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Author Topic: "Laowai"  (Read 7119 times)

Calach Pfeffer

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"Laowai"
« on: April 09, 2014, 09:36:22 AM »
Either I don't get out enough or I've stopped listening, but I don't hear it that much anymore. I saw this today:

Laowai: the old furriner

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.

...



Interdasting.

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kitano

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #1 on: April 09, 2014, 12:08:27 PM »
Rarely heard it in Hangzhou, still get it in the smaller cities

That article is very optimistic imo. The word itself may not have a discriminatory meaning, but it's usually shouted by a child or an idiot, I've never heard it used in a positive context

old34

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #2 on: April 09, 2014, 12:45:16 PM »
I heard it enough in 3rd tier cities to really annoy me. Heard it in Hangzhou enough to annoy me as well (down around West Lake when the tourists are in town on weekends and holidays.

In Beijing, I hear it rarely, for which I am thankful.

One of the commentators in the comments is David Moser who defended it as non-offensive. He's a nice enough guy, but has spent much of his China career in Beijing and, I think, never had to live through the "laowai" cacophony of life in a second or third tier city.

Also, my personal experience, which I have noted a number of times to my Chinese friends, and which contradicts some of the comments in that article ... I have only ONCE heard a child call me "laowai." EVER. It's always "waiguoren". And it's happened so many times I have made a note of it...which has led me to conclude "laowai" is a learned/used term as they get older here.

Also, as a few people noted in the comments, their Chinese friends will slip, and use it, and then self-correct indicating they either realize it can have a slightly pejorative meaning, or they are aware that many laowai don't like being called laowai.
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. - B. O'Driscoll.
TIC is knowing that, in China, your fruit salad WILL come with cherry tomatoes AND all slathered in mayo. - old34.

Day Dreamer

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #3 on: April 09, 2014, 02:21:27 PM »
Wow old34, I hear it from kids (5-10 y-o) almost as much as adults. What's funny was that the shock was so high in Changchun and surroundings that by the time the people realized what I was, I was no longer in earshot of hearing them call me laowai. They were still busy staring
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Stil

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #4 on: April 09, 2014, 02:38:47 PM »
My experience is much like old34's except that I don't care. For me, it just gives me information about the speaker but I'm a minority in my home country, so that may effect how I view these things. I rarely hear it from children. Migrant workers sometimes. It's certainly less common that it was 5-10 years ago.

People often use it when talking to each other. Like receiving a phone call and telling the other person the are with a laowai but not directly to me.

kitano

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2014, 05:19:51 PM »
Where I grew up (I don't know if it's still the case) everyone used to call the Chinese restaurant the 'Chinkies', that's a bit how I view 'Laowai'

Like when you usually hear 'laowai' it's not 'hateful' or anything, people didn't have anything against the Chinese, and there wasn't any anti-Chinese feeling behind it, it definitely wasn't a curse word, but still...

piglet

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #6 on: April 09, 2014, 10:45:46 PM »
Agree with Kitano it's like Chinkies.The trouble with being over sensitive is it gets complicated like not being allowed to use the N word in the US these days (how on earth do they manage in China hearing that same sounding word the Chinese use all the time?)
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Day Dreamer

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #7 on: April 09, 2014, 11:09:24 PM »
It's only pejorative if it's said and taken as such. If it's just an adjective, meh
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Stil

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #8 on: April 10, 2014, 12:02:32 AM »
By the way, a few of the responses talk about it being a term for 'white' people.

It isn't.

Calach Pfeffer

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #9 on: April 10, 2014, 12:10:53 AM »
As I've gone, over the years, from being the center of immediate attention to being relatively ignored on the street, hearing people comment on my presence has fallen off dramatically, which seems like a good thing in some ways. Plausibly, there is now a more nuanced notion of what a nearby non-Chinese can be. Or maybe the "laowai" category still sits in the mind and just isn't blurted out as much any more. I don't know. Is it on it's way to being a  non-issue? Or did I just forget?

It's been a while, but I recalled having deans use it. Once or twice while I was in the room, they'd use "women laowai" when talking to other administrators about their foreign staff. It sounded like hick talk, but who knows?

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opiate

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #10 on: April 10, 2014, 12:23:40 AM »
By the way, a few of the responses talk about it being a term for 'white' people.

It isn't.

True. But if the person isn't white they're likely to be called Heiren 黑人 instead. It's understandable why some would think Laowai means white person.
That said, I don't see any response in this thread that mentions it being a term for a white person.

Calach Pfeffer

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #11 on: April 10, 2014, 12:25:13 AM »
By the way, a few of the responses talk about it being a term for 'white' people.

It isn't.

I wondered about that. One of the commenters said "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." I don't know about laowai only used for white people. But I have, but probably literally only once or twice, heard hei ren used for people I know when the speaker could have said laowai.


Then again, hei ren doesn't preclude laowai, so.... /derp



eta: is "laowai" a puzzling term just because we, even now, aren't that used to being singled out as "that guy, over there, who's different from us"?
« Last Edit: April 10, 2014, 12:33:42 AM by Calach Pfeffer »

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Stil

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #12 on: April 10, 2014, 12:34:25 AM »
By the way, a few of the responses talk about it being a term for 'white' people.

It isn't.

True. But if the person isn't white they're likely to be called Heiren 黑人 instead. It's understandable why some would think Laowai means white person.
That said, I don't see any response in this thread that mentions it being a term for a white person.

Did you read the article?

Stil

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #13 on: April 10, 2014, 12:35:22 AM »
I'm not black, as in of African ancestry, but I'm fairly dark, especially during the summer and I've been called hēirén and fēizhōurén but lǎowài is much more common.

opiate

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Re: "Laowai"
« Reply #14 on: April 10, 2014, 12:40:03 AM »
By the way, a few of the responses talk about it being a term for 'white' people.

It isn't.

True. But if the person isn't white they're likely to be called Heiren 黑人 instead. It's understandable why some would think Laowai means white person.
That said, I don't see any response in this thread that mentions it being a term for a white person.

Did you read the article?

My fault. I assumed you meant responses here.