Wednesday, September 06, 2006


An Australian man living in the UK said to me recently: "Isn't it so weird how they use Asian?"

The "they", of course, are the British. My own discovery of the difference was linked to several occasions in which I said I was in the mood for Asian food and then found myself steered toward(s) a curry house. In BrE, when Asian is used to refer to a person, culture or cuisine, it is most usually referring to someone or something South Asian (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). In the US and, it turns out, Australia, Asian typically refers to people/things from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.).

This, of course, raises the question of what BrE speakers call people from East Asia and what AmE speakers call people from South Asia. For East Asian people in Britain, most people attempt to specify a nationality--Chinese, Japanese and so forth. This can involve some guessing. I have also heard the word Oriental as a noun or adjective referring to people more often in this country than I have in the US (mostly from over-60s), leading me to wonder if (a) it's perceived as less politically incorrect here than in the States, (b) I just hang out with more older, white people in the UK (who might not have caught up with the fact that Oriental is not preferred) than I do in the US (though I don't think that's true, if we take my parents' friends into account), or (c) [white] British people are just desperate for a collective term for East Asian peoples and so give in and use this one.

In AmE, people from South Asia are usually labelled by nationality, which probably results in the mistaken assignment of Indian to some Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In AmE, one often hears He's Indian--from India or some other clarification to make clear that the 'he' in question is not Native American. In the UK, one does hear Red Indian to refer to Native Americans (again, mostly from older people), and it never ceases to shock me when I hear it.

Not surprisingly, not everyone who's called Asian likes it. See this Guardian (AmE) editorial/(BrE)leader* for some discussion and history of the term in the UK.
*Note that leader or leading article is one of those words that was invented in the US, but went on to become more common in the UK.

And now, under the 'Any Other Business' heading of tonight's agenda:
  • As I'm taking on some new responsibilities at work, expect my posts to become a little less frequent. I may get to two a week, but certainly not the three I've been doing. (That's all for this week, folks.)
  • I've been interviewed on the site Expat Interviews. I tell you this to advertise them, not me!


Simon said...

Glad to have found this blog - it's very interesting.

From my (BrE, 35-year-old) perspective, I think I'd be very unlikely to describe anybody as as "an oriental" (noun), but I might possibly describe them as "oriental" (adjective). I would certainly have little hesitation in using the word as a adjective in relation to, for example, food - a phrase like "oriental cuisine" feels perfectly natural (indeed, our local Chinese restaurant is called Oriental Kitchen).

As to south Asia, I have (rarely) heard the word "subcontinental" used as an adjective to refer to things from the India/Pakistan/Bangladesh region - though I don't think I've heard it applied to people.

lynneguist said...

Yes, it's only the application of oriental to people, rather than things, that is usually felt to be unnice.

I do think that oriental is generally used by people of a certain age/attitude--signalling the same kind of behind-the-times attitude as use of the word colo(u)red does in BrE or AmE (but not South African English, where it means a specific group of people).

Carl Burnett said...

I've heard some Americans address the "Indian" ambiguity by asking, "Dots or feathers?"

Rebecca said...

That 'Asian = Chinese/Japanese/etc' confuses me when I'm reading books, mostly.

I think I'd say American Indian for Native American....

Glad you'll still be around :) And it was great to read the interview!

DaveP said...

To me, a brit, "asian" always meant the Far East, not the area in and around the Indian subcontinent. Maybe I just didn't understand the 'proper' British usage, but it still doesn't make sense to me to have that one term refer to places as different as India and Japan. I don't know anyone who uses the term 'oriental' when refering to people, even among the older generations.

cinnamon gurl said...

Ethnicity is a tricky, fraught subject; kudos for taking it on.

It's strange: I would use the word native to talk about Native Canadians but my native friends mostly seem to call themselves Indians. I think First Nations People is the most politically correct term right now. In South Africa native is a deregatory term from apartheid for black Africans.

I used to use Asian to refer to East Asians but recently I've tried to be more accurate, using it for all of Asia but that usually requires further clarification.

Sorry to hear you won't be posting as often. I really enjoy them... guess I should read more of your archives.

cinnamon gurl said...

Any thoughts on the whole "Indian giver," "Indian summer" thing?

Umi said...

Hi, I guess it’s true what you say, what I would consider asian (british english), is interpreted as people from china, japan etc in US and it fairly confuses me. Similarly "east indian" also manages to confuses me lately but I guess they refer to the indian, pakistanis, bangaladesi's groups. If I use the word oriental, my husband who lives in US, chids me for being rude whilst I was just referring to the anthropological definition for want of better work. I wouldn’t be able to call the majority of population as Caucasian could I? Whilst there is further colloquial differences like Mediterranean or eastern European and many more. Coming from a homogenous population (India), I am beginning to learn the differences of usage which is proving to be increasingly hard and sometimes I err thou mostly out of ignorance.

lynneguist said...

Thanks for the comments.

