Laowai (zh-tsp|t=老外|s=老外|p=lǎowài) is one of several Chinese words for "foreigner". "Laowai" literally translates as "old" ("lao" 老) "foreigner" ("wai" 外). It is an informal word that appears in both spoken and written Chinese. While some people consider "laowai" a casual and neutral word, others view it as a pejorative term.

Etymology and usage

Laowai is a commonly used Chinese word. It is the informal version for "foreigner", "waiguoren" 外国人, which literally means "outside country person." There is some dispute about the correct Chinese characters used to write the word. While "老外" is the more common form, some argue that the character "佬", with the addition of the "ren" (person) radical (人字旁) is more correct. However, this form is grammatically awkward ("佬" is a slightly derogatory noun for an adult male), and infrequently used. [a google search will reveal only 2,000 hits for 佬外 and more than 4,000,000 for 老外.]

"Lao" 老, or "old", is frequently used to express long-term friendship, as in "laopengyou", which means "old friend"; or "respect", as in "laoshi" 老师, which means "old teacher." However, there are also words with clear negative connotations containing the character "lao", such as "lao dongxi" 老东西 ("silly old fool"), "laohan" 老憨 ("simpleton") and "lao gudong" 老古董 ("old fogey, fuddy-duddy"). "Lao" is also used as an empty prefix in words for some animals, such as "laohu" 老虎 ("tiger") and "laoshu" 老鼠 ("rat, mouse"). (There is some disagreement about this "neutral" use of "lao" in front of these animal characters. In the prior cases mentioned, the animals are considered lucky, the rat in particular functioning as a fertility symbol. However, in other cases (including 老鹰 "laoying" ("eagle") and 老狐狸 "laohuli" ("fox") the "lao" indiciates fear or discomfort. In these particular cases, the animals are considered unlucky or evil.)

"Laowai" is thus not a completely positive, or even neutral term, and its usage can imply "making fun of" foreigners. The recently published edition of the Chinese-language dictionary 现代汉语规范化词典 ("Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian") states that "laowai" carries a bantering connotation (谐谑; "xiexue"). Further indication of the negative connotations of "laowai" is the fact that it is sometimes used synonymously with "waihang" (外行; amateur, or lay person). [Wei, Dongya, ed. Han Ying Cidian = a Chinese-English Dictionary (Revised Edition). 1st, rev. ed. Beijing: Waiyu jiaoxue yu yanjiu chubanshe, 1995] A pejorative term for foreigner, "yangguizi" 洋鬼子, which literally means "foreign devil", was in frequent use early in the 20th century, but today is rarely used and is recognized by Chinese as inappropriate and racist.

"Laowai", as well as "waiguoren", are commonly used terms that in everyday spoken Chinese refer to Caucasian foreigners, but not Asian foreigners or foreigners of African origin. While a White Westerner may be referred to as a "laowai", someone from Japan will be called "ribenren" 日本人, the Chinese word for Japanese. Someone who has dark skin color and appears to be African in origin will be called "heiren" 黑人, which means "black person". Sometimes the term "laohei" 老黑 is used for people of African decent, a term which also has pejorative connotations. The most pejorative term is "heiguizi" 黑鬼子, which literally translates as "black devil".

"Laowai" is one of the first Chinese words that foreigners learn when they come to China. It has now entered the lexicon of China's expat community, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. It frequently appears in English language literature and advertisements in China as ‘‘laowai’‘ or ‘‘lao wai’‘. It is very common to see ‘‘laowai’‘ used in blogs and websites administered by foreigners living in China. A Google search will come up with 10,000s of entries for ‘‘laowai’‘, including an English language Web portal that caters to expats in Shanghai. There is even a Beijing based drum'n'bass band named "Lao-Why?" that is composed of foreign and Chinese members.


In recent years the word ‘‘laowai’‘ has begun to stir up controversy within the expatriate community in China. In this way ‘‘laowai’‘ is similar to how Americans view the Spanish word gringo and Westerners view the Japanese word gaijin or the Thai word farang. This is because many foreigners in China believe that ‘‘laowai’‘ is a derogatory term. This is due to the fact that some Chinese frequently shout out "Laowai"! to foreigners passing by, which may then be followed up with laughter and taunting.

The official Chinese press has expressed concern about the inappropriate use of ‘‘laowai’‘ and foreign sensitivities surrounding the word. Editorials, written by foreigners and Chinese, have appeared in English and Chinese language newspapers about the subject. In response, local governments have launched campaigns aimed at educating the Chinese public about the appropriate usage of ‘‘laowai’‘.

Related concepts in other languages

*Ang Mo


External links

* [ Informative blog entry on Laowai]
* [ Culture: Seven Ways to Say 'Foreigner']
* [ Laowai Is What You Make It]
* [ The "Laowai", Racism and Personal Space in China]
* [ Chinese Culture for Aspiring Laowai]

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