Dear Chinese student,

If you’re reading this, you have already decided to seek higher education in an English-speaking country. Congratulations! Going abroad takes a lot of courage, and I’m sure you’ll do very well.

Before you go, though, I’d like to send you a modest list of things to remember when using the English language. While your friends and teachers will no doubt have suggestions of their own, you should keep this list handy. Without further adieu:

The words “beautiful” and “interesting” are neither beautiful nor interesting.

When asked about your favorite food, you don’t have to cite vegetables because they’re good for your health. And that’s health, not healthy.

If you use the phrase “in a word”, you only get one word. That’s it.

As the late New York Times columnist William Safire once noted, “avoid cliches like the plague”. Every coin may have two sides, but being reminded of that is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It’s OK to say something negative about your hometown, province, or China itself. In fact, it’s refreshing.

Though technically accurate, describing your occupation as “worker” and your aspiration as “boss” isn’t descriptive enough.

Yes, we know China is a developing country.

You can’t relax yourself, as fun as it may sound.

And remember: as embarrassed as you may be about your English, it’s a hell of a lot better than our Chinese will ever be.

Have fun!


Your collective lost laowai.


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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. Speak for yourself! In this day and age perhaps we can start discarding the stereotype (perpetuated on both sides) that ‘laowai’ can never and will never have Chinese skills that match up to the English skills of the brightest Chinese students.

    Other than that it was a good post!

    • You’re absolutely right- many, many laowai speak fantastic Chinese. I merely included that sentence so as not to appear overly condescending to Chinese students- it’s good that they’re reminded that they’re not the only ones who struggle with a language.

  2. “Every coin may have two sides,”

    NO! Coins are three dimensional objects, they must all have at least three sides! Between heads and tails, there is a certain thickness of metal which translates into the thin side that one can roll a coin along, or even spin it on if you’re that way inclined.

    Sorry, I’ve been suffering from a sudden plague of two-sided coins in my students’ writing of late.

  3. man, the shanghai kids i know on their way to the world have better english than i do, and are cooler than most kids they will meet when they get to california or edinburgh or wherever.

    i tell them not to worry, forgive the locals, and that their english is great.

  4. Pingback: 译者 | 《译者》每日原文推荐 – 2011/6/14 | 穿墙链接

  5. “If you use the phrase ‘in a word”’ you only get one word. That’s it.”

    哈哈. . .When I see this on papers, I tell students to correct it to the actual number of words that follow in the sentence. Ex. “in five words”, “in thirteen words”

    Other aggravating cliches:
    – “what’s more”
    – “last but not least”
    – “and so on”
    – “the society”

  6. Pingback: Interesting reads | Kimfucius says…

      • So what is a Lost Laowai to you? We all get Laowai (and all the baggage associated with that word), but I always thought the Lost in the title alluded to a geographical setting. I guess in your case, Lost seems to imply a general sense of cluelessness and immaturity.

        I’m not taking a swipe at this site, as almost all of the articles are uniformly funny and/or insightful. I just don’t understand your motivation for posting such a pointless ‘letter’.

      • First of all, I like how you put scare quotes around “letter”. You’re entitled to your opinion about the quality of the post, which you exercise here quite clearly. But I think we can all agree that this was, in fact, a letter.

        The point of the post was of course to achieve world fame and influence and to somehow parlay that into tremendous financial gain. That was my motivation. Duh!

      • Also- I think if you put on your thinking cap Jason, you might divine one or two additional meanings to the phrase “lost laowai” rather than simply geographic location. (That being said, perhaps Ryan can create a blog for laowai who are actually lost. Like “I’m hungover in the French Concession and can’t find Element Fresh. Anyone know where it is?”)

        I wrote the blog post for the amusement of myself and for people who have encountered similar mistakes from Chinese students in the course of teaching English as a second language in China. I’m sorry you didn’t like it, but oh well- can’t please everyone. If you actually found it offensive to the Chinese I shudder to imagine what you’d think after perusing the archives of Talk Talk China or Sinocidal.

        So if you think my post sucks, that’s your call. But Jesus man, lighten the hell up.

    • Why is it that virtually everyone that throws the word “patronizing” into their comments seem to miss the irony when contrasted with the rest of their comments. Condescendingly criticizing what someone chooses to refer to themselves as (you can’t “confess” to being a laowai — you can either embrace the sometimes derogatory word, or be offended by it) is patronizing.

  7. It wasn’t irony. Calling it that is just a lazy excuse for your screwing up and publishing something offensive and stupid.

    • Irony – a striking contrast between the real and apparent situation.
      Apparent situation: Kaini Nai Nai criticizes Matt’s article as being patronizing
      Real situation: Kaini Nai Nai hypocritically uses condescension in her criticism to add weight to her argument by putting herself above someone who is a “self confessed ‘laowai'”.


      If it was offensive and stupid — I didn’t screw up. I like offensive and stupid. If you don’t, you’re welcome to go elsewhere.

  8. I think including a sentence that you clearly don’t believe in order to avoid sounding condescending indicates that you were aware of the nature of this post and should set off your own alarm bells as to how it might be perceived.
    Whilst this article contains many truths that will be appreciated by those of us who have spent time in China working with Language learners I do feel it reaches the point of cliche and, whether you meant it or not, does emanate both a tinge of arrogance and a lack of empathy.
    A far more pertinent and positive letter might deal with the scarily utopian images that many candidates I interview still hold regarding various countries or good advice on positive ways to integrate within the communities they find themselves in.
    I think overall the key word is positivity. Does your social commentary have anything to add or is it merely a self indulgence?
    That said this post did motivate me to actually log in to twitter (a bimonthly occurrence) and reply so it clearly has merit in that respect:)

  9. It wasn’t my favorite article by the writer, but it had quite a few good points, esp. the Saffire one (should share that with my students) and the boss one. I’ve known some jerk laowai, and I don’t think Matt is anything like them. If you really think the article is so bad, apply for a writing position with Ryan and prove how great you are.

  10. These are really thoughtful tips , especially that negative words one haha . any advice for an oversea student ,who just about to go back to China in a week? Feeling little bit “beautiful” and “interesting “

  11. From the owner of Lost Laowai about this site:
    “If you’re looking for standards of decency… it’s not on the label, so you’ll need to go elsewhere.”

    Figures, you do enjoy slating other people you don’t like that don’t match your, er… “standards”

    • Who did I “slate”? I’m not entirely sure I know how to “slate” someone. Not that this is likely to unruffle feathers, but you’re the one that came here a-slatin’, I simply pointed out the blackness of your pot.

  12. I have been reading this the various articles on this website for a few weeks now. Everything I have read here has been nothing but the honest truth about how things run in China.

    I can’t understand why people are getting so defensive. I’m going to throw in my “you have too much free time trump here”, because it’s bloody true! If you really see your self as a Chinese sympathiser then why the hell are you on a random blog bad mouthing these typical “White American” guys off. Instead go and use your time to give your students are hearty education to stop them saying words like “Interesting and Beautiful”.

  13. I’d also suggest not using the Chinese pause word ‘nigguh’ when speaking English abroad. People at my work do this and it drives me crazy. I’ve had visions of Chinese students walking into a convenience store in Brixton, London, and saying “Nigguh, can I have a, nigguh, nigguh, book of stamps?”.

    Uh oh, somebody’s going to be offended by that too, aren’t they?

  14. Good article. Good treatment of the witty commenters.

    I have written a book about Chinese use of English that is soon to be published. This article confirms many of the points I make in the book.

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