Views: 34511|Replies: 42

Laowai Is A Four Letter Word   [Copy link] 中文

Rank: 8Rank: 8

Post time 2013-12-30 13:13:24 |Display all floors
It may be that throughout the process of determining one’s exit strategy from China, expat self-examination has become a trend of late. If the days of the “free-wheeling expat on a free lunch” are indeed drawing to a close in China, then the justification for remaining in China needs to be more defined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully speaking, of course. (Sinopathic)


Good Gweilo: My job is the ideological quality control

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 8Rank: 8

Post time 2013-12-30 13:52:35 |Display all floors
I posted a similar sentiment recently and then I ran across the OP. I have adapted it here because it is more relevant to this thread:

It is not unusual to start thinking of your adopted city/country as your home and your homeland some distant place from yesteryear. Removed and detached from your present reality. Especially when you've lived there for as long as I have. You start cheering for the home team, feel glad to be back home after a business trip or holiday, become attached to your neighborhood and the cultural life of the city, local problems and successes feel like your own and as time passes the city/country's past becomes your own too. As does its future.

But unlike the experiences of the Chinese abroad who embrace their new country and are (generally) embraced in return as citizens not foreigners, its not the same here for us here. No matter how long we are here and its been over 10 years for me, we will always be regarded and treated as foreigners. And as such, expected to behave like guests and even upright representatives of our respective nations. And that of course that also includes a policy of self-censorship that we are all supposed to accept. It's clear what topics you can not discuss especially if you are employed in education as many are here. It is often spelt out in a clause included in contracts.

I live in Guangzhou and we have a lot of Chinese who were not born here. But came here to find a better life or to just get away from wherever they came from. And in many cases I have been here longer than they have. Sometimes when I am referred to as a laowai, I just want to grab them, shake them and scream, "This is my home too!" But I don't because they just wouldn't get it and of course I must "behave as a grateful guest" to quote the prevailing attitude we often here on this forum. As far as I am concerned it doesn't matter where you are, acting and behaving in a responsible and courteous fashion is a must.

"This is China! If you don't like it, why don't you just leave!" Another oft used quote we hear when we dare to criticize any aspect of our adopted country. In the West particularly in the US, we have a culture of navel gazing which means we often question our government and people. In some quarters it is considered active citizenship. Take a look at this forum, where do most of the articles the critics of the West use to support their arguments? From Western media sources of course. We come from a culture that questions the powers that be, can we be expected to turn that off when we live in China? I am free to leave but it's my home and I like it here, why would I want to do that.

No country or culture is perfect or a paradise. You have to take the good and the bad. And it's a personal choice to decide where you feel most comfortable. And for me and my life right now it is China.

Please don't call me laowai, you can call me Andrew. Jiayou! Zhongguo!

Good Gweilo: My job is the ideological quality control

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 8Rank: 8

Post time 2013-12-30 14:05:36 |Display all floors
I count 5 letters

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 8Rank: 8

Post time 2013-12-30 14:07:37 |Display all floors
Pond Post time: 2013-12-30 14:05
I count 5 letters

You can't be from China. You can't count. You must be from the West.
Good Gweilo: My job is the ideological quality control

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 8Rank: 8

Post time 2013-12-30 14:15:27 |Display all floors
wowzers Post time: 2013-12-30 14:07
You can't be from China. You can't count. You must be from the West.

You must be from the west also, you cannot count either.

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 6Rank: 6

June's Best Writer 2012 2016 Most Popular Member

Post time 2013-12-30 14:18:35 |Display all floors
If laowai is such a nice word, why then no Chinese head of state ever used it in a speech but instead used the more neutral "waiguoren" ?

When the word "nigger" was created, it did not encompass racist undertones because, after all, black people are not actually black. Because it was used with condescendence and disrespect, it became a racist word. The same is true with "laowai".

In any case, please just treaty me like you would any other Chinese. Call me "xiansheng", "shifu", "shuaige", or even "wei".

And keep in mind, before saying that I am being unreasonable, that Chinese people in the US are now campaigning for people to stop calling them "orientals".
Spreading magic around the world since 2007.

Use magic tools Report

Rank: 6Rank: 6

Post time 2013-12-30 18:05:44 |Display all floors
seneca Post time: 2013-12-30 15:18
Time will whittle the patina on the word "laowai" away as real existing young laowais buy property,  ...

Although I live in Guangzhou I am accustomed to being called laowai (rather than the Cantonese Gweilo) and accept it. I have never being aware of it being used as a derogatory term. It is generally accepted that Gweilo is used if a Chinese wishes to insult. Whatever happened to Kgay?

Use magic tools Report

You can't reply post until you log in Log in | register

BACK TO THE TOP
Contact us:Tel: (86)010-84883548, Email: blog@chinadaily.com.cn
Blog announcement:| We reserve the right, and you authorize us, to use content, including words, photos and videos, which you provide to our blog
platform, for non-profit purposes on China Daily media, comprising newspaper, website, iPad and other social media accounts.