Laowai: the old furriner

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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!

David Moser:

Foreign friend?  "Honorable foreigner" (said with a Charlie Chan accent?)  Foreign guest?  Estimable ex-pat?  Overseas amigo?

Kellen Parker:

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.]

Randy Alexander

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.

Brendan O'Kane:

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.

Kellen Parker:

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.

David Moser

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.

Kellen Parker:

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.

Brendan O'Kane:

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]


  1. AG said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:56 am

    Sounds like it means "farang".

  2. David Moser said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 4:21 am

    Following Victor's advice, I did an image search in Google for 老外, and discovered I'm not a laowai at all! Most of the images for 老外 were either incredibly hunky, handsome, blond, blue-eyed dudes, or zany morons with multiple tattoos. Evidently I don't fit the stereotype. Also, few images of women. Maybe foreign women are in a separate category from 老外, perhaps 洋妞 ?

  3. AG said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    @ David Moser –

    I did the image search too, and I think you might have missed something important. It doesn't matter what _you_ look like at all. It matters who you're dating.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    The term to which David Moser alluded is yángniū 洋妞 ("overseas / foreign babes / pussies / chicks / lasses / girls"). While you're on Google Images, check that out too if you want to get an eyeful. Instead of "overseas babes", "overseas boobs" might be considered as a possible translation.

  5. Will said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:06 am

    As a HKer, I’m kind of amazed that there hasn’t been a reference to the Cantonese 鬼佬. I suppose it’s just far less ambiguously pejorative in the public sphere – although in private, a term of endearment (at least in this mixed-race household).

  6. Tom said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:22 am

    An anecdote to reinforce Prof. Mair's point that Chinese never see themselves as lǎowài 老外, even in other countries:

    During my M.A. days in Boulder, Colorado, I attended a party hosted by my PRC colleagues. When I showed up a bit late, someone said, "Lǎowài lái le!" 老外來了 (The foreigner's here!). To which I responded, "Wǒmen zài Měiguó ba. Nǐmén cái shì lǎowài!" 我們在美國吧。你們才是老外! (We're in America. You're the foreigners!). Everyone laughed uproariously at this remark.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:28 am



    I'll bet that scene has been replayed more than a million times in Chinese-American interactions in the US.

    Thanks for the beautifully related anecdote.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    For a Wikipedia article on "gweilo" or "gwailo", see



    "Gweilo" or "gwailo" is Cantonese for "foreign devil". The "lo" portion is the same derogatory morpheme as the lǎo 佬 part of wàiguó lǎo 外国佬 ("gringos"), which I mentioned near the end of the original post.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    On "fake foreigners" and various types of "foreign devils", see:

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:57 am

    When I travelled to Guangzhou in the early 80s, the local people quite openly referred to Americans as "gweilo / gwailo" 鬼佬. I tried to explain to them that it wasn't very nice to call us that, but they just looked at me dumbly. I don't know what the situation is like there nowadays, since I haven't been back for awhile.

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:58 am

    @ 2nd-to-last ¶ in the original post (Chinese referring to US-Americans as foreigners even in the US)

    This is consistent with the ethnocentrism common among East Asians: ethnicity and origin are considered to be important defining factors for a person. (I'm not saying that people don't judge you by ethnicity and looks in the West.) A Japanese person of Chinese descent who grew up all his life in Japan, is culturally Japanese (as far as I can judge), and who has only ever held a Japanese passport told me (when we talked about foreigners in Japan): "I'm a foreigner [in Japan] too, I just have a Japanese passport". The importance of origin in an East Asian context also appears in the recurrence of the Chinese concept of 故鄉 (C gu3hoeng1, M gùxiāng; "ancestral home"). When you ask where a Chinese person is from, it is still the case that he or she might start out by telling you about the ancestral home of their family (sometimes accompanied by a "But I've never been there!"), to then proceed to their birthplace or place of growing up. If you question the (cultural or interpersonal) importance of someone's ancestral home, you might get an irate reaction. To be fair, to ask in a Western context where someone was born is equally meaningless by itself, though the added (and often correct) assumption that one spent at least one's early childhood years around there then gives it some meaning. I also have a feeling that for young Chinese people one's alma mater matters more these days.

    » Will

    鬼佬: gwai2lou2. Of course this term doesn't have the lou5 老 in it, and it is simply a slangy [← the word "slangy" is often misused by Cantonese speakers, but here it fits] term to mean ≈Western guy/dude. So this term too is specific to some (perceived and rough) ethnic profile. The politically correct replacement is sai1jan4 西人.

    About the tone of the suffix -lou2 -佬, note that it's the same one that occurs in terms such as daai6lap1[/nap1]lou2 大粒佬 ("bigshot") or jau5cin2lou2 有錢佬 ("rich guy"). 鬼佬 (with 鬼 meaning "devil" or "ghost") may be technically pejorative but isn't used in a pejorative way.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    When I first came to Penn in 1979, I tried to establish friendly relations between the University and Chinatown. I called various cultural organizations and expressed my willingness to set up programs and plan activities. I remember very clearly one person who picked up the telephone saying to another person in the room where he was, "There's a gwailo on the line". I knew that I'd be facing an uphill battle in my attempts to carry out meaningful exchanges.

    Around the same time, I asked my work study student, a Cantonese speaker from Chinatown, if she knew how to write gwailo. Of course, she didn't, even though she was learning how to read and write Mandarin. For her, Cantonese existed purely in the spoken realm, as it does for most speakers of the language (this is a topic we've discussed many times on Language Log). Then I asked her if she knew what "gwailo" meant, and she said that it meant "foreigner". After that, I asked her if she knew what "gwai" and "lo" meant as separate syllables. She professed to have no knowledge of that. When I told her that the first meant "ghost; devil" and the second meant "guy; bloke; chap; fellow; vulgar person; hillbilly", she seemed quite embarrassed.

