Chinese culture "Lao wai" explained — 老外

老外 lǎo wài is a very nice way to address foreigners in China and it’s commonly used by Chinese people. We could also call you 外国人 (wàiguórén), literally means "outside country person", which is much more formal.

Chinese are fond of 老外 because we think it shows an intimate feeling and it can narrow the distance between foreigners and us. In this way,
老外 may be similar to "Old Tom", "Old Jack" in English.
While the literal meaning of 老外 is "old outsiders" , some foreigners may regard it as an offensive word because they think it sounds impolite and has negative meaning with insult.
But it’s not true. For example, the word 老婆 (lǎopó), literally means "old woman", which actually means "wife" , is a very intimate way to address wife in oral Chinese.

This post was originally published on Study More Chinese Blogs written by anna lee
(photo credit donutp)

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Comment by rosscranwell on July 27, 2012 at 12:21pm

good explanation. I always thought it sounded derogatory, too...but glad you cleared it up!!!

Comment by Murilo Peixoto Cunha Melo on July 22, 2012 at 10:30pm

Great article! I guess that once we become acquainted with the Chinese culture, we realize that the idea of "old" is always positive as it is connected with the notion of wisdom, respect, reverence, affection, and so forth. It is sad when we compare that with the west, where growing old is considered a bad thing. I would go so far as to say that the Chinese elderly are much more prepared to deal with the changes that come with old age than us westerns. It's a beautiful phylosophy!

Comment by Gordon Mathieson on July 9, 2012 at 10:38pm

Thanks for a great explanation.  I had always used wai guo ren and never felt comfortable with it. Now with a better understanding of lao wai, I will used that....


Comment by Worawit Sakda on July 4, 2012 at 11:16am

Thank you Anna Lee for the interested topic.  I sometime think that 老 it may be mean the someone who have more experiences or knowledge than us. For example 老师 who has knowledge to teach or giving good things to everyone as well as has been respected.

Comment by Shu on July 4, 2012 at 6:08am

Very nice explanation Iris :) Lao is a multi purpose prefix ...

Comment by Iris on July 3, 2012 at 11:06pm

The basic meaning of 老 is old. It also has the meaning of experienced, original, etc, and its meaning changes in different context.

老 maybe mean old.

such as, 老年人, which means old age person/people; 老朋友 old friend;

老 is used to express respect.

such as,  老师 teacher,  老子 the master of Taoism, 老 + surname to express respect for senior person, 老板, the  boss.

老 is used to show intimation relationship or friendly intention.

such as, in colloquial Chinese, 老公  sweet husband, 老婆 sweet wife.  As mentioned in anna.lee's article,  老外 is used to call the people outside of China to express a friendly intention.

老 may have no meaning at all, just for the sound balance.

such as,  老鹰 the eagle, 老虎  the tiger, 老鼠  the rat.

That's all I can think about for now. :)

Comment by anna.lee on July 3, 2012 at 8:37pm

小 and 老 followed by surnames is a very commonly way to address peple in oral Chinese. Obviously 老is used to address the elder and 小 for the young, but there is not a specific limit  for the old and young. Some old couples might also call each other by 老 plus the surname.

Comment by Ruaridh Maxwell/麥儒叡 on July 3, 2012 at 6:18pm


A good rule of thumb in this case is age.  If the person you're referring to is younger than about 30, then you'd use 小.  If they're older than about 30, then you'd use 老.  However, if the person is your superior in some sense, or you don't know them well, then you'd use their title.

This is my understanding of it, at least.

Comment by jono1001 on July 3, 2012 at 6:52am

Good explanation.  Can you give some more examples of 老?  I have heard that you can use 小 and 老 

with names. Such as 小王. Can you explain how and when to 老 and 小 for names.?

Comment by Ma Ji Ya on July 2, 2012 at 5:45pm

Thank you Anna for your explanation. I wish more Chinese would explain some of common expressions, so that foreigners don't get a misconception. It will help the mutual understanding, which I think is very important nowadays. The fact is, that Chinese culture is very interesting, but also sometimes very confusing for foreigners.

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