Is it a rude or endearing term? Chinese, foreigners join the online laowai debate

WE’RE called or addressed as laowai (foreigner) every single day, almost to the point that it’s largely tuned out. But for some — even though Chinese people say it’s just a simple term to describe non-Chinese folk — the term comes across as rude and demeaning. So, which is it?

In one of my very first columns I mentioned the term and the fact that it sometimes leaves me feeling a bit unwelcome, or like an outsider, in China. That debate has come up again this week after The Beijinger, an English media outlet aimed at expats in Beijing, launched a promotion giving away laowai T-shirts.

The T-shirts were created to celebrate the outlet’s Mandarin Month, which started on June 1, using a term simple enough for those with limited Chinese language skills. But, as is usually the case with social media, the outlet’s Facebook post quickly turned into a heated battle.

Beijing’s expat community came out in force to debate the term, and whether it’s nasty or nice. Marko Kisic, from Serbia, argued that laowai is an offensive term that The Beijinger shouldn’t be promoting, least of all on a T-shirt. “Yes it means foreigner, but in a rude manner,” he said.

Others agreed, saying that the term makes them feel like outsiders while living in China.

Natasha Wright, originally from the United Kingdom, agreed that putting the term on a T-shirt is a bit off. “If I pointed and stared at an Asian person back home while marveling at their ‘foreignness’,” she argued, “that would be considered disrespectful.”

Pete Utman framed it in a more academic manner: “Why would you want to embrace a pejorative exonym of othering?”

But Mike Wester, founder and CEO of True Run Media, which produces The Beijinger, didn’t agree. He said the term is only considered offensive outside the context of China. “For the most part, I believe these people are interpreting the term through the lens of their home country experience,” he told me.

The laowai T-shirt was his idea, and he has no plans to scrap it, even if some people are offended.

Wester’s been living in China for 17 years, and admits there have been a few occasions where he’s been called laowai in a negative or belittling way. “But most of the time it’s used in a near emotionless, descriptive fashion, as a synonym for ‘foreigner’.”

He can understand where the naysayers are coming from, though, but he thinks that while they’re living in China they just need to get over it.

“No one likes to have their identity reduced to a superficial commonality, so there are contexts where being identified as laowai can feel belittling, just like being called ‘the bald guy,’ ‘the tall guy,’ ‘the guy with the beard,’ or ‘the guy with the glasses.’ But at some point, if you are a tall, bearded guy with glasses and thinning hair, ya kinda got to grow a thicker skin!”

Many Chinese also came to the term’s defence, trying their best to quell this mini diplomatic incident.

Eddie Zhou, who describes himself as “100 percent Chinese,” said: “Yes, Chinese people may distinguish Chinese and foreigner, but they mean no disrespect. They just think you are special because there (aren’t) many (foreigners) around.”

Song Xiaokui, from Beijing, added: “I am a Beijinger, and I always use it in a friendly manner.” She has some simple advice: “Just don’t think too much.”

I’m still torn on the subject, though. On one hand, I love how un-PC (politically correct) China is, having grown extremely tired of the identity politics that have engulfed much of the West recently. I love it how Chinese people can describe visitors as “foreigners” and still believe that “othering” people who are different is completely fine. I also absolutely believe that laowai is said without negative intent and without aiming to make us feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

But at the same time, it’s not easy to shake cultural ideas and beliefs that I’ve grown up surrounded by for most of my life. I grew up in a place where describing others based solely on their looks or ethnicity is wrong on so many levels.

Part of me also believes that intent is irrelevant — you may say something to someone without malicious intent, but if they feel bad or uncomfortable then you should appreciate that and take that on board. But maybe that’s too PC of me!

So, for me, I still don’t know how I feel about the term laowai. It’s rude and endearing, depending on who you ask. And we should try to respect that.