Just your friendly neighbourhood laowai.

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It’s always amusing when you are referred to as a foreigner in your own country – let alone in your own town. If there is one thing any observant westerner will notice when travelling in China is the term ‘laowai’ being used in reference to…well you. ‘Laowai’ means foreigner, or more specifically, ‘foreign friend.’ It can be both positive and negative depending on the context where in one situation it might be used just to simply point out that there is a white skinned, big nosed foreigner right there beside us who has no idea (supposedly) that he’s being called a foreigner. Then there are those who would use it to refer to us in a negative, stereotypical light – usually from the older generations who have been indoctrinated to think that way.

No matter the reason, practically all Chinese assume that we whities cannot understand what they are saying. I suppose that is justified considering most of us cant, but even with a small amount of Chinese language study, you will (or should) come across this term – particularly if travelling in China. And if you didn’t know the term and will be soon travelling around China – enjoy – you will hear it a lot.

The other thing we heard almost as much as ‘laowai’ was being referred to as ‘mei guo ren’ – or Americans. To the Chinese, if you’re white, you’re probably American – but that’s a different story.

 So the other day I was with Courtney, eating in a local restaurant we have discovered recently called Secret Noodle, where along come three middle-aged Chinese men and plonk themselves down on the table opposite us. The first of these immediately peels off his shirt, sitting there in his white singlet because it was quite warm – in what was a very typical Chinese thing to do. In China, you cant walk more than fifty metres without either spotting a man in a singlet, or better yet – a singlet rolled up to reveal a big round belly.

So they sit down, start passing around the menus, and I hear not once, but twice, them referring to us as ‘laowai’s’…except this is not China, this is Box Hill, Victoria, Australia – and I happen to be Australian! This is not the first time I have been called a ‘laowai’ in Box Hill, and to be honest, it cracks me up. If you know anything about Box Hill, it’s that there is a huge Chinese population living there; so much so that when you wander around town, you are clearly in the minority. If you squint, you could actually be in China – and thankfully that carries over to the delicious food choices available there.

 While I suppose he could have been referring to the restaurant itself – as it is quite local and popular with the Chinese and potentially doesn’t see as many foreign – i mean, Australian, customers as some others – it could also be (and i suspect) that to the Chinese, no matter who or where you are, if you are not Chinese, you are automatically a foreigner.

China was not called the Middle Kingdom on a whim – the Chinese really believed they were the centre of the world. Is it true then, that a little of that mentality has carried through to even the current generations? It would seem so.

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10 Responses to “Just your friendly neighbourhood laowai.”

  1. Eric Says:

    Hey Marcus
    May you post some articles about Australia?
    Many of your Chinese friends and me will enjoy them,too!

  2. Marcus Says:

    Heh but this is a blog based upon my interest in China, not Australia 😛 Though from time to time, because my town has such a large Chinese population, I talk about it. But to be honest, I do not overly care for Australian current affairs – well I do, just not enough to blog about it – not unless it has a Chinese spin.

  3. Jay K Says:

    hilarious marcus. just purely hilarious.
    i actually took a cab 2 nights ago and told the guy where to go, he assumed i didnt know and decided to take the long route until i corrected him and said it’s faster and more efficient to take my route. his words were I didn’t know you laowai could speak chinese…of course this was in chinese of course. i laughed it off and asked for my fa piao that way he couldnt keep it

  4. Marcus Says:

    Hey Jay, nice one! That used to be a favourite of mine too – act dumb but drop a few choice Chinese words in. Like in passing, you get the usual hellllllllloooooo’s and laowai’s – droping the odd, ZHONG GUO REN back at them amused me at least…

  5. Chris Biddle Says:

    I was under the impression that “laowai” was translated literally into “intruder,” and this is the reason why it can be perceived negatively. My friend here in China explained that one point it was considered rude to call someone a laowai, but that it became such a common place word that it’s generally considered ok now. Still, I find myself telling people I meet that refer to me as laowai that I prefer the term “wai gou ren” instead. Did you r come across this term in your travels?

  6. Marcus Says:

    No actually – I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term ‘wai gou ren” – though funnily enough I was flicking through a character learning book the other day(as I have recently started to study them) and came across the character which was simply ‘wai’ which meant foreign. This had me thinking – so what is the ‘lao’? (And i know i should look up the tones first :P) but is it ‘lao’ as in ‘lao shi’ – ie ‘old’? So would that mean lao wai is ‘old foreigner’?

    First time I heard the term, I actually thought it meant ‘white devil’ – or i had heard – i think from my first Chinese teacher, that that is how they referred to us.

  7. Tom Says:

    or is it cantonese “gwei lo”, literally “ghost white”

  8. Michael Says:

    Hey Marcus,

    Just came across your blog recently hence this very late comment to a very old post.

    Anyway, I’m an Australian of Chinese descent (who frequents restaurants in Box Hill) and what’s attracted me to your blog is my curiosity about what Aussies (or Anglo-Saxons if I can use that term) say about us out of our earshot. Your blog has been most illuminating.

    About the term ‘laowai’, it literally means ‘old outside’. ‘lao’ is actually an endearing term. For example, ‘laogun’ and ‘laopoh’ are loving names you call your husband (‘old male’) or wife (‘old female’) respectively. More examples are ‘laosan’ (‘old three’, meaning 3rd brother) and ‘laoma’ (‘old mother’, meaning mum).

    On the other hand, I believe ‘wai’ is short for foreign (or ‘outside’) country. But ‘laowai’ almost always refers to whites (for lack of a better word) whether they’re in their own country or not! I speak the Hakka Chinese dialect (it’s a cross between Cantonese and Mandarin) and we just add ‘lao’ in front of country names to refer to people from those countries. For example, ‘laomei’ (Americans) and ‘laoer’ (Australians), both used when we want to be more specific than the more general ‘laowei’.

    So don’t get offended if you’re called ‘laowai’. It’s definitely not a derogatory term and it doesn’t mean that we think you’re a foreigner in your own country 🙂

  9. Marcus Says:

    Hey Michael,

    Cheers for your reply, that was really interesting! I don’t really get offended by being called Laowai….well mostly, but it is funny when it happens, particularly when the people saying it blatantly assume I am completely oblivious to anything they’re saying. I know enough to be able to fragment their sentences, but that’s about it.

    Marcus

  10. yeah Says:

    The word Laowai is not friendly at all, nor do they mean it friendly. Stop beeind delusional. Don’t belief it? Call a Chinese Laowai when you see him in your country.

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