Laowai | 30.04.05

It’s a myth that just won’t go away. Through a Slate article, I discovered this Wikipedia entry on the Chinese word laowai (老外) that echoes that “respect” rubbish found virtually in every piece of popular information about China. Once again, I need to dig deep into my hard disk for this letter that I wrote to the Lonely Planet in 2002 (way back when Jiang Zemin was still president).

Dear Lonely Planet,

Your China guidebook is a gem — practical, insightful and simply fun to read.

You’re way off the mark, however, about “laowai”, which you say is supposed to be “the most polite word the Chinese have for foreigners” (p. 119, 7th edition). Under no circumstances is that true — not even in theory. Apparently your writers have bought into the myth that since lao means “old”, it necessarily implies “respect”. In truth, when lao is the prefix in a compound noun, its meaning and function vary greatly with the succeeding part of the word. In many cases, including “laowai” here, “old” is not even meant and “respect” never connoted.

Take for example words such as laoshu (老鼠, rat) and laobaixing (老百姓, people of hundred surnames, i.e. commoners). In these cases, lao doesn’t mean anything — old or otherwise. Its only function is to clarify the words by emphasizing their significant latter parts, which are in fact already meaningful by themselves. (Shu and baixing standing alone still mean rat and commoners, but they can be easily confused with other words as homophones abound in Chinese.) Needless to say, no “respect” is implied in either word. You’re not supposed to read “Respectable Rat” or “Their Excellencies the Commoners”.

Lao gets even trickier when put in front of a surname. While indeed meaning “old” here, it manifests mainly familiarity and casualness and leaves “respect” (or the lack thereof) entirely to the context. This explains the curious fact that Lao and Xiao (, Little) actually work the same way when they are titles. Simply put, such titling is the Chinese equivalence of the Western first-name basis (back in the good old days when it wasn’t universal.) Therefore, you would be ill-advised to address the president of the PRC “Lao Jiang” for what you get across would be exactly the opposite of respect!

And yet “Lao Jiang” can be heard — not in public speeches or on TV of course, but in jokes, everyday mentions and, Heaven forbid, critical comments. Sometimes the mere utterance accompanied by a sigh and slow shaking of the head is expressive enough. Visitors to China should realize that it was in this same spirit that the term laowai (old foreign) started off — as a way of poking fun, even sneering, at foreigners. It is too late, however, for the PC police to campaign against it. The Chinese populace, for better or worse, has wholeheartedly adopted laowai as a generic word for “foreigner” and its condescending overtone has been largely mitigated. You now even hear it quite often on TV.

Still, while its negativity may be (almost) gone, laowai sounds too casual for comfort in many occasions. No socially mature Chinese would use the word to describe a foreigner they’re talking to unless that foreigner is a very familiar friend. Usage is more limited still for other, less-common, lao variants such as laomei (old American, i.e. Yank) or laohei (old black, which sounds awfully derisive and has no place in a civil speech — obviously no respect here whatsoever). All foreigners should keep this in mind so they can react appropriately when called these unsympathetic nicknames. The understanding may make you less indulgent, but it is better in the long run not to let people get away with being rude.

There are many better terms for “foreigner” than laowai. Waiguoren (foreigner) is notches above just by being completely neutral. Waiguo pengyou (foreign friend) is the TV host’s favorite and waiji (foreign national) is employed in bureaucratic affairs. As for the truly respectful, keep your ear tuned for waibin (foreign guest or dignitary).

Tom Vamvanij

It’s quite amazing that this myth has gone unchallenged for so long in a world with such an intense interest in all things Chinese. Perhaps all that attention isn’t borne out of curiosity but rather fascination, or even infatuation, which this warm, fuzzy, and pleasantly counter-intuitive “understanding” of laowai as a term of respect serves well enough.

The last time I checked, The Lonely Planet China was on its eight edition, with the error remaining firmly where it had been in the seventh. It’ll be much easier to correct the Wikipedia entry, if that isn’t too heart-breaking for some people.

PS If you enjoy this sort of debunking, you’ll appreciate this scholarly treatment of another myth that’s probably as old as sinology itself: crisis = danger + opportunity. Also recommended (though much less rigorous) is my own investigation of the proverb: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Update I’m not alone! This article from The Kangaroo and the Dragon disabused laowai with a different approach more than a year ago (though my ego hastens to add that my original letter to LP was written three years ago). Go ahead and read it. You don’t want to miss the revealing “laotouzi” anecdote and the high-quality comment thread.

Update II This little thing I wrote has stood up surprisingly well through all this debate, unspoiled even by my usually relentless second thoughts. My final verdict is the same as it would’ve been in 2002 had I been put on the spot: not derogatory, but impolite.

Update III As a Thai person of Chinese descent, I find this joke by Sarah Silverman…

I got in trouble for saying the word “Chink” on a talk show, a network talk show. It was in the context of a joke. Obviously. That’d be weird. That’d be a really bad career choice if it wasn’t. But, nevertheless, the president of an Asian-American watchdog group out here in Los Angeles, his name is Guy Aoki, and he was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew—as a member of the Jewish community—I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media. Right? What kind of a world do we live in where a totally cute white girl can’t say “Chink” on network television? It’s like the fifties. It’s scary.

There are only two Asian people that I know that I have any problem with, at all. One is, uh, Guy Aoki. The other is my friend Steve, who actually went pee-pee in my Coke. He’s all, ‘Me Chinese, me play joke.’ Uh, if you have to explain it, Steve, it’s not funny.

Very funny!!

22:20 ▪ language

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1
Zato 3.05.05

Tom,

Thanks, I really enjoyed this entry. BTW, Have you ever been to this blog? You may find it interesting : http://www.amritas.com/

My favorite Thai language misnomer is almost identical in nature to your laowei example. It’s how the word “farang” is used by travel writers and reporters as a generic meaning for foreigner. I suppose on some level it may be true, but it’s not entirely accurate in my opinion.

