Politically correct labels for people from Asia

Posted on December 12, 2008 by pacificyorkshirebird

avt_kapyork_large115Sometimes I feel like I have been in Yorkshire long enough that I have forgotten some of the things that used to shock me.  But one thing that gets me EVERY time is the use of the term “Chinese” to describe anyone that might be from the general area of Korea, Thailand, Japan, China, the Philippines etc…

While visiting my home town last week I tried to explain this to my Filipino friend.  He just didn’t get it at all.  If you look at a map, all the above areas are part of Asia.  So why is the term “Asian” reserved for people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh?  I just can’t make sense of it.

PS. Sorry for my absence while I was on holiday… I’m back now!  :)

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Steve Shawcross August 12, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Excellent post there Severs, I agree totally what you say.

    A lot of it is to do with lack of “training”, as you say. I think it all depends how much contact any chosen Brit has had with ethnic minorities: Somebody living in London will be far more au fait with different races, than somebody living in the Scottish Highlands. Also how well-travelled the Brit is too.

    I imagine it’s the same with any other other country, even the USA. For instance it always amuses and saddens me, the way many Americans refer to just Europe, as if it’s one homogeneous lump– and not a continent made up of dozens of named countries (and cultures)!

    Anyways back to criticising Britain ;-) : I don’t think differentiating between India and Pakistan is so bad these days, given the relatively large number of immigrants from those countries since the 1970s– and the rivalry/separate indentities between those two countries. It could be that I live near Leicester, whose ethnic “minority” population is just as high as the ‘native’ white stock, so I’m more attuned to those differences.

    Certainly Oriental Asians are harder for us to decipher, since our only link with that area is Hong Kong: Thus Oriental immigrants in the UK tend to be of Chinese stock– Koreans and Phillopinos rarer.

    As Severs points out, Nepal has had a deserved rise in profile– thanks to Dame Joanna Lumley (it’s only time before she is!)

  2. Severs August 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Steve Shawcross has hit the nail on the head.
    But it remins to add that any Brit referring to Thais, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans etc etc as “Chinese” is not using typical British terminology, but instead is just ignorant. Or even worse, being casually racist.

    Without intending to be racist myself, I’d like to add that the typical less-travelled and less well-educated Brit may not be able to tell the difference between persons originating in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Also, the historical situation is that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all used to be “British India” in imperial times. Therefore, all immigrants from that whole area were just called “Indians” in Britain. The partition of British India into 3 modern states made this term obsolete, and “Asians” superseded it as a sort of default, for want of a better term.

    Many Brits similarly have difficulty spotting the difference between persons originating from China, Japan and Korea, and to a lesser extent Vietnam. You will probably already know that, because of the Hong Kong connection, most “oriental” immigrants to Britain over the last century were Hong Kong Chinese (which is why most British Chinese speak Cantonese). As such, the actual numbers of people in Britain whose ancestry is, say, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao, Malay, Indonesian or Korean, is very small. Most Brits get very little chance to meet such a person and lack the “training” to appreciate the difference because of it.

    Of course, recent TV coverage of Gurkha veteran’s rights mean that all Brits now know exactly where Nepal is, and who Nepalese people are, and what they are about. Doesn’t it? Well no, probably not.

    And don’t ask anyone about Bhutan. Your average Brit probably thinks that is some sort of curry.

    • peacefulyorkshire August 12, 2009 at 8:51 am

      Hi Severs,
      ”And don’t ask anyone about Bhutan. Your average Brit probably thinks that is some sort of curry.”

      Hmmm, you might find this little post interesting…

  3. Steve Shawcross July 29, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    The majority of immigrants from Asia in the UK, are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. So Asia here is metonym for those countries, shorthand for Asian sub-continent if you like. Rather in the same way America is shorthand for the United States of America, rather referring to both North and South American continents as a whole.

    Thus for Chinese, Koreans, Phillipinos (sp?) and Japanese, we tend to refer to them as Oriental to distinguish them from our defintion of Asian– even though the Orient is part of Asia as well!

  4. George December 27, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    I’ll assume you meant ‘on vacation’.

  5. pacificyorkshirebird December 17, 2008 at 10:42 pm

    Hi notfromaroundhere – I love your blog! Thanks for sharing your sister’s views. She has a unique perspective being right in China herself.

    Hi Flamebrain – thanks for letting me know about your writing, but I decided that I want to stick to the complete anonymity thing for this blog. Its the only way I’ll be able to say what I really think, thus no email address to share.

    Hi Mexpat – That’s interesting about Spanish vs. Hispanic. I’ve never lived on the east coast so I had no idea that people use ‘Spanish’ so frequently. But, it certainly is a confusing term.

    I was in Brazil when I was little and I remember another little girl asking me why I was called an ‘American’ instead of ‘United Statesian’ because she felt that everyone in North or South America could easily be considered ‘American’. I’ve always remembered her comment and really took it seriously.

  6. Mexpat December 15, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Similarly, in the NYC area anyone who speaks Spanish is called ‘Spanish’, whether they’re Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or whatever. When I first moved there I thought it was offensive and I insisted on using the term ‘Hispanic.’

    After living there 7 years and having a best friend who is Ecuadorian but refers to herself as ‘Spanish’, I now find myself referring to all Hispanics as ‘Spanish’ with the odd constuction ‘Spanish-Spanish’ to distinguish that someone is actually from Spain. Weird, huh?

  7. flamebrain December 13, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Welcome back.

    I too agree that we should add more countries and people to come under the general term of ‘Asian’.
    It makes sense to me as it does to you that the Philippines, Japan, China and other near by countries should be added to the general term Asian along with India, Pakistan and their near neighbours. It is simpler that way, isn’t it?
    I really do find myself in agreement with you often. I would like to send you a political piece I recently wrote may I request your email address or can you PM me?

  8. notfromaroundhere December 12, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    I also hear this distinction between “Asian” as you note (and I agree, this term is only ever used for the subcontinent and surroundings) and “Oriental”–a term which my sister (who lives in China) assures me is considered quite passe and perhaps even offensive. “East Asian” would be better, I would think, although I’ll have to ask sis.

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