A Recent survey done by Xinmin Weekly found nearly 70 percent of foreigners in Shanghai do not object to being referred to as laowai, because they believe the term is neutral. Over 30 percent of those queried object to the term as exclusionary. Two customers enjoy themselves outside Planet Shanghai on Huaihai Zhonglu. The restaurant is popular with foreigners, or laowais.
How is it that the combination of lao and wai arouses such divided feelings in the listeners? Lao in Chinese can show respect and love as well as admiration when it is used in words such as laoshi (teacher), laozi (father) and lao pengyou (old friend).
But when it comes to laowai, lao means always and wai means outsider.
No wonder some foreigners experience a knee-jerk reaction when they hear the name. For some, it implies that no matter how hard he works to learn Chinese, no matter how much he does for the community or how many Chinese relatives he has, he is always a foreigner.
Perhaps this is what some Chinese feel when they live in a foreign country. No matter how fluently they speak the foreign language and how they behave like locals, they are still regarded as strangers.
Every time Brian, an American married to a Chinese woman, hears the term laowai directed at him, he asks the speaker not to call him that.
In his eyes, the term carries a derogatory connotation that denies his existence in China: a laowai might be a traveler, a businessman, an international student, anything except a community member even if he lives in the neighborhood.
Cathy's boss Frederich is from Germany. Every morning he hears the term laowai when Cathy and her colleagues are talking. He does not understand most of what they are saying, but he understands that word, so one day he said, "Please do not call me laowai."
Cathy said the reason she likes to refer to Frederich as laowai is because "it gives us a sense of familiarity, it's just on the tips of our tongue, it's like we are talking about a popular personality."
But others do not mind the word at all. Stephan has lived in China for 10 years. He has no special reaction when his Chinese friends use laowai in his presence.
"They use the word because other words like waiguoren sound too formal, they just get used to using the word. That's all."
According to Cao Lusheng, a Shanghai-based dramatist, the term laowai is from the northern dialect. It carried a derogatory meaning at first, but through evolution, it has become more neutral.
A more derogatory term for foreigners in the northern dialect is the notorious yangguizi, or foreign devils.
The Shanghai dialect has a more neutral term - waiguoren meaning foreign people.
This ambiguity in the meaning of laowai possibly comes from the ambivalent status of the city over the past century and a half.
As a colonial city, Shanghai was among the earliest ports opened to the West. Foreigners flooded to this paradise for adventurers, and some made fortunes here.
The foreigners have provided examples of enterprise and spirit that completely changed many of their lives.
Laowais in the city are not only models to follow, but also strong rivals for the enterprising locals who compete with them for money, luxury and the comforts of life.
As Wang Weiming, a Shanghai-based writer once wrote in "City of Games," laowai is a symbol of the relationship between the city and foreigners, not the differences between the people.
(Shanghai Star 05/18/2001)