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!