Posted by: manchucka | April 5, 2008

Laowai 老外 lineup

Laowai? Lurid Laowai lover? Look:


Laowai Chinese 老外中文

Lost Laowai

And don’t miss a brilliant clarification of the term “laowai” 老外 (foreigner (black or white)) below:

Dear Lonely Planet,

Your China guidebook is a gem — practical, insightful and simply fun to read.

You’re way off the mark, however, about “laowai”, which you say is supposed to be “the most polite word the Chinese have for foreigners” (p. 119, 7th edition). Under no circumstances is that true — not even in theory. Apparently your writers have bought into the myth that since lao means “old”, it necessarily implies “respect”. In truth, when lao is the prefix in a compound noun, its meaning and function vary greatly with the succeeding part of the word. In many cases, including “laowai” here, “old” is not even meant and “respect” never connoted.

Take for example words such as laoshu (老鼠, rat) and laobaixing (老百姓, people of hundred surnames, i.e. commoners). In these cases, lao doesn’t mean anything — old or otherwise. Its only function is to clarify the words by emphasizing their significant latter parts, which are in fact already meaningful by themselves. (Shu and baixing standing alone still mean rat and commoners, but they can be easily confused with other words as homophones abound in Chinese.) Needless to say, no “respect” is implied in either word. You’re not supposed to read “Respectable Rat” or “Their Excellencies the Commoners”.

Lao gets even trickier when put in front of a surname. While indeed meaning “old” here, it manifests mainly familiarity and casualness and leaves “respect” (or the lack thereof) entirely to the context. This explains the curious fact that Lao and Xiao (, Little) actually work the same way when they are titles. Simply put, such titling is the Chinese equivalence of the Western first-name basis (back in the good old days when it wasn’t universal.) Therefore, you would be ill-advised to address the president of the PRC “Lao Jiang” for what you get across would be exactly the opposite of respect!

And yet “Lao Jiang” can be heard — not in public speeches or on TV of course, but in jokes, everyday mentions and, Heaven forbid, critical comments. Sometimes the mere utterance accompanied by a sigh and slow shaking of the head is expressive enough. Visitors to China should realize that it was in this same spirit that the term laowai (old foreign) started off — as a way of poking fun, even sneering, at foreigners. It is too late, however, for the PC police to campaign against it. The Chinese populace, for better or worse, has wholeheartedly adopted laowai as a generic word for “foreigner” and its condescending overtone has been largely mitigated. You now even hear it quite often on TV.

Still, while its negativity may be (almost) gone, laowai sounds too casual for comfort in many occasions. No socially mature Chinese would use the word to describe a foreigner they’re talking to unless that foreigner is a very familiar friend. Usage is more limited still for other, less-common, lao variants such as laomei (old American, i.e. Yank) or laohei (old black, which sounds awfully derisive and has no place in a civil speech — obviously no respect here whatsoever). All foreigners should keep this in mind so they can react appropriately when called these unsympathetic nicknames. The understanding may make you less indulgent, but it is better in the long run not to let people get away with being rude.

There are many better terms for “foreigner” than laowai. Waiguoren (foreigner) is notches above just by being completely neutral. Waiguo pengyou (foreign friend) is the TV host’s favorite and waiji (foreign national) is employed in bureaucratic affairs. As for the truly respectful, keep your ear tuned for waibin (foreign guest or dignitary).

Tom Vamvanij

Link from สาระสนเท่ห์



  1. I’ve always tried to joke around by responding with “laonei” 老內 but have been urged on more than one occasion to say “laoZhong” 老中.
    Fine, but I still think “laonei” is funny.

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