.’ Another friend even shared a very illuminating story.
Her co-worker recently had a new neighbor move upstairs from them. When telling my friend about it, they described the person as not a laowai, not white, not black,but somewhere in the middle. If they were white they’d simply have been described as a new laowai neighbor.
So yes, I know Laowai doesn’t mean ‘white person’ in the dictionary. But it most certainly does in common usage.
The word doesn’t bother me as much as it does other foreigners here, but after five years of constantly having it shouted at me, I’m fed up. It doesn’t matter how long you stay in China – you will always be “lao wai.” You can speak Chinese fluently, practice tai chi, prepare a mean plate of dumplings, and write Tang Dynasty era poetry in water calligraphy, but if you don’t look like them, you’ll still just be “lao wai.” Perhaps this is the reason that even though I’ve been in China for five years on and off, I refuse to make a long-term commitment here. I don’t study Chinese as much as I should, I don’t go out looking to meet Chinese friends as much as I should, and I don’t try to integrate myself in the culture as much as I should. This is most likely due to the fact that I know, no matter how hard I try, I’ll still just be another “lao wai.”