  13. Tom said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 8:18 am

    A quick note on the Cantonese suffix -lou2 -佬. My girlfriend, who was born in Guangzhou and moved to California at the age of 5, sometimes addresses her parents as daai6 lou2 大佬 ("man" or "big brother") in conversation. Is that common?

  14. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 8:30 am

    I don't know (others please chime in); normally the word you cite means "older brother" (like Mandarin gēge 哥哥, which also occurs in vernacular Cantonese and is pronounced go4go1 (neutral) or go1go1 (familiar)).

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    There has long been a debate in Japan (or at least among people of non-Japanese ethnicity living in Japan . . .) about the extent to which "gaijin" is pejorative. Wikipedia suggests that sensibilities may have moved around a little bit in the many decades since I lived there and I don't have any particular insight into those changes. But I am still happy to use "gaijin" autobiographically, as a self-identifier for "that social category I fit into when I lived in Japan."

    My own view is that in a sufficiently homogenous/ethnocentric culture any possible word for "foreigner" is going to be at inherent risk of sometimes coming off pejorative – finding some euphemism to substitute for the current common word isn't really going to change anything because the pejorative edge comes from the structure of the social situation rather from any lexical choice. And any alternative used more selectively depending on the individual characteristics of the addressee/referent is at risk of coming off like "oh, maybe you're a foreigner, but we like you because you're not like THOSE foreigners," which presents potential problems of its own.

  16. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:18 am

    » J. W. Brewer    [» X: "following up to what X wrote"]

    This goes beyond the topic of the original post, but it fits in here: There is a good question about the purpose of the euphemism treadmill of political correctness. Like Mark Liberman, "I support these terminological substitutions in many cases." Or maybe this is just an inevitable and endless aspect of language change.

    Actually, is the euphemism treadmill really endless or can it be stopped? Should it be stopped? Maybe this institution is necessary for dealing with the foibles of human nature.

  17. julie lee said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:39 am

    I have a Cantonese friend in his eighties. When he speaks Mandarin to me, he refers to Western white males as Lǎowài 老外. When he speaks Cantonese he usually says Sai yaan 西人 (Western person, Westerner). I think of Laowai as "farner" or "farn bloke", somewhat affectionate. "Lao" (old) is a term of affection among adult males. A group of male friends will call each other Lao Lee (Old Lee), Lao Chen (Old Chen), Lao Wang (Old Wang). It's like saying Jimmy for James, Mickey, Tommy, Johnny, etc.
    Once my mom was talking to several Cantonese women friends. One of the Cantonese women said: "My daughter is getting married." Another Cantonese woman shot back: " Hai Gwai, hai Yaan?" (Is it a Devil or a Human?) Everyone smiled, as she was playing on the word "Gwai lou" (devil-bloke), the colloquial term for a Western white adult male.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    I think the "euphemism treadmill" and/or related phenomena can and do stop when social conditions change such that the group in question no longer feels marginalized/oppressed and thus understandably prone to reactions that more comfortable members of society might too quickly dismiss as thin-skinned or over-sensitive.

    Whatever ethnocentric/chauvinistic attitudes Han Chinese may have toward various non-Han ethnic minorities who due to the fortunes of history live under Han rule are a potential problem that ought to be addressed for the sake of justice. I don't feel the same way re their attitudes toward white foreigners from rich countries who visit China and can leave anytime they want. Similarly, some of the ethnocentrism/chauvinism that has historically been embedded in Japanese culture may still be a real problem for the local ethnic-Korean minority and others like the burakumin, but whatever sense of outsiderness/marginality I may have felt living in Tokyo as a white gaijin kid with a U.S. passport is not, imho, worth launching a crusade over, much less trying to force a euphemism-treadmill lexical change over.

  19. Milan said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    J. W. Brewer: Steven Pinker dubbed the process you describe "euphemism treadmill." An offensive word is replaced by a less offensive one. However, this euphemism is soon to be seen as derogatory in itself, either because the social structure persists in which the referent is seen as worth of deprecation, or because the intent of the replacement is evident to the speakers and the euphemism just assumes the connotations of its predecessor. It's a helpful model, but obviously actual lexical development doesn't follow it to letter and there are many phenomena not taken into account — most importantly, at least with respect to postmodern times, probably the numerous attempts at reclaiming derogatory terms like "black", "queer" or "cripple".

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    Two people have used "farner", which is new to me. I can tell it represents an East Coast U.S. pronunciation of "foreigner", but is it "a thing"? Does writing "farner" just give an informal tone, like writing "prolly" for "probably", or does it have different connotations? Google and the Urban Dictionary are no help.

  21. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

    It's at least eye dialect (see beginning of post), though others should respond on what else may be meant.

  22. JS said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    The fact of the existence of a euphemism treadmill, or the fact that to large degree "the pejorative edge [of lǎowài 老外, etc.] comes from the structure of the social situation rather from any lexical choice," does nothing to change the fact that use of the term lǎowài is (or has become) just plain tacky, if not quite rising to the level of "offensive" for reasons J.W. Brewer notes. I don't believe for a second that the term is now being avoided by all thoughtful and considerate Chinese due purely to negative reactions of foreigners themselves (of which, as we can see above, there are few) — it's just plain good manners.

    The connotations of lǎo 老, and etymological observations generally, are irrelevant here. It's just (become) a not-very-nice word, and (again, as we see above) 稍微知趣点儿的 Chinese people are highly aware of this fact.

  23. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

    I am not able to offer a grand overarching theory of when exactly a term is "offensive", but the degree of offensiveness depends at least on: speaker's intent, listener's perception/attitude, context. Without taking any stance (because I have no opinion on it), I'm wondering what kinds of experiences your view is rooted in.

  24. blahedo said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    I see "farner" (which I'd probably represent as in the post title as "furriner") and read it as a multi-level term: "it means 'foreigner' but with some extra judgemental xenophobic baggage that I imagine would be attached to the word by people who I imagine to speak like this".