2
Tom Vamvanij 3.05.05

Thank you, Zato, for both your comment and the blog recommendation. Amaravati is absolutely fascinating.

I must take exception to your characterization of the word farang, though. Derived from farangsais (ฝรั่งเศส), which means France or French, farang is a truly neutral word for “white people”. While non-French Caucasians may not appreciate the French connection too much, most Thai people aren’t aware of it, let alone how it may offend.

That is not to excuse the racists and xenophobes who express their bigotry using this word. But in those cases, which unfortunately are numerous, you should blame the speakers, not the word.

Going out on a limb, I’ll even contend that farang is the best everyday Thai word for white people. Of the two other alternatives, Kon Piu Kao (white-skinned people) and Kon Kao (white people), the former sounds too formal and too fixated on the complexion. The latter, though innocuous-sounding in English, is ironically the most loaded of all. It brings to mind the imageries of slavery, genocide and exploitation and is often used in those contexts.

Update I was wrong about the origin of farang, which turns out to be a bit more complicated than I thought.

3
Zato 4.05.05

Tom, Glad you liked Amaravati. It’s the best linguistics blog I’ve found.

Also, I think perhaps that I didn’t explain myself clearly enough concerning the usage of the word farang. I concur with you that it’s etymology is most likely a derivative of farangsais, and that it’s usage in the vernacular simply relates to Caucasians (more specifically those of a Northern European extraction). My point rather was that it doesn’t specifically mean “foreigner” as I’ve witnessed numerous travel writers and reporters suggest. After all, not all foreigners in Thailand or those planning to visit are Caucasians, nor would Thais refer to Blacks, South Asians, Arabs, Japanese, etc. as farangs. Or would they? ;-)

4
罗大卫 4.05.05

Very interesting post. I have never taken too much offense to the 老外term. Americans are just as guilty of calling East Asians deragatory names. I need not list them in the interest of decorum.

Is the term 美国佬 used much in China these days?I always thouht that the closest term was “Yankee” as in Yankee go home.

5
Tom Vamvanij 4.05.05

Zato:
Oh, okay. You’re absolutely right, farang means “white person”, not “foreigner”. I thought at least that much was well understood, but of course we’re talking about travel-writing know-it-all’s here.

Then again, Matichon, that typically xenophobic, nationalistic, anti-West Thai newspaper, described the African American Miss Jones of the Tsunami song notoriety as a “farang deejay” in its front-page headline. Sigh.

罗大卫:
Laowai doesn’t much offend me either, especially since I’m hardly ever referred to as one. (Even when people didn’t think I was Chinese, most don’t usually see Asians as laowai, although they technically do qualify.) Like I said, the word’s become a generic colloquial term for “foreigner”. My only beef is with its widespread mischaracterization as a term of respect.

With regard to political incorrectness, Americans are decidedly not as guilty as other nationalities. The most racialist epithet I’ve ever been subjected to stateside was “Bruce Lee”, which didn’t even upset me at the time. (It should have, though, especially since the bum who called me that ended up conning me for twenty dollars.)

As for 美国佬, I’ve actually never heard it in China (which, for me, is mostly Beijing and Shanghai). Isn’t actually Cantonese, as in “gweilo”?

6
Todd (of The Kangaroo and the Dragon) 4.05.05

Well, at least you tried to set LP straight, Tom. What shall we do about wikipedia?

I remain uncertain about the historical origins of “laowai”, because I haven’t seen any concrete evidence for myself. I would love to see research on the word’s development.

Another myth I’ve heard is that Chinese culture/language traditionally had no concept of logic, with the corollary that Chinese are illogical and irrational. Well, it’s quite true that the Chinese word 逻辑 (luoji) is a phonetic translation of the English word logic (The Concise Dictionary of Modern Chinese gives this etymology), but it’s just as true that in the non-technical sense it is often interchangeable with other words, such as 理 or 道理. I would like to find a proper debunking of this myth one day.

7
罗大卫 6.05.05

Tom, I believe that 美国佬is probably a cold war term. I learned it from a friend who grew up in China during the height of the cold war in the early 60’s they used to sing a song in school “要古巴,要古巴,不要美国佬!“

“We want Cuba, We want Cuba, not Yankees”

the 佬 term is the same as in 鬼佬 gweilo.
人+老 = familiar person/ fellow.
So anybody can be a 佬
英国佬 = Englishman
日本佬 = A Japanese fellow
法国佬 = A Frenchman
泰国佬 = A Thai chap

I call my wife 中国佬 for fun.

8
Gin 7.05.05

美国佬 is probably a cold war term that had stemmed from the “hot” war. I believe during the time of the Korean war there was quite a lot of “打败美国佬!”, “美国佬滚出朝鲜去!” being shouted. Whether the phrase existed before that, like during invasion by 八国联军, I do not know.

中国佬 would not be a patentable invention, among Chinese there are 北京佬, 河北佬, 东北佬, 北方佬, 贵州佬, and 乡巴佬(乡下人, hillbillies). There seems to be an almost constant connection to 北(north), right? Right! I was once told that it used to be that in the self-important eyes of a Cantonese, anyone from outside of downtown Guangzhou was a 乡巴佬, and anyone from even 5 miles north of Guangzhou was a 北方佬. So what would a Yankee expect?

9
Tom Vamvanij 7.05.05

Todd:
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s anything too intriguing about the origin of laowai. Much the same way a bunch of other nouns are made colloquial, waiguoren acquires the lao prefix while losing guoren in accordance with the disyllabic standard. It may be interesting, however, to find out when and how the term first became widespread.

Regarding the Chinese and logic, I’d say they indeed lacked a word for “logic” as Aristotle knew it and hence the concept thereof. It doesn’t follow logically from that, however, that the Chinese are uniformly or even mostly irrational. For one thing, they do have, as you noted, such words as 道理 and 合理. For another, the failure to formally conceptualize something doesn’t always translate into the absence of it. The Thai language, for instance, doesn’t have a word for “xenophobia” and yet many Thais are xenophobic.

