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May 10, 2010 / Katie

laowai

老外 [lǎo wài]: a somewhat informal word for foreigners in Chinese (the more common term is 外国人 wàigúorén). Lǎo means old and wài means outside or foreign, so the word translates literally to mean “old foreigner.” Lǎo is often used as an empty prefix and is sometimes interpreted as a term of endearment; yet while Chinese people tend to understand laowai as a positive or neutral term, many foreigners, like myself, find it a bit pejorative and occasionally offensive. It is also almost exclusively used to label white or caucasian foreigners. An African or African-American person, for example, is rarely referred to as laowai, but instead called 黑人 hēirén (black person).

As with many sensitive, racially charged terms, the word laowai can be insulting and disrespectful or comical and ironic depending on who uses it and to whom they direct the label. For example, I find it perfectly acceptable to call myself a laowai since that constitutes a kind of re-appropriation of the term, and plus, that is what I am–at least when I’m in China.

Being called a laowai by other people, however, is an experience that has been mostly on the negative side for me. There is no cultural taboo against openly staring at people in China, and as a foreigner one becomes a common object of other people’s stares. Since I’m half Chinese, I have dark hair and features that blend in with the crowd from faraway. It’s only when people get up close that they see my face and realize I’m not exactly Chinese–which often elicits a gasp and then an exclamation, “Laowai!!” But even when passersby are not caught off guard, they find it perfectly fine to call you a laowai to your face. They stare at you, you stare back, and they keep right on staring; if it were a true staring match I’d be sure to lose every single time.

But why cry over spilt milk? In the larger scheme of things, getting a laowai or two called at you as you walk down the street is much better than a New York cat call any day and an unintentional slight at worst. Chinese people are honestly in awe of foreigners, which is why they often stop tourists for autographs and ask to take pictures with them. The part that I find funny and that, perhaps, rubs me the wrong way is the fact that they assume I don’t understand the word.

“Yep, I’m a laowai. Way to state the obvious.”

Leaving China behind for Chinatown, I mistakenly thought that things would be different (why do I always assume this?). Every now and then I’ll step into a produce stall or bakery and hear an astonished, “Laowai!” I just laugh. Oh, the irony.

“我不是老外,这里就是我的国家。你是老外!”

I relayed this story at a Chinese New Year party and the father of the halfsie friend hosting it said he dealt with similar situations while living in Hong Kong. He always responded to the remark by asking: “老外, 那里?”  [laowai, where?]

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4 Comments

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  1. moonrat / May 12 2010 6:48 am

    oh hey!! i’ve been following you for awhile but didn’t realize it was YOU until you updated your linkedin profile!! figures.

    –your chinatown laowai

  2. jp 吉平 / Jun 2 2010 1:00 pm

    I have a friend who would point right back and people and say 你看你看你看! 中国人!

  3. Jared / Dec 15 2010 10:52 am

    My Caucasian Lieutenant (sounds like a Lifetime movie title =P) married a Chinese woman. About a year ago he went to China to visit her family. When he came back he told me that everyone, everywhere he went, were in awe of him. He is 6’5, 300+ lbs. hahaha He said that people would ask to take pictures with him. =P

    • Katie / Dec 15 2010 7:21 pm

      I know that routine well! On our first trip to China, we were at the Summer Palace and a little boy with a group of his classmates on a field trip there asked my dad (who could easily pass for Steve Martin) to autograph his red school cap. My dad, of course, was happy to oblige: “I’m famous!”

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