Expats and Chinese discuss how they perceive terms used for foreigners in the country and how they affect their experiences

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 16:08:39

The owner of a public WeChat account called "Laowai in Beijing," Doron Reshen sees being called "laowai" as a compliment for one's experience and understanding of the culture. Photo: Yin Lu/GT

Do you like to be called a "laowai"?

Recently, a discussion on zhihu.com, China's Quora-like knowledge sharing site, has caught much attention on Chinese social media and within the expat community. The question, "Why do some foreigners think being called 'laowai' is not nice," got many contradictory responses from Chinese and expat users.

Laowai is the informal Chinese term for the English word "foreigner," and some expats say the "lao" (old) part of the term is not nice. Some argue that as newcomers strive to learn the language and culture, and integrate into the society, it hurts their feelings to know that they are still seen as people who are "foreign," instead of being a part of the group. Others don't care and share their experience and views on how they are received by the Chinese in Beijing. Metropolitan invited some expats and Chinese to talk about the issues surrounding the term.

The meaning of laowai

American Doron Reshen speaks of an experience that is not uncommon among foreigners. It sometimes happens when he walks down the street; little children would say, "hey, laowai."

Reshen said the majority of Chinese who called him a laowai, don't mean anything negative. "They say it as something cute or sweet."

Reshen said sometimes elderly Chinese might walk up to him and rub his tummy and say, "baby" or "Buddha." "They are not trying to offend me. They just want to be funny," he said.

Costa Rican American Josue Astorga works in agricultural science and has been in China for almost a decade.

Astorga thinks that it depends on the different contexts. Using it between friends is fine, but being called a laowai by strangers is not nice.

"It feels offensive when it's from total strangers," he said. "For example, hearing people say 'Look at that laowai' makes one feel uncomfortable."

According to Reshen, most of the expats he knows who don't like "laowai" mainly have a problem with the "old" part. "They prefer 'waiguoren,'" he said, which is a more direct translation of "foreigner."

But he sees being called a laowai as a compliment. "It's a proud word if you see it as the old foreigner with education, experience, and sophistication," Reshen said.

As the character "lao" typically means "old," it doesn't necessarily have negative connotations or always relate to being aged. It also has positive associations, indicating experience or respect, such as in the word "laoshi (teacher)." 

Reshen has a public WeChat account called "laowai in Beijing," which shares stories and practical information for expats in the country.

"My profile says 'laowai in Beijing' because I am," he said. "I have been living in China for over 20 years, and people know me as the older guy who has been here for a long time. I see it as a way for people to look at me as somebody who is experienced, understands the culture here, knows his way in China and can help others."

Some Chinese and expats think there's nothing disrespectful about using the word "laowai" to describe foreigners, while others say it makes them feel like an outsider. Photo: IC

Not an outsider

Astorga speaks Chinese and confessed that "on the inside, I am more like a Chinese person now."

Most of his friends are Chinese, as he finds that over the years "expats come and go all the time." Therefore, he doesn't like the feeling of being called a laowai. "The worst thing is that you've been here all your life, but you are still a laowai. Sometimes it annoys me," he said. 

Astorga thinks that the terms people use stem from their different educational and cultural backgrounds. For example, in some European countries, if a Chinese has been living there for years, they are often accepted as a part of the local community instead of an outsider.

According to people interviewed, on top of linguistic factors, people's reaction to being addressed with the word laowai boils down to culture and social differences.

"China is not a melting pot yet," Reshen said. "If you are not born here, you are a foreigner."

There's a shared sentiment among expats that being called a laowai makes them feel they are forever "the outsider, the foreigner," according to Reshen.

"When I hear some people call me a foreigner or outsider, I feel like I am being pushed aside by a family member."

He described the feeling as similar to being married to a man whose mother never accepts you as a part of the family and calls you "that woman."

A veteran expat in China, Reshen feels close to the Chinese people and the culture. He said he is not Chinese, but sometimes he thinks and feels like one.

Recently, a video of a commencement speech made by a Chinese student at the University of Maryland triggered great discussion in China. She talked about how she was intoxicated by the fresh air of the US upon first landing there, and how she learned the meaning of freedom and democracy on the campus. Angry Chinese Net users said the student insulted her home country, while some defended her saying that some of the problems she addressed, such as pollution, do exist.

Reshen also pays much attention to the issue. He feels offended by the student's comments. "When foreigners talk bad about China, or when Chinese do it like in the video, it just kills me."

He feels pride when looking at the Chinese national flag. "It's a symbol of a nation that has taken me in, accepted me, fed me, paid me, clothed me, and brought me up almost like a 'stepchild.' I will not be its child [by blood] though, as much as I will try to be."

A Chinese perspective

Zhu Wenwu, a 31-year-old geologist, met most of his foreign friends through their shared love for basketball. He feels the word "laowai" is impolite.

"I don't use the word when we are hanging out; it's not nice to use the term to refer to foreigners behind their backs either," he said. "If you are really close friends, it should not be a problem."

While "waibin (foreign guests)" seems to be too official, "waiguoren (foreigner)" seems to be a better choice, he said.

Gao Guotong, 67, was the Beijing Language and Culture University's overseas student dormitory supervisor from 1979 until his retirement. He said there're more interesting ways of addressing each other in intercultural communication when people become closer.

"Laowai call each other laowai too, or they introduce themselves as laowai," he said. "Foreign students also called us 'laoban (boss)' or 'laoshi.' They also called us 'dad' or 'mom.' These are terms that are intimate and respectful, and people feel comfortable using them," he said.

From Gao's perspective, Chinese people have a growing acceptance toward foreigners coming to work and live in China, and the majority of the people who use the term laowai mean no harm. But he also reminds people that to avoid misunderstanding, Chinese should avoid calling foreigners laowai, unless they are close friends.

Is there a better word?

Suleman from Pakistan, 23, who studies Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University, prefers being called a friend rather than a laowai

Usually, people would ask which country a foreigner is from, and call him or her by a combination of nationality and the word "pengyou (friend)," he said. "Laowai can appear to be impolite. Something like 'hey, friend' would be nicer."

While some expats prefer using more specific terms, such as Americans, Britons and Japanese, some other words have been suggested to replace "laowai," such as "waiguo zhuanjia (foreign experts)," "guoji youren (international friends)," and "waibin." But laowai still seems to be a more popular choice.

Linguists and psychologists researched the Chinese students' internal motivations for calling foreigners laowai and their reaction when they are called one. The findings were published in the journal Applied Linguistics in 2008. According to the data gathered from interviews with some Chinese college students, laowai as a form of address is intimate, casual and pleasant compared to other forms.

Out of 11 words used to address foreigners, "laowai" ranked sixth in expressing respect and forth in expressing intimacy, after "hello" or "hi," "sir" or "miss," and "foreign friend."

However, the studies also showed an overall negative reaction among the foreign students interviewed, including feelings of being "bullied and not respected," "funny and might be misleading,"  and "distance."

It also unearthed misunderstandings, as many felt that they were being treated as elders. Therefore, the researchers suggest that while using "lao" as a form of address is enthusiastic and practical within the confines of the Chinese culture and mindset, it could cause misunderstandings and confrontations in intercultural communications.

Reshen doesn't agree with changing the word.

"You don't go to another country and expect the country to change for you," he said. "I think people should use this word because the majority does not use it in a negative way."
Newspaper headline: ‘Laowai’ in China


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