Is "Lao Wai" a Derogatory Expression?
People's Daily (Overseas Edition) article discussing the term used to refer to (mainly white) foreigners.

人民日报海外版:  "老外"是贬义词吗
2007年12月21日 10:10

来源: 人民日报海外版  作者:  郑荣来  选稿:  姚明绮

近日,美国一家报纸刊登一篇署名文章,说外国人对中国人称呼他们为“老外”,感觉很不舒服,因为它含有嘲弄的意味,希望中国有关部门敦促国人要“举止文明”。

    中国临近奥运,需要营造友好气氛,作者所言,有些道理,也满怀善意。

    以“老外”称呼外国人,特别是称呼西方人,已成为我们很多 人的习惯,经常脱口而出,成了流行词语。但这一称呼,是否外国人都能接受?我们也许很少仔细想过。看了上述意见,才恍然有所悟。我们的这一习惯,原来还有“一厢情愿”的一面。

    但“老外”这称呼是否就含有嘲弄的意味,需要做具体分析,不宜一概而论。

    中国称呼外国人,历史上曾曰“番”曰“夷”,史书上都如此说。清代还有人著书,把英国人的侵略称为“夷患”。那称谓都带有明显的贬 义,其中包含着民族的一种义愤情绪。闭关锁国的大清国,经历了西方列强的侵略和欺凌,侵略者用坚船利炮打开了中国的大门。一次次战争失败使国人逐步认识经 海洋而来的“洋夷”,“洋人”的称呼由此而来。复杂的心态,衍生出各种词语和称谓,软脊梁骨者“崇洋媚外”,不甘被欺凌的国人则起骂詈之声,义和团管“洋 人”叫“洋鬼子”。二战以后,侵略者被打败,中国人站起来了,“洋人”就被称为“外国佬”,继而改称“外国人”。“老外”的称呼,始于上世纪80年代,而 延续至今。

    改革开放后的中国,经济日益腾飞,国力不断增强,地位今非昔比。我们以强国身份参与国际事务,不再有奴颜婢膝。中国人和外国人 平等相处,并联合世界上以平等待我之民族,共同营造和平的环境。很多外国人来到中国,或从事政治交往,建立友好关系;或进行文化交流,增进意识形态的沟 通;或开展经济活动,创造双赢效果。平等互利的往来,完全改变了以往的关系。把外国人改称“老外”,其实意味着一种进步,意味着历史的一种演进。“外”是 “外国人”的简称,冠之以“老”,又是中国人的一个传统的敬词,饱含亲切成分,如称“老张”、“老李”。所以笔者认为,对于这个称谓,某些外国人大可不必 介意,更不要把它视为贬义词。

    不过,话说回来,我们也是大度的民族,理应从善如流,海纳百川。既然有外国朋友不喜欢那个称呼,我们是否也可以寻找一个更好的 称呼呢?中国的词汇多的去了!近日有位香港歌星说,她有很多“老外朋友”。这一民间创造的词语,似乎又把“老外”加进了一点亲密的成分,它可否作为我们的 又一个选择?国人酌处。

    在中国,现在对待外国人,更多的是友好和礼让,寡有歧视之事,也鲜闻嘲弄之语,即便有,也是个例。中国是礼仪之邦,将用礼貌的言行迎接四海嘉宾;北京奥运会也将会创造一个让外国朋友都感到舒服的文明环境。

 Link to People's Daily English Translation of above article.

 
Commentary:

The translation provided is one prepared by the People's Daily for foreign consumption.  I would have worded a few things differently, but their effort was good enough for the purpose of this exercise.

It is impossible to ascertain whether the incident that precipitated this article was due to the U.S. journalist merely displaying ignorance of the Chinese language or conveniently overreacting because there was nothing better to write about.  The term "Lao Wai" has, in fact, several variations:  on my first trip to Taiwan in the early 1980's, I distinctly recall a helpful airport employee writing a short note for me to give to a cab driver regarding my destination - it was signed "Lao Mei"  老美 - a term used for foreigners of U.S. origin.  Since I had always been taught that word "Lao" could almost be construed as the colloquial equivalent of "brother," I felt welcomed rather than insulted.

 While not surprised to hear such comments from U.S. journalists anxious to create issues where none exist, I am a little surprised that the People's Daily felt a need to address it.  Unlike certain bad habits (like spitting on the sidewalks or littering the streets) that would create genuinely poor impressions on foreign visitors during the Olympics, questioning the use of an innocent term locals use among themselves may not have its intended effect.   I regret that the name of the offended journalist was withheld because I could provide numerous examples of genuinely insulting terms for foreigners that would truly meet the standards of "derogatory language."  My advice to the People's Daily: be a little less concerned with trying to appease those who would demand that you change the Chinese language just to suit the needs of hypersensitive reporters.  Our experience in America is that while respectful language works, "politically correct" terminology does not.   My advice to those who do not want to be referred to as "Lao Wai" - don't be standoffish and expect your hosts to read your mind - the Chinese know the value of a name and will be happy to try and use yours if you provide it to them.