The Chinese on average don’t strike me as particularly logical. But neither do most people I meet of all nationalities. Indeed the only people who seem excited by logic these days appear to be these nerdy, nitpicking bloggers and commenters :-)

罗大卫 and Gin:
Wow, you guys are impressive. I have nothing to add except my father’s remark about a Teochew word that sounds like suobalao and is written either 乡巴佬 or 山巴佬 (he isn’t sure). And sure enough, the Teochew aren’t talking about themselves. I can almost hear Cantonese urbanites sniggering.

10
andrea 8.05.05

My impression of the term laowai is derogatory, as a distinction of ‘them’ from ‘us’. And you’re right, I’m Singaporean of Chinese descent, and I never get called laowai. (o:

11
Todd 8.05.05

Andrea, distinguishing “them” from “us” is not in itself derogatory. The literally meaning “old + foreign” (or “old + outside” if you like, but I think wai is understood to be short for waiguo) is fairly innoculous. The question is, how is the word used? One can say “damned laowai”, but one can also say “laowai friend”, and I once came upon a sight designed to help women find a “laowai husband”, so I don’t think the term is derogatory in itself.

12
andrea 9.05.05

It is the way I hear it used. Laowai is ‘them’ who are different and not as good as ‘us’. It’s the tone in which its used.

13
Tom Vamvanij 9.05.05

Andrea and Todd:
Does a word’s frequent usage in a negative or irreverent context make the word itself negative or irreverent? It’s an intriguing question to which I have no answer. Personally I’d be ready to declare laowai a neutral colloquial term for foreigner but for this snag: why would the Chinese need such a term?

Foreigners are foreigners. Waiguoren isn’t “too formal”, any more than foreigner is in English. Giving collective nicknames to people of other social groups is a way of expressing condescension. (See for instance “Jap”, which etymologically is simply a contraction of Japanese and yet is used as an epithet.) This is the reason for the “almost” when I said in the original post (and I was being generous) that laowai today has almost shed its negative connotation. That connotation having been its raison d’être, I consider the word mildly impolite even in a neutral context.

By the way, Todd, I’ve actually never heard of laowai pengyou. I’m trying to think whether “That laowai is my friend” would work. So far, the answer seems to be… it sounds weird. Also, the “laowai husband” website is to me an example of an irreverent usage. It’s not negative, but not positive either.

14
罗大卫 9.05.05

Seems this thread has pretty much exhausted the laowai meme in China. Anyone familiar with Japanese? Does the term “gaijin” esentially have the same meaning as laowai does in China?

15
Todd 9.05.05

Of “laowai husband”, you say “It’s not negative, but not positive either”…well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along.

I don’t think arguments based on the English language (“foreigner is foreigner”, “Jap”) can really prove anyway. Anyway, Chinese don’t need the word, since there are some dialects and some locations where it is not used (although it is spreading quickly).

And Andrea, I don’t like people identifying me as “different”, hence I don’t like hearing people mutter laowai (or waiguoren) in surprise when I pass them in the street, but that doesn’t mean it is derogatory.

The comments over at pekingduck.org are arguing the meaning of lao, which is not very helpful. Laowai is well established as a word, and its meaning and connotations are not necessarily cannot be deduced from the individual characters that make it up.

Tom, in response to your question, I think that if a word is consistently used in a negative context then it would probably take on negative connotations. But if it also appears in neutral or positive contexts, then presumably its connotation will remain neutral. If I say “This country is filling up with Asians”, it’s a negative/racist sentiment, but that doesn’t make the word “Asian” derogatory, because “Asian” is also used neutrally by many people. And I’ve encountered laowai in neutral contexts often enough to believe that it is not a negative word.

16
Gin 10.05.05

Does a word’s frequent usage in a negative or irreverent context make the word itself negative or irreverent?

I would have to say yes it does. In theory words should not, but language has life and words carry the speaker’s attitude AND are received with the listener’s attitude. Used excessively or improperly, nutral words COULD become negative or irreverent. Forget laowai, I have seen articles calling “Hello” the most annoying word and rightly so. Todd has recently retold a story where a “One Dollar” being said twice generated a perfectly upset Oz Chinese. Even a friendly 换刀叉吧 (silverware?) could result in an angery response.

17
Gin 10.05.05

And yes, I have heard “laowai pengyou” and even in 2nd person: “You are a laowai friend of mine that’s why I am revealing all this to you.” Coy, but hey.

18
schtickyrice 10.05.05

Speaking of Cantonese terms for ‘northerners’, what about the reverse? 南蛮子is definately derogatory, but isn’t 老广 rather neutral like laowai?

19
Gin 10.05.05

南蛮子 is northerners’ answer to being called 北方佬 (equally derogatory) and is usually a way of referring to folks with a southern accent – he who can’t speak Mandarin properly must be uncivil.

20
罗大卫 11.05.05

If Teacher Hanku is lurking out there it would be interesting to get his take on 老外. Did anybody get to read the now defunct Laowai Monolouges blog? That was a great soul bearing blog of an American English teacher slogging it out in less-than-cosmopolitan Anhui provence. He alluded to being called laowai many times.

21
Tom Vamvanij 11.05.05

While I’m trying to formulate a response worthy of all these insightful comments (it’s coming up, promise), would anyone of you China hands care to remark on my Multiverse Tatler post? C’mon, you must at least find the quoted text remarkable, don’t you? Well, everybody seemed so excited about Japanese and Chinese revisionism…

罗大卫:
Interesting that you should mention gaijin. Its Wikipedia entry is much more hard-headed than that of laowai, which currently has “respect” replaced by “friendliness”. (Please tell me I’m not the only one rolling up my eyes and crying “摆脱…”)

22
carlo 11.05.05

Just my two baht:

I’ve heard non-Chinese Asians being referred to as ‘laowai’ several times, in fact the first example that comes to mind is that of a Singaporean Chinese that lives next to me. Obviously people won’t shout that at you as you walk past them in the street as they may not even know you are a foreigner, but that does not automatically make the word ‘laowai’ a racial epithet. Rather, it is the Chinese notion of “Chineseness” that is racially connotated, but that is quite another story.

