When not authoring firebrand editorials, China’s nationalistic tabloid, the Global Times, likes to take the temperature of foreigners living in China regarding the important issues of the day, such as: “Do you feel offended when a local calls you a laowai (老外)?”
The question is one that has divided the expat community for eons, some find the term friendly, others offensive and others just don’t care.
“It’s a proud word if you see it as the old foreigner with education, experience, and sophistication,” Doron Reshen, an American long-time resident of Beijing who runs an expat-focused WeChat channel, told the Global Times, adding that most Chinese who have called him a laowai don’t mean it as a slur. “They say it as something cute or sweet,” Reshen explains.
However, Reshen admits that many of his expat friends don’t like the term, particularly the lao (old) part, while others sigh that it only serves to remind them that no matter how long they live in China, they will never be Chinese.
Costa Rican-American Josue Astorga who has lived in China for nearly a decade agrees with this sentiment. “The worst thing is that you’ve been here all your life, but you are still a laowai. Sometimes it annoys me,” he explains, adding that it’s all about context; while it can be okay to use the term among friends, being called a laowai by total strangers “feels offensive.”
For their story, the Global Times also got the opinion of some locals, one 31-year-old geologist said that he thinks “laowai” is impolite and instead uses “waiguoren” (a more direct translation of foreigner), but a former dormitory supervisor for international students at the Beijing Language and Culture University said that foreigners often use the term “laowai” familiarly among themselves (along with words like laoban and laoshi), so why shouldn’t Chinese?
What say you?
Follow Shanghaiist on WeChat