The term ‘laowai’: Offensive and Inappropriate?

The term ‘laowai’: Offensive and Inappropriate?

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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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

17 thoughts on “The term ‘laowai’: Offensive and Inappropriate?

  1. You’re definitely not alone with how you feel and this problem applies to many places and languages around the world. Japan has the equivalent “gaijin” and it’s commonly controversial among foreigners and scholars.

    I personally think that labelling someone or something that is rare/different based on their appearance or any other striking characteristic is a very natural thing for humans. Especially when a closer relationship has not yet been established.

    What I believe makes any term offensive, is how people act on that label and what they indicate with it. And sadly in all these popular cases (n*gga, laowai, gaijin…) it’s used to ostracise and belittle people and put them at a disadvantage – i.e. hotels where laowai can’t stay, bars gaijin can’t enter and so on. And pointing at you and laughing while constantly telling you that you’re “laowai” is part of that and indeed fucking offensive.

    When I was younger, it was common for children in Malaysian villages to say “orang putih” (white person) with big eyes when a caucasian person passed by – which at that time rarely happened and has long changed. Yet, there was no disadvantage, no prejudice, no hostility, just curiosity and hospitality. People would be very understanding and tolerant of cultural differences and eager to learn about them. I don’t claim that this term has never been abused, but I dare say that it’s not been offensive in general because people did not act offensive based on it.

    “laowai” is not like that. It implies that you will always be flawed, always be different and will never truly understand the Chinese ways. So I 100% agree with your perception and feel sorry you have to endure this day in day out.

    • Thank you for your in depth comment Alina. I have heard about ‘gaijin’ in Japan. I wasn’t sure though, how offensive it is. Are there really bars foreigners cannot enter in Japan? In China there are definitely Hotels where you cannot stay as a foreigner. And there are places related to the government and military where foreigner are not allowed to enter as well.

      • Yes, ‘gaijin’ (外人) itself is already very colloquial and therefore less respectful. The proper term would be 外国人 or 他国人 or something I forgot xD
        People not fond of immigration will use ‘gaijin’ as a slur with a tone that’s notably hostile and some other people (mostly elderly from my experience) might address you as ‘gaijin-san’ no matter if you already told them your name or what country you’re from. Not caring enough to use the name that was introduced to you and continuing to call you ‘foreigner’ with a sloppy term is what rubs people the wrong way. Opposed to that, I also had elderly people address me as ‘Young lady from Germany’ which I felt was respectful because they used the proper honorific and my actual country :) Have you been called something like that in China as well?

        I don’t think there’s a legal base for it in Japan, but even though they’re few, establishments that state ‘foreigners not welcome’ do exist.
        Alina recently posted…11o. A little Bonn hanamiMy Profile

  2. No doubt,

    The way people use various term makes things offensive or not. Meanings of words changes with time. Eg. “son of a gun” once upon a time was a disastrously offensive thing to say. Now, no one cares about it;nor understand its original offensive use. Short of someone or some event triggering changes in people’s behaviour it will take… Forever for the use of this word in their offensive manner to go away.

    • You are right. Words change. Especially, if people realise that a specific word is considered offensive or alienating by a group of people.

  3. While my heart and soul agree, I just thought about the foreigners in my European home country, the ones which look foreign. OK, nobody points with fingers on them and shouts “foreigner”, but many many people just see them as “foreigner”, some start talking slowly to them, are not happy if they move into the flat next door, etc. Just last week somebody told me that in the same hospital room as her husband was a guy from Pakistan. And she was so surprised that “this guy and his family were actually quite nice and polite”. Well, they are just human beings…..and in every country there are nice and bad guys….
    I believe that people who have never lived away from home, who have never experienced what it means to be “the foreigner”, are the ones who easily act some kind of racist but don’t feel that their behavior might be inappropriate.
    We are all talking about globalization, but thinking and acting like it will still need centuries – and the question is, if it is possible at all.

    • I know what you mean. It is the same in Germany. There is always a group in a specific country that gets picked out and will always feel alienated. In fact, In Germany, there are whole schools where only Turkish kids go to. They didn’t establish them on purpose, it just happened because no one else wants to go there. There is lots of prejudice in this world. Change starts from ourselves.

  4. I understand where you’re coming from. My husband, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He never been to China till he was over 40 years old and he feels foreign here through and through yet because of his ethnicity he gets policed. If he says it’s not his home, it’s not his home.

