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Q: Laowai: pejorative or not?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3ALaowai There's a lot of talk on the subject. Many good points were made on both sides of the discussion, but this is my favourite comment:

 

 "Connotations of words are informed by their use. When the word “nigger” was first used, white people didn’t mean anything by it either. But as time went on, the USE of the word “nigger” shaped the connotation. So it is with laowai. When I walk down the street and in 15 minutes get 5 people yelling laowai at me and then sniggering about it with their friends, how does it make me feel? The people who call me “laowai” never want to make conversation. They are always passers-by, lookers-on, and they almost always have a crowd of friends with them to impress. They could yell “banana” the same way at me and eventually “banana” would become a derogatory or insulting word. Rarely has anyone said “laowai” to my face. They say it after you have walked past them. People who are our friends never call us laowai. Parents have corrected their children in front of us when their children call us laowai. White people used to think “nigger” was an okay word to use – they had to be taught not to use it. So with Chinese. My Chinese friends will insist that it is not a bad word. After I explain to them my personal experiences with the word, they tend to agree with me. When I hear the word “laowai” I hear “nigger” Never have I felt that way about any other Chinese word."

 

My personal take on the matter, is that I'm undecided, but inclined towards seeing 'laowai' as pejorative. My reasoning is, that Chinese display a very different mindset on the streets, so we can't 100% compare it to western interaction. I see a lot of people pointing and saying 'laowai', and it reminds me of how a 6-year old would point at everything (s)he sees, while practising vocabulary: "Twash can! Powicecar! Fire hydwant! Foweigner!" Either way, I place the blame on either:

 

(1) Chinese racism, or

(2) Child-like innocence from culturally insensitve adults.

Feel free to correct me!

6 years 14 weeks ago in  Culture - China

 
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It's not the meaning of the word but the way it is used that makes it pejorative.

I'll bet you no 6 year old knows the word "Twash can" how would they, their parents sure as hell doesn't

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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If I ask my wife or her relatives, it's not offensive at all. Kids says it like they would see a horse and say "Horse !", and I never seen anybody saying it's improper. Actually, I saw adults point at me and repeat "laowai" so that their kid says it too. Why the adults do this
* they did not grow up ?
* they don't get it's annoying to be singled out ?
* they don't think at all about this, living in their own little bubble ?
* they think laowai is like a horse, something in the landscape, not a fellow human ?
* they do it by imitation of what they saw as a kid or around them ?
* they use it to feel superior ie. actual racism ?

I also don't like the term, it's dehumanizing ie. I don't want people to say "look at this" like they would do it for a horse or a dog. I'm a fellow human, treat me like one. My own experience in China, is that the following concepts are very new and not really mastered
* all humans are equal in the end
* if you wouldn't like X for you or your relatives, then it's morally questionable to do X to someone, even if it's somebody you don't know
* it's not because others do X that it's ok to do X too
This translates to the insensitivity often perceived to anybody who would come in China for an extended stay. People not really having the habit to question thing, it's hard to change. I hate this, but I feel that only shame and loss of face is an engine to make things better here.

It's not the first time this have been asked, tangential questions bellow
http://answers.echinacities.com/node/191533
http://answers.echinacities.com/node/183609

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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Connotation is the thing. Meanings change over time, and can be very context dependent. For example, you could take a course in university called "Queer theory". In this case, "queer" is not homophobic. You could also see two men kissing, and shout, "You queers!" in disgust. That would be homophobic. 

 

Queer has a homophobic meaning when it's used in a homophobic context. 

 

A white person quoting a Dr. Dre song isn't necessarily racist when saying "nigger", and black people calling each other "nigger" probably aren't being racist, but that doesn't mean that word is devoid of racism. 

 

"Laowai" might be used without racism (one Westerner calling another Westerner "Laowai", for example), but the word still has racist meaning to it. 

 

It is used towards people of a particular race. Despite what Han Chinese might say, it's not for "foreigners", as in people with citizenship in another country (and "foreigner" itself is a radicalized word for the same reason), as you won't see Han Chinese pointing at yellow people and shouting "Kan kan, laowai!" the same way they shout at white people. 

 

As for the defense that "Overseas Chinese use it for each other" (I've heard that before too), it's rather bullshit... unless they accept white in China calling each other "chink". And just like "chink" is ostensibly about nationality (Chinese), it's really not. You wouldn't hear the word used for, say, Uhygurs, or Russians (as in the Chinese minority group), just like Marutei Tsurunen probably wouldn't be called "Jap", despite being Japanese, due to his skin color. 

 

The "It's not offensive because you don't understand Chinese, and 'Lao' is actually a term of respect, etc." is also nonsense (and two students of mine did admit that it's not something people seriously believe, but more something they joke about to themselves, or tell Westerners so they don't get mad). It's more a saving face thing. It's obviously a made up excuse, but that way, they don't have to admit that you were offended. They know racism is bad, so if they admit to something racist, even if unintentional, it would be a loss of face.

 

I wouldn't say that all Chinese who use the word are racist, or meaning racism. Many probably don't understand the offense. I recall a Polish guy in Warsaw asking me about the "niggers" in America. He was confused, since he heard it all the time in his favorite rap songs, but could tell from my expression that something was wrong. He honestly didn't think it was racist, since he just never learned. There aren't many blacks in Poland, so no one took him aside to give the "Dude, not cool" speech, just like there are very few non-yellow Chinese (and those are the minorities who tend to stay in their little minority villages), so not many Han Chinese have the experience growing up of being told "Dude, not cool" when they say something that would insult another race.