On the other hand, I’ve also had people saying “I’ve known you for a long time, I cannot think of you as a ‘laowai’ anymore”. Obviously the notion of ‘foreigner’ still carries that ‘outsider’ (内外有別) connotation that is typical of Confucian thought, and in this sense it is superficially closer to Japanese gaijin. Interpersonal relationships in China are often very group oriented, and the dividing line between 自己人 and 外人 can be surprisingly flexible.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things I don’t like about being a foreigner in China, but frankly ‘laowai’ doesn’t bother me much.

23
John Pasden 11.05.05

Gin,

You bring up an interesting point with the 换刀叉吧 example. You have ommitted the first part, though. What the waitress said, in full, is: “老外!换刀叉吧!” (“Foreigner! Why don’t you use silverware instead?”)

Now, I fully agree that laowai is a neutral term. However, when used as a term of address, I take offense. I think it’s simply rude. The wairess would probably use the word 先生 (“sir”) for the other male customers; why should the foreigner be addressed using a neutral term calling attention to his foreignness rather than a general respectful term?

Hence, I think the foreigner’s angry response (“Go away!”) is completely justified.

It’s also noteworthy that the article is written by a foreigner, in Chinese, and the word laowai is used alongside waiguoren.

24
Gin 12.05.05

John,

Now you’ve got me a little thoroughly confused. To me your article was entirely on chopsticks vs. (the perception of) chopstick-inability. Are you now saying that, had the waitress said “Sir, want silverware instead?” the white guy would go “Oh my, Miss, thanks but no thanks” or “For being addressed Sir I’d be glad to throw away these chopsticks” instead? I’d thought he was angry because “How dare you just assume I’d like sliverware and can’t use chopsticks!”

It is very true that laowai said in one’s face should generate an angry response. This neutral phrase is meant to be a third person address not a second person or in his/her face address. Only among extremely close friends will you see usage in second OR first person.

What do people object to in “laowai’? Some say it is the “lao” component. However, Lao-Li, Lao-Zhang, laoshu, laohu, laoda, laoer, laopo, laogong, laodaye, or laotaitai are all neutral and without any negative connotation (some say with respectful connotation) and I even consider the lao in this group a meaningless prefix (虚字). Lao-Guang (Cantonese), Lao-Shaan (Shaanxi native), or Lao-Mei (American) would depend on the attitide of the speaker (not of the phrases themselves) towards people form those places–this is where the word laowai fits. Laojiahuo, laodongxi, laobuside, laogouride, and laohundan are schizophrenic, curse terms but also used in extremely friendly conversations for hilarity and for this whole group a cover-all translation would exactly be “old fart.” Some westerners confuse lao (老, a prefix) in laowai with the other lao (佬, a negative word for 人, see discussion above) in guilao. The guilao phrase was negative to begin with but even it has today shed its original negativeness.

Others (examples above) say they object to “wai” or the “them” element. That’s a tough argument, though. If you object to wai, you’ll have to object to waiguoren, and you’ll have to object the equivalent English word foreigner. I know there’re efforts to subvert the use of “foreigner” but I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Carlo above mentioned the Chineseness in this term, that’s a good observation, and this can be a problem. I would like to add, though, that this kind of thing, the us-ness is evident elsewhere, too (Americanness, Frenchness, Europeanness, Jewishness, Whiteness, Africanness, etc.).

25
Gin 12.05.05

John,

Note I did not say he was not justified to give that angry response. I was merely using your cartoon as an additional example to illustrate my point of “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

26
罗大卫 12.05.05

I thought John’s captions in the kuaizi article were pretty funny.

Waitress: “Hey foriegner, Why don’t you use silverware instead?”

老外: “Get lost!”

John, you should do more of these captions.

27
John Pasden 12.05.05

Yes, the article was about how using chopsticks is not hard.

For the bottom picture, I originally had the waitress saying “换刀叉吧!” without “老外!” in front of it.

But then that makes the foreigner seem too rude. Even if it is obvious that the foreigner is using chopsticks and doesn’t need silverware, his response would appear to be an overreaction.

That’s why I added the “老外!” to the front — it justifies an angry response.

(And thanks, 罗大卫!)

28
John Pasden 12.05.05

Apparently no one was reading the “Talk” section of the Wikipedia entry for laowai. I just edited the entry. We’ll see how long it sticks…

29
Tom Vamvanij 12.05.05

It’s been a long thread and I’ve been itching to thoroughly regroup my thoughts. This question from Gin gives me the opportunity to do just that:

What do people object to in “laowai’? Some say it is the “lao” component. However, Lao-Li, Lao-Zhang, laoshu, laohu, laoda, laoer, laopo, laogong, laodaye, or laotaitai are all neutral and without any negative connotation (some say with respectful connotation) and I even consider the lao in this group a meaningless prefix (虚字).

Most — perhaps almost all — foreigners who take offense to laowai object to nothing in the word itself, but rather the manner in which it is hurled at them. They would, therefore, be offended just the same by waiguoren or any other word were it to replace laowai in the unsolicited greetings that meet them on the street.

Not me, though. I object to this word for its very function as a colloquialism for “foreigner”, which everyone here seems to agree on and yet no one seems to mind. Earlier when I asked why the Chinese would need such a term, Todd replied:

I don’t think arguments based on the English language (“foreigner is foreigner”, “Jap”) can really prove anyway. Anyway, Chinese don’t need the word, since there are some dialects and some locations where it is not used (although it is spreading quickly).

Todd’s second sentence actually makes my point for me. The Chinese don’t need laowai. They don’t need to get casual talking about people they don’t know and cannot possibly know (large as the Chinese population is, the “foreign” population is four times as large). In Shanghai, the word for foreigner I heard all over the place was ngagoknin, which is a Shanghainese pronunciation of waiguoren. Many times it was uttered in contempt (like when my friend’s neighbor griped about our loudness), but it would be impossible and implausible to take issue with the word’s usage per se, for it simply and straightforwardly means “foreigner”.

