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Laowai, an alien, is the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of 老外 (pinyin: lǎowài, lit. "old or always outsider"), an informal or slang term for "foreigner," possibly impolite or loose in some circumstances. Formal and polite Chinese terms include wàiguórén (t 外國人, s 外国人, lit. "outlander"), wàibīn (t 外賓, s 外宾, lit. "outsider guest"), and wàiguó pengyou (t 外國朋友, s 外国朋友, lit. "outland friend").[1] "Laowai" usually does not refer to East Asians, it is generally used to refer to "Westerners" or "whitey," Latin Americans, Arabs, others of Middle Eastern descent, and Africans.[2][3]


The character is the usual Chinese word for "old". It generally has positive associations, indicating years of experience and trust—as lǎopéngyou (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 (t 老師, s 老师, lǎoshī). However, in certain contexts, it can also carry the connotation of boring old sticks-in-the-mud—as in lǎo gǔdǒng (老古董)—or of years of experience and contempt—as in lǎo dōngxi (t 老東西, s 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 (t , s 湿, "Old Wet") because of his perpetually shiny hair.[citation needed] It can also be used as an empty prefix, particularly with animals such as tigers (老虎, lǎohǔ), mice (老鼠, lǎoshǔ), and eagles (t 老鹰, s 老鹰, lǎoyīng).

The term has come to used for specific countries as well, with lǎo- functioning as a colloquial equivalent for -guórén: lǎoměi (, "American"), lǎoying (, "Briton"), lǎoxin (, both "New Zealander" and "Singaporean"), even lǎozhōng () to refer to Chinese (t 中國人, s 中国人, Zhōngguórén) themselves.

Some[who?] argue that the original and correct form of the term uses the character (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,[4] 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, &c.). Among Chinese, the term is informal and may be used in a neutral, genial, or even good-humored way;[5] however, it is always othering and may be considered racist.[6] It is variously ironically embraced, begrudgingly accepted, openly resented, or not minded at all among the expatriate community.[7] The official Chinese press has expressed concern about inappropriate use of laowai and avoids it in all formal reporting.[8] Mark Roswell, who under the stage name Dashan is the most famous Western national 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'" (t 漢語外國人老外, s 汉语外国人老外).[9] 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,[5] when local governments launched campaigns aimed at curbing use of the term in possibly offensive situations.[citation needed]

The more offensive Mandarin equivalent to the Cantonese "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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Culture: Seven Ways to Say 'Foreigner'". 17 Mar 2004. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
  2. ^ Mair, Victor. "Laowai: the old furriner" at Language Log. 9 Apr 2014. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
  3. ^
  4. ^ 外佬 would be a more standard construction.
  5. ^ a b People's Daily Online. "Is 'Laowai' a negative term?". 21 Dec 2007. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
  6. ^ Beyond Beyond Well Being. "The "Laowai", Racism and Personal Space in China". 16 Jan 1998. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
  7. ^ Shanghai Star. "Laowai Is What You Make It". 18 May 2001, Hosted by, 2001. Accessed 15 Jun 2014.
  8. ^ Although note its use in such informal human-interest stories as this photo caption from the Chinese edition of Anhui News.
  9. ^ New Year's Gala (at 186:17). CCTV, 2011.