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外国人 = 白人? Does ‘foreigner’ mean ‘white’ in China?

If you’re a foreigner in China, you no doubt hear these words at least once a day: 外国人 and 老外 – ‘foreigner’. You’ll hear them on the street as you walk past people, people will use them to refer to you, or sometimes even to get your attention (as my estate agents are fond of doing).

Usually they’re translated into ‘foreigner’ in English, although their usage and connotations are very different to ‘foreigner’. I seldom used the word ‘foreigner’ before I came to China. Whilst I’m here, I only use it to refer to the group that I’m a part of. Back home, I associate it with close-minded conservatives, who read the Daily Mail and complain about “forrins”.

The word ‘foreigner’ in English just seems a bit rude. If I really had to indicate that someone wasn’t British I’d try to find out what country they were actually from and use that. But I just can’t think of a situation where that need would come up; I’ve never really needed to talk about ‘foreigners’ as one group contrasted to British people alone.

Nationality and race

I think the distinction between “Chinese” and “foreign” is much bigger in China, probably due to the fact that China’s population is 92% of Han ethnicity. Anyone who sees me here can immediately be sure that I am not Chinese, just by looking at my face (although people often mistakenly think I’m mixed race. I even got called a ‘mongrel‘ in Yunnan once, much to my delight).

When people from other countries do look different so consistently, having a general term for them makes more sense. There’s also the historical distinction between 華 and 夷: ‘China’ and ‘the barbarians’ (everyone else in the world).

It’s not just Chinese people that routinely make this distinction, either. Nearly all the foreigners I know in China refer to themselves as foreigners, hang out together, and are proud to be 老外.

But is that what it really means?

It seems, though, that 外国人 doesn’t just mean “someone from outside China”. It’s not equivalent to ‘foreigner’ in English. More often than not, I think, it actually means specifically ‘white people’.

A friend of mine said she was with her Chinese friends, one of whom pointed out “这里中国人、外国人、韩国人和日本人都有” – “There are Chinese people, foreigners, Koreans and Japanese people here”. Surely if 外国人 means ‘foreigner’, Koreans and Japanese people wouldn’t need to be listed separately?

Also, in my (admittedly limited) personal experience, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Chinese person refer to a black person as 外国人. It seems that more often than not, the word 黑人 – ‘black person’ – is used.

I’ve now had two conversations with taxi drivers who point out that the foreign students at 海洋大学 are mostly “Russians, Koreans and black people”, as if ‘black people’ are a country. One seemed confused when I said that the black students I know at 海洋大学 come from England, America and France. It’s only two conversations, but they do suggest that 外国人 isn’t quite the same thing as ‘foreigner’.

I’ve asked a few Chinese people if 外国人 includes not just white people but people with other skin colours as well, and they all say that it does. It seems that if asked directly, most people will say that 外国人 simply means ‘not Chinese’. But I’m tempted to say that in actual use it really refers only to white people.

This is pure conjecture

Of course this is nothing but speculation on my part; I’m basing it entirely on my own experience. I’m not trying to make some wider point with this, I just find it interesting that the term doesn’t seem to match up very well with the concept of ‘foreigner’ in English.

I’d be interested to see what other people think about this one. Please share in the comments!


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  • http://www.sarajaaksola.com Sara

    I kind of have a feeling too that atleast Japanese and Koreans aren’t foreigners. Also I’ve noticed that black people are called 黑人 no matter where they are from and Chinese people are suprised to hear if black person is from France for example.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Yeah that’s pretty similar to my experience.

  • Will Venega

    What about latinos? Are they considered to be 外国人 too?

    I once talked to a Taiwanese guy and he said, in a jokingly way, that he sees no difference between “Latinos” and “Black people”. I found it amusing and also wondered how much of this ‘ethnicty perception’ is true to the Chinese people.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      Well it’s a huge can of worms really, I’ve never seen any research on it so I wouldn’t like to speculate too much.

  • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

    If I said laowai, then I refer to those people from other countries (not those ones from Asia though). For me laowai is not equal to white foreigners.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

      So it seems that it at least doesn’t include people from other Asian countries. Not so clear on the skin colour issues, though.

      Out of curiosity, would you refer to, say, Indian people as 外国人?

      • http://www.chinesetolearn.com/ Shu

        My understanding is those countries in Asia, for the distance is near compared with those from other continents. So, the Chinese people see them more often, so they can tell which country he or she comes from. So, for this reason, they call them specifically by their country name. It is nothing to do with skin color, but with the familiarity. So, if a Spanish speaking person comes, Chinese people won’t be able to tell which country that person came from. So, when they don’t know, they just generalize the person as foreigner. That is what I think, and I know people think differently.

        • Zifre

          This is just like how in America, you hear people described as “German”, “Polish”, or “Italian” instead of “European”, but East Asian people are commonly referred to as “Asian” regardless of their country of origin.

          • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

            Yeah exactly. Although in the UK census we do actually say “White British”, and then there are different options for “Chinese British” etc.

          • 6161

            This is a fair comparison, where Shu’s really isn’t.

            It’s absolutely the case that 老外 is (a) somewhat less polite in native use than in its repurposed Shanghailander form and (b) exclusive of East Asians, Africans, Indians, and Arabs.

            It’s not *quite* the same thing as Whitey (although that’s how I would translate it loosely): it is inclusive of Filipinos, ABCs, and Uyghurs the speaker hasn’t realized are 中国人.