Now imagine for the sake of argument a “neutral” English colloquialism for foreigner — let’s call it frink. Would you feel comfortable using it? In the presence of your friends from abroad? Would you be surprised if the word showed up more often in negative contexts than otherwise — so even though not all frink utterances are negative, most negative utterances are about frinks? Wouldn’t you rather stick to the word foreigner the way I, as a heterosexual, now stick to gay person and homosexual and avoid colloquialisms and slangs.

Todd says we can’t use arguments based on the English language. Why not? Mind you that my mother tongue isn’t English, but Thai, a language that is similar to Chinese the way English is to French (don’t be fooled by the writing systems, languages are first and foremost spoken). I’m using English as an example because it’s a language we all know. The ever-popular cop-out about the “western mindset” doesn’t apply to me.

Is their a case to be made here of Chinese exceptionalism? Here’s a fact that may surprise some of you. In my two years in China (spent in Beijing and Shanghai and traveling all over the place), I heard the word waiguoren much more often than laowai. That should give a lie to the notion that waiguoren is somehow “too formal”. Sure, it may be “too formal” to refer to the random foreigner who happens to cross your path on the street, but as an Asian who looks Chinese (or Japanese or Korean), I’m thankfully spared that. I have, however, listened to countless casual talks about foreigners, whites, blacks, Jews, Muslims, Americans, Japanese, Northerners, Southerners, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Beijingers, Szechuanese — some of which aren’t very politically correct — without the Chinese speaker’s resorting to any of the lao nicknames (I’ve heard 日本鬼子 several times, but other than that the proper nouns employed are the straightforward ones). Having seen laomei and laohei only in print, I asked a Chinese friend about them when I was writing my letter to the Lonely Planet. She paused (which suggested to me that she didn’t hear them often) and said they were “not very polite”. Now would anyone argue that laohei is simply a colloquial form for heiren?

Yet it is, strictly speaking. The impoliteness lies in that very colloquiality. Jin above (see first quote) is mistaken to lump familiar terms of address Lao-Li and Lao-Zhang with other lao’s which he (or she?) says are ” without any negative connotation (some say with respectful connotation)”. Well, I’m not sure if “connotation” is the right word here, but unless you know Li and Zhang well enough to be on those terms, you’ll use them only behind their backs and hope they don’t overhear (especially if they’re your superiors). I covered this in my letter to LP, and Chinese blogger Ming agrees with me:

And only close friends call each other Lao in informal occasion to show a little respect and closeness. Otherwise it’s not polite. That’s why we do not call our president Lao Hu.

[…]

The only situation when Lao means impolite is you put it before your supervisor’s surname.

So just like all other peoples, the Chinese do think it impolite to get chummy with people who are actually not chummy with you. Admittedly, Ming also says that laowai is perfectly okay. But I wonder how that fits in with the above, when she (or he) also describes laowai as informal, “like Mike for Michael”. And what would Ming say about laomei or laohei? Would she dispute what my friend said about their impoliteness?

Having said all that, perhaps I should climb back down to my original position:

It is too late, however, for the PC police to campaign against it. The Chinese populace, for better or worse, has wholeheartedly adopted laowai as a generic word for “foreigner” and its condescending overtone has been largely mitigated. You now even hear it quite often on TV.

The difference between me and other people on this thread is that I tolerate this word rather than accept it. And I do hope that as the Chinese people become more sophisticated, sensitive, and, yes, politically correct, they will gradually abandon it in favor of waiguoren. If my experience in China, especially with university students, is to be any guide, that’s already happening.

30
Todd 13.05.05

Regarding arguments based on other languages, what I should have said is that you cannot make conclusive arguments. For example, you cannot say that because English lacks a certain phenomenon (such as tones), the phenomenon cannot exist in Chinese. Likewise, you cannot say that because a certain phenomenon does exist in English (such as verb inflection), then the phenomenon must also exist in Chinese. But of course, comparisons between languages can still be enlightening, and at the very least you can say that a phenomenon which exists in English might exist in Chinese too.

So, I can agree with you that English does not have a word for foreigner which is both colloquial and neutral. I can even agree that it is hard to imagine such a word existing in English (although your suggestion frink, reminiscent of chink, is a bad example), probably because of western cultural perceptions of ethnicity and foreignness. That does not mean such a word cannot exist in Chinese.

You mention the words gay and homosexual (by the way, “gay person” is not often used in the singular, for example saying “He is gay” is more common than “He is a gay person” or “He is a gay”). This is actually a good example of two neutral words co-existing. I will not try to explain the difference between these two words in detail, but I would suggest that some differences are that “homosexual” sounds more formal, and also that “gay” has associations with identity and community to a greater extent than “homosexual”.

As for the idea that Chinese has no “need” for the word laowai, considering that there are already many words for foreigner such as 洋人, 外国人士, 外籍友人, you could just as well argue that Chinese has no need for the word waiguoren either. But the reality is that all these words have slightly different uses and associations/connotations.

Many Chinese have said that laowai is somehow more affectionate than waiguoren, or likened it to a nickname. I can see how choosing the less formal word laowai instead of waiguoren might give this effect in certain contexts, but personally I do not accept that the word is inately affectionate. I maintain the position that is (a) neutral and (b) informal.

Tom, it seems that you are willing to accept these two properties of the word and yet you still object to its use. If that’s your opinion, then fair enough. I just look forward to the day when foreigners in China universally understand that laowai is neither a curse word, nor a term of respect, but merely slang and neutral.

31
John Pasden 14.05.05

Wow. Well said, Todd. Well said.

I completely agree.

32
Laska. 14.05.05

We have all encountered people who are unjustifiably sensitive to ‘laowai.’ In my experience, ‘laowai’ allergic people have a negative attitude towards living in China and towards Chinese. Let’s call these people the moaners. Their anger at ‘laowai’ is caused by their projection onto Chinese of their own negative feelings.

