Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
Our research, as discussed in the Identities article, 'Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China', revealed that it was the ways that Chinese people employed laowai, instead of this label itself, that contributed to the discomfort of American expatriates.
First and foremost, our informants who were generally called laowai were those who did not look Chinese, so Chinese Americans and other Asian expatriates were not generally labelled in this way. Our interviewees who were called laowai felt this term conveyed a variety of negative ideas about Westerners.
For example, some said it assumed they were incapable of speaking Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture; as one interviewee put it, ‘You don’t understand it because you are laowai’. The term implied that Westerners are essentially different from the Chinese: ‘[They say]: “We Chinese people are physically not capable of drinking cold water; our DNA is different”’. Furthermore, interviewees told us Westerners were assumed to be morally corrupt and badly behaved, qualities one informant summed up thus: ‘[They think]: you must have five girlfriends, because laowai are very kaifang [sexually promiscuous]’.
From American expatriates’ perspective, these othering practices reflected Chinese users’ motivations, including constructing Chineseness as an identity based on bloodline descent, justifying their assumptions that the West and Westerners were essentially different from China and the Chinese, and attempting to maintain the superior and positive Chinese self by stigmatising Western others during intergroup encounters. Ultimately, these American expatriates experienced Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai as a way to separate them as permanent outsiders, a form of what some scholars have termed ‘Occidentalism’, involving non-Western individuals’ othering of the West in a reductive and misrepresentative way (Buruma & Margalit 2005).
Our research indicated that othering was deemed unacceptable by those subject to it, even when the specific term employed was seen as positive by users from the dominant group. We did not intend to make a value judgement on Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai, but hoped to arouse the attention of Chinese scholars, educators and institutions to the impact of othering of expatriates on the Chinese mainland, considering the increasing number of these migrants in this region.
Buruma, I. & A. Margalit. 2005. Occidentalism: the West in the eyes of its enemies. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative Term?’ (2007). People's Daily Online, December 21 2007. Available at http://en.people.cn/90001/90780/91345/6325229.html.
Mao, Y. 2015. Who is a laowai? Chinese interpretations of laowai as a referring expression for non-Chinese. International Journal of Communication 9: 2119–2140.
Blog post by Yang Liu, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China; and Charles C. Self, University of Oklahoma, USA
Read the full article: Yang, Liu & Self, Charles C. Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589158