Laowai, Farang, Gwai Lo, and Other Words for Foreigners

Hey...What Did you Call Me?

laowai in china
••• Children, in particular, are fascinated by laowais in China. Greg Rodgers

Farang (Thailand), Laowai (China), Gwai Lo (Hong Kong) — there are many words for foreigners in Asia, but not all are considered rude or derogatory!

Often accompanied by stares, gasps, and maybe even blatant pointing, the term laowai will undoubtedly ring out 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 particularly unapologetic, and you'll often have locals with good intentions shyly ask to take a photo standing next to you!

Laowai isn't the only word directed at Western tourists in Asia; nearly every country has at least one word for referring to foreigners. Farang is an accepted word in Thailand for describing visitors of all types. As in any language, the context, setting, and tone differentiate between endearment and insult. 

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. Given the right inflection and body language, even the words "foreigner" or "visitor" can be made to sound impolite — it all boils down to context.

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 was only opened to tourists in relatively recent times. 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 away by force.

These colonists and explorers who made initial contact were hardly pleasant ambassadors; they created a racial divide which persists even today.

Although the governments in many Asian countries have started 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 doesn't do much to curb one's culture shock.

Common Terms for Foreigners in Asia

Although hardly exhaustive, here are a few common terms you may hear while in Asia:

  • China: Laowai
  • Thailand: Farang
  • Japan: Gaijin
  • Malaysia and Indonesia: Buleh or Orang Putih
  • Singapore: Ang Mo

Farang in Thailand

Farang is a word used commonly in Thailand describing any white (there are some exceptions) person who is not Thai. The word is rarely ever used in a derogatory fashion; Thai people will even refer to you and your friends as farangs in your presence.

There are times when farang is exceptionally offensive. One expression directed sometimes directed at low-budget backpackers in Thailand who are rude, dirty, or too cheap is farang kee nok — literally, "bird poop farang."

Buleh in Malaysia and Indonesia

Buleh, although used frequently in Indonesia to refer to foreigners, does have some negative origins.

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.

Orang putih translates literally as "white person," and although it sounds racial, the term is never used that way. Orang putih is actually a common term for light-skinned foreigners in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Show off your buleh prowess while in Malaysia by dropping some of these common expressions in Bahasa.

Laowai in China

Laowai 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 to curb the 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. At the very least, know these common expressions before traveling to China.

Other Terms for Foreigners in China

While laowai is certainly the most common, 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 and obviously derogatory, lao dongxi (pronounced "laaw-dong-shee") means "silly old fool."
  • 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.