Most expats who live in China have more than once been addressed as laowai, either to their face or behind their back. Lao is literally translated as ‘old’, and wai means ‘abroad’. Referring to you as a foreigner might already seem disrespectful and add to that being called ‘old’ would leave some folks feeling downright offended.
But remain calm and allow me to explain this term in a cross-cultural way. Maybe you’ll find it less offensive than initially thought.
In the Chinese language, lao is the word people use before surnames to show the respect and convey warmth as a friend. It’s normally used while addressing the middle-aged.
For example, my surname is Chen and my coworkers who are older than me call me ‘Xiao Chen’ (xiao means ‘little’), because I’m just in my mid-twenties. But when I get to be around forty, people will be more likely to call me ‘Lao Chen’, which can also be taken to imply that “This Chen is an experienced person in her field and she is trustworthy.”
This lao is also used after the surname to address older people aged seventy and above. I would be beyond happy if people call me ‘Chen lao’ when I get older, as not all people receive the honor of this form of address. Therefore, ‘Surname + lao’ is a term indicating that this person is highly respected and he/she is someone who is greatly valued in his/her social circle.
We Chinese folks don’t really see ‘old’ as an offensive term; the word ‘old’ is usually interpreted to mean ‘experienced’ and ‘mature’ (in good way). However, in Western culture, it’s quite rude to define a person as old. People hate it as much as being called ‘fat’. The difference in attitude toward this term also explains why people avoid discussing each other’s age in Western countries, but a Chinese person may ask about your age during your very first meeting.
All of these things aside, the world is becoming more and more globalized and people should be aware that we are actually all the same no matter where we are from and how we look. We should avoid labeling people in ways which may lead to misunderstanding.
Rather than the term itself, what makes expats even more uncomfortable is the way a Chinese person calls you laowai.
Nobody likes to be singled out and pointed at “Look! Laowai!” or hear people whisper “This laowai blablabla” while they’re standing in the same lift. These actions make the term laowai seem derogatory. However, times are changing, for there are more and more expats coming to live in China; blond hair and blue eyes no longer really shock people the way they did before.
Now I’d like to offer you some responses to say when you people call you laowai:
The serious version: “Qing buyao zheyang jiao wo, wo bu xihuan” (Please don’t call me like this, I don’t like it.)
The less serious version: “wo bu lao, buyao jiao laowai” (I’m not old, don’t call me laowai, people would think you are cute for your misunderstanding of ‘lao’, as we also call young expats laowai, the lao in this term has basically lost its original meaning of ‘old’.)
The humorous Version: “Hi, Lao zhong” (Hi, old Chinese.)
The ‘revenge’ Version: If the person refers to you as laowai while talking to someone else, assuming you don’t speak Chinese and it seems as though they are judging you, they are definitely being rude and perhaps deserve a little ‘revenge’.
What you need to do is pick up your phone and pretend to talk with somebody: speak loudly “wei, laowong, chi le ma? Wanshang yiqi da mahjong ba!” (Hey, Old Wong, did you eat yet? Let’s play mahjong tonight). Asking people if they have eaten or not as a greeting and if they’re down to play mahjong are both really ‘Chinese’ topics.
If you are fluent in enough, it will embarrass the person who assumed so quickly that you don’t understand Chinese. So go on and practice this sentence; a friend of mine tried it out and she said it worked perfectly!