    Tangentially related: when I once crossed back into the US from Mexico at a pedestrian border crossing, I remember seeing a bilingual sign addressed to those waiting in line that called non-US-citizens "extranjeros" (foreigners) in the Spanish part, but "aliens" in the English part. The English version seemed a lot more rude (well, the INS agents were pretty rude too) and carried negative connotations, while the Spanish one seemed more neutral.

  25. JS said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    @Stephen Stiller
    I'm not one to take (visible) offense to, much less seek to correct, others' use of this or similar terms. With apologies for vagueness, I suppose I have just developed a "not-quite-right" feeling about lǎowài 老外 in part due to (or in synchrony with) the clear and growing "not-quite-right" feeling of the Mandarin-speaking public towards it.

    Now that I think about it, those I interact with regularly, of various ages and backgrounds, just don't use this term around me and certainly not in reference to me, save jokingly/ironically — and not because of anything I've ever said or done.

  26. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

    Thanks for your reply. (I was thinking something like "in the contexts in which I've observed someone say 老外, the speaker often had a dismissive tone". After all, most insults require social convention to work, and the social expectations must come from somewhere.) Whatever the reasons, I am wondering whether this (consistent with J. W. Brewer's view) goes together with the frequently reported increase in hostility towards Western foreigners since about the time leading up to the Beijing Olympics.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

    blahedo: I don't know Spanish and have no opinion on the overtones or undertones of "extranjeros," but I would note that "alien" is the boring/technical/specialized-jargon word for that has been used in U.S. immigration law all the way back to at least 1790 (and was a technical term in English law well before that). It is, however, possible that there's a "nerdview" issue here, where the agency running the operation uses its own correct-in-context internal jargon for the signage without stopping to think about what connotations they may have to non-insiders reading the signage. (Among other things, in 1790, "alien" obviously did not have an alternative meaning involving little green men in flying saucers.)

    The eye-dialect "furriner" definitely has rustic/yokel overtones for me, but assuming that people who talk like that are in fact more xenophobic than you are suggests a bit of class snobbery and the assumption that natively speaking a non-prestige dialect is a sign of moral turpitude.

  28. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    I have seen people claiming that when the US refers to non-US-citizens as 'aliens', this is indicative of a world view in which such people are not human. Historically, of course, this is quite wrong, but it does show that for some people this is now the primary sense.

  29. Milan said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    A small anecdote with regard to the "aliens." Shortly after the first election of Barack Obama,, Germany's biggest tabloid's online portal, featured an article in which they presented and ridiculed the views of Thomas Rob, a leading figure of the Ku-Klux-Klan. However, they managed to make his — already rather nutty — opinions seem even more outrageous by constantly translating "alien" as extraterrestrial. ("Außerirdischer") Apparently the translation work was done by a trainee whose main qualification was reading Sci-fi novels… You can read about the whole story at the BILDblog, which is one of the most widely read German blogs and a watchblog (originally) entirely devoted to Bild: (German)

  30. Eidolon said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 6:29 pm

    "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."

    I would contend that expatriates are not capable of being generalized as such. Immigrants, by virtue of their desire to immigrate, want to belong to the countries to which they immigrate. Expatriates, however, have different wants. There are those who fall in love with the countries in which they live, and who seek to integrate, but there are also those who have no desire to integrate, who constitute permanent examples of 'foreigners in a foreign land.' Just because you live in a society does not make you want to belong to it, especially when you have a choice in the matter.

    Consequently, I find the idea that Chinese expatriates are unique in not wanting to integrate when they are living abroad an unfair assessment. I have certainly met people of other nationalities who do not want to belong to the societies in which they live, including a plethora of Western expatriates in China. I therefore find the idea that one has to be a sociopath or a Chinese to not want to belong simultaneously offensive and inaccurate.

  31. William Steed said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

    I'd have used a phrase like 'clearly and visibly non-Chinese' to describe a laowai, because it's someone who is clearly not Chinese, nor Chinese-like (e.g. other East Asian ethnicities that are not Chinese, and distinguishable, but similar.

    But I'm not sure if that works – are Africans living in China also described as 'laowai'?

  32. Eidolon said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

    As for the term itself, 老外 is effectively a racial epithet, as shown by the characteristic link between it and 'Caucasian people' in Google images and everyday conversation. It is an euphemism, in this sense, over the use of an explicitly racial term eg 白人 or 白种人. Nonetheless, understanding 老外 as a racial epithet explains why it is never applied to Koreans, Japanese, and Southeast Asians, and also why it is used in America to refer to Caucasians despite the latter being natives. There is simply no other term in the Chinese everyday vocabulary that allows for the exact same usage. Yes, 白人 is semantically similar in its target demographic, but it fails to capture the social familiarity that 老外 does, & therefore comes off as cold and taxonomic.

    Stephen Stiller:

    Under an ethnocentric explanation, other Asians would also fall under 老外, but they do not. Ironically, I believe 老外, along with the other, less savory terms for talking about 'white people,' came about because the Chinese never had a developed system for talking about racial differences. It is, in this sense, an attempt at translating racial differences into traditional center-outside terminology, rather than a straight-forward application of the latter. No Chinese actually believes that Caucasian Americans are foreigners in America, but even those who would are firmly integrated into American society use 老外 for the lack of better terms.

  33. Eidolon said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 7:36 pm

    William Steed:

    老外 has been extended to include Africans from what I'm able to tell, but the original semantics is closely tied to Caucasians, such that when describing Africans, Chinese speakers frequently attach a prefix, or forego 老外 altogether for 黑人 – ie black people. In this case, the racial dimension is obvious and requires no discussion of why 黑人 is used no matter where the speaker is.

  34. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 8:43 pm


    Don't get me started on expats (in BJ or whatever) confining themselves to their walled community bubbles. Every time a German complains about lack of integration of immigrants in Germany, I have to rub it in their face that a lot of White expats in Asia or wherever are no tad different.

