17 March 2004 2004 nian 3 yue 17 hao

Culture: Seven Ways to Say 'Foreigner'

Although it doesn't appear in either of my two dictionaries, laowai is one of the few words that most sojourners in China can recognise. Lao means "old", and wai means "outside", but put together they are a colloqial word meaning "foreigner". Here's a quiz for expats and China-watchers alike: does this word have positive, negative, or neutral connotations?

To find the answer, you'll have to scroll past this story!

Ji Xiaolan Insults the Emperor

Ji Xiaolan was a scholar who worked in the imperial palace during the time of Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor. This story takes place on one of Beijing's hot summer days. Ji Xiaolan and the other officals had stripped off their outer gown for some relief from the heat, although this was not permitted by palace etiquette. Unluckily, the emperor made a surprise visit. The other officials got their clothes back on just in time, but poor short-sighted Ji Xiaolan didn't realise the danger until too late. All he could do was dive behind the large chair which was reserved for the emperor.

Qianlong entered the room and sat down, but he didn't speak. For a long time he just sat on his chair and watched the officials working. Ji Xiaolan couldn't see anything from his hiding place, but after a while he was sure that the emperor must have left already. "Has the old codger gone?" he whispered to a nearby colleague.

Qianlong overheard, and demanded that he show himself. Ji Xiaolan didn't dare to emerge in his underdressed state, but once his gown had been returned he came out and knelt before the emperor, deeply apologetic. The punishment for insulting the emperor, said Qianlong, was execution. But he gave Ji Xiaolan one last chance to explain his behaviour.

The term that Ji Xiaolan had used, laotouzi ("old codger"), consists of three chinese characters. Lao means old, tou means head, and zi is a common suffix for nouns but the same character also means son. The quick-thinking scholar told Qianlong that laotouzi was a term of great respect. Lao meant that the emperor would live forever, tou meant that he was the head of the country, and zi meant that he was the son of heaven.

Qianlong wasn't fooled of course, but he was duly impressed by Ji Xiaolan's answer and excused him.

What's your answer to the quiz?

If you said "positive", you have probably been duped by the same myth that I was. Spread through various blogs and travel literature (yes, even the so-called bible, Lonely Planet), this appealing morsel of misinformation states that laowai is a polite way of addressing a foreigner, with "old" in this context denoting respect.

It was after almost a year of hearing this word almost every time I visited a crowded place that I finally started to have doubts. If it was a form of address, then why was it so rarely used to my face, but so commonly used by strangers pointing me out to their friends? I'm not the first person to have these misgivings—I've noticed some comments on the internet from expats who have concluded that laowai has taken on a tone of irony. But the only way to really know what native speakers mean when they use this word is to ask them. So that's what I did.

I asked nine different people (mainly young) what the word meant, and although their answers were not identical, the following conclusions can be drawn: firstly, laowai carries no particular negative or positive connotations, and secondly, the word is only a noun and not a form of address. That means that saying "Hello laowai" is akin to saying "Hello foreigner" in English (would you ever say that to a tourist?), not "Hello sir/madam".

What my informants couldn't reliably tell me was why the word begins with "old". After pausing to think, several of them pointed out that this word is used in some dialects (particularly the Beijing dialect) as a familiar form of address. For example, a man with the surname Wang might be called "Old Wang" by his friends. But even if there is some connection between this usage and the word laowai, it is clearly not a direct link since laowai is neither a form of address nor an indicator of familiarity. There are in fact numerous colloquial terms beginning with lao that have negative meanings (such as laotouzi in the story above), and some people believe that laowai had a derogatory meaning when it was first coined. But this sort of speculation is hard to verify, and doesn't have much impact on the modern meaning and usage of the word.

Exactly how the "honourable outsider" myth came about is another mystery. Interestingly, lao really does appear in some forms of address such as laoshi meaning teacher, and laodaye (literally "old big grandfather") which is a respectful way of addressing an old man. Perhaps, not unlike the story of Ji Xiaolan, the myth was started by a chinese person who was forced to explain the term to a foreigner and didn't think the truth was pleasing enough. In my survey, I was careful to only talk to people who I could trust to give me an honest answer.

Since laowai is a neutral term, it could be replaced with waiguoren (literally "outside country person"), which is the most basic chinese word for "foreigner". The difference is that laowai is a colloquial term, and much more common in casual speech than waiguoren.

Laowai is also limited to certain areas and dialects. For example, when travelling through some small towns in Liaoning province, I found that waiguoren (or waiguoyin, as some North-Easteners pronounce it) was actually more common than laowai. As another example, Cantonese does not use this term but instead has its own colloquial word for foreigner, gweilo. It literally means "ghost" or "devil", but according to many it has shed its original negative connotations.

