The Joy and Pain of Travelling While Non-white

Being called a lao wai in China, agaanib in Egypt and wazungu in East Africa, and how it feels to finally be the same, but only as one of the “foreigners”.

Being a Lao Wai in China

In China, I was broadly considered a lao wai (老外). This loosely translates to “esteemed outsider”, and is a somewhat respectful term for a foreigner, so much so that in a place like a bank people would use professional communication between each other to say things like “I’m serving a lao wai who wants to transfer money…”. In the general category of lao wai are Europeans, British, even Middle Eastern and West Asian people. Basically, everyone but other Asians and black people.

Being an Agnabi in Egypt

In Egypt, we were both classified as agaanib (اجانب), the plural form of agnabi (اجنبي) which simply means “foreigner”. An agnabi is anyone who’s not from Egypt and isn’t of Arab descent. If you’re of Arab descent they’ll call you what you are, e.g. a Bedouin, a Moroccan, Lebanese or whatever.

Being a Mzungu in East Africa

Lastly, we’re learning what it means to be wazungu (the plural of mzungu) in East Africa.

The privilege of being able to disappear

There are very few places in the world where we can be wilfully ignored completely. Where we can disappear.

I write about intense language learning, skill development, and intentional culture shock at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store