    “I think It’s not up to the speaker but rather the receiver to determine what is and isn’t offensive.” I couldn’t have said it better, myself.
    Eileen黃愛玲 recently posted…My Current A to Z Love ListMy Profile

  5. I just moved to Japan with my husband (who is chinese)and as I have lived in Japan before I am just to aware of the term “gaijin” and sometimes it’s not easy to ignore the stares. Of course they are not all ill intended but I agree with Alina. It depends on the demeanor of the speaker if I consider the term offensive or not.
    But, before writing the comment my husband came into the room and I asked him if he would consider the term good or bad. His answer “Why would I think it’s bad? It’s just the (neutral) term for foreigner”. Of course a short discussion ensued over the terms “laowai” and “gaijin” but to him neither is offensive. My argument that people look all the time was met with “Of course, they look because they think ‘look at that cool/beautiful foreigner'” … I’m not sure about that one, but I was once again reminded that my husband is inherently positive ^^

    So I really understand that one might feel offended by either “foreigner” term but I also think many people acutally think that it’s a neutral term
    Sakura_Fujiko recently posted…Overdue Moving UpdateMy Profile

  6. I don’t think the problem reside in the usage of the term “laowai” as you have yourself fully explained its literally neutral meaning and how it came to be ..

    “it’s up to the speaker but rather the receiver to determine what is and isn’t offensive.” Agreed,but don’t you think simply the term “laowai” itself here is a little innocent becuz obviously you said yourself the real offense is the ” screaming and pointing and gawking and giggling” while some people are referring to to me personally,blaming it on the pure usage of laowai is a little stiff-minded and honestly a bit humorless…

    While on so many occasions,Chinese referring to “foreigners” as “laowai” simply means to bring more friendly intimacy to a mixed crowd of both Chinese and foreigners..not the other way around,I also have to admit that it’s in China’s conservative cultural DNA that foreigners will always be’s frustrating but it’s the reality at matter how “friendly” Chinese treat foreigners and how long a “laowai” has lived in this country..Now this is the real problem.

  7. actually on a second thought,the idea that “it’s not up to the speaker but rather the receiver to determine what is and isn’t offensive” is questionable…this means you can somehow choose to be offended or not without regard to the speaker’s intent…then what’s the point of communication…people come from different cultural and linguistic upbringing …personally,it’s probably more important living in a different culture to listen what people are actually saying than hastily judging by your own default set of values…

    • Totally disagree. Your logic is far more flawed!

      Firstly, intent is largely irrelevant in terms of offence and discrimination – colonialism, slavery, sexism, wars, whole hosts of horrific things in human history were ‘well intentioned’ in the eyes of people at the time. Intent doesn’t necessarily or inherently ‘reduce’ or ‘mitigate’ harm, because it is the ACT/CONSEQUENCES that are being discussed. This reasoning is mirrored in law (manslaughter, unknowingly breaking law is no excuse, etc), history (see above), politics (where we look at the consequences of past politicians, over their intentions), and most areas of society.

      Secondly, “we come from different cultures” does not justify or explain issues in a culture. No culture is perfect, and attempts should be made to learn from each other’s strengths — no notable strength comes to China or Chinese people, culture, society, etc from making every non-East Asian feel alienated, objectified and upset. What would be lost by Chinese people stopping taking photos of non-East Asians without permission, yelling at us, etc? Nothing. A few minutes of novelty and a WeChat post, at most.

      Thirdly, here as in most cases, the receiver is a minority with less social ‘power’ than the actor. The receiver probably has to deal with this over and over. Their day-to-day life is far more affected by the actions of the actor, than actors would be if they faced the minor inconvenience of other people NOT doing things to/at them. I find it hard to see how this is a defensible position. Again, there are numerous examples from history and the present day on this kind of thing.

      Fourth, it’s massively selfish and disrespectful to not compromise with other humans about how we treat each other, but at the same time you shouldn’t be made to compromise absolutely everything. I’d argue that wanting wanting the ability to go about one’s life, minding one’s own business, without being (effectively) picked on, is a a pretty basic thing that shouldn’t *have* to be sacrificed, willingly, by evey Non-East Asian in China/Japan. No one has a upper hand in terms of ‘values’, but it is worth noting that history is on the side of the writer. Most of the world’s countries are actively trying to reduce things like gender-, ethnicity- and race-based treatment, stereotyping and harassment.

      These points are all pretty well established in so many areas – feminism, race studies, disability studies, law, big international organisations and charities…The majority doesn’t get to determine and classify the lived experiences of a minority. A perpetrator can’t choose the impact they have on a victim.
      China isn’t somehow exempt from all of this.

      It’s super offensive to suggest the author was ‘hastily judging’, when she’s clearly had these experiences over a number of years and (2) as I’ve stated above, her conclusions fit into the broad global consensus on issues around discrimination.

