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Nationalities in Chinese are pretty easy – it’s the same pattern for every nationality. The pattern is composed of the country one is from + the word for people in Chinese 人 (Rén). For example, Thailand in Chinese is 泰国 (Tàiguó), so a Thai person will be 泰国 + 人 = 泰国人 (Tàiguó rén). If you are an American, you will be called 美国人 (Měiguó rén) in Chinese. If you are French they will call you 法国人 (Fàguó rén). But sometimes it’s even easier – because before someone in China will ask where are you from, they will already label you as foreigner. Without getting into distinguishing countries, let’s learn the different names for locals and foreigners.
中国人 (Zhōngguó rén)
The word for Chinese follows the nationality pattern: 中国 means China and together with 人 it means Chinese – 中国人. For example:
Zài zhōngguó fànguǎn er chī cài de shíhou yīnggāi gēn zhōngguó rén yīyàng yòng mù zhì kuàizi
When eating in a Chinese restaurant one should use wooden chopsticks like Chinese do.
华is a formal name for China and the Chinese language. Like 中国, when 华 is attached to 人it means Chinese person or Chinese descent. Sometimes (depends on the context) it bears an additional meaning of a Chinese descent that maybe doesn’t live in China anymore. The Chinese definition for 华人 is:
Huárén shì duì yuán jūyú dōngyà zhōngguó dìqū zú yì qúntǐ jí qí hòudài de fànchēng
华人 is the general term for ethnic groups and their descents who originally came from China region.
侨 means “to reside abroad”, “a person residing abroad”. When following the formal name for China 华 it means Chinese residing abroad or a Chinese expat. It’s the first name in our list for Chinese people who doesn’t include the word 人, but it refers to people nonetheless. For example:
Nà huáqiáo xuǎnzéle huí dào zhōngguó zuòwéi zhōngshēn jūzhù dì
Those Chinese expats chose to return to China for good.
本地人 (Běndì rén)
本地人is the Chinese word for locals or natives. It doesn’t refer necessarily to Chinese, but to any place’s locals. If, for example, you are visiting 希腊 (Xīlà, Greece) you can say:
Wǒmen kěyǐ ràng běndì rén gěi wǒmen tuījiàn yījiā lǚguǎn
We can ask one of the locals to recommend a hotel.
外国人 (Wàiguó rén)
外 is a short form of 外边 (Wàibian) or 外面(Wàimiàn) and means foreign or external. 国 is a short of 国家 (Guójiā) and means nation, state. Together 外国means foreign country, and with 人means foreign people. If you have ever visited China you probably heard that phrase a lot, this is the common word in Chinese for foreigners. So before you are 美国人， 泰国人， 法国人etc, in Chinese you are first 外国人. For example:
Yǒu de wàiguó rén bù xíguàn yòng kuàizi chīfàn
Some foreigners are not accustomed to eating with chopsticks.
老is an affectionate term used when addressing acquaintances or friends to indicate intimacy or informality. Together with 外it became such a common name for foreigners, and refers to any foreigner, strange or familiar. Though 老外still bears more friendly intention than 外国人.
Yǒu de lǎowài bù xíguàn chī là de.
Some foreigners are not used to eating spicy food.
外国朋友 (Wàiguó péngyǒu)
Another phrase you may hear in China that refers to foreigners is 外国朋友 (Wàiguó péngyǒu) = foreign friend. Your Chinese friends may introduce you like this:
Zhè shì wǒ de wàiguó péngyǒu, tā shì cóng yīngguó lái de
This is my foreign friend, he is from England.
中国人 Zhōngguó rén = Chinese person, Chinese people
泰国人 Tàiguó rén = Thai person, Thai people
美国人 Měiguó rén = American
法国人 Fàguó rén = French
华人 Huárén = Chinese person, Chinese people
华侨 Huáqiáo = overseas Chinese
本地人 Běndì rén = local person, locals
希腊 Xīlà = Greece
外国人 Wàiguó rén = foreigner
老外 Lǎowài = foreigner
外国朋友 Wàiguó péngyǒu = foreign friend
英国Yīngguó = England
For more reading about nationalities check out this post.
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