In some situations, especially more formal ones, the appropriate way to talk about foreigners in a positive light is to refer to them as waiguo pengyou, meaning "foreign friends". Another more specific term which I heard just once is waibin, meaning "foreign guest", and presumably implying that a foreign visitor to China ought to receive especially courteous service. I heard it from Li Qingtao's dad, when he was helping me to buy a train ticket. You see, the tickets for the day I wanted were sold out, but he thought that perhaps there were some tickets kept aside for emergencies, such as a waibin without a seat! Of course the ticket seller was unsympathetic, and to tell the truth I would have been embarrassed to buy such a ticket.

Dear Reader

When chinese use the term "foreign friends", it does not imply that the speaker actually has a personal relationship with the foreigners in question. When I first encountered this, I thought it was a bit presumptious to call somebody you might never have met a friend, but it is in fact consistent with chinese idiom, in which the reader of a book (sometimes "dear reader" in English) is addressed as "reader friend", the audience of a radio programme are "listener friends", and children can even be called "little friends".

There are various other ways of refering to foreigners, but they are mainly ones that I have heard about, yet never actually encountered in the wild. They include yangguizi (a derogatory term meaning "foreign devil") and dabizi ("big nose").

I used to feel a bit uncomfortable when I heard laowai on the street, but now that I understand the word better, I realise that it's the best one to choose for that context.

I've heard the 'yangguizi' several times already - invariably by men who obviously thought I wouldn't understand and wanted to get some 'face' at my expense.
Tuur [homepage]
19.03.2004 , 07:21

I think that probably the "lao" most similar to the one in "laowai" would be the one in "laoshu" or "laohu." I'm not saying that the "lao" carries any kind of animal-related meaning, just that it's similarly neutral.

That said, I still prefer "waiguoren."
John [homepage]
13.04.2004 , 09:19

"Cantonese does not use this term but instead has its own colloquial word for foreigner, gweilo. It literally means "ghost" or "devil", but according to many it has shed its original negative connotations."

This word is the exact same as Yangguizi, simply in its original tongue. The only difference is one is "ocean" devil, and the other is "old" ghost.
18.04.2004 , 16:17

Yeah, I read somewhere that gweilo is the shortened form of "fan gweilo" (番鬼佬), which is even more similar to yangguizi (洋鬼子), "fan" and "yang" both meaning "foreign" in this context. But many people say that gweilo has now become just a colloquial term for foreigner without any negative connotations -- I don't have any opinion on this, as I've never been to anywhere that the word is used. But looking at the original meaning of the words, I think I'd rather be called laowai.
18.04.2004 , 19:28

Another common one, at least around Harbin is 'laomaozi,' which I always mentally translated as 'hairball.'
I think the term would be seen as somewhat dated in the rest of the country, but it's still very much in fashion in Harbin.
Brendan [homepage]
21.05.2004 , 11:43

gwailo means ghost fellow, not old devil. In chinese, the word ghost is netural, as in spirit. It is different than devil (which means evil demon). Chinese consider themselve the human, and westerner's way of life is so opposite of chinese way, therefore, westerners' are kinda like ghost -- opposite of human.
23.05.2004 , 02:04

As far as I know, the term "laowai" was first used(coined) in Taiwan in the 50s-60s, then gradually picked up by mainlanders.
26.05.2004 , 22:31

give us a break with all this pseudo-politically correct posturing. your initial gut feeling was correct: laowai is a racial slur, nothing more or less. people NEVER say it in friendly situations, nor do they look or feel friendly when uttering it. after three years here i know for a fact that mainland china suffers from major xenophobia issues, not only with non-asians but also within the country itself (to wit, Beijingers' constant blaming of anything bad on "waidiren"). and consider this: would polite society in the west tolerate repeated use of a divisive term like "foreigner" in supposedly amicable situations? would you point, stare and yell a taunting "ni hao! ni hao!" at every asian you saw in the US? didn't think so.
forgiving these terrible issues because "they don't know any better" isn't merely dangerous, it's also, ironically enough, downright racist.
28.12.2004 , 23:59

