Farang (Thailand), Laowai (China), Gwai Lo (Hong Kong) — there are many words for foreigners in Asia, but don't worry: not all are considered rude or derogatory!
Often accompanied by stares, gasps, and maybe even blatant pointing, the term laowai will undoubtedly ring in your wake as you walk the streets in China. Even in today's international world, foreigners in Asia are often a novelty or spectacle, particularly in rural areas or off-the-beaten-path places that see fewer tourists.
Young children are especially unapologetic; they may boldly point you out to their parents then come tug your armhair to ensure it's real. And you'll often have locals with good intentions shyly ask to take a photo standing next to you! Later, you'll end up Facebook friends with complete strangers.
Laowai isn't the only word directed at Western tourists in Asia; nearly every country has at least one widespread word reserved for referring to foreigners. Farang is an accepted word in Thailand for describing Western or non-Thai visitors of all types. As in any language, the context, setting, and tone differentiate between endearment and insult.
Why Do Foreigners Get so Much Attention in Asia?
With televisions and websites streaming international news and Hollywood into so many homes, how is it that foreigners are still such a novelty in Asia?
Keep in mind that Asia was closed to outside visitors for millennia and only opened to tourism in relatively recent times. China didn't really open to the West until the 1980s. Isolated Bhutan didn't have its first television broadcast until 1999. Traveling to remote places where residents have never seen a Western face is still entirely possible in Asia!
In many places, the first European representatives that locals encountered were often rude spice traders, rambunctious sailors, or even imperialists coming to take land and resources by force. These colonists and explorers who made initial contact were hardly pleasant ambassadors; many treated the indigenous people with disdain, creating a racial divide that persists even today.
Common Terms for Foreigners in Asia
Although the governments in many Asian countries launched campaigns to curb the use of slang references to foreigners, the words still appear in television, social media, news headlines, and common usage. Needless to say, getting stared at while eating in a restaurant full of people doesn't do much to curb one's culture shock.
Not all terms directed at fair-skinned travelers in Asia are offensive. Before you begin flipping tables in a frustrated rage and blowing all the rules of saving face, understand that the person casually referring to you as an "outsider" may not mean any harm.
Even the words for "foreigner" or "visitor" can be made to sound impolite when said with a sharp inflection and threatening body language — meaning all boils down to context. On the other hand, you may casually be referred to as an outsider to your face by a smiling local, with no ill intent meant.
Although hardly exhaustive, here are a few common terms for foreigners you may hear while in Asia:
- China: Laowai
- Thailand: Farang
- Japan: Gaijin
- Indonesia: Buleh
- Malaysia: Orang Putih
- Singapore: Ang Mo
- Maldives: Faranji
Farang in Thailand
Sometimes heard as "fah-lang," farang is a word commonly used in Thailand to describe Western people (there are some exceptions) who are not Thai. The word is rarely ever used in a derogatory fashion; Thai people may even refer to you and your friends as farang in your presence.
There are some exceptions when farang is exceptionally offensive. One expression sometimes directed at low-budget backpackers in Thailand who are rude, dirty, or too cheap to pay is farang kee nok — literally, "bird poop farang."
Buleh in Indonesia
Buleh (sounds like "boo-leh") is used frequently in Indonesia to refer to foreigners. Unlike farang, it does have some negative implications. The word means "can" or "able" — the idea being that locals can get away with more while dealing with foreigners because a buleh may not know the local customs or regular prices. You can tell her anything or use an old scam on her and she will believe you. She's a buleh.
Slightly confusing, buleh is used as the legitimate word for "can" or "able" in Malaysia; you'll hear it daily. Indonesians more often use the word bisa (sounds like "bee-sah") for "can" and reserve buleh to refer to foreigners. Simply put: don't get riled every time you hear the word — people may not be talking about you!
Orang putih translates literally as "white person," and although it sounds racial, the term is rarely used that way. Orang putih is actually a common term for light-skinned foreigners in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Laowai in China
Laowai (sounds like "laaw wye") can be translated to "old outsider" or "old foreigner." Although you will undoubtedly hear the term many times a day as people excitedly chat about your presence, their intentions are rarely rude.
The first annual Miss Laowai Beauty Pageant was held in 2010 to seek out the "hottest foreigners in China." The pageant came much to the dismay of the Chinese government which has been trying futilely to curb use of the word laowai in media and daily speech.
The term laowai is often used playfully, and referring to yourself as one will certainly get some giggles out of the hotel staff. Along with knowing about laowai and how to say hello in Chinese, knowing some common expressions will help you to communicate.
Other Terms for Foreigners in China
While laowai is certainly the most common and least threatening, you may hear these other terms uttered in your general vicinity:
- Waiguoren: Waiguoren (pronounced "wai-gwah-rin") simply means "foreign person."
- Meiguoren: Meiguoren (pronounced "may-gwah-rin") is the correct term for American. Relax; mei means beautiful!
- Lao Dongxi: Fortunately not common, lao dongxi (pronounced "laaw-dong-shee") means "silly old fool" and is obviously derogatory.
- Gwai Lo: Gwai lo — with several variations — is a Cantonese word heard more often in Hong Kong or Southern China. The word translates loosely to "foreign devil" or "ghost man." Although the origins were derogatory and negative, the word is often used informally to describe foreign visitors with light skin.
- Sai Yan: Sai yan (pronounced "sigh-yahn") is sometimes used to refer to Western people.
- Guizi: Commonly used, guizi is a centuries-old word for devil in Mandarin Chinese that is often reserved for foreigners. Riben guizi is a Japanese devil (foreigner) while a yang guizi is a Western devil. Other variations include yingguo guizi (English devil) and faguo guizi (French devil).