Why I Write “Westerner”: The Essence of a Word

3779872335_41f7f0a4c9_o_dDuring the writing process I often think about style issues, namely things that should be kept consistent throughout an entire article, and even across articles. For example, I long ago made the decision to use businessperson or businesspeople, as opposed to businessman, as the latter implies sexism. Also, I consistently discuss issues more diplomatically, not because I’m happy about everything that is going on in China, or because I agree with or accept every part of Chinese culture and society. Instead, I believe that cultural barriers are overcome through reflection and understanding, not by looking for points to disagree on.

So with this mindset, I regularly use the term Westerner in my articles to refer to non-Chinese expatriates, professionals, students, and travelers in China. However, the word is not perfect, and I have agonized over it a good deal while writing and proofreading. It’s clear that Westerner, when used in the classic sense, only refers to those hailing from North America or Western Europe. I also understand that non-Chinese living in China, as well as my readers, come from all over the world. However, I have yet to come up with a better word.

Here are two important reasons why I choose to use the term Westerner:

  1. I’d rather not use foreigner: One very important reason why I use Westerner, is perhaps due to my dislike of the term foreigner. The Chinese often use the terms 外国人 (wài guó rén, foreigner) or 老外 (lǎo wài, slang term for foreigner) to refer to non-Chinese. I don’t overly mind these terms in and of themselves, and foreigner might actually be the most appropriate word simply in terms of scope. But in China, the word foreigner will always serve to emphasize someone’s status as an outsider. This, by itself, is more than enough for me to look for another word, as one of my goals in China is to pursue unity and understanding, not emphasize differences.
  2. I don’t assume I understand your challenges in China: I don’t like to present myself as someone who has all the answers on China for everyone. I was born in raised in the United States, and so it’s natural that I know that region best, in addition to China. While I aim to help everyone I can by sharing my insights on, and experiences in China, I understand that people from different countries and cultures may face their own unique challenges in adapting to life and work in China. What may work for me or other Americans, may not, for whatever reason, work for someone from South America, Eastern Europe or Africa. I feel I would be doing these readers a disservice by broadly assuming my experiences can always be applied to them. Therefore in using Westerner I mean to say that I am confident my insights on China can be used and applied by those from North America and Europe; I sincerely hope they can also be used and applied by people all around the world.

So that’s why I consistently use the term Westerner, though I’m always open to other suggestions. After reading the above points, if you feel there is another term that can better represent all the non-Chinese living, working and traveling in China, I’d be very glad to hear from you. After all, writing can be said to be an art form (one which I have yet to perfect), and there is always room for improvement.

And lastly, if you have read and enjoyed my articles, but feel your experience has been different due to your specific culture or country of origin, I’d like to hear your story too. You can:

  • Post your experiences in the comments sections of specific articles
  • Email me to discuss specific issues at greater length
  • Author a guest blog post to share more off your personal experiences with the world

I look forward to hearing from you!


Thanks for reading!

Do you have any suggestions on proper words to describe non-Chinese expatiates in China? Can you think of examples of how non-Chinese from different countries might have different reactions to various facets of Chinese culture? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow the China Culture Corner to receive regular updates by email!


Published by Sean Upton-McLaughlin

Sean is a business and communications professional based out of Shenzhen, China. He has worked for Chinese companies for the majority of his career, including well-known smartphone and technology firms. Through his mastery of the Chinese language and culture, as well as his empathy and understanding towards the Chinese point of view, he advises Chinese companies on successfully going global.

16 thoughts on “Why I Write “Westerner”: The Essence of a Word

    1. Tim, thanks for sharing the article. It certainly reflects some of the issues I’ve experienced in China, and its interesting to hear it may be tied to Confucianism. Thee good news, I think, is that the outsider things is more of a society thing than an individual thing. It’s much easier for non-Chinese to be accepted by Chinese friends, and Chinese people that know non-Chinese generally have different viewpoints than the uninitiated.

      I’m not sure about the term “non-citizens” though, it seems like an overly complex way of saying non-Chinese. Thanks for the suggestion though!


  1. Seems the only ones replying here are Americans…
    Laowai is an honorary title, so I’d rather be addressed like that than by waiguoren. I come from a very small country – and small countries have a lot more abroad than big countries, so we look at it differently.

    We ARE foreigners in China. China is the land of Chinese people which has been at times hermetically closed to outsiders. The name China is a western invention; to Chinese it is Zhong Guo – the middle land, the center of the world and of civilization. And let’s face it, it is the only civilization that has lasted and has developed for over 4000 years – with a very structured society, class system and culture. We’re outsiders to that and will remain outsiders for ever.

    I have been interested in and absorbing every book on Chinese culture since I was a 12 year old boy (including all the books of H.A. Giles from around 1900), have done business with China for 35 years, am living in China for 15 years, am married to a Chinese woman, whose father is as hardcore Maoist xenophobe (who hates all foreigners except me 🙂 ) and still I’m just scratching the surface of the Chinese culture and way of thinking…

    The first opening up was forced upon them by the 8 countries. All other parts of the world are melting pots of cultures and foreign influences. Yes, it would be weird if you would ask about the Mexicans order. It’s indeed easy to say: how about Mr. Sanchez’ order? But what if it were a Martian? What would you say if that Martian said: I wanna be an earthling… I can speak earth-hua and I have lived here for a hundred years…

    In villages have experienced people pulling my slightly lighter coloured hair, and throngs of children walking behind me chanting laowai, laowai hello? hello?. And people telling me in Chinese that they cannot talk to me because they can not speak my language while the interpreter is literally parroting my Chinese to them… I do feel like a Martian some times.

