China is a country that only recently opened its doors to the international community. For most of its history, it remained relatively isolated and insular.

 

For this reason, the cultural diversity that exists in most Western countries does not exist in China.

 

Whereas, in the West, it's generally rude to label someone according to their ethnicity or nationality, this seems to be perfectly acceptable in China. 

So, if you're new to China, don't be surprised when Chinese people constantly refer to you as a foreigner. They generally don't mean it as an insult. 

 

While living here, the Chinese will call you several different names. Some are polite, some are neutral, some are not so polite.

 

Let's take a look at some of the common Chinese words for foreigners. 


外国人 (Waiguoren)

This is one of the most common words for foreigners in Mandarin. Expats in China will often hear this word while walking down the street, standing in line at the store, or riding the subway. 

The term Waiguoren literally means "outside country person". 

It's a neutral term, used variety of situations, and is the standard way to describe people from other countries. 

This is the official term used by the Chinese government. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government actively encouraged Chinese citizens to refer to foreign guests as Waiguoren, instead of the less polite terms. 

China is a country that only recently opened its doors to the international community. For most of its history, it remained relatively isolated and insular.

 

For this reason, the cultural diversity that exists in most Western countries does not exist in China.

 

Whereas, in the West, it's generally rude to label someone according to their ethnicity or nationality, this seems to be perfectly acceptable in China. 

So, if you're new to China, don't be surprised when Chinese people constantly refer to you as a foreigner. They generally don't mean it as an insult. 

 

While living here, the Chinese will call you several different names. Some are polite, some are neutral, some are not so polite.

 

Let's take a look at some of the common Chinese words for foreigners. 



外国人 (Waiguoren)

This is one of the most common words for foreigners in Mandarin. Expats in China will often hear this word while walking down the street, standing in line at the store, or riding the subway. 

The term Waiguoren literally means "outside country person". 

It's a neutral term, used variety of situations, and is the standard way to describe people from other countries. 

This is the official term used by the Chinese government. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government actively encouraged Chinese citizens to refer to foreign guests as Waiguoren, instead of the less polite terms. 

waiguoren.jpg

Image: Deviant Art 


老外 (Laowai)

 

Like the last term, expats in China constantly hear the word Laowai. 

 

However, unlike Waiguoren, this term often has negative connotations. For this reason, Chinese people will not often refer to a foreigner as Laowai to their face.

 

Instead, they tend to reserve the term for talking amongst themselves, or for when they think the foreigner does not understand.

 

The term Laowai literally means "old outsider". Many Chinese will try to explain that the character 老 (Lao) signifies respect, such as what is used in the Chinese words for teacher (老师 - Laoshi) or boss (老板 - Laoban). 

However, to be fair, the Chinese word for rat (老鼠 - Laoshu) also contains this same character. So the presence of Lao doesn't necessarily mean respect.

Whether Laowai is polite or impolite depends upon the context. 

Laowai Miracle Mandarin.jpg

Image: Miracle Mandarin 


外国朋友 (Waiguo Pengyou)

The term Waiguo Pengyou literally means "foreign friend". 

This is an especially polite term for foreigners and indicates an attitude of hospitality. If a Chinese person refers to you in this way, you should feel at ease and welcomed. 

Expats may hear this term being used by Chinese salespeople, who want to flatter their foreign customer into making a purchase. 

foreign friend shuttershock.jpg

Image: Shutter Shock 

洋人 (Yangren)

 

Although Chinese people do not use Yangren as often they use Waiguoren or Laowai, it's still an interesting term to learn about.

 

Yangren literally translates into "Ocean Person".

 

This term dates back to the 19th century when seafaring powers, such as the British Empire, semi-colonized China. At that time, the Chinese referred to these new visitors as "Ocean People", and the word exists to this day.

National Geographic.jpg

Chinese people, especially those who come from smaller cities, are often very curious about foreigners

Image: National Geographic


鬼佬 (Gweilo)

Gweilo is a term used primarily in Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Unlike the previous terms, which were all Mandarin, this term is Cantonese. 

This is perhaps the rudest way for a Chinese person to refer to a foreigner, as it literally translates into "Ghost Man". Some sources will even translate it to mean "White Devil". 

Many Cantonese will say that this term has evolved to have a more neutral meaning, although Gweilo obviously has deep negative connotations 

gweilo.jpg

Image: cy8cy.com



Image: Deviant Art