Laowai is the Mandarin pronunciation of 老外 (pinyin: lǎowài, lit. "Very foreign"), an informal term or slang for "foreigner," usually neutral but possibly impolite or loose in some circumstances. Formal and polite Chinese terms for foreigner include wàiguórén (simplified Chinese: 外国人; traditional Chinese: 外國人; literally: "foreigner"), wàibīn (外宾; 外賓; "foreigner guest"), guójì yǒurén 国际友人; 國際友人; "international friend") and wàiguó pengyou (外國朋友; 外国朋友; "foreigner friend"). "Laowai" usually does not refer to Chinese living abroad or East Asians who are non-Chinese. The term is typically used to refer to Westerners of European descent, sub-Saharan Africans, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners.
The use of the word 老外 began in the 1980s, as an abbreviation of the term 外國人 (foreigner) into 外 (foreign or outside) plus the character 老 (old). The character 老 typically means "old". It can have positive associations, indicating age or experience — such as lǎopéngyou (老朋友; "old friend")—or respect, as in the familiar use of lǎo to denote the senior and respected members of families or to address teachers (老師; 老师, lǎoshī).
However, in certain contexts, it can also carry negative connotations of being old or aged looking (老頭子; 老头子), boring old sticks-in-the-mud—as in lǎo gǔdǒng (Chinese: 老古董)—or of years of experience and contempt—as in lǎo dōngxi (老東西; 老东西; "old bastard", lit. "old thing"). It may be used in the arts or in jokes with the sense of "always" or "very": a famous comedy role was named the Lǎoniān (老蔫, "Old Listless"). And Tom Hardy was affectionately known in mainland China as Lǎoshī (Chinese: 老濕, s 老湿) because of his perpetually shiny hair, also because of his role "Eames" in Inception (2010) sounds like 一摸湿. It can also be used as an empty prefix, particularly with animals such as tigers (老虎; lǎohǔ), mice (老鼠; lǎoshǔ), and eagles (老鹰; 老鷹; lǎoyīng).
The term has come to be used for specific countries as well, with lǎo- functioning as a colloquial equivalent for -guórén: lǎoměi (老美; "American"), lǎomo (老墨; "Mexican"); even lǎozhōng (老中) to refer to Chinese (中國人; 中国人; Zhōngguórén) themselves.
The original and correct form of the term uses the character 佬 (also lǎo), which includes the "person" radical. This lǎo is a slang word for man (similar to "guy") with somewhat derogatory connotations. The fact that it is almost always used as a noun makes this proposed etymology grammatically awkward, however, 外国佬 would be a more standard construction. And there is little evidence to support it apart from its use in the Cantonese racial slur gweilo (鬼佬).
As with Spanish "gringo", laowai is not considered a necessarily offensive term but may become so from context (tone, manner, situation, etc.). Among the Chinese, the term is informal and may be used in a neutral, genial, or even good-humored way; however, it is othering and some may consider it racist. Varyingly, it is ironically embraced, begrudgingly accepted, openly resented, or, most likely, not minded at all among the expatriate community.
The official Chinese press has expressed concern about inappropriate use of laowai and avoids it in all formal reporting. Mark Roswell, known under the stage name Dashan, as one of the most famous Western nationals in China's media industry, has admitted a place for the term but recognizes it as a pejorative, stating that "it is the foreigners [in China] who can't speak any Chinese who are truly 'laowai'" (不會說漢語的外國人那纔叫老外呢; 不会说汉语的外国人那才叫老外呢). Editorials, written by foreigners and Chinese, have appeared in English and Chinese language newspapers about the subject, particularly around the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when local governments launched campaigns aimed at curbing use of the term in possibly offensive situations.
The more offensive Mandarin equivalent to the Cantonese term "gweilo"—guǐzi (鬼子; "ghost, demon")—is generally reserved for the Japanese, except in Cantonese itself, where it is used interchangeably to denote all non-Asian foreigners.
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- "Culture: Seven Ways to Say 'Foreigner'". 17 Mar 2004. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
- Mair, Victor. "Laowai: the old furriner" at Language Log. 9 Apr 2014. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
- "老外喜过中国年-中国年-江西新闻网". jxnews.com.cn.
- "汤老湿(昵称)" "汤姆·哈迪 (豆瓣)"
- Eames，被翻译成“一摸湿” - "已经好久没有一个演员像汤老湿一样，让我们觉得危险了"
- People's Daily Online. "Is 'Laowai' a negative term?". 21 Dec 2007. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
- Beyond Beyond Well Being. "The "Laowai", Racism and Personal Space in China". 16 Jan 1998. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
- Shanghai Star. "Laowai Is What You Make It". 18 May 2001, Hosted by China.org, 2001. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
- Although note its use in such informal human-interest stories as this photo caption from the Chinese edition of Anhui News.
- New Year's Gala (at 186:17). CCTV, 2011.