    And, there is supposedly research saying that in the US from among "the three" (I know, I know) East Asian immigrant groups, Chinese mingle the most, while Koreans and Japanese stay (relatively speaking) more amongst themselves. But I don't have a citation to offer, and I can't give you statistics.

    With all that stated, cosmopolitanism is, uhmm, not exactly an East Asian phenomenon, and I am assuming that this is the sort of thing Victor Mair had in mind in the context of this post. The SEP entry on this topic has a bibliography with a section on the history of cosmopolitanism, but I don't know what it says about the topic outside of a Western context. And I really want to know what the history of cosmopolitan ideas elsewhere and especially in East Asia is. (Finally, East Asia is also not the only place in the world that could benefit from more cosmopolitan thinking. But we all know this.)


    Kind of – there is ethnocentrism, but (at least this is my theory) for nationalities with which there has traditionally been more contact there will already have been other words in use, so (I'm guessing) 老外 filled a need when one arose. With this in mind, I think your "racial epithet" interpretation is plausible, with the degree of offensiveness being up to debate, judging from the discussion here.

    About your expression "center-outside terminology": I would say that the in-group/out-group dichotomy fits well. Note how this distinction is deeply embedded in the Japanese language.

  35. AG said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 9:24 pm

    I see in retrospect that I was trolling (in the fishing sense) a bit in the first couple comments, but no one took the bait, so I'll just come out and ask: What exactly are the sexual connotations of this term? The image search seems to point to something in that area.

    -Is it applied more to men who have Chinese spouses/partners?

    -Is it applied less to men who are married, gay, or otherwise not perceived as being interested in… er, sexually colonizing China?

    -Is there a connotation of predation, craftiness or lechery in the "old" part of the epithet?

  36. Greg Ralph said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

    could we also allude at this stage to the Singaporean term ang moh? I cite below from the excellent online Singlish dictionary – is this still used on the mainland or elsewhere in the Chinese speaking world? Very alive in well down south….

    ( :

    ang moh /ahng mor, ɑŋ mɔː/ n. & a. [Hk. 红毛(鬼 âng mô (kwúy): âng red, of a red colour + mô hair, the hair of the head and eyebrows + kwúy a ghost, a spirit, a demon, an imp (Medhurst); Mand. hóng red + máo hair + guǐ ghost, spirit, apparition (Chi.–Eng. Dict.)]

    [1832 Walter Henry Medhurst A Dictionary of the Hok-Këèn Dialect of the Chinese Language 481, col. 1 紅毛 âng mô, red haired, generally applied to the English people.]

    Also ang mo, angmoh, ang-moh. A n. A Caucasian, a white person. See also Mat Salleh, Kentang. B a. Having the nature or attributes of a Caucasian or white person.
    ¶ The term is regarded by some as derog.

  37. julie lee said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

    Above, I said that lao in Laowai is somewhat affectionate, that Chinese men calling their male friends Lao Lee, Lao Wang, Lao Ma, Lao Chen, etc. is like calling James Jimmy, Thomas Tommy, Stephen Stevie, Timothy Timmy, etc. To me, Laowai would be like calling a white adult male "a Westie" (a Westerner). My friend who uses the word Laowai wasn't being hostile to Westerners. His son is married to a Caucasian woman, and his grandsons are half Caucasian, and he's close to them all. Many Chinese women nowadays have white sons-in-law, and I think the Cantonese woman who asked "Is it a devil or a human", meaning, was her friend's daughter marrying a Westerner or a Chinese, was simply being jocular, with no intention of insulting anyone.

  38. maidhc said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 2:02 am

    Didn't we previously have a discussion about "Lǎo gōng"? Or did I imagine it?

  39. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:51 am

    @Stephan Stiller – your point re "cosmopolitanism not really being an East Asian thing" (with whatever nuances and caveats are appropriate, since obviously no generalization is going to be all that accurate when applied to a billion and a half individuals) is related to some of what I was trying to say earlier. I would add only that the specific sort of cosmopolitanism that has created various degrees of taboo in the politer parts of Western societies against the overt expression of certain sorts of ethnocentric attitudes that had previously been rather ubiquitous in human history (including Western history) is an extremely recent development (more recent, for example, than the 19th and early 20th century interactions between the Western powers and China that are remembered negatively by Chinese nationalists). It is, I would argue rather paradoxically, somewhat ethnocentric to expect East Asian societies to immediately rush to join us in suppressing ethnocentricity in favor of cosmopolitanism. (It might well be an objectively good development for the world, but the sort of thing thing that ideally they ought to want to do for their own benefit not because outsiders tell them they ought to do it.)

  40. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 10:30 am


    Yes, we did have a discussion about "Lǎo gōng". It's here:

    "Wantan soup for überman hubby"

  41. nick said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 10:31 am

    I don't think it's pejorative per se, but it wouldn't be 'PC' if such a thing existed in China

    Where I grew up the Chinese restaurant used to be called the 'Chinkies'. There wasn't any insult or bad feeling in the way it was used, noone even associated it with racism, but still, it doesn't need to be explained why that's out of order…

  42. Chuck said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    On barbarians. There has been mention of Cantonese (gwailo, 鬼佬) and Singaporean Minnan (angmo, 紅毛), but none yet of Fujian.

    In the late 1980's my wife (from Taiwan) and I visited Xiamen, which at that time had few foreign visitors. About two minutes into our very first taxi ride the driver turned to look at my wife (while driving!) and said: "這番仔係你的翁?/ Is this barbarian (hoan-á) your old man?" Astonishingly (my Minnan is pretty weak), I understood him and started to laugh. My wife then spent a good 5 minutes sternly lecturing the driver (in Taiwanese/Minnan) on the proper ways to refer to foreigners, but the driver was utterly bewildered: in Xiamen in the 1980's hoan-á simply meant "foreigner" (or possibly "white foreigner" and it's original derogatory meaning was quite secondary. Haven't been back to Xiamen since then so I don't know if hoan-á is still in common use in Fujian—certainly in Taiwan it was then, and still is now, considered derogatory.