I don't agree with Lee. One has to, as Todd has done, consider the current usage of the word. Laowai or guilao may very likely have started off as a negative label, but nowsdays they have become neutral. To bedevil them by nitpicking on the original connotation is an unfair practice of political correctness. One side factor to support my view of neutrality of "laowai" is as follows. Parallel to laowai, Chinese have many such lao-containing phrases to refer to people of the place of their origin. Within China, anyone from Guangdong or Guangzhou (Canton) is (exclusively in third-person) a laoguang, from Shaanxi a laoshaan, from Shanxi a laoxir, from Hangzhou a laohang, from Yantai a laoyir (laoyan), from Xianggang (Hong Kong) a laogang, etc. From the northeast (dongbei)? You could hear laodongbei. In the overseas Chinese community, the word laowai has an opposite, laozhong. And laowai has subcategories: laomei, laoying, laoyue, laoao, laoxin (either from NZ or Singapore) or laojia; and these last two will not sit well with Lee but again they really are used neutrally: laobai and laohei. To support my view that lao is not a negative prefix, it is my observation and practice that a Japanese is hardly ever referred to as a lao anything, but xiaoribir (little Japanese), instead. Yes, they used to be short but that's beside the point.
21.01.2005 , 08:27

As far as I could tell, laowai was not a term that I had ever heard in China in the 70's. Waigouren or yangren was more commonly used, although on occassion I've heard yangguizi too.

The Taiwanese origin of laowai does sound probable. This to me sounds like a borrowing of the Japanese term Gaijin. Wairen does not work so well in the Chinese context since this refers to "outsider" in general, and not foreigner in particular. Laowai sounds more informal, and perhaps more endearing than yangren or waiguoren, but somehow the latter two terms still come across as more polite. However, laowai is still infinitely better than gweilo as used in Hong Kong. It may have shed its original negative connotations, or not, but I still don't think it is an appropriate term to be used as commonly as it is, especially in a city as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong.
18.02.2005 , 03:55

I agree with Lee 110%. Put aside all your esoteric babble. I'll bet none of you can tell me of a personal situation in which the term/word "laowai" was used to address you in respectful manner. Get real...... "hello my good/dear laowai friend John how are you today". It's a derogatory,racist,xenophobic word/term. CASE CLOSED. I'm waiting for your positive examples you politically correct "humps".
18.02.2005 , 21:25

Esoteric babble? Who's to say your hairsplitting over a conversational phrase is not esoterica? You would not be addressed (or refuse to hear of being addressed) laiwai in a "respectful manner" because because laowai is an informal phrase, get it? You probably won't hear any hint of respect anyway since you have your mind set on the negative aspect/origin of that phrase. If you are secure about yourself, about your race, about your coming to China, and about your nation's history, you wouldn't get defensive no matter what you are called. Have peace in you, then you will have have peace about you. If we have to be particular about the origin of laowai, yangren, guilao, or yanguizi, Chinese are not the only ones to blame for coining such terms, the westerners came from the occeans, on gunships, remember?! However, if you truly understand TODAY's Chinese, the people, the language, and the culture, you'd know that the antagonism towards foreigners has long gone and gone with it was the derogatory flavor of the word laowai. If a Chinese proclaims something like "My mousetrap is better because this mousetrap is made in waiguo and I got it directly from a laowai friend," would you consider them (laowai and waiguo) "used to address you in respectful manner"?

I laugh to tears at the modernday witchhunting in languages and words. In the US, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned as school reading material becuase in it Finn called his African American friend a nigger. (Nobody has yet protested against the country name of Mountenegro, but you just wait.) In South Korea, a mayer has initiated to change the Chinese translation of the city name of Seoul because the Chinese version contains the word Han. In China, some want to stop the use of the English phrases of China and Chinese, because why should we Zhongguo and Zhongguoren be demeaninged to a plie of porcelaine pieces? Ah, haha, haha..... Let history be, let language be, let names be, my friend.
26.02.2005 , 01:08

Laowai will not be used in a direct address because it means foreigner. Whether it's use is negative or neutral depends quite a lot on the speaker's attitude toward foreigners.
27.02.2005 , 15:50

Mark is quite correct. Laowai(=waiguoren=foreigner) is not meant to be a second person address. It is equivalent to not hearing in a western country "Hi, foreigner, how are you?" or the politically correct version "Hello, international visitor, how are you?" And yes, depending on the speaker's attitude, describing someone as a laowai could be negative or neutral or even positive, just like describing someone in English as a foreigner or an alien.
02.03.2005 , 01:40

And obviously it also depends on the listener's attitude.
02.03.2005 , 01:53

I was referred to as "the foreigner"(in a derrogatory way) by my neighbours when I lived in England. And I am an Anglo Australian, whose ancestors came from, you guessed it: England.

(fair enough it was in the north, but still the ignorance I encountered in that country was pretty mind-boggling)

And I've heard a lot worse things shouted at asians/indians/indeginous australians/anyone who has a different colour skin in Australia.