    Oh… That the overwhelming mass of the Chinese smile as if they see heaven when they state the country where they would like to live is USA, is simply because they are totally ignorant about the world and only know what they are allowed to know through state controlled media.


    1. Thanks for the comment Jos.

      The term Laowai began more as an honorary title, though I personally would argue that its meaning has shifted slightly over time. It DOES matter how a Chinese person phrases it, but a lot of the time the meaning seems to be more that of outsider. But so long as a specific expat or foreign national doesn’t mind the term it can’t hurt I guess.

      I don’t agree foreigners will remain outsiders in China forever, and that’s a key reason I work in China and why I started writing about China. If we simply accept the status quo things will not get better, and I would prefer to work towards a China and Western (also non-Chinese) world that has mutual understanding and respect.


  2. I think the best solution is to not use any term that refers to the non-chinese origin unless necessary, if so then use foreigner. I believe westerner is quite confusing and a bit euro-centric.


    1. Thanks for commenting. My worry is also that Westerner is too Euro-centric, but I also personally dislike foreigner even more. Yes, we are indeed foreigners, but I prefer not to emphasize this in my writing as I believe through learning about China, non-Chinese can adapt to the local customs and live comfortably in China, almost as if they were not foreign…


  3. Westerner is a lazy term or label. Where the individual or individuals are from is far more important. I am from the USA, California, Long beach and my world there is a world apart from the Chinese. Outsiders are most often tolerated by the Chinese. I know this from experience, as I live in China, in Guangxi Province. Theirs is a reasoning based on the oblique form of communicating. Direct communication or challenging questions about behaviors are abhorred, and frowned upon. Losing face is the predominant behavior motivation. The Chinese and the USA will never unite, even with a ton of attempts to be human and accept each other’s culture. My question is simple – when asked where they would most like to live, the Chinese all state, AMERICA, and then they smile. I agree with their answer.


    1. Hi there William, thanks for the message.

      I would certainly agree that the use of “Westerner” could be considered lazy if the nationality of the person you are talking about is known, or if there are only several nationalities present/being discussed.

      However the problem I face as a writer discussing “Westerners” or “foreigners” in China is that the major groups of non-Chinese come from so many countries that it is not practical to list them all every single time. Therefore it is necessary to find some term that can serve as a catch all, and one that is not “foreigner.”

      So, any other ideas?


      1. Hi Sean, I was at Starbucks here in Taipei this past Saturday & the barista kept asking the other barista about the “foreigner’s” order. I didn’t care for it–it brought to mind: what if I were working at an American Starbucks and kept asking, for example: Is the Mexican’s sandwich ready yet?
        Instant corporate-level complaint, I’m certain! Maybe a comment on the Internet to boot!

        I plan to write Starbucks’ corporate HQ & offer to teach some cultural sensitivity & language classes (for a fee, of course!).

        OK, out the door to the weekly Mandarin lessons. Thanks for the thought-provoking article and comments! 🙂


        1. Great story Daniel, though keep in mind the girls probably didn’t mean anything by it. Starbucks could certainly offer some training to its staff, the key question would still remain – what to call non-Chinese if the words “foreigner” or “laowai” can’t be used.

          An easy way to handle the situation, especially if you go to that particular place a lot and they know you, would be to go up to them and tell them in a lighthearted manner that your name isn’t “foreigner” but instead “帅哥” or “台湾之友.” Poke a little fun at them without making them feel embarrassed or put off.


          1. Hi Sean, I agree with you. I wonder, though, why they don’t do what I would do were I on their side of the counter: “Is this gentleman’s sandwich ready yet,” etc. with no reference at all to the customer’s ethnicity, citizenship, immigration status and so forth (as I assume they do when discussing Taiwanese customers’ orders). A cultural issue, maybe?


            1. Daniel, interestingly I have been referred to as 这位先生 (this gentleman) before, so its definitely part of a Chinese person’s vocabulary. I couldn’t say why one person chooses that, and another chooses foreigner or laowai.


    Have you yet asked other internationals if they prefer to be called “foreigners”? Especially Asians and Africans.

    RE: “American”… “USAmerican” is more precise



    1. Thanks for commenting Kevin.

      I have indeed previously talked to some other Westerners/expats/non-Chinese in China, and a significant portion don’t like the term “foreigner” too much. Now I’m sure there are some that are ok with it, just like there are some that are OK with the term Laowai – everyone has a slightly different perspective after all.

      “American” is of course preferable when talking about someone coming from the USA, though it doesn’t help too much when describing people from other countries.


  5. Hi Sean, I’ve packed up all of my reference books since I won’t be teaching in the military academy system in Taiwan any more after this month (moving on to self-employment as a 1-on-1 & small-group English & Spanish teacher + Spanish-to-English translator; wish me luck!). One of the books that’s deep in the bowels of a cardboard box is my style guide from APA (& 1 or 2 other style guides). I wonder what APA & other style guides might say about terms such as “Westerner” (etc.) for non-Chinese–or if there’s a Chinese equivalent to APA & other style guides that dictates what to say & write in academic papers. For example, if memory serves, APA says I have to write “Asian” rather than “Oriental” when discussing people from Asia.

    Sean or others out there: any knowledge of style guides, journalistic standards, etc.?


    1. Hey Daniel.

      I haven’t seen anything specific in stye guides in terms of Westerner, except that Western is always capitalized, and that it refers to people from America/European countries. I agree on the world Asian, I don’t think anyone uses oriental anymore.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: