Laowai is a Four Letter Word

hainan haikou naked foreigner sitting in street protest passive resistance russian

It may be that throughout the process of determining one’s exit strategy from China, expat self-examination has become a trend of late. If the days of the “free-wheeling expat on a free lunch” are indeed drawing to a close in China, then the justification for remaining in China needs to be more defined.

As the reasons for being an expat in China are questioned, so too may the very definition of an expat be examined. After all, during your tenure in China you’ve doubtlessly been called a “laowai” more than once – so just what does “laowai” actually mean besides the label you are sacked with? Is it a good word, or a bad word?

Some may answer that “laowai” is a neutral term that doesn’t contain any inherent meaning other than “foreigner”; if there are any negative connotations in saying it, they stem from the way in which they are used for each specific negative context. But this is to ignore the literal meanings of this term by shrouding the actual meaning behind the banality of daily repetition that grind its significance into unfeeling, bureaucratic indifference.

There is a meaning, the meaning is you, and that’s why it’s said.

“Laowai” in Chinese is 老外 (lǎowài); the components of this term can be broken down into 老 (lǎo) meaning “old”, and 外 (wài), meaining “outside”. “Laowai” most definitely does not mean “foreigner” in Chinese; instead, “foreigner” in Chinese is “外国人” (wàiguórén) which comes from the neutral terms of “外国” for “foreign” and “人” for “person”. Instead, there is no English equivalent of “laowai” in English; this mostly stems from the fact that most English-speaking cultures don’t inherently view the world as being divided between themselves and everyone else (most, I said).

There may be some confusion to what “laowai” actually means due to its individual components. ”Old” is universally regarded in Chinese culture as a sign of respect. If someone is called “Old Wang”, then the Wangster is a person of dignified position, regardless of his age. With this same thinking, a “laowai” should be a position that is equally respected – something absolutely true if it wasn’t for the second half of the term, “outside”.

Family is the most important component of Chinese society; as a way to endear themselves to others, many Chinese will address strangers with family roles – for example, to call a fellow man a “哥们儿” (gēmenr) is to afford him the respect of not just a fellow brother, but an elder one. After family, the respect commanded by any one person starts to thin out the further away they are located from the family nucleus: friends, business associates, co-workers, neighbors… until it becomes a question of geography.

Being an outsider is pretty much the lowest scale to occupy on the Chinese social hierarchy. You are not trusted; your customs and habits are strange and unfamiliar; you are the unknown that stands in contrast to the family circle; your existence is a contradictory definition of that which this Chinese.

So when when taken together, “laowai” means “respectable outsider” and not the “Hey, old whitey!” that Lonely Planet tried to convince me otherwise at a more naive stage of my stay here. One could take it as as a backhanded compliment if one enjoys masochism in their majesty, but the word “laowai” is basically a system of control to always alienate a foreigner. No matter how well you speak Chinese, no matter how much you pander, no matter how much you love China – you don’t belong.

Respectfully speaking, of course.

[Photo from the story Naked Foreigner in Middle of Intersection is Clearly Crazy and Not Protesting Anything ]

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  • mr.wiener

    Thank you terrior, a most thought provoking article. Oitlanders we are and Oitlanders we will remain.

  • Alfonso

    Expat? You should mean Immigrant