In China you will be called LAO WAI - is that good or bad?

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In China you will be called LAO WAI - is that good or bad?

Postby long_way » Wed May 23, 2012 8:22 pm

First time visitors to China may be surprised or should I say VERY ANNOYED by certain things they probably never encountered before: spitting is one of those things (happening practically everywhere, especially in areas outside of Shanghai and Beijing), jumping the queue, (often) total disregards for you private space (guy behind you in the line will literally breath down your neck), smoking indoors (in buses, hotel rooms, restaurants etc)...

However one of those annoying things which will be directed straight at you is when Chinese people (usually teenagers and Chinese rednecks) address you as a LAO WAI.

Actually what is annoying is not the word itself, it's the manner in which this phrase is used - usually they yell it out as loud as they can and usually follow it by a loud laughter.

Chinese people will tell you laowai means nothing more than a foreign person, totally neutral term. Foreign visitors in China (me included) have a totally different opinion on that - this term sounds like an insult regardless what the original intention was.

Why would a random person want to insult a total stranger, you may ask... that is a good question which is probably not easy to answer.

Let's set the record straight: overwhelming majority of Chinese people are kind, friendly, helpful and respect foreign tourists. I'm sure practically anyone who comes to China will tell you that.

There is, however a small percentage of the population which either lack manners to such extent that they should be locked away or they are plain and simple vicious (as it can be seen in this video - WARNING: content of this video is very disturbing: adults on the street accused a little boy of stealing something and they are kicking his head and stomping on his hands the boy must belong to one of the Chinese ethnic minorities because I really doubt those assholes would dare to treat a foreign child in such manner simply because of fear they would get in trouble with the police).

Again, regardless of such unpleasant events China is worth visiting and Chinese people overall should not be judged simply on the basis of a few extreme examples.

People often ask: is laowai positive or a negative term?

Mark Rowswell, a very fine gentleman from Canada who has been living in China for more than a decade and acquired fame and admiration of the Chinese nation as Dashan very eloquently explained what term laowai means.

I have copied this article (without his permission - I apologize) and the link to the original article can be found at the bottom.

What are the differences in use between laowai (老外) and waiguoren (外国人)?
Is one of these more pejorative? Colloquial?
By Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan 大山 (

"Waiguoren 外国人 is the standard term for “foreigner” or “foreign national”. In and of itself, waiguoren carries neither a negative nor a positive connotation. It’s neutral.

It should be noted, however, that waiguoren is not always used in reference to one’s actual citizenship. Whereas an alien may become an American through the legal process of immigration, even foreign nationals who have become Chinese citizens are often, even decades later, commonly described as “foreigners (waiguoren) who became Chinese citizens” 加入中国国籍的外国人.

On the other hand, Chinese who emigrate and become citizens of other countries are not commonly referred to as waiguoren. Terms such as “overseas Chinese” 海外华人 or “American Chinese” 美籍华人 are used to distinguish these people from waiguoren. In this sense, waiguoren denotes a non-Chinese racial or ethnic background rather than just citizenship.

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."

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