Posted by: thelocaldialect | January 18, 2008

Little Laowai

I posted awhile back about how much attention Dylan gets when we go out into the world. Most, if not all, of this attention is positive, and at the very least, well-intentioned. Today, however, when we went out to the Post Office (I don’t know why this stuff seems to happen at the Post Office more than anywhere else), two ladies started making a fuss over Dylan, calling him a “xiao laowai,” a “little foreigner.” Which I don’t consider a positive thing, not in the slightest.

Some background first, on the term “laowai,” is probably in order. In China, there are lots of things you can call foreigners if you feel so inclined to point them out to the rest of the world as being different. The politer and most neutral of the terms is “waiguoren,” which simply means “foreign-person.” On the ruder spectrum of foreigner related terms are words like “yang guizi” “guilao” and, you guessed it, “laowai.” Now, as far as rude terms go, “laowai” is pretty tame, compared to the other words, which basically mean “foreign devil” (laowai simply means “old outsider”) but its tame-ness shouldn’t really let it off the hook, because it is, at heart, a rude term. Very few polite Chinese people will call a foreigner a “laowai” to their face. Most people would not use the word in an academic article, nor would you hear a reporter on TV refer to foreigners as “laowai.” It’s one of those terms that gets away with not being outright offensive, but which certainly carries with it a certain disrespect. Some Chinese, defensive about their use of the term, will try and tell you it’s actually meant as a compliment, because in Chinese culture “lao” (old), is often placed before the name of an older friend, a term of endearment if you will. However, the “lao” in “laowai” isn’t friendly, and it’s use actually caries a sort of subtle irony, the closeness of the “lao” implying the exact opposite in this word’s case.

In China you will be hard pressed to find a Chinese-speaking foreigner who doesn’t mind being called “laowai.” Well-educated Chinese people themselves, when pressed, will often admit that it isn’t the best choice. Walking down the street and hearing “laowai” yelled in your direction is not a pleasant experience. The same thing happens with the word “hello,” in fact. Both are often used as a sort of passive-aggressive way of calling out the foreigner on his otherness, a way of reminding this “outsider” where he stands. As a grown woman, I’ve learned to live with “laowai,” but I do not appreciate the term being used in reference to my son. Which is what happened today, at the post office, when two, most likely well-meaning women stopped us and started fawning over the “little laowai.”

When I heard them say that, I turned my son away from them and said, clearly, “he’s not a laowai.” Of course, since foreigners can’t speak Chinese, even when they clearly ARE speaking Chinese (one of the great paradoxes of life in China), they didn’t understand me, and actually asked me to repeat myself. So I said it louder “he’s not a laowai!” After that, they just walked away instead of continuing the conversation with the looney foreigner who obviously was confused about her son’s nationality. But here’s what gets me in particular about the whole “xiao laowai” thing: my son’s not a foreigner. I mean, he was born here in China, and he’s got a Chinese father, so you’d think that would at least entitle him to exemption from the dreaded “L” word. How can he be an outsider when he’s never even been outside?

All of this “laowai” business, on top of the well meaning “he’s so beautiful” comments, the staring (on our way home the other day we were actually followed by two teenage girls on a moped who kept wanting to catch another glimpse of him), and the fawning, all of this has started my husband and I thinking about whether we really want to bring Dylan up in this kind of environment. Right now I can still defend him against the “laowai” comments, but in the future I won’t always be there, and I don’t really want my son to have to defend his heritage on the playground, or to be made to feel that he’s anything other than a normal little kid really. I’m sure I’ll revisit this topic many times in the months and years to come, but I’ll just say it would be really nice if I didn’t have to.


  1. Hey Jess!

    Ugg.. sorry to hear about your not so great experience. We get a lot of that here in Japan as well. Except I don’t think there are quite as many words. Pretty much polite “gaikokujin” and somewhat rude “gaijin” Although a lot of people say and many foreigners refer to themselves by the term.

    I hope that you and your husband make the best choice for your family when decided where to raise your son. Its not so bad to be different, and hopefully he can realize that he got the best part of both worlds!!

    Hugs to you!
    By the way i hear you on the whole language paradox thing.. *sigh* Sometimes all I’ve wanted to to just order a soda (correctly and politely.. and send a whole staff or waitresses into a panic)

  2. Well, it seems bad..but eventually you will just have to get used to it Im afraid. It will just get worse the more he grows and the cuter he gets. hahha You can look at it like he is going to suffer from it or you can look at it like its the way it is and as parents you will have discussions with him and teach him what you want him to know about differences..etc.

    Whenever we move back to the Philippines we will have exactly the same issues with our kids. They are obviously mixed and people have the same favoritism (and yet exclusion) and comments there that they do in China. And all the jokes about them not speaking the local language (even tho they do)..etc..etc…

    And Im not looking forward to it, but I am thinking about how I will be discussing it with the kids…and I think that if we have a handle on it as parents we can help our kids to grow up well rounded and appreciating that half of their culture and have a healthy self-esteem (not puffed up heads because theyve always been the darlings of the nation)..

    How to do that? Im not sure. But I wont let it stop us from raising our kids in the Philippines – if thats what we want to do. And I dont think it should stop you guys from living in China – if you really want to live there…

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