 

The tl;dr version: Yes it's a racist term. No, it's not always intentionally racist. Also, context and how it's used gives it meaning.

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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Wrote a long reply, then decided not to get into it.

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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I reply: 'Nie shi laowai', and I always get laugh out of them!

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I think the chinese language is just softer so the term laowai itself doesnt bug me at all. Like if you called a american women a 3-8 even if she knew it meant bitch its just tooo mental too be taken offensively.

But i agree its all context and situations. I say it all the time and if my wife or close friends say it i would never even think twice. Its just more common and easy than wai guo ren.

But i ask chinese alot if they consider it rude. About half will admit it is while the other half gives the same excuses seen above. Ive seen kids call me laowai and parents correct them. And my employees know i understand what they say so ive never heard the word come out of any of their mouths.
Thats more than enough to piss me off when strangers say it to me.

Generally if i hear it and see a smirk i get pissed. If i see they dont mean anything by it it doesnt bother me.

Usually if i see a group smirking and saying kan kan laowai! Ill point to the one saying it and say kan kan sa bi!! ( stupid pussy)
Thats usually makes him lose alot of face in front of his friends and hes now alot angrier than me . so i win!

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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I really don't mind it. But then again I don't take offense to much. Most of the time in Beijing the will say 'wai guo ren' rather than laowai, even when they think I don't understand or can't hear them. I think this year alone I've only heard the word sad once, from a little kid. It really doesn't play a role here but I don't think it's an issue. 

 

Although having said that, I do think that the word will continue this Us vs Them thing China has going on. Back home if describing a foreigner we will mention his nationality, like 'This German guy I met', but here it's just 'that foreigner'. It doesn't bother me but I do think it is/will become a hindrance to the countries social progress in a global perspective in the future. But that topic has been covered many a time on here so that's just my thought, not trying to light a fire. 

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I don't think there's any doubt about it.

Zhong Guo, number one!  Every other person is an outsider, including some, if not all, the ethnic minorities.

They live in such a narrow paradigm and know/care little of stepping out if it.

Bullshit education system and indoctrination reign supreme.

I must hear the term half a dozen times a week.  But it doesn't bother me because I know the root cause and, by and large, Chinese people are kind.

 

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This might be a silly distinction, but there's been a few times where a person, instead of saying "laowai" said "waiguo pengyou" instead, which made me feel so much better!

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This might be a silly distinction, but there's been a few times where a person, instead of saying "laowai" said "waiguo pengyou" instead, which made me feel so much better!

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This might be a silly distinction, but there's been a few times where a person, instead of saying "laowai" said "waiguo pengyou" instead, which made me feel so much better!

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Yeah, it's annoying to be singled out. Does it make you feel better if they say "wai guo ren" or "wai guo peng you" (another word for foreigner or foreign friend?)

 

I admit I do like hearing "wai guo peng you" more. Because then I am 100% certain it's not used maliciously. 

 

Either way, don't let it bother you guys. I once told another guy from America that he shouldn't let it get to him. There is as much behind it usually as a cow saying "Mooo.."

 

About 10% of the time, it is mocking and rude... but most of the times... it is just an observation by a dolt. 

 

Yes, look into the dull, dark eyes and see the shallowness that is their minds and souls! Not worth the energy. For the ones trying (saying it maliciously) to think or feel they are superior. Who care?! I KNOW I AM SUPERIOR because they just proved it... and so I am secure with whatever they call me because why should you care if termite or cockroach calls you names?

 

For the intelligent, observant and open-minded Chinese (or HUMANS for that matter). That's a different story.  

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6 years 14 weeks ago
 
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To answer the title of your post - I would say it is pejorative. I discussed it with the gf before and after about an hour she admitted it was not pleasant. I wouldn't say it is racist though. An attempt to belittle works well out of the definition of pejorative. 

 

If my gf was talking about a foreigner to her colleagues or friends she would always use the wai gu wren instead of laowai, never uses laowai. That came up in our discussion. There is no doubt in my mind it is pejorative.

 

Yet when I'm called it which is rare, at work, by a young kid, sometimes they genuinely seem (how to describe) innocent, for want of a better word. They have no one to impress by saying it, it's like a drive by 'laowai'. To be honest I'm just glad 99% call me by my name!

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The same thing could be said about the word Chinglish.  The word to me is offensive but

I'm positive that people will find some intelligent explanations for expressing superiority.

 

Excused my broken English, i am not worthy of commenting here with Google translator

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I clearly heard it used to describe me 3 times yesterrday.

First time amongst some fellow teachers at my school.  I was standing right  there with them and they all know my name very well.

Second time as I walked past some little kids playing the throw the round thing on the ground game.

Third time by my dining partner, my friend, who was talking to the waiter about the beer they'd put in the freezer for me.

Racist....I don't know.  Ignorant....definitely.  A negative result for Chinese ppl...of course.

Today I'm going to a wedding where there'll be 400 guests and I'll be the only non Chinese.  How many times will I hear 'laowei'?  Don't care, as I'll be on a misson to skoff as much of the free grog as I possibly can in the 90 minutes allowed.

 

And speaking of Chinese weddings....have you ever experienced anything so stupid?

And disingenuous?

 

 

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