Sunday, 24 July 2011

Who's Asian?

In my class, Samah, from the Middle-east, and Bao, from China, are discussing the word Asian and who it applies to.

"But I am Asian," Samah says. "Of course I am Asian! What else can I be?"

Bao can't get over this. He shakes his head. "I think you are like her," he says, glancing at me. "I think you are--" Words fail him. He lifts his hands and lets them fall.

Samah purses her lips. "I am from Middle- east." She appeals to me. "Middle-eastern is Asian, it is true, isn't it?"

I nod. I'm not sure whether Samah is technically Asian, but the Middle-east is still east, after all. "My Turkish students always said they were Asian," I tell Bao. "Some of them had red hair and green eyes, but they were proud to be descended from Asians."

Samah nods eagerly. "It is true! Turkish, Middle-eastern, Indian -- we are Asian too, like Chinese."

Bao's mouth hangs open as he studies Samah. Her skin is whiter than his -- whiter than mine, in fact -- and although her hair is perfectly covered by her hijab, I'm guessing that it's brown, not black. But she insists that she is Asian -- as Asian as he is -- and we have had a fun time discussing race, skin color, and the concept of identity. Bao, who has spent all of his eighteen years in a small town in China, has learned a lot more than English in this class. For the remainder of the class period, I can see him studying Samah surreptitiously. It is clear that he has never realized what a diverse group he belongs to.

Not all of my students have been so eager to be known as Asians. During my second year teaching in Tokyo, one of my Japanese students took me to task for referring to her and her classmates as Asians. "You call us Asian, but we are Orientals," she corrected me.

"That term is dated," I told her. "The expression everybody uses now is Asian."

She shook her head. "No! When I live in London, Asian people are Indian, Pakistani. We Japanese are Orientals."

"Japanese-Americans never call themselves Orientals," I said. "They call themselves Asian." I felt silly arguing with her over what she chose to call herself, but I couldn't help it. I didn't want her to walk away from my classroom using a dated expression. It also irritated me that she was so anxious to distance herself from Indians and Pakistanis.

"Asian people are dark," she insisted. "Different from us."

We finally had to agree to disagree, though I urged her not to refer to other Asians as Orientals if she ever visited the States. And if you do call yourself Oriental and people correct you, would you please tell them your teacher told you not to? I felt like adding.

"Asian people from Turkey," Samah tells Bao, her dark eyes flashing. "From Jordan, from Syria, from Kazakhstan, from Nepal--" She ticks them off on her fingers, one by one.

Bao is impressed. "I did not know so many Asian," he says, shaking his head.

I wish I'd had Samah around when I was teaching in Tokyo.


Charles Gramlich said...

I don't really understand why mores change in the way groups are named. I never really cared what my group was named. I've always just called my group Caucasians, or sometimes Occidentals. I don't see why Oriental is a bad word, or why Asian is good. Just to me, Asian seems a much broader term than Oriental. But whatever folks want, that is Ok with me.

Pat said...

Especially for people of my era. Most of us desperately do not wish to offend, learn the new OK forms of address but have difficulty remembering the more subtle ones.
To me Orientals sounds mysterious and romantic. You see the problem?

Mimi and Tilly said...

I had a really similar conversation when I was teaching in Japan.

MG Higgins said...

It's fascinating how we identify ourselves. And how sensitive we can be about that identity.

Bish Denham said...

It would be nice if we could just call ourselves humans and then state what country we're from.

I'm a United States human. And you are a human from where?

Vijaya said...

This is so true. The Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other oriental friends I had distinguished themselves as such because they didn't want to be lumped in with the Indians and Pakistanis. Asians are a LARGE group. And Indians are everywhere, mwhahahahaha.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I've always wondered about those terms "Eastern", "Western"... they are all relative. Do people in China refer to us as "The West"? We are actually east of their location. We refer to people in Europe as Europeans, not Easterners. I have heard Orientals being referred to Indians. The terms are nebulous, indistinct.

The one that made me cringe was when my mother-in-law referred to people in South America as "swarthy".

Kit said...

It's a different sort of minefield here in South Africa too, where your language as well as your skin colour is an identifier and descendants of peoples from three different continents go into the make-up of the country, all now, generations later, equally South African, in their own minds at least.

Kim Ayres said...

So what about the different kinds of Russians?

Robin said...

Learned something new yet again. I didn't know "Asian" encompassed so much territory. I'm glad you told me before I started arguing with people about what they are.

Hey! I think I'm Asian!

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- Although there are lots of disparaging words for so-called white people, they haven't had the complicated history and the overall ugliness that some of the terms used for minority groups have had. So if a given minority want to be referred to by a different term, it's okay with me too. Just like 'color' and 'colored' aren't bad per se, 'Oriental' or 'of the Orient' isn't either. But the history of this term is associated with cluelessness, so I'll snub it too.

Pat -- Yes, I do! There's an added difficulty: 'Oriental' doesn't irritate British east-Asians half as much as it does American east-Asians. I've heard people who mean no disrespect or disparagement use labels like 'colored' or 'Oriental' here, and I've cringed. But I know that this is partly cultural; when I was in the hospital having my first baby, a West Indian nurse was blithely wearing a 'golliwog' pin on her uniform and I could hardly look at it. She seemed to have no idea it was disparaging -- or she had a keen sense of irony.

M & T -- Did you? What a relief. I used to feel like an idiot, trying to get people to stop using 'Oriental' in Japan.

MG -- Yes. I've been irritated by a few terms that others had no idea I could find offensive.

Bish -- Wouldn't that be great? What a shame we'll probably have to wait for an alien attack before we can adopt such a useful system.

