I’ve been known by many nicknames throughout my life. I received my first one when I was just learning to talk. According to legend, my mother yelled my first and middle name when she was angry at me, and in an attempt to parrot her language, I said what my aunts believed to be “Burn da beans.”
When I made the decision to go to China, the last thing I considered was how people would refer to me there. But within the first few hours of my arrival, I became acquainted with the single term that I would hear more than any other. It was my new nickname—and apparently everyone seemed to know it. I heard it uttered in busy streets and dark alleyways, in sprawling cities and back-wood villages. It was expressed by people with a range of facial emotions: surprise, anger, curiosity, disgust, fear, and confusion. At first, I thought I was the only person with this nickname, but within a few days, I learned that others shared this nickname, too. The nickname I am speaking of is laowai.
If you’ve been reading previous posts or listening to the podcast, there is a chance you still don’t know what the term means. Laowai is one of many terms used to label foreigners in China. The word is formed by combining two characters–lao, which means old, and wai which means outside. Thus, laowai literally translates to “old outsider.” But lao is also used to show deference and respect, like in the word laoshi (teacher) and Lao Wang (esteemed Mr. Wang). Thus, it could be argued, as I’ve heard some Chinese say, that it is a term of endearment or respect to refer to outsiders. When I first heard the word, I didn’t think too much about it. I simply understood it to mean foreigner because that’s what my Chinese friends explained that it meant, and that’s what the dictionary said.
I vividly remember my first laowai sighting. It was my third or fourth month in the city, and although I had seen several laowai before, each encounter was planned or in places I expected to see other foreigners. But in early spring of 2007, I had my first solo laowai sighting. It was in a Walmart one afternoon, somewhere between the New Zealand butter and boxed milk, that I saw her—a thirty-something, blond-haired woman. My mouth unhinged and my eyes bulged out of my sockets as we passed each other like two deer caught in headlights. I’m almost certain none of us uttered a word. But in that moment, I thought I heard that all-too-familiar word invading my ears staccato—laowai…laowai…laowai.
In the years that followed, I began to embrace the term laowai and normalize it. I used it to refer to myself and other non-Chinese people in China. But it was outside of China, on my move back to the US many years later, that I revisited the term and its meaning. It all started on a 13 hour flight when the Chinese man sitting next to me took great interest in the fact that I was reading a book in Chinese After staring at my lap for what seemed an eternity, he finally asked, in English mind you:
“Can you read Chinese?”
I naturally went into my programmed response, the response I used the dozens of other times I was asked if I could read Chinese while actually reading a book in Chinese: “Bu hui” (No, I can’t).
His confused face soon evolved into a grin, as if he registered the joke. Thus began an hours-long relationship in which our language naturally shifted back and forth between English and Chinese, like two old friends chatting without a care in the world. I learned that the gentleman was a professor at a university in DC and that he had a green card. Somewhere towards the end of our conversation, as we were talking about my experiences living in China and his experiences living in the US, I remember saying something along the lines of, “Zai Meiguo, nimen laowai…” (In the US, you laowai). What I said, I don’t remember exactly. The details are not important—it’s his face that I will never forget. This was a phrase I heard uttered by Chinese people on countless occasions when talking about the foreign experience in China. But when I said it to him, his surprised face soon turned to one of deep contemplation. After a few moments of silence, he looked at me with reluctant understanding. “Wow,” he said. “I never considered that I am a laowai in America. It sounds so strange.” Later in the conversation, after some probing on my part, he reluctantly admitted that he was in fact a laowai in America.
For the first time in this man’s life, he heard a non-Chinese refer to him as a l aowai. Part of me feels that this is due to the dearth of foreigners who speak Chinese well enough to communicate with other Chinese about their own foreignness outside of China. Another part of me thinks his shock is due to the fact that, and this is something I learned much later, laowai actually doesn’t just mean foreigner—it means non-East-Asian foreigner. In other words, anyone who couldn’t pass for Chinese before opening their mouth. But still the greater part of me feels that this is because laowai—no matter what others say about its offensiveness—is really just a nickname that carries more baggage than the average Chinese person cares to admit.