          • Shin

            I’m Chinese and I think Shu’s got a good point.

            There are only two major cultural groups that Chinese traditionally are familiar with: Japanese and Korean. South East Asians are often called “老外” too because of Chinese’s unfamiliarity with their culture. The two other “老外”-equivalent words are “印度人” and “老黑” which is mistakenly used for all people from South Asia and Africa, respectively, because of, you guess it, unfamiliarity with those parts of the world. And “老外” includes Arabs because their culture is as alien as the Europeans.

        • http://eastasiastudent.net Hugh Grigg

          It’s probably fair to say that on the whole you can’t really tell what country a European person comes from. Sometimes you can get the region, like Mediterranean, but beyond that it’s usually anyone’s guess.

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  • Haidong

    As a Chinese living overseas for almost 10 years, I agree with Shu on this. It’s more about how familiar the person knows about the difference between “foreigners”. If you talk to someone from coastal region, you would have a very different answer than that from someone inland. It’s hard to draw a conclusion even if you specify the region, because education and life experience also play an important role. Of course, openess to new things is always crucial to how one defines “foreigners”.

  • http://jpv206.wordpress.com jp 吉平 Villanueva

    I’m Filipino American, and I definitely got called 老外 in Hangzhou. When I was living in Shanghai, I was definitely part of a 老外 crew, so I think they grouped me as one of them.

  • lululuya

    It’s a interesting idea! But I am afraid that your guess is not entirely correct.I think 黑人 is included in “老外”.But we often use this word to call the westerners and american no matter their race.It is true that we do not call japanese and korean “老外”. Because in first sight it is hard to tell he/she is a “老外”.

    “老外”in china (at list in Beijing,I am a Beijinger) has another meaning.Sorry to say that but it means “门外汉= know nothing in some fields or about some news”. For example, one Chinese say to another Chinese “你真老外,连美国总统是谁都不知道!”,it is means you are so outdated that you don’t even know who is the president of the US!
    Maybe in the past foreigners did not know china cause this usage of “老外”. But don’t worry, this word is a neutral words now!
    I hope this reply can help you!

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  • http://www.china-briefing.com Chris Devonshire-Ellis

    It was only recently that China changed signs at airports from “aliens” to “foreigners”, and you still see aliens sometimes. So that’s an improvement of sorts.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      I’ve never spotted the aliens, what do they look like? :P

  • http://www.ChineseBookshop Chinese Bookshop.com

    What I’ve found amusing is speaking to China-born Chinese people in the UK and when they talk about 外国人 they are talking about non-Chinese people, despite being in a country where they could be considered “foreigners.”

    There’s something about 老外 which I really don’t like, seems quite pejorative.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Yeah I find that quite funny as well, I’ve heard of Japanese and Korean people doing it in 外国 countries as well. Whereas when I’m in China I feel very much that I’m the foreigner in that situation, not the people around me.

      Agreed on 老外 being pejorative. I think it’s playful teasing at best, and I’ve never bought the idea that it’s friendly.

    • Alva

      Same in Spain, when I go back home and I enter some Chinese shop or pass by people still call me laowai. When I was there last time my husband was talking to them in Chinese and they just kept saying laowai laowai…when actually they were in a foreign land…

  • Petrol Engineer

    These responses are mostly sugarcoated fluff and don’t tell the real story. Anyone who is familiar with Chinese culture AND IS HONEST will tell you that Laowai is the term used for western/nonasisn where aren’t black and Hai Ren is used in a racist way to refer to any black person who happens to be there. They don’t care where the person is from, what language they speak, etc, just that they’re “one of those”. Chinese avoid contact, don’t sit next to black people on public transport, etc. etc. Blacks who go there are told to expect this. Even though this is very racist towards blacks (again, if people are telling the truth and not sugarcoating), no one has ever threatened me in any way while I was there, so I was able to mostly ignore it, although it was VERY annoying. Latin America has similar issues (the darker you are the worse you’re treated there). That said, Chinese are also mistreated elsewhere! In Australia now, many of the local whites are attacking Chinese physically, even while leaving black people alone at the same time. America also has a history of not treating Asians well, even their own citizens, and that is not just historical, it’s ongoing. Racism is such a mess! Just a retarded circle of one type of people hating another type, going around and around . . .
    It amazes me that the various non-white/non-black peoples of the world are so foolish I’ve traveled extensively, and what I witnessed is that in Asia and Latin America, they’ve totally bought into this “race pecking order” nonsense that the whites have been spreading around the world for centuries.

    • 6161

      With you right up until the blaming Chinese racism on Europe nonsense. China’s racism is entirely homegrown and whatever grudging respect they now give to the European barbarians has to do with clear-sighted acknowledgement of their former success and the historical accident that their 8 minutes of hate will be directed towards Japan at least through the next generation.

  • Anonymous

    People from Xinjiang are also known as 外国人.

    • http://eastasiastudent.net/about Hugh Grigg

      Yeah I think I have come across people saying that in China as well.

    • 6161

      People from Xinjiang are *called* 老外 but only *until* their 中国人 status is confirmed. Then they’re 新疆人: like 中国人 but more likely to be accused of having taken your bike.

      There’s always some Han chauvinism in the wings but it’s of the same thoughtless this-is-how-it’s-always-been sort that calls America a Christian country. When they stop and think, they come in with the Party line about all China’s “56 peoples” making up a single nation.

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