Lǎowài 老外 (lit., "old foreign") is a ubiquitous term for a certain type of person from abroad in China, and dictionaries almost invariably gloss it as "foreigner". Yet the subtleties and nuances of the term seem almost endless, and they can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. To try to get a handle on this colloquial expression, I asked a number of laowai who have had long experience in China what they thought of this appellation that they had doubtless been called hundreds of times and some Chinese friends who most likely had had occasion to employ that designation themselves.
Randy Alexander responded quickly: "farners"
Jing Wen remarked:
I think "foreigner" is not a good translation because we usually do not call Japanese, Koreans and people from other Asian countries Laowai. Maybe "westerner" is better in terms of meaning.
Fangyi Cheng stated:
In my opinion, "foreign folks / fellows / guys" might be preferable to "foreigner" as translations for "laowai". However, I think there are must be even better words for "laowai" depending upon the English context.
Denis Mair reflected:
I've always had difficulty translating "Laowai"!
Sometimes I think of it as "good-old-foreigner" or "foreign buddy," because the prefix Lao shows a certain familiarity. And it's used to indicate a somewhat personal relation to this embodiment of the category of foreignness—"foreigner in our midst." As the only foreigner at gatherings, I have been introduced more than once as "Laowai," and it has often brought a chuckle, so native speakers seemingly view it as a humorously shaky category.
In the past few years I've noticed that long-time friends of mine in China are calling me "Lao-Mei" (Mei being my surname). They never used to call me that. It's seems both a matter of age and of accumulated familiarity. At some point a phase-boundary was crossed in our relationship to call me that. It reminds of a more adult, tacit version of the German "du-tzen einander."
Putting "Lao" before "foreign" and other demographic categories means that, for better or worse, we have dealt with those people for a long time, and maybe learned to get along. So I've heard "Lao-Mei" (American) and even Lao-Guang (Cantonese, from the viewpoint of Northerners.)
When you get really old, you will be respected for age alone, and then the Lao comes after your surname! Mei Lao!
Foreign friend? "Honorable foreigner" (said with a Charlie Chan accent?) Foreign guest? Estimable ex-pat? Overseas amigo?
David clearly has a much different set of experiences around this term than I do. I see it as pretty negative in tone for most cases, though clearly not all. The argument of "but lǎoshī 老师 is lǎo 老 too! It shows respect!" reeks of nationalist apologetics.
I'm curious about the results of this particular query, as I normally see lǎowài 老外 as almost only ever used when referring to those of European or Middle Eastern descent. Black people are usually something else. Perhaps similar to usage of "Chinaman" back in the day, where there's both a more focused domain (china/westerners) but also a more general domain (Asians in general/non-Chinese in general). A google image search of 老外 seems to confirm this, with only one or two non-whites showing up in the first few pages of results.
[VHM: For those who want to get a sense of what a laowai seems to be in the Chinese imagination, I strongly endorse Kellen's recommendation to do a Google image search on 老外.]
I have to disagree with Kellen's "most cases". I was a bit taken aback to see this question "how do you translate 老外" appear at all — it's one of those words you really need a lot of context to translate, and a sensible translator would look at each case individually. I think it is considered a very informal word, so that already cuts it out of a lot of situations; but it is quite common in spoken Chinese. It certainly can be used innocently.
On the other hand I've heard it avoided — I've been in conversations where a Chinese person would use the word and then correct themselves. And I've heard plenty of parents correct their children when the kid refers to me as 老外 — they'll offer wàiguórén 外国人 ("foreigner") instead. Taxi drivers and talkative business owners sometimes have used wàiguó péngyǒu 外国朋友 ("foreign friend") with me in what I have guessed was not only an avoidance of 老外, but going further than 外国人 in trying to show friendliness.
There's also the other meaning of 老外: an outsider — someone who just doesn't get a certain domain. This is of course nowhere near as common, but I've heard it used in colloquial attempts at being colorful. It's my impression that most older Chinese people are familiar with this meaning and it has an influence on their choice of words.