  43. julie lee said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 10:58 am


    I vaguely remember laogong 老公 (my old man, meaning, my husband) mentioned somewhere. Gong公 is generally a respectful designation for a male elder, and its partner po 婆 is generally a respectful designation for a female elder. So gonggong 公公 means "grandpa" and "father-in-law" as the case maybe, and popo means "grandma" or "mother-in-law".

    Laogong 老公 ( literally "old old-man") means "my old man, my hubby". Its partner is laopo老婆
    (literally "old old-woman") meaning "my old woman, my wifey". Lao老 “old" is used affectionately here.

    Lao "old" in China, as in many old societies, was a stage in human life that was accorded respect and privilege. So the word often conveyed respect. But in laogong (the old man, i.e., my hubby) and laopo (the old woman, i.e., my wifey), and laowai (old furriner) there's a note of affection. Lao "old" is sometimes just "old" of course, as in lao xiaojie (old young-miss) meaning "old maid".

  44. Terry Collmann said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    My experience working in a mixed Cantonese HK/European office in Hong Kong for a couple of years was that the Hong Kongers would be embarrassed if caught referring to the Westerners as gweilos, and the Westerners were completely unbothered by it and, indeed, found it rather amusing. This, I suspect, is because racial insults are only perceived to be insulting if you already perceive yourself to be at the wrong end of the power set-up, which Westerners did not. Did any white person ever object to being called "honky"?

  45. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    @Terry Collmann

    I was just about to post on "honky", and will still do so in a somewhat broader context, but must wait till after my Classical Chinese class. Anyway, I'm very glad that you bought it up, because the connotations and tone of "honky" parallel those of lǎowài 老外 closely in many, but not all, respects.

    When I taught at the University of Hong Kong during 2002-3, I took Cantonese the whole year long. It was all in romanization, of course. Even though some of us could read and write Mandarin, I can't recall that our teacher ever once put a character on the board nor did he provide any materials with characters. Incidentally, he was one of the most experienced and highly respected teachers of Cantonese in Hong Kong.

    We were already fairly well along in the course when he introduced the names used to designate people from different countries, and the whole class was flabbergasted when nearly all of the terms he taught us were derogatory: Malays, Filipinos, blacks ("black devils"), Indians, …and on down the line. I think he taught us about two dozen different names for people from different countries, and they were nearly all patently pejorative.

    The longer the teacher went on, the more aghast we grew. Normally I didn't say very much in that class, except to repeat sample sentences, etc., but after awhile I couldn't take it any longer, and I asked the teacher whether he realized that all of these names were unflattering. I asked whether they had any other names for these groups, and he said, "No, that's just what we call them." I followed up by inquiring whether social commentators had addressed this problem of terminology for other peoples, and he just brushed my question aside by saying something like "Nobody makes a big deal over it."

    I think that about a third of the people in the class were so upset by his handling of the situation that they dropped it after that lesson. I should note that it was a very cosmopolitan class, with students (most of whom were professors and lecturers like myself) from around the globe — Iran, Korea, South America, Africa, Australia, England….

    I have a great deal of affection for Cantonese, as readers of Language Log are well aware, but this kind of negative terminology for people from elsewhere still deeply puzzles and troubles me. I really don't know how to comprehend this phenomenon.

  46. Nick said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    I don't agree with the idea that white people should put up with racial slurs because we are seen as 'at the top' or something. What about discrimination against Jewish people because of their perceived position at the top of European society?

    I find it insulting to be referred to by racist slang, and I don't see myself as at the top of the power setup

  47. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    I am quietly wondering whether the speakers of various Chinese languages mentioned here who claimed that they thought that word X in their language simply meant "foreigner" were saying this in earnest or merely as a face-saving measure. People can put up a very convincing appearance in such situations, pretending they totally didn't know.

  48. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    Nick: I think the "honky" example etc. might be quite different issues and my own view is that it's not necessary to think about whether white foreigners are toward the "top" or the "bottom" in the Chinese context – maybe they're sort of off to the side. My view is more that they are guests/visitors, and if they find Chinese cultural attitudes (as expressed in word choice or more generally) toward guests/visitors distasteful or offensive, the simplest solution is not to spend time in China but go somewhere else where people are nicer to you. Many many people in the PRC would love the chance to live in the country where your passport lets you either live permanently or return to whenever you want.

  49. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    Please note that I have updated and greatly enlarged my reply to Terry Collmann, so that it now responds to some of the issues raised by Nick, Stephan Stiller, and J.W. Brewer as well.

    In this comment, I'd like to return to the question of lǎowài 老外 more directly.

    The term definitely has an edge. We need to take seriously what JS and others have said about it. At best lǎowài 老外 is jocular; at worst it can be condescending, hostile, and insulting. Lǎowài 老外 is not a neutral term. The fact that its usage in the presence of Westerners who speak Chinese causes nervousness or titters or embarrassed discomfort on the part of more or less sensitive Chinese shows that it is a loaded term.

    In some cases, as was mentioned in previous comments, 老外 has a meaning similar to "honky",

    and, as others have pointed out, "gringo" is a suitable translation in certain instances.

    There are many less potentially offensive ways to refer to foreigners in Mandarin:

    wàiguó rén 外国人

    yángrén 洋人 ("person from overseas") — this is an older term that is still in use today; depending upon the nuances and contexts, it can also be taken as disrespectful

    wàirén 外人 ("outsider") — this is a very old term
    In one of his early comments, J.W. Brewer discussed the usage of this term in Japanese.

    yìkè 异客 ("stranger; alien") –note that, in older texts, words for foreigners often conveyed the notion of "guest; traveller; sojourner"

    Finally, for those who are new to Language Log, I wish to remind commenters that we avoid ad hominem, inflammatory, condemnatory, and accusatory remarks. We strive for illuminating, civil discourse. Keeping this in mind is especially important when we are dealing with a sensitive topic like the present one. Generally, we do not tolerate trolling of any sort, but AG's fishing was an exception that posed a legitimate question, though nobody took the bait, so he had to bring it to the surface by asking a series of somewhat rhetorical questions that remain unanswered.