So I wouldn't consider it a truly racist slur, as I've yet to hear it be shouted in anger, or in a specifically deregatory way.
17.03.2005 , 14:40

its quite good! sparked me off for a project!
blahbidi [homepage]
17.03.2005 , 15:13

Great article. It's good to know I'm not the only one trying to debunk the laowai myth. For a slightly different approach toward the same objective, check out this letter I wrote to the Lonely Planet in 2002.

(If the link doesn't work, here's the URL:
Tom Vamvanij [homepage]
04.05.2005 , 14:27

Yes, everyone please read Tom's article, and the flawed wikipedia article he links to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laowai (I only hope that by the time you read this the wikipedia article will have been updated).

Laowai is a colloquial word, a fairly recent word, and a word whose connotations may well have changed in line with changing attitudes towards foreigners. I sometimes feel that chinese themselves are not 100% sure whether it's neutral or not -- some use it in a neutral or mildly affectionate way, yet seem aware that foreigners might be offended by it.
04.05.2005 , 21:36

I don't know why laowai could possibly be construed as being racist. I think the tone is more important than the word itself, which is pretty neutral in fact. In HK, we call all white-skinned people gwailo, and it doesn't denote or imply anything other than they're white. If it were meant in a bad way, you would probably add something like a sei-(dead) prefix, e.g. sei gwailo, or any of the myriad of expletive suffixes to achieve the desired derogatory effect.
On the other hand, I'm not sure whether it would be appropriate to call someone gwailo to their face though - this is 99% of the time ok, cos there are few gwailos who actually speak cantonese anyway. I think the equivalent would be to call someone a 'Brit' or a 'Yank', not particularly offensive in their own right, but you wouldn't introduce your friend/girlfriend by saying 'Hi, this is my yank girlfriend etc...'

So I guess there is nothing intrinsically offensive about the term, its just a slang word which one wouldn't/shouldn't use in polite company (If they understand). But hey, I call my friend (who is English, but was born in HK and is fluent in Cantonese) Sei-Gwai-Jai (Fucking Whitey), and he seems to get the funny side of it.
19.05.2005 , 13:31

ooh, and one more thing, but totally unrelated: I read (I think it was on Mr Vamvanjj's site) about the whole debunking of the 'Crisis = Danger + Opportunity' myth by some American bloke who claimed to be some Chinese linguistics expert.

What he said was total bollocks. Crisis does mean danger + opportunity.

At least it does in Cantonese:

Crisis: Ngai Gei
Danger: Ngai Heem
Opportunity: Gei Wui

I think his point was that Gei on its own doesn't mean anything blah blah, but actually anyone who is Chinese will know that words are often shortened with the meaning implied. What's more 'Gei' by itself does mean opportunity anyhow. An example:

Did you score last night with that chick? Any Chance?

Kum maan kau mm kau do lui jeh? Yao mo GEI?

here the word gei, BY ITSELF, means chance/opportunity.

I rest my case.
19.05.2005 , 13:40

sei gwai jai--does not mean "fucking whitey" but only means "bad bad boy"--it does not contain any profanity or ethicity.
peter tran
25.05.2005 , 04:41

In Taiwan (Taipei), I am hearing "waiguoren" or "laowai", the latter being used in a friendly-fun context OR in an ironic way (look, my husband the loawai is doing something strange). I found my wife uses it in this way when she makes fun about me with Taiwan colleagues. She claimes it would be a respectful form, but it is not ;-) Not meant badly either. Anything like "Gweilo" or likewise is unfriendly or hostile, used with "black" in Chinese in front, it means "Nigger".
Ruediger [homepage]
26.10.2005 , 18:43

it certainly is prevelant in taiwan. heck, i even say it myself, lol. certainly not a polite form of direct address. as a term for "foreigner", a sight better than the common minnan "a-dok-a" meaning pointy nose. nothing explicitly derogatory about it that i can divine. "honored outsider" is just as far off the mark though.
30.10.2005 , 00:11

My general way of responding to folks shouting "LAOWAI!" is simply to answer back with a "LAONEI!" The confused look on their faces usually gives way a few seconds later to a smile, as if suddenly realizing - in good humour, of course - that many foreigners find the term offensive and condescending.
jonathan doughty
26.12.2005 , 23:02

we discussed this on our forum and laowai isn't derogorary at all, just mean a western foreigner. why they can't just call you an american, english or european? not knowing the foreign languages, they can't really tell by the physical differences. it is not intended to make fun of laowais either. it's just that 'foreigner' has a negative connotation in the west, but it doesn't in the east.
china [homepage]
01.02.2006 , 08:08

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