It's not a word that can just be glossed in a lexicon. It needs explanatory notes.
I've had a lot of fun conversations asking Chinese people who counts as 老外. Me? (of course!), a Brit? (definitely), Russian? (um, yeah, I think so), Korean, Japanese? Thai? (no, definitely not) What?!
The most hilarious conversation I had that used 老外 was in NYC just after my younger son was born. My wife had just called a Chinese black car service to transport our new bundle of joy home. We were in the waiting room waiting for him to call and say he's outside. When he called, my wife sent me outside to tell the guy to wait a bit because she couldn't just pop out there. I got into the front seat and told the guy. He sits there for a minute looking like something's not right and then gets on his CB and asks "Zhège duì ma? Wǒ dàole yīyuàn dànshì yīgè lǎowài chūláile 这个对吗？我到了医院但是一个老外出来了." ("Is this the right [address]? I'm here at the hospital, but it was a laowai who came out"). To which I interjected "Shuí shì lǎowài 谁是老外？！！！" ("Who's the laowai?").
Chinese cannot use 老外 to refer to themselves as foreigners in the strict sense, and it doesn't matter where they are.
Joining in late here, and I probably don’t have all that much to offer. My go-to one-word translation for 老外 was always “gringo,” as in “you can probably find some decent coffee at Jenny Lou’s or one of the other gringo shops,” but I’m not sure how well that would work for speakers of non-American English.
Basically I hear “老外” as “white guy,” with all the intonational possibilities afforded by the English phrase. It can be bemused or hostile, depending on the speaker’s intonation and attitude; more commonly it’s just a simple description. It can be stretched to cover foreigners of African descent, but in my experience it mostly refers to, well, gringos — which is why Chinese would never think of referring to themselves as 老外.
The topic of alternatives to 老外 might be an interesting one — I remember being thrilled to catch a wàibīn 外宾 ("foreign guest") once at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, and guójì yǒurén 国际友人 ("international friend") crops up from time to time, but I tend to think of both as being limited to older speakers and more formal contexts. Wàiguó péngyǒu 外国朋友 ("foreign friend") sounds to me more or less like what Randy said — someone going the extra mile to be friendly — but I don’t know how many native speakers of Chinese perceive 老外 as being rude or derogatory. People who have regular contact with gringos do tend to pick up the fact that many people don’t like the term — not that this necessarily stops them from using it — but I don’t think I noticed much of a decline in popularity while I was over there.
It sounds like Randy and Brendan also have the "white guy" sense that I read into it. I rather like "gringo" as a translation as well.
Just to address Randy's disagreement with my "most cases" assessment, he's almost certainly correct. My own exposure to the word is limited to a few specific domains and otherwise I don't hear it so much any more. If you'll forgive the length of what follows, it might help explain my interpretation.
To start, I spent a good part of my Mainland life in Jiāngsū Chángzhōu 江苏常州, where people were far less open to foreigners than anywhere else I've ever been. During the second Iraq war, Iraqis in the Middle East were far more warm toward me than people in Changzhou. It was not uncommon in my 5 minute walk to work to have obscenities yelled at me (once even in Cantonese) up to 5 times. It was a fairly hostile place, for reasons I and my Chángzhōuerén 常州人 ("Changzhouese") friends have yet to figure out.
Now, in Taiwan, I never hear it. People use 阿斗仔 *adogˀə* to refer to myself and other foreigners. They all agree its somewhat negative, yet my advisor uses it to call on me in class, and my Hakka teacher uses it to refer to me when she and I are interacting with people around town. At any rate, 阿斗仔 has replaced instances of 老外 in my daily life.