    Comments Policy

  50. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

    I appreciate Prof. Mair's two recent posts. Trying to harmonize them it seems like a) in some contexts some Sinitic languages have (for certain groups, at least) only exonyms which are problematic with no politer synonyms readily available, which is a problem (see below); but b) in the specific case of "laowai," there are politer synonyms readily available, and thus its use may (especially in a context where it is not understood to be jocular by all parties to the conversation) be properly understood as having an "edge" above and beyond what I previously called something like the minimum inherent in the situation.

    The situation he described where the learned Cantonese professor managed to alienate so many of his students is regrettable but fascinating, because it illustrates the sort of impasse one can hit as a result of certain sorts of cultural gulfs. It sounds like the students were genuinely (and properly, according to their own cultural lights) freaked out and offended, and the professor was genuinely (and properly, according to his own cultural lights) baffled by the degree to which they were offended, and, more importantly, it seems that neither side had a solution ready to hand as to how the gap might be bridged. I certainly don't have one to offer, other than the notion I sketched out above (which is not absolute, and may not always be psychologically achievable) that it is sometimes best for the visitor to put up with the host's irksome qualities rather than expect the host to change to suit the visitor — although if this particular fellow was in the business of making money by teaching Cantonese to foreigners, that might change the analysis of whose obligation it ought to be to accommodate whom.

  51. maidhc said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

    "Gringo" is a word that could be an insult or could be a sort of friendly insult, depending on how you use it. We have a bar here called Tres Gringos Cabo Cantina, so I guess the licensing people don't think it is an offensive word (they are somewhat strict about bar names). Many Chinese restaurants have two menus, one with actual Chinese dishes and the other one with General's Tso's chicken, honey walnut prawns and stuff like that. We call that the gringo menu.

    I mentioned lao gong because I hear people using it in English, like "I took the lao gong out to lunch".

  52. Eidolon said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

    "in the specific case of "laowai," there are politer synonyms readily available, and thus its use may (especially in a context where it is not understood to be jocular by all parties to the conversation) be properly understood as having an "edge" above and beyond what I previously called something like the minimum inherent in the situation."

    The problem is, aside from 洋人, which has its own problems, they are not proper synonyms. 外人 is a general term for outsiders to the group. It has none of the racial/cultural connotations that 老外 does. In fact, 外人 is used all the time in Chinese languages to describe people who are not members of one's own immediate group/family. Using it to denote 'Westies', as julie lee calls it, requires a drastic change in semantics.

    外国人 is closer to 老外, and is indeed thought to be the term from which 老外 was derived, but the presence of 国 – country – makes it overtly political, rather than racial/cultural. Thus, 外国人 applies to Koreans, Japanese, and Southeast Asians in many contexts that 老外 does not. Using it in place of 老外 again requires a change in semantics.

    洋人 in older contexts is primarily an exonym for Westerners, which fits the demographic profile covered by 老外. However, 洋人 is largely considered by Chinese today to be an anachronism, and further has the disadvantage of being too formal. 老外 is slang in the same way 老美 is slang. One could say 美国人 instead of 老美, but it loses the slang quality of the term, similar to saying American instead of Yankee. The same problem occurs with 外国人.

    Lastly, 老外 is not an universal appellation for Westerners. A few posters have talked about this fact above when they equated 老外 with '[adult] white male.' While I don't necessarily agree that the term is inappropriate for females, it is virtually never used to describe a child, as 老 contradicts such usage. The stereotypical 老外 is an older white male; usage is permissible for adult white males, adult white females, adult black males, adult black females, and to a degree teenagers. But outside of those ranges, 老外 is inappropriate.

    Thus, while there are indeed other, more polite ways to refer to 'foreigners,' equating 老外 with 'foreigner' is flawed. Chinese who use 老外 use it in an informal context among themselves when they see the stereotype. They do not use it when talking about foreigners in general. There is an edge to it because it was designed to have an edge – it's a slang encasing a racial/cultural stereotype. Fixing it requires a brand of political correctness in speech that does not presently exist in China, as Chinese across the social spectrum, and especially in informal conversation, are prone to the use of slangs and less-than-PC terms for other groups.

  53. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 7:45 pm


    "…equating 老外 with 'foreigner' is flawed…."

    Of course! That's what this whole conversation has been about.

    Did you read the original post?

    Did you read the comments?

  54. PeterL said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    The Edo-era Japanese word for "foreigner" was 毛唐 (or 毛唐人), literally "hairy Chinese". (唐人: Tang (dynasty) person, the only foreigners that Japanese had seen up to that time).

  55. Eidolon said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

    "Of course! That's what this whole conversation has been about.

    Did you read the original post?

    Did you read the comments?"

    I was responding specifically to the idea that 老外 is capable of being replaced by synonyms in casual conversation, and is therefore inherently edgy because people have a choice as to which term to use. My opinion is that no other term in everyday usage designates the exact semantics that 老外 does. The choice is therefore not a choice of words, but a choice of ideas. To refrain from using 老外, one has to refrain from making the distinction in the first place.

    The larger theme of 老外 being mis-translated is a given.

  56. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 9:54 pm


    "To refrain from using 老外, one has to refrain from making the distinction in the first place."


  57. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 11:30 pm

    From Bob Bauer:

    The meanings, connotations, and usages of "laowai" have long interested me. The LL discussion on this topic has been one of the most interesting and illuminating up to now in my opinion.

    A couple of years ago at a conference here in HK I gave to Tang Zuofan a photo of Wang Li, Tang Zuofan, and myself that had been taken in front of Wang Li's house on the campus of Bei Da in 1980. Mai Yun who is from Guangzhou and is now the editor of Fangyan was sitting next to me and saw this photo and said, 那個老外是誰 ("Who is that laowai?")?

