What are the differences in use between laowai (老外) and waiguoren (外国人)? Is one of these more pejorative or colloquial?
Originally Answered: What are the differences in use between laowai (老外) and waiguoren (外国人)?
Waiguoren 外国人 is the standard term for “foreigner” or “foreign national”. In and of itself, waiguoren carries neither a negative nor a positive connotation. It’s neutral.
It should be noted, however, that waiguoren is not always used in reference to one’s actual citizenship. Whereas an alien may become an American through the legal process of immigration, even foreign nationals who have become Chinese citizens are often, even decades later, commonly described as “foreigners (waiguoren) who became Chinese citizens” 加入中国国籍的外国人。
On the other hand, Chinese who emigrate and become citizens of other countries are not commonly referred to as waiguoren. Terms such as “overseas Chinese” 海外华人 or “American Chinese” 美籍华人 are used to distinguish these people from waiguoren. In this sense, waiguoren denotes a non-Chinese racial or ethnic background rather than just citizenship.
Whether or not laowai 老外 is pejorative depends on context.
Many Chinese will argue that it’s not pejorative at all. Lao 老， after all, is an honorific denoting seniority and informality, such as when used with a surname: Lao Liu 老刘， “Old Liu”. Laowai is often used in a similar way to demonstrate informality, with the feeling that terms like waiguoren are too formal and stuffy. In certain circumstances, however, this informality can be interpreted as showing a lack of appropriate respect. If one were to refer to Hu Jintao, President of China, as Lao Hu, this would normally be interpreted as a lack of respect. In the same way, laowai can be interpreted as slightly disrespectful rather than as a term of endearment.
In some uses, laowai is clearly pejorative, for instance when used as an adjective. “You are too laowai” 你太老外了 literally means “You are too foreign”, but in fact carries the meaning “You are ignorant”.
Perhaps the best measure of whether a word is pejorative or not is to gauge what the subject himself/herself perceives. In my experience, most foreigners do not like being referred to as laowai except in the most informal of surroundings and by close friends who may use the term in a joking manner, similar to the way one might refer to a close Caucasian friend as a “honky” without causing offense.
Personally, I never use laowai to refer to myself or other foreigners.
There is nothing negative about the word itself; it’s all about how the word is used. In this sense it’s similar to “Chinaman”. There is nothing inherently pejorative about this term; it simply denotes “a man from China”. However, through widespread misuse this term became recognized as being racist. Laowai is nowhere near “Chinaman” in terms of negative connotation, but through misuse has also gained a certain pejorative sense.