Vijaya -- To be fair to my many Japanese friends who are happy to belong to the big Asian club, not all East-Asians are like that! If you ever have the chance, listen to Russell Peters' comedy routine about Chinese and Indians -- it's coarse, but very funny. Russell Peters is a Canadian of Indian descent, and on the subject of race and cultural differences, he's absolutely hilarious.

Robert -- It's all so mixed up, it's pretty funny, really, and it's getting even more so. You get Australians of mixed Asian background: are they Western? Asian? And Caucasians raised in the Far East don't like to refer to themselves as Western. We'll just have to make it through this muddle until we're all so mixed up that nobody cares anymore.

Kit -- I once met a South African who had Indian, African, and Caucasian blood -- and like you have said, if anybody asked her what she 'was', her answer was 'South African'. I think that where we grow up has a lot to do with our identity -- as much or more so than what our 'origins' may be.

Kim -- Interesting: a good percentage of Russians are certainly Eastern, aren't they? I'll run that by Samah in our next class. :)

Robin -- Lucky you -- play it up. I've got a little Asian in me too, courtesy of the ancestors who made their way over the Bering Strait way back when. Unfortunately, all the other stuff pretty much cancels it out, but I still tan better than the people around me.

Anne Spollen said...

I think it's actually important that people agree on how they identify their ethnicity. I have a friend from Pakistan who cringes every time someone says, "Oh, is that your friend from India?" and I get there is a long history there and the distinction is important. It helps folks feel connected to that group; the downside is it isolates them from others at the same time.

Lynne said...

I was talking to someone about something like this the other day. I was asking where her finance was from. Or really where his family came from. She said something about how white people are so hung up about where they come from but blacks aren't. She's from the island of Dominica and I pointed out to her how people from Kenya will ask if she's from there. And this just proves it to me we want to make ourselves part of a group one way or another.

Uma Krishnaswami said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uma Krishnaswami said...

Sorry, posted that before I was done. The term "oriental" may be more offensive in the US because of the work of Edward Said, especially his landmark book, Orientalism.

The problem with the word "oriental" is that it is not descriptive but reductive. If, on account of my birth and culture, I get dubbed an "oriental" and that in turn connotes "romantic and mysterious" I am sorry but I don't see how that is supposed to be complimentary in any way. By definition the term refuses to allow me the complexity allowed to people not from "the orient." The term itself was a made-up confection of British and European writers who for a couple of centuries spread their highly inventive notions of what these places "east of Suez" were like. Needless to say, no one asked the locals. It all dates back to the days when Victorian Egyptomaniacs held mummy-unwrapping parties and notions of Empire entitled colonial rulers to loot and pillage from everywhere they could. I hope we've come some way from that.

Why do such mores change? Because as more voices get added to the discussion, I would hope, viewpoints broaden and become more inclusive.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- I see why the distinctions are important too, but whenever I find people who are keen to bridge the gaps, I feel all the happier. The main thing is finding a way to celebrate the differences without turning them into walls.

Lynne -- I was once at a party where there were an interesting mix of people: Africans, African-Americans, Caribbeans of African descent, and Indonesians who looked African. And I can promise you that all of those people were keen to find out where the others were from. From my own personal experience, it's not just white people who are interested in origins.

Uma -- Thank you! I hesitated to write this post, partly because I don't like sharing negative comments or opinions of others (that Japanese student was fairly atypical and I would hate for readers to think that her attitude was common in Japan). But I've never been entirely sure why 'Oriental' has fallen into such disfavor, and your comments are spot on. I will look up those sources so I can pass them on to others who argue that the whole Asian-Oriental distinction is PC madness.

My own subjective feelings about the term 'Oriental' are based on what you've described here: that the people who use it tend to be clueless -- the sort of people who think that foot-binding is a Japanese custom, or that Chinese parents all can't wait to dispose of their daughters -- and so on. (I know you know the sort of people I'm talking about.) When I hear the term 'Oriental', I think of that Bret Harte poem, 'The Heathen Chinee is Peculiar', which was intended to be a parody of anti-Chinese sentiment, but was sadly misconstrued as a justification for racism. There's a sad tendency to see all Eastern peoples as the same -- full of their quaint little ways and romantic intrigues -- and it's good for us to know that this is why the term 'Oriental' can be seen as so irritating.

Pat said...

I have previously thought of Oriental as an adjective applied to objects and milieus - not people.
I certainly didn't mean to stir up such a wasps nest.
I am sorry.

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- But I am the one who stirred up the wasps' nest!

I make a distinction between people in the U.K. and the States. People here use the term 'Oriental' to refer to locations, objects, or people from Far East Asia, and it's not meant, or taken, as a derogatory expression. I have a hard time convincing Americans of this, but I've heard many Japanese and Chinese people here call themselves Orientals, and that's just the way it is. Maybe in time, 'Asian' will catch on as a general term. I just find it funny that my Chinese students think of Asian as 'Far East Asian' and not generally Asian -- and that at least one of my Japanese students objected to a label that would include everybody from the East.

Whew. It's a minefield all right!

Carole said...

Another great post that I learned from. Although I don't use the term oriental, I did not know much of what was said.

I did know that American Indians like to be called Indians and not native americans. And when the PC police started to use the term, my Indian friends from Montana were not amused.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I used to have a number of Native-American friends, and they were well amused by my use of that term. "To hell with that Native-American stuff, we're INDIANS." But I'm going with the term 'Native-American'. They can call themselves Indians, but I prefer to err on the side of caution -- unless I know what their tribes are. Then they're Navajo, Winnemucca, Cheyenne, etc.