    Back in 1985 when I was a foreign expert teaching at Wuhan University I remember one gloriously sunny afternoon I was riding my bicycle around East Lake and passed by a group of kids who were riding their bicycles towards me. They were so bug-eyed shocked to see my foreign face that they all loudly shouted, 洋鬼子, 洋鬼子 ("foreign devil, foreign devil")!

    You mentioned your Cantonese teacher talking about Cantonese derogatory terms for people of various races and nationalities. Do you still have this list of lexical items? Would you be willing to share it?

    There have been a number of Cantonese terms for white foreigner used since at least the early 19th century. One of the earliest was 紅毛鬼 ("red-haired devil").

    I'll send you the list of lexical items for 'white person' I have compiled for the ABC Cantones-English Dictionary later on.

    [N.B.: English translations of Chinese added by VHM]

  58. Phil Hand said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 1:39 am

    There was a mildly interesting film that came out at the end of last year (?) called Beijing to Seattle, in which the subtitles gave "white guy" when the script said "laowai". (Don't know why it was subtitled, as I was watching it in China, but it was). I cheered.

    If you're a believer in the "canonical image" theory of word meaning, then laowai is very easy to understand. The canonical image of a laowai is a (relatively) rich, non-Chinese speaking white man with funny habits, and probably speaking English. When you ask for a definition, people rush to define things in terms of +/- features, so laowai gets defined as a person not of Chinese nationality, and the cognitive dissonance begins.

    I think the sexism in the term is actually as bad as any racist elements it may have.

    The level of negativity or insult varies from situation to situation. As J. Brewer said, I sometimes find it useful to refer to myself as a laowai as a convenient descriptor. But the insulting part is the refusal to individuate. When I hang around at the school gates, the parents who address me as "[son's name] baba" are the ones who are speaking to me as an individual; the ones who push their children and say "go and talk English to the laowai uncle" are using language that is not negative, but explicitly refuses to grant me any other identity than being a white English speaker. If I've told them previously that, no, I'm not a teacher, then that's pretty insulting: your choices don't matter as much to me as the category in which I place you.

    NB. I do know that no-one is playing the violins for the terrible suffering of white men at the hands of Chinese school-run mums, I'm just trying to illustrate the point!

  59. AG said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 8:58 am

    My thanks to Prof. Mair for the appropriately admonitory yet mercifully case-sensitive response to my use of the inflammatory term "trolling" to describe my (potentially) inflammatory earlier comments.

    Since the whole "sex tourist" angle on this term seems to be a non-starter, I'll just add something peripheral, as an American in Japan:

    I live down the hill from the first foreign cemetery in Yokohama, and there's an interesting contrast to be seen between the older stone monuments which explicitly call it the "gaijin cemetery" or "外人墓地" versus the newer plaques and signs which describe the more politically correct "外国人墓地".

  60. Victor Mair said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    Marvelous, AG! Wonderful comment.

  61. julie lee said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 10:48 am

    I have read all the comments with interest and appreciate all of them, especially Eidolon's last long post and J.W. Brewer's post saying that East Asian countries haven't yet caught up with America on cosmopolitanism as against ethnocentrism. I agree with J.W. Brewer. I myself never use the gui鬼“devil" word in designating foreigners or Westerners, nor any other pejorative term or word for foreigners. I don't use the word laowai. (Though "Go talk to that laowai uncle" doesn't sound pejorative to me.)

    It seems to me that almost everyone taking part in this conversation is male. I believe the pejorative designations and words for foreigners or Westerners or Western adult males in Chinese were invented by Chinese males and directed at foreign males. Most of the pejoratives were coined in the 19th century or early 20th century, I believe. In the 19th or early 20th century, Chinese women were mostly shut up at home and rarely played a role in business or political arenas where these words were conceived. The derogative words were an expression of male resentment against males in various power structures. And so it is that the males at the receiving end of the designations are the ones who are especially sensitive to them., and who take a lively interest in this discussion.

  62. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    From a Hungarian friend with long experience in China:


    I am very happy to read and study about the meaning of 老外 in your language blog.

    In 1999, the first time when I was in China, I loved everything and everybody in China. My heart was so "unclouded", I wanted to live in China….

    One day when I ate my lunch in the lunch-room食堂 of the school (语言文化大学), a Chinese girl sat on my right. She did not want to speak English with me, did not ask anything about abroad, just ate together some times every week. One day she told me: you really like Chinese people, it is true, but do not forget, you will never become Chinese! Just look yourself = your body =外面.

    Next time I was waiting for her, but she never come again.

    After years, one day I heard that 老 could mean "always": 她老十点以后给我打电话。

    From that time I started to think, that 老外 could mean always outer/outsider. And if we see the "spiritual meaning" of the relationship of 内and 外, it might be true.

    If somebody lives in a village, but she was not born there (in Hungary; the mother of one of my friends told me this story), the local people after 40 years also told her: you are outsider. So, this could be the "Hungarian 老外" situation.

    Thank you for your blog on 老外, again. Denis's writing/observation was also very interesting for me.


  63. hanmeng said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

    I heard a white man* in Taiwan referred to as a 哈羅 (hā​luó; a Chinese rendering of "hello").

    Also, I've heard (born & bred white) Americans make the argument that referring to a person as “foreign” or a “foreigner” was pejorative or derogatory; the preferred word was "international" (as an adj. or noun). I know of one case where the name of the Foreign Language Dept. was actually changed to something with "International" in it.

    * "White man" makes me think of 白人牙膏, with WHITEMEN in big letters on the package.

  64. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 9:11 pm

    "foreign(er)" → "international" … if that's not the euphemism treadmill at work, I don't know what it is. PC language is a language of avoidance, but in this case I don't know what social reality there is to avoid. I am not sure what to think about this.

