The Meaning of Laowai


I felt it prudent to take some time to talk about some phrases and terms to refer to foreigners in China but to specifically talk about laowai or 老外 。Since it’s in the name!

This is probably the most common term to refer to a foreigner in China, and it literally translates to “old outsider”. Now of course Chinese people are not saying all foreigners are old, but I’d gather it’s more of a respectful thing similar to teacher 老师,or husband 老公。 It’s at least not disrespectful and could be considered respect-neutral like the lao in 老鼠, (laoshu) which means mouse.

There are many western people in China who do not like the term though, especially if they’re living there long term as they feel like they can never be “Chinese” enough despite speaking the language and living a local’s life. I found this interesting though as it’s similar to Chinese experience in the USA. We call them “Chinese-Americans” even if they’re born here or lived here along time and some groups protest that as they feel they’re not “fully American”. But that’s a different conversation. I did find the similarity interesting though.

I found that this is a term more specifically used for white foreigners who fit an image of what is “foreign” in the minds of Chinese people. While they most certainly don’t view an African as “non-foreign” they have the set image of the standard white European or American as their ideal of a laowai. I blame this on European imperialist past. While black people specifically might still be called 老外 lao wai, they might hear 黑人 or 老黑 instead which means literally “black person” and “old black” respectively but it shouldn’t be read in our American context where that would be rude, but rather just factual as many Chinese people don’t see any foreigners regularly, much less a black person!

when one is a US citizen of Chinese decent. They will not call that person a laowai despite the fact they are American. That person is Chinese! They seem to take the ethnic makeup of the person more seriously than the actual legal nationality in that regard.

Similarly other Asian groups are referred to by what they are… Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Mongolian, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them called laowai, despite them being just as “foreign” as I am. As another blogger mentioned (I can’t find it now to link for you) Chinese people will say a sentence like this, “There will be many laowai, Japanese, and Korean people at the event” if Japanese and Koreans where also laowais, they wouldn’t be listed separately. I will definitely be listening though when I get to China to find out if this holds up!

In addition to laowai, a foreigner in China can also expect to hear 外国人 (waiguoren) which just means ‘foreigner’ in the most basic, factual sense as we would say it in English. A final common term in China will be 美国人 (meiguoren) which is just American, but it will often be said to British, German, and other white laowais much to their chagrin.

A few regional and negative terms:

Some other things that a westerner might hear are 大鼻子 (dabizi) which is more negative and means “Big Nose”.

In the same vein, Taiwanese might say 啊兜仔(a dou ah) meaning “Eagle Nose” but I’m pretty sure it’s more playful than offensive.

And last but not least is probably the one I think that’s the funniest, and it’s Gwai Lo which I learned from Hana and Crystina. This is a Cantonese term that has seemingly lost it’s original negative connotations, but I’m sure it can  still be negative. It means “ghost person”. I’m sure many people probably wouldn’t like this one but I think it’s hilarious. lol

See? Look at that ghost person.

See? Look at that ghost person.

Here’s a pretty good youtube video on the topic of terms used by Chinese people toward foreigners 🙂

Anyway, hit me up below with questions or comments.


Laowai Shye


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