So people who love Chinese and love living in China are diposed to want to debunk the affront caused to moaners by ‘laowai’

Debunking is good. But how does the desire to educate moaners negate what Tom has to say? In my hasty reading, Tom is just saying that ‘laowai’ doesn’t really carry the fresh sent of cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

33
Gordon 14.05.05

The term 老外 doesn’t really bother me. If you’re the slightest bit familiar with the Chinese and their culture, you can pretty much tell when someone is saying it in a condescending manner.

It’s not like anyone runs up and shouts laaaaoooooo waaaaaaiiiiii in your ear like they do Heeeeellllllllllloooooooooooooooo!!!(That’s rude and it’s meant to be)

Whenever I have the chance to pass on some basic English tips, I always try to teach them a few other ways to greet people other than Hello! (which means I have seen a foreigner!)

In fact, I rarely ever respond when someone shouts hello at me. If I do, I reply with 你好!It’s a pretty effective way of taking the fun out of their mocking you.

Then again, When I’ve had some jackass run up and scream hellllllooooooo in my ear in an attempt to impress his little friends, I’ve been known to scream niiiiiiiiiiiiii haaaaaaaaaaooooooooo! Right back at him followed by a quick 瓜娃子! (四川话 for 笨蛋). That usually surprises them and makes them look like the idiot to their friends.

For the most part, there’s not really all that much that offends me in Chinese. I can tell when someone is genuinely curious about me and when they are just being obnoxious or racist.

34
托的 15.05.05

I agree 100% with Todd’s comment. lao wai is not a derogatory word. Period. Native English speakers mistranslate and incorrectly associate the somewhat negative connotation of the word “foreigner” in English with the term ‘lao wai’.

You can come up linguistic theories all day about it, but if you simply ask native Chinese speakers what the meaning/connotation of the word 老外 is, you’ll find that it is neutral and informal and not even slightly derogatory. Of course, you can say any word in a derogatory manner or tone, but 老外 does not have a negative connotation to Chinese.

35
D. 15.05.05

In my two years in China (spent in Beijing and Shanghai and traveling all over the place), I heard the word waiguoren much more often than laowai. That should give a lie to the notion that waiguoren is somehow “too formal”.

During my 1 1/2 years in NE China, these four things were said to me in roughly equal amounts:
-外国人 waiguoren
-俄罗斯 eluosi (my Mandarin is very poor and I don’t know what they say for Russian, but elousi is what I actually heard)
-“Helloooooo?”
-something that I was told means “good” in Russian, but I won’t attempt to spell it. I don’t know Russian!

I’m too green to attempt to judge the respect or lack thereof when they said 外国人 as I walked by. Since they seemed to have a poor opinion of Russians, I don’t think it was respectful when they guessed I was one (I’m not). When they shout “hello” at your back, or something in Russian, obviously it’s just “Let’s shout at the foreigner” time.

I never ever noticed the term 老外. It could be my poor listening, or just how it is in NE China, for what it’s worth.

36
Tom Vamvanij 16.05.05

托的:

I agree 100% with Todd’s comment. lao wai is not a derogatory word. Period. Native English speakers mistranslate and incorrectly associate the somewhat negative connotation of the word “foreigner” in English with the term ‘lao wai’.

You can come up linguistic theories all day about it, but if you simply ask native Chinese speakers […]

So linguistics is for sissies, huh? What does a word mean, how is it used, let’s just take a survey!

Instead of challenging you about your questionnaires to 1.3 billion Chinese, I’d just ask you to look around at other commenters on this thread. How do they conform to your overarching theory about how the native English speakers “mistranslate” laowai? And to what, I wonder? And what of the Lonely Planet writers, who Todd and I agree, are completely wrong about laowai, though not quite the way your theory predicts?

Pardon me if I’m wrong, but you sound like someone who not only fails to follow the discussion thread, but also never even bothers to really read my original post. Too much linguistics? Oh, I see.

37
Tom Vamvanij 16.05.05

Laska:

So people who love Chinese and love living in China are disposed to want to debunk the affront caused to moaners by ‘laowai’

Debunking is good. But how does the desire to educate moaners negate what Tom has to say? In my hasty reading, Tom is just saying that ‘laowai’ doesn’t really carry the fresh sent of cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

I think you’re onto something. But first let me make sure everybody is on the same page:

  1. This post sets out to debunk the widespread myth that laowai is a term of respect.
  2. No commenter so far has disputed my debunking.
  3. Todd (who concurs with me about the “respect” myth and whose post on the subject I link to) and I differ on what I now think should be framed as the politeness of the word laowai. I don’t think we are really trying to “debunk” each other, though.

With that out of the way, I agree with you, Laska, about the moaners in China. Their attitude can indeed be shocking and irritating, though I should add that the line isn’t always clear-cut. My two moaner friends are Chinese studies majors who know quite a lot about China and actually like certain things about it. That said, I appreciate your not seeing me as a moaner.

I further agree with you that many sinophiles, quite rightly, try to counter the moaners. As you suggest, they themselves sometimes go overboard, which I suspect is the case with the Lonely Planet and other unwitting peddlers of the “respect” myth. There is, however, a whole other class of China “lovers” who are so overzealous that they become themselves the anti-moaners — responding to anything that even remotely resembles a criticism of their rose-tinted China with knee-jerk antagonism. Any attempt to reason with them is futile, for they not only won’t hear your arguments but really don’t even care what the issues are. I’m obviously not talking about Todd, with whom I can engage in a fruitful discussion, but I think I’ve spotted several anti-moaners amidst the buzz that this post has generated in the Chinese blogosphere.

I’d intended to give Todd the last word on our little argument, but since you mentioned it, I’d just sum up my case as follows:

  1. laowai is a nickname, just like 老广, 老美 and 老黑.
  2. I consider it impolite to nickname someone you don’t know well, let alone a total stranger, let alone an entire demographic of total strangers.
  3. So I consider laowai impolite. I hope one day there’ll be a Chinese Miss Manners who agrees with me, but meanwhile, I’m already quite content that the one Chinese friend I asked (I could do more, but what for?) considered laomei and laohei inappropriate and that I’ve never actually heard those two words used.