  65. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2014 @ 9:53 pm

    When I was teaching in Taiwan in 1970-72, there was a well-known brand of toothpaste called Hēirén yágāo 黑人牙膏 ("Darkie Tooth Paste"). Many years later, when I went back to East Asia, I was surprised to see that its name had been changed to Darlie.

    The name change occurred when Colgate Palmolive acquired the brand from its former British owner.

    The new name sounded silly, yet that is what it became, although I think that the Chinese name remains Hēirén yágāo 黑人牙膏 ("Black Person Tooth Paste"), because it is apparently not considered offensive in East Asia.

    The picture of the man in a top hat on the package that used to be clearly black has now become racially nondescript.

    Yes, there is indeed a Báirén yágāo 白人牙膏 ("Whitemen Toothpaste")

    but I believe that it didn't come into existence until around 1988.

  66. elizabeth yew said,

    April 13, 2014 @ 10:08 am

    As an example of immigrant communities preserving the way a language was spoken generations ago: I grew up in San Francisco Chinatown in the early fifties and sixties and the universal term for white people (“Americans”) then was番人 fāanyàhn, which of course means foreigner or barbarian. So we Chinese living in America referred to white Americans as foreigners! Decades later I mentioned this term to a Cantonese speaker who was shocked. Don’t say that, she said. Say 西人 sāiyàhn (westerner). Both my grandmothers were both born in the 19th century and came to the U.S. either in the late 1890s or during the First World War. So the language they (and we) spoke reflected the speech patterns of that era. Also of course everyone spoke Cantonese. Mandarin was totally unknown.

  67. Robert said,

    April 14, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    According to George Mikes, at least in 1940s England, the word foreigner was construed to refer to a non-British person (in an absolute sense) rather than the relative sense it is understood in now. This is part of what he is making fun of in his book "How to be an Alien".

  68. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    From Mandy Chan:

    With the exception of wàiguó rén 外国人, I actually find the three alternative ways (yángrén 洋人, wàirén 外人 and yìkè 异客) suggested by Prof. Mair to refer to foreigners as “offensive". I personally would not use the last three to call a non-Chinese person. I’ve always find “laowai” to be an endearment term for a white person, but now that I’ve read this post, all the negativies of this term are being fed back to me which will cause me to “self-censor” myself the next time when I address a non-Chinese person in China.

    If “laowai” is considered a “racist” (as someone has pointed out), then non-Chinese persons should not be calling themselves such in front of Chinese, even when they are joking about themselves in a totally harmless manner.

    Also, I find it strange that some people would go to great lengths to explain the etymology of “alien” but then brushed off the etymology of “lao” in “laowai” as irrelevant. As a former green card holder, I never quite understand why I was called a “resident alien” because to me, that’s an offensive way to refer to a human being. But few US citizens/law-makers make much an issue out of it. This could be the reason why I think calling a non-Chinese person 异客 is not alright.
    I have no right nor wish to belittle some of the “laowai’s” experience in China. I have no doubt that their racist encounters in China are absolutely genunine. As a native Hong Kong Chinese person who has spent a considerable amount of time in the US, the Middle East (4 years in Egypt, Syria and Jordan) and various cities in the mainland…all I can say is I hear ya! But at the same time, I also don’t get over-sensitive or to internalize about things like this anymore…because if I start to internalize every encounters and conversations and perceive them as “racist” (some are, but some are not), that’s when perception becomes a reality.

    The only thing I insist of NOT doing is to not to isolate myself with the “expat” community every country I go to.

  69. Andrew Dale said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:30 am

    @ Greg Ross (RE: Ang-mo / 紅毛)

    I find this a very interesting term, and I suspect it originates in Hokkien, and probably in Taiwan. The local name for the famous Fort Santo Domingo/Fort Anthonio, constructed in 1628 by the Spanish and later taken over by the Dutch in the 1640s, is Âng-mn̂g-siâⁿ, or 紅毛城. Presumably this usage didn't predate the fort as I doubt there was much sustained contact with the Dutch or other "red-haired" foreigners until around that period. And from there cross-strait commerce may have carried the term back to Fujian and then eventually to Singapore.

    These things are hard to prove but certainly fun to speculate on.

  70. Andrew Dale said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 5:40 am

    @ PeterL (RE: 毛唐人)

    Confusingly, while researching 紅毛 I found that during the Edo period Japanese also used this term to refer to the Dutch.

    It seems like they differentiated amongst darker- and lighter-haired foreigners as well… An interesting question would be, did the terminology travel from Chinese to Japanese, Japanese to Chinese, or originate independently in both? During the 17th century there was of course a great deal of travel and trade between the southern coast of China, Taiwan and Japan, and the Dutch and some other foreigners could have popped up in many places along that circuit.

  71. Dean Barrett said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    I lived in Hong Kong for 17 years and came to love Cantonese swearing. So much more to the point in sound and meaning than Mandarin swearing.
    Chisin guailo m ho'a! You mo a gaucho a!!

    Crazy foreign devil, no good. Never was able to exact a meaning for "You mo a gaucho a!" I guess something like, isn't that (person) a real asshole!

  72. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

    Laowai takes a look at Chinglish

    This Laowai's Mandarin is quite good!

    We've covered about half of these on Language Log.

  73. Bathrobe said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 12:59 am

    When I came from Japan to China, the switch from 外人 gaijin to 老外 lǎowài was smooth, imperceptible, and painless. I've always called myself 'gaijin' or 'lǎowài' and it never bothered me because that's what I am, a white person in a non-white country. It's silly and useless to protest, and people are quite happy to accept you into their lives as a 'furriner'. (A Japanese friend's friend who was taking us out on a day trip once referred to me a 毛唐, not with any malevolent intent but as an expression of wonderment that he had a 'furriner' in his car. My European companion was offended but it didn't worry me in the slightest.) What I would find extremely unpleasant is if people started actively excluding me or attacking me as an outsider.

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