Ask any Chinese native and he or she will tell you that the term ‘laowai’ is neutral and casual and not intended to be pejorative. Ask a foreigner and eight out of ten will argue the exact opposite, feeling offended by this term.
I am one of those eight people.
After years of living in China (and many more Chinese people trying to explain the meaning of the word ‘laowai’) I had enough. It is time to stand up against a word that not just carries a derogatory connotation, but discriminates everyone in China who is not Chinese.
‘Lao’ and ‘Wai’: The old respected outsider?
Everyone who comes to China will sooner or later here the word ‘laowai’. No matter how good some ones Chinese is, this word will be understood in any conversation and context. So why does this word arise such divided feelings in its speakers and listeners?
Generally, ‘lao’ 老means old and ‘wai’ 外 means outside. In traditional Chinese culture and language ‘lao’ is a respectful term to show love and admiration to someone, eg. ‘laoshi’ 老师teacher, ‘lao pengyou’ 老朋友old friend or simply ‘laowang’ 老王Old Wang. So technically speaking there is no problem with the word ‘lao’. It gets ambiguous when it comes to the meaning of ‘wai’.
Chinese culture has immense respect for close family and relatives. Actually everyone in the inner circle enjoys respect, love and care. The situation is totally different when it comes to strangers, outsiders. I think it can be safely assumed that being an outsider is pretty much the lowest scale to occupy on the Chinese social hierarchy. It means you are not trusted, your customs and habits are strange and everything you do and are stands in contrast with the rest.
So why do Chinese people keep arguing that ‘laowai’ is a respectful and neutral term?
Of course, it can be argued that in its purest sense ‘laowai’ was meant to be an informal and honorific word for a person who is visibly not from China. It could also be argued that its meaning is dependent on the context and its use as it is with lots of words.
However, in my opinion, no matter how you put it, labelling someone constantly and sometimes aggressively (with finger pointing and giggling) as an ‘outsider’ no matter how many respectful prefixes you might attach, will always make people feel alienated.
Personally, it feels as if no matter how well I speak Chinese, no matter how much I know of China, no matter how long I have been living here – I will never belong. Screaming ‘laowai’ day in and day out doesn’t improve the situation.
I have heard hundreds of arguments why my thinking is wrong, I shouldn’t “feel offended”; it’s just a “cultural thing” (again!); they are just “curious” because they have “never seen a foreigner in their entire life”. I have even been accused of being ignorant, and reminded that if I “want to be a part of this [Chinese] culture I should learn to accept things as they are”. They have been worse, more racist arguments, but they are the exception.
The point is that a word becomes inappropriate if it offends people. Why? Simply, because the people who feel offended say so. Personally, I think It’s not up to the speaker but rather the receiver to determine what is and isn’t offensive.
In China you never only have ‘a friend’ pengyou朋友. You might have a young friend 小朋友, old friend 老朋友, Shanghai friend 上海朋友, or foreign friend 外国朋友. Everything gets labeled in China. In Western culture this sort of thing would be considered alienating and might even lead to a form of racism. Now, I know Chinese people don’t see it as racist. It’s an inherent part of the culture and language structure. However, my point is with globalization and all, China has to pay more attention of its use of language, and so should their citizens.
After all, remember when it also was a cultural/language thing to call African-descendants negro or worse? The word negro is Spanish for black, so technically it’s no different than the word laowai which is supposed to mean foreigner. But as soon as people understood its offensive tone, it became inappropriate.
Maybe I am having a bad China day, but I think using the word ‘laowai’ is not about stereotyping a group of people with certain characteristics (which would be impossible! How do you stereotype a group of foreigners from hundreds of different countries?), but it’s about labeling someone with a rude, and inappropriate name.
And let’s face it, how many people who scream and point and gawk and giggle are using the word ‘laowai’ as a sign of respect? Even ‘waiguoren’ 外国人 (outside country person) is more technically accurate, but still not likable.
I mean, not only is it self-evident that we are not from China, but it just serves to further ostracize us from the main group and feel alienated in a country which many of us have started to call home.
What do you think? Do you feel the term ‘laowai’ is only a respectful and neutral way to address people that are not from China? Or does is invoke other feelings? I would like to read your opinion on this issue.
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