      What’s more, the stuff she writes above is well documented, to the point of being a total cliché. You don’t have to look hard to find foreigners who have been deeply upset by the actions accompanying a ‘laowai!’ – and I’m not just talking about rolling our eyes, I’m talking being followed, groped, humiliated in front of groups of people. Stuff that I would go to the police for back home, but here, it’s laughed at when I complain, I’m told to ‘be flattered because people think I’m beautiful’ (this response, in itself, is a kind of internalised racism), or I’m told to ‘go home’ (because having a slight issue with a country and it’s culture means you must hate it, apparently…). And I acknowledge that I’m lucky – my black and brown skinned collegues face far worse.

      For better or worse, people’s views on China are and will be shaped by these experiences. I don’t see how anything positive comes from ‘laowai!’s, or how anything would be lost if China made an active attempt to discourage it. It’s the 21st century, China is a global powerhouse – a certain degree of social responsibility should come with that.

  8. That’s pile load of BS.

    Why so in English people from central and south america are called Latinos?

    Why “latino” is associated people of indigenous facial features? As where latino actually means something related to Latin..

    Why the USA likes to call that place as “America”? America is a continent, like Africa and like Europe.
    So when someone says “I’m American” is a very vague and inaccurate statement.
    American is someone from the continent called America, that was divided in 3 or 4 for geopolitical-dumb reasons…

    Why in English when someone says “Asian people” they’re, 90% of the times, meaning Eastern Asians (like Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc)?

    So, yes, in the west there’s lot of shit going on just like in China. I can’t see a logical reason to get angry for being called Laowai…

    Following this logic Indians, Israelis, Saudis, Pakistanis, Afghans (those guys who were fucked up by those invading troops), Syrians, Iranians e many others should feel either offended or glad to not being called Asians. (After all their continent is Asia).

    • Lots of errors in your analysis.

      – Latino generally refers to the ethnic groups of people from Central and Southern America – the term is comparable to ‘Caucasian’ for white people. It’s nothing to do with Latin the language. Obviously ethnicities from region X have certain features that those from region Y don’t have. There’s lots of different ‘indigenous features’, funnily enough depending on where the people are indigenous to. The indigenous people of Canada don’t have the ‘indigenous features’ of those from Mexico.

      – The Middle East is not Asia.

      – ‘ Asian people’, as a term, means ‘people of East Asian ethnicities’ and not ‘landmass in which you are from’. It’s largely American-English – where I’m from, we’d say ‘East-Asian people’. Both terms are vaguely problematic in that they sweeps over the diversity in ethnicities in the area, but there are huge shared cultural and historical influences between East Asian countries…just as there are in other parts of the world.

      – ‘Latino’ nor ‘Asian’ highlight someone’s heritage over their de facto outsiderhood. The practical meaning of these terms, versus ‘laowai’, is different. People from South America, Western Europe, Russia, etc are all called ‘laowai’ even though they probably share no cultural heritage.

      – America is not a continent either – North America is a continent and South America is a continent. But I agree that the slang (‘America’ for USA) is a problem.

      Re everything else – two wrongs don’t make a right. Your conclusion (“I can’t see a logical reason…”) doesn’t follow your points.

      The difference is that in English-speaking countries/cultures, there’s a lot of discussion about race, ethnicity and language in all levels of society (plus plenty of legal channels to challenge issues). In the west, people acknowledge that there’s a race issue. In China, there’s none of this framework, none of this discussion, and none of this acknowledgement.

  9. I tend to dislike it because it comes with pointing, staring, laughing and HELLO!!!, and it also comes with a lot of insincere compliments aimed at foreigners managing to do basic things in China.

    But I admit to using it affectionately when I meet someone else back in the US who’s lived in China!
    Meg recently posted…Kitchen ChineseMy Profile

  10. This is a really great post about something dear to my heart. I was looking this term up tonight because I have been living in China for six years and whenever I leave Shanghai, people are pointing at me and saying or even yelling “laowai” at me. I really don’t think it is necessary to point it out as I am not doing anything other than just living, but people are often yelling at me or telling their children something about me. I don’t really like it. I am from Canada and I can’t imagine going around to Chinese people who live or visit and yelling “chinese” or “chink” at them. None of the words are bad on their own, but they all become harmful when they are used to point out superficial differences of people. Like calling people “fat” or “fatty” because they are bigger than average. It just isn’t really kind.

  11. Thank you for this post! I’m also glad the responses mostly positive. I’m always afraid when I write about a negative China experience a bunch of people will get defensive and jump down my throat (pretty much the exact same rude/dismissive reactions you mentioned). Even my close Chinese friends who are normally very understanding can be a little dismissive when I talk about negative foreigner experiences.

    I actually didn’t question “laowai” until I went to Taiwan and heard someone say “国外朋友” was more appropriate. I thought it was really sweet hearing someone propose more inclusive language for foreigners. It’s kind of awkward and PC but it’s an improvement. People seem a lot more chill about foreigners in Taiwan than in the mainland. It’s kind of refreshing going there and not feeling like as much of a freak.

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