I did a long comment earlier in which I linked to a number of reports about two men of Pakistani descent being removed from a plane in Manchester a couple of weeks ago because people heard them speaking something the assumed was Arabic and thought they might be terrorists. The Daily Mail's version of the story can be seen here.

I had searched for this story from a lot of different sources and had lots of links to it. Then my server crashed. I'm not going to do it all again, but the upshot was that UK sources refer to them as Asian and when it's presented in American blogs or news sources they're presented (erroneously) as Arab or Arabic-speaking or (by United Press International) as 'of Asian or Middle Eastern appearance'--which seems to be a melding of the British source (which doesn't mention the Mid East) and the need to make it understandable to Americans. CBATG. You can google it yourself if you're desperate for the evidence!

Bazza said...

Very interesting site. I was recommended to it by Lizza. I have a post on American v. British English (1st Sept.) that got some funny comments!

marek said...

I have no idea whether the Guardian piece cited here is correctly described as an editorial in AmE, but it is certainly not a leader in BrE.

A leader is a short piece in the leader column, almost invariably anonymous, which is the formal opinion of a newspaper. It is written by a leader writer who is an employee of the newspaper concerned.

The Guardian piece is a column, written by a columnist, which is the opinion of nobody other than its author. A columnist may be an employee of the newspaper, but very often is not.

There is some implication of regularity, or at least plurality, in the column/columnist form. As a BrE newspaper reader, that doesn't prevent me using it to describe a one-off piece, but it does make me feel the want of a better word

Jill said...

I lived for about five years in coastal California, where people of East Asian descent make up a large percentage of the population (though you would never know that from watching television shows set in Californian cities) and questions of the experience of East Asian people in the USA come up more often than in many other parts of the country. The reason, I was told, that "Asian" is preferred over "Oriental" is that "Oriental" is a Euro-centric term -- it means east of Europe, whereas "Asian" refers to that continent without reference to Europe.

I was talking about the "Asian" difference with an English friend of mine (who is himself young and of Sri Lankan descent), and he told me he would call East Asian people "Oriental"; when I explained that some people in California thought that was a racist term, and why, he thought that reasoning was overly fussy.

I also find this argument for preferring "Asian" over "Oriental" not particularly compelling because I've studied Mandarin Chinese for several years; not only are the Chinese plenty ethno-centric, but the most common polite terms for Asians and Europeans I've heard in Mandarin gloss as "east area people" and "west area people". For an idiomatic translation, feel free to pick "Easterner/Westerner" or "Oriental/Occidental" according to the register you want.

My flatmate (born and raised in London) pointed out a character on the soap EastEnders to me by referring to her as "the Chinese girl." By her accent, I'd say this character was born and raised in the East End herself, so I think he was using "Chinese" as a neutral racial designation. UK forms asking for race/ethnicity use "Asian" to refer to the subcontinent, and have a category for "Chinese" and no other east Asian category except "Other". This fits my flatmate's usage.

But anyway, I use "Asian" when I'm in the US or Canada and "East Asian" when I'm in the UK because I am too aware of differences between Chinese, Koreans, Cambodians, Japanese, and so forth to use "Chinese", and I'm not comfortable with "Oriental".

Altissima said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Altissima said...

lynneguist wrote: In the US and, it turns out, Australia, Asian typically refers to people/things from East Asia

Actually, in Australia (or Melbourne at least) Asian typically encompasses cuisine, culture etc from anywhere on the Asian Continent, from Pakistan to Indonesia.

The phrase South-East Asian is commonly used to refer specifically to countries within the region of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.

We don't really have a phrase for the countries in the region of Pakistan, India etc. While the meaning of subcontinental is understood, it is not widely used, and sounds to my ears somewhat archaic and British .

VIRTUAL said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
lynneguist said...

I have removed a comment by VIRTUAL because it used abusive language toward(s) the people commenting here. If VIRTUAL would like to rephrase his/her sentiments in a way that doesn't involve name-calling of other participants, I'd be happy to let the comment stand.

ros said...

To my British ears, China, Japan, Korea etc are 'the Far East'; India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are 'the Indian subcontinent'; everything from the Levant eastwards is 'the East'. I would prefer it if we still called the area now known as the Middle East, the Near East, because I really don't know what it is supposed to be in the middle of.

But yes, definitely, 'Asian' has very different connotations in the UK and the US. I wonder if this is a contender for your prototypical differences? Asian could refer to anyone from Asia in both countries, I think, but the prototype in the UK is Indian/Pakistani and in the US Chinese/Japanese/Korean.

lynneguist said...

Good call, Ros! Will add it to my prototypes list...

Mindy said...

My kids go to a Pakistani Dr. She says she is "Middle Eastern. Although when I first me ther I aske if she was from India.

In my Area in the Midwest we have quite a few Middle eastern people mostly from Pakistan and Afgahnistan.

In the city of st louis ther is a large Bosnian community, but I do not know what they would be considered.