So there. As a parting thought, let me quote the 老外 entry in 《应用汉语词典》 (posted by zhwj on a Peking Duck thread and separately and coincidentally confirmed by a friend of mine). Everybody can read what he or she will from it:

(2)称外国人(现在外国人自己也称自己为“老外”,所以已经不含轻蔑意,而是一种诙谐的用法了

(2) [used to] call foreigner (foreigners now call themselves “laowai”, therefore [the word] no longer contains a disdainful connotation, but has rather become a kind of jocular usage.)

38
Matthew 16.05.05

I think it’s gay to call strange foreigners by an affectionate name. I think it’s simple to say that if people are getting offended by it, then there’s something offensive in it. To me laowai is what the peasants say. It’s funny if you tell them that to you, they are the laowai. Sometimes if kids call me waiguoren I call them neiguoren or zhongguoren, and they’re usually so shocked that I know what they said that it’s enough for me. One day a little girl kept calling me waiguoren over and over and asking me to talk to her (in Chinese). A Chinese-American teacher with me said in English, “Maybe he’d answer you if you stopped calling him waiguoren.” So what was my point…have fun with it.

39
托的 17.05.05

I think you are overreacting to my comment. I wasn’t attacking “linguistics.”

In any case, yes, you can let theory cloud the empirical evidence that is staring you in the face. I don’t think you have to survey 1.3 billion people to find the meaning of a word anymore than you can exclusively rely on etymology or comparative linguistic theory. You usually get at the meaning of a word by asking people who use the word what they mean, not by constructing a theory. I’ve had this discussion about the word “laowai” dozens of times, online and off. I tend to put more stock in Chinese views of the meaning of the word than in the views of non-native speakers of Chinese who have been studying the language for 3 years.

Anyway, I have yet to meet even one Chinese who has claimed that the word “laowai” is anything but positive. (They usually say it is a positive term, not even neutral). So, either I am the victim of a widespread Chinese conspiracy (which includes my gf and two Chinese linguists along with about 20 other highly-educated Chinese), or I am correct.

About my “overarching theory” about native English speakers mistranslating “laowai,” uh, isn’t that your theory as well? I thought that was the point of your post: you have a theory about why the word “laowai” is mistranslated into English. We just disagree over who exactly is doing the mistranslating.

40
Tom Vamvanij 17.05.05

托的:

Anyway, I have yet to meet even one Chinese who has claimed that the word “laowai” is anything but positive. (They usually say it is a positive term, not even neutral).

How could you have agreed “100%” with Todd, then? The above is decidedly not his position, which is actually quite similar to mine on the question of neutrality. (He even said so in the comment that you “agree” with.)

In any case, yes, you can let theory cloud the empirical evidence that is staring you in the face. I don’t think you have to survey 1.3 billion people to find the meaning of a word anymore than you can exclusively rely on etymology or comparative linguistic theory. You usually get at the meaning of a word by asking people who use the word what they mean, not by constructing a theory. I’ve had this discussion about the word “laowai” dozens of times, online and off. I tend to put more stock in Chinese views of the meaning of the word than in the views of non-native speakers of Chinese who have been studying the language for 3 years.

Well, Todd asked around, too, you know. John Pasden, who probably led you here and misled you in the process with his original wording (since corrected), most likely also has his Chinese sources. How do we settle this? With your approach, I see nothing short of a nationwide referendum.

I’d be the first to agree that theory is nothing if severed from realities on the ground. That’s why I challenged the silly theory that because lao means old, it implies respect and that since laowai has lao in it, it must be a term of respect. I did that not so much with another theory but facts as I see them. You can always contest my “facts”, but to dismiss the whole argument as “theory” without elaboration and offer in its stead your account about your friends’ testimonies? Sorry, but I’ll pass.

So, either I am the victim of a widespread Chinese conspiracy (which includes my gf and two Chinese linguists along with about 20 other highly-educated Chinese), or I am correct.

I hate the appeal to authority, which is why I never use it in my argument. But if you insist on that path, why don’t you take a look at the citation from a very authoritative dictionary just right on top of your comment. Two things you can conclude from it:

  1. laowai used to have a disdainful connotation.
  2. laowai has shed that connotation (because foreigners now use it to describe themselves!)

From where I look, this doesn’t jibe well with your characterization of laowai as a positive term. Do you want me to bring out the names and degrees of the dictionary’s editors? Are they part of another conspiracy?

And before you drag me down the positive/neutral/negative argument again, please reread my original post and my comments on this thread. Please find my position on that before trying to argue with it, okay? Please realize also that this thread isn’t even supposed to be about that argument.

About my “overarching theory” about native English speakers mistranslating “laowai,” uh, isn’t that your theory as well? I thought that was the point of your post: you have a theory about why the word “laowai” is mistranslated into English. We just disagree over who exactly is doing the mistranslating.

A challenge: try to find any of the words “native English speakers” in my original post. To improve your odds, try “mistranslate” or “translate”, too. I don’t have a “theory” about how random people misunderstand laowai; I have a fact that the Lonely Planet and the Wikipedia contributor(s) and many writers of popular information about China (this last isn’t very specific, but still much more so than you are about your claims) cite this crazy theory about lao in making the crazy case the laowai is a term of respect.

There’s no point in visiting my blog unless you’re going to read it. Go ahead and stick to the Lonely Planet if it’ll make you happier. I think it’ll make me happier, too.

41
托的 17.05.05

1) If you want to take part of my original comment out of context, that is fine, but it doesn’t prove much. I said “I agree 100% with Todd’s comment. lao wai is not a derogatory word.” The fact that many Chinese characterize it as a positive term and others characterize it as a neutral term in no way contradicts what I said: positive or neutral is still not derogatory.

2) Well, Todd asked nine Chinese and none of them said laowai had any negative or disrespectful connotation. Not sure how that contradicts what I said.

