The first time I heard myself described as a " gweipo ", having been in Hong Kong for only a few weeks, I was taken aback. After checking the dictionary, that is. Gwei : devil or ghost. Po : grandmother, hag, old woman. So, I was a devil hag, eh? That was not exactly a compliment, seeing as I was 28 at the time. It sounded harsh and much more negative than the slang (racial slur) for Caucasians I had become used to in China: laowai . As well as being gender neutral (I have to chuckle sometimes when I hear foreign women in Hong Kong glibly refer to themselves as " gweilo women" - for the record, only men can be gweilo : "devil geezer"), laowai is slightly more endearing, perhaps on a par with "Johnny Foreigner", "Taffy" or "Jerry". Lao means "old" and wai "outside", short for waiguoren : "outside country people". But " lao " doesn't only mean old in years but also "venerable" and it's what many in China call each other instead of Mr and Mrs to indicate familiarity. So, a hell of a lot better than "devil hag". Wherever I went in China, the streets and markets had reverberated to excited cries of " Laowai ! Laowai !" followed by giggling. Maybe they were just pointing out to their friends that I was foreign in case they thought a blond, blue-eyed woman was some kind of weird Asian. In 2002, I stayed for a month in a remote village in Sichuan province. On the first day I took a walk along a long, empty, ruler-straight stretch of road through rice paddies and sunflower fields. Two peasants stood watching me approach from about a kilometre away. They stared and stared as I came closer and closer, staring still as I passed them. When I was a few metres away, I heard one of them remark knowingly, " Laowai ". "Yep," the other one agreed. Then silence. I thought of the Sichuan geezers the other day while having a not very good lunch in the food court at Tung Chung's Citygate. There I was, chewing something called "Taiwanese noodles with chicken cutlets", when I smelled the familiar whiff of cheap Chinese cigarettes and heard a raspy voice say, " Laowai ". A Chinese tourist with brown teeth stood grinning, his wife gawping behind him. Suddenly I didn't like " laowai ". When I'm visiting them, no problem, but here they were on my turf - not far from my house, in fact - and still thought I was an "old outside". Not the same. Not the same at all.