Finally, I play some online shooters from time to time. Running around, communicating with your teammates via microphone. I almost always play with Mainlanders that I don't know. I can usually get about 30 minutes in before they realise my Mandarin keeps switching between Taiwanese and Chinese, and then they become suspicious of me being a foreigner. In that thirty minutes, any non-Chinese in the game is referred to as 老外, and almost always in the context of doing something unsavoury to their mother.
I admit my exposure wasn't totally neutral, as may be the case for Randy.
I don't think I've said anything that can be taken the wrong way.
Also my transcription of 阿斗仔 is probably off. "Adoga" is common enough online as a Romanisation.
I agree with Brendan generally on this. (And generally in ALL things linguistic, but actually it's more accurate to say that Brendan agrees with ME, even when he says it first. I'm older than he is, you see. And he's absorbed most of his correct ideas from hanging around me. And while in various drunken states [i.e., "psychologically susceptible to suggestion"], so that's why Brendan's opinions tend to echo, or pre-echo, mine.) I might just add that there is quite a lot of unjustified paranoia on the part of foreigners to this term. I interact with many right-off-the-boat foreigners who grab my arm and say "What is this 'laowai' thing? What do they mean? It sounds racist to me. Why not just 'waiguoren'? Is it sarcastic? Condescending? Snide? It can't be good." Actually, it's usually no big deal. Whereas "foreigner" is seldom used in the American context to refer to foreigners, except on visa forms, in China there really is a need for a generic term of this type, because in most contexts Chinese don't, and can't, differentiate foreign nationalities. And since "waiguoren" sounds impersonal and bureaucratic, there was a need for a more colloquial and friendly-sounding term. It's now such an established term that I honestly think for most Chinese speakers it just has the sense of "foreign friend". Of course, it can carry with it a semantic halo of stereotypes. There's a CRI (China Radio International) radio show called "Laowai kandian" ("Laowai viewpoints") and I'm sure part of the appeal of the word here is "Laowai [and their novel, unexpected, sometimes wacky, off-the-wall] viewpoints". But that's culture more than linguistics.
I had a brief encounter with my Hakka teacher today that applied to your enquiry. I meet her one on one for a few hours at a time, a couple times a week. Today we were just chatting (in Mandarin) about the process of getting permanent residency and citizenship in Taiwan. In each case she only ever used 外國人, but then one time slipped up and said 老外, quickly looking to see my response if any. I just started saying 老外 as well, and then it was all she used from that point on.
I don't think it's a universally negative term, and I can believe it began as very neutral or even positive. But I think the points made about different contexts are pretty valid, and in some it's possibly pejorative enough to have tainted it a little but in others, much like xiǎojiě 小姐 ("young lady; miss") to mean "miss".
Anyway, I thought it was interesting how she only started using the term after I did, and with her initial slip up she seemed concerned with how I was going to react. This, by the way, from someone who otherwise refers to me as 阿斗仔 in front of her friends.
Searching around for the original text of an edict the Kangxi Emperor wrote in response to the papal ban on Confucian rites, I found this article, "Zuìzǎo lái Huá de lǎowài kàn dàole shénmó 最早來華的老外看到了什麽” ("What the first laowai who came to China saw").
The text of the article can be more or less safely ignored, but the headline is a nice bit of evidence that “laowai” doesn’t mean “foreigner;” it means “white/European person.”
I will add only that the related, though far from identical term, wàiguó lǎo 外国佬 ("gringo") is unabashedly pejorative.
It used to bother me a great deal when Chinese would refer to Americans as laowai, wàiguórén 外国人 ("foreigners"), wàiguó lǎo 外国佬 ("gringos") in the United States. Like Randy, I would say, "No, here in our country, you are the foreigners." But they could not understand that, and just fell back on the old zhōng-wài 中外 ("central-outside / outer / external") dichotomy to justify calling us "foreigners" in our own country.
I suppose that it never really feels good to be thought of as "foreign" or "alien". One always wants to belong to the society in which one lives — unless, perhaps, one is a sociopath or a central-state-person living abroad.
[Thanks to all who participated in this colloquy]