3) About the dictionary entry, what a word used to mean and what it means now are two different things. About its former connotation not jibing well with a positive connotation, there are words in English that have taken on the opposite meaning of its previous meaning. For example, the words “bad” or “populate.”

4) Your theory is that people mistranslate the word laowai, which you, in part, attribute to “…the myth that since lao means “old”, it necessarily implies “respect”. ” Sounds like a theory to me.

5) If you go back and read my original comment, you’ll see that I was commenting on the interpretations of “laowai” generally and wasn’t specifically attacking what you said. For some reason, you took what I said as some sort of attack…which led us here.

6) “There’s no point in visiting my blog unless you’re going to read it. ” Well, I did read it, but don’t worry, I won’t anymore.

Are you always this hostile for no reason?

42
Yo 17.05.05

Just had a discussion with 9 of my highly educated, culturally sensitive Chinese friends. They all agreed (yes, all) that “laowai” is slightly (yet not very) derogatory. They also agreed that “waiguoren” was neutral. Bada-bing.

43
laska 17.05.05

The new edition of 现代汉语规范化词典 (Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian) calls laowai 谐谑. According to my Chinese-English dictionary, 谐谑 means something like “poking fun at.”

I’d be curious to hear from native Chinese speakers what they think about the term 谐谑. What does it connote? Does it describe your feeling about laowai?

By the way, what about ‘layman,’ the other meaning of laowai? Has that already been mentioned here?

Anyway, some authoritative Chinese dictionaries disagree about laowai’s being ‘neutral.’ Neutral words don’t carry usage notes!

The other dictionary entry referenced above says that laowai is no longer disdainful because the term is now being used by foreigners to describe themselves.

That sounds almost like an apology for laowai. Very funny.

Forms of address are notoriously context-dependent.

If black people in China start calling themselves “laohei,” does that mean this word willl suddenly lose its unneutral connotation in all contexts?

44
Gin 17.05.05

托的:

See, I was not like you. I ran, and had my own peace.

And someone somewhere had implied that us Chinese are without logic?

45
Tom Vamvanij 17.05.05

Gin:

Your last comment blindsided me. What did I do in response to your six comments prior to it to have threatened you so?

46
Todd 17.05.05

How about we make this an annual event? Each year a different blogger can host the debate :)

Since I’ve had a bit of time on my hands recently, I have analysed the usage of the word laowai in a few chinese blog entries and news articles. The results are on my web page.

47
Kay 22.05.05

I’m chinese and I can assure you there is no offense in the word laowai, sometimes you can’t guess the meaning of a word by the characters it’s made of. In Chinese cities, many wives call their husbands “老公”, and husbands call their wives “老婆”. They’re all quite neutral and soemtimes even bring a warm feeling of closeness. I think “老外” is similar to this situation.

48
Kay 22.05.05

some slightly offensive chinese words for foreigners:

老毛子(means Russians)
印度阿三(the East Indians)
高丽棒子(Koreans)
小日本(Japanese)
these are offensive words, 老外 is not offensive at all:)

49
aravip 25.05.05

yea kay,you are right
but to me, i never say these offensive words
i call’em 老外,and i think thats rather good:-)

50
Daniel 12.06.05

Good luck on getting the Lonely Planet to change… Read older versions (eg 1991) and the current (2002) one about Lijiang, for example, the language barely changes.

Interesting discussion, I’d add my experiences of the word, but things seem to have got a little tense by this stage…

51
xs 23.01.06

“Pardon me if I’m wrong, but you sound like someone who not only fails to follow the discussion thread, but also never even bothers to really read my original post. Too much linguistics? Oh, I see.”

so, tom, you don’t seem to care too much about how a real chinese person uses the word. you are all much more worried about your own paranoic interpretation of the word laowai. why don’t you return to your own country if you can’t handle being a foreigner in china? or, i suggest you take a slow boat to england where foreigner really means what you all think it means. where there is absolute no respect to any foreigner and no hospitality is extended either. then you can moan with real integrity.

52
Dave Straub 2.06.06

I recently added an extensive entry for “Lao wai” at Wikipedia. I incorporated some of the comments and opinions from this page. I definately come down on the side that “lao wai” is a bit offensive. I’ve lived in China for 5 years now, and I’ve gotten very tired of it being yelled at me on the street.

53
Stephanie 23.06.06

Connotations of words are informed by their use. When the word “nigger” was first used, white people didn’t mean anything by it either. But as time went on, the USE of the word “nigger” shaped the connotation. So it is with laowai. When I walk down the street and in 15 minutes get 5 people yelling laowai at me and then sniggering about it with their friends, how does it make me feel? The people who call me “laowai” never want to make conversation. They are always passers-by, lookers-on, and they almost always have a crowd of friends with them to impress. They could yell “banana” the same way at me and eventually “banana” would become a derogatory or insulting word. Rarely has anyone said “laowai” to my face. They say it after you have walked past them. People who are our friends never call us laowai. Parents have corrected their children in front of us when their children call us laowai. White people used to think “nigger” was an okay word to use – they had to be taught not to use it. So with Chinese. My Chinese friends will insist that it is not a bad word. After I explain to them my personal experiences with the word, they tend to agree with me. When I hear the word “laowai” I hear “nigger” Never have I felt that way about any other Chinese word.

54
Stephanie 23.06.06

One more comment – black people in the U.S. can call each other “nigger” and themselves “nigger” but you will never ever see them tolerate this from a white person. Why? Useage and context contribute more to the meaning of a word than its dictionary definition. Therefore the argument that “Well, foreigners in China call themselves ‘laowai’ so therefore it is not a derogatory word is misguided. By the way, has anyone come up with a corresponding insult that we laowais can respond with? I’ve tried laoshu before but Chinese people probably take this as a compliment. Oops! Did I just say something derogatory? Well, after years of being degraded and treated like an animal on the street, the anger kind builds up. Somedays it’s all I can do to keep from kicking someone in the balls.

55
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