People have their own definitions of it, but it runs something along the lines of all European decent foreigners. This means, anyone that is white and ethnically from Europe, so English people, French, Americans, Germans, Australians, Canadians, Lithuanians….whatever. But Black people don’t count.
Old/ respectful Outside…which is the literal meaning was only used when China went through its ‘learning from foreign talent abroad’ phase, which was when China still had an Emperor. And I don’t mean Emperor Xi.
You may have noticed that black people don’t count. And that’s because at the time that the Chinese first coined the term ‘Laowai’ they thought they were the centre of the world in terms of civilisation and culture and knowledge. Everyone outside the borders of China were actually called 野蛮， 野人 savages, or ….鬼子。 Devil. Yeah that whole foreign devil thing…was real.
It worked in terms of geographical distance away from the borders of China. So the further you were from the cultural reach of China, the less civilised you were. And black people in Africa was about as far away from China as you could get.
So all this was until white foreigners came across and showed Chinese astrologists up in a few competitions that the Emperor at the time set about for accurately determining certain dates etc. Also for war machines and other useful inventions. The Chinese at the time had to admit that there were some foreigners that had not been touched by the grace of Chinese civilisation that were as smart, if not smarter than they were. So they gave these foreigners the term Lao wai 老外. Lao 老meaning old, but also practiced & learned much like a teacher ie. Teacher is Laoshi 老师. And Wai 外meaning outside.
At that time…laowai really was a respectful way of saying foreigner. There is of course a bit of resentment, because it was these same laowai that forced the Chinese people to realise that their place in world wasn’t sitting at the top of civilisation that there could be people equally civilised and educated sitting at exactly the same level or even higher. So this was a rude awakening for them. Something that of course anyone in that position would not be so happy about.
So what do they say for black people? Well one is just 黑人 literally = Black person.
But they will call this to people even if they are obviously from the UK, France, US or whatever. Its not about their cultural background or how they associate themselves as what counts, merely that they are black, therefore Chinese people call them black.
Or… which seems to be used interchangeable unfortunately is 黑鬼 black devil. Again its anyone that is foreign that they don’t like that they add in this 鬼 = devil. 日鬼子= Japanese devils.
Foreigners of all ethnic backgrounds can be called 洋鬼子 = yang gui zi, across the sea devils. (Foreign devils)
Essentially Chinese people were feeling pretty damn good about their place and standing in the world until they actually met other people that lived in the world and then realised that …shit….well the only way forward it to resent and hate everyone that is different… because you know… that makes sense.
To be fair, many cultures do this. Let’s just name one….the UK.
By the way, when a foreign force occupied China for an entire dynasty…ie the Mongols, why is it that the Chinese don’t refer to them as savages or barbarians? Well its because they think that Mongolian dynasty was actually just another Chinese dynasty, that the Chinese never gave into the Mongolian culture, than instead the Mongolians actually gave in to the Chinese culture…and that the height of China being conquered by Mongolia and Kublai Khan was actually the height of China conquering the world. Kublai Khan actually modified official history by writing into the books back then and backtracking to give himself justification to rule by saying that Genghis Khan was in fact Chinese and that he was a ruler of China.
Brilliant! So the Chinese think that Genghis Khan was Chinese, and that the good things they got from the Mongolian Empire was actually Chinese innovation at work. This includes the grid patterned streets and the forbidden city which is famous in Beijing.
So the Mongolians weren’t barbarians in the Chinese mind, they were actually Chinese, which means they were actually incredibly civilised. Which they were to be fair. But considering how the Chinese treat the rest of foreigners…this is quite surprising.
Basically though the word is charged with negative emotions, so even though some people will tell you ‘it just means foreigner’ this is complete crap.
外国人 is politically correct term for foreigner. This actually just means Outside country people.
There is no 内国人 inside country person because…they’re just called Chinese.
The point with Chinese people’s perceptions of other people is that it really is a case of ‘them against us’.
Therefore, this combined with above is why you can often hear Chinese people saying ‘laowai, laowai’ , ‘laowai’s food is so bad’ even though they may be in a foreign country.
Laowai doesn’t actually mean foreigner to them, it’s not respective of where THEY are. It just means anyone that is not Chinese. Ethnically Chinese.
So in saying that, my Dutch friend who has grown up in the Netherlands, speaks Dutch and considers herself Dutch, is not Dutch in the Chinese people’s minds, because she is ethnically Chinese. Therefore, even when Chinese people are in the Netherlands, the Netherland native people are still ‘laowai’.
I hope this explains a bit about the logic of Chinese people, and shines some light onto the actual meaning of the word Laowai, and shows a bit of how Chinese see themselves in the world in terms of culture and civility.
I hope it also sets the record straight for any Chinese person who maybe not so surprisingly hasn’t thought enough about the words they use and that saying a word with a negative tone conveys a negative meaning.