Culture & Race

Why does “Asian” = “East Asian” in America?

Something has baffled me for awhile now, and I’m wondering if anyone else can shed some light on this.  In following the Deadly Viper controversy that emerged last week, I was reminded once again, that when Americans refer to “Asian”, they really mean “East Asian” (i.e. China, Korea, Japan, etc.)  South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.) is really left completely out of the discussion, as evidenced by this website – I browsed a bit and everything was rooted in East Asian cultures.  A simple Google Image search turns up almost all photos showing East Asians.

Whenever I teach, I generally try to refer to ‘East Asia’ or ‘South Asia’ because while the areas have some things in common, there’s a lot of culture that they don’t share.  I hear my family refer to themselves at times as “Asian”, but they don’t ever seem to be ‘counted’ in the Asian discussion – this is reserved for East Asians.  I’m not passing judgment on either side –  just questioning something I don’t understand very well.  Has anyone else ever wondered this?  Is there history to it?


3 thoughts on “Why does “Asian” = “East Asian” in America?”

  1. Well, to be fair, I do think that when people talk about the Asian-American community/movement, particularly activists, they do consider South Asians as part of the bloc–it’s probably more visible in the secular, college organizations.

    With respect to the ISAAC, and I will admit that I’m woefully ill-informed about this, but are there actually that many South Asian Christians? (I’m aware that there’s a vibrant South Asian Catholic community, thanks to the Portuguese influence around Goa, but…?) So in the case of ISAAC, it may just be a numbers game–I’d be willing to bet that it has a disproportionate number of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Pinoy?

    Maybe it’s a numbers thing in general? (A similar reason to why all East Asians are “Chinese”…)

    It’s just that to non-Asian Americans (from what I’ve noticed, anyway), “Asians” are the ones with almond-shaped eyes and black hair, and “Indians” are the ones with darker skin tones–regardless of whether they’re Pakistani, Bengali, etc., and for them, it’s coming from a position of ignorance.


  2. I hear what you’re saying, and appreciate the regional clarity. I’ve read this exists even in the US regarding “latino” vs. “hispanic”, etc.

    Still, I think the spirit of my question leans more philosophical – to say it in a different way, why do labels tend so easily toward inaccurate and forced stereotyping? I mean, for pete’s sake, what is an American, let alone an asian-american, african-american, etc.??? how in the world do we expect to lump millions of people into one word?

    i know, i know. too big of questions to answer here, but when i stumble upon this kind of inconsistency (which really is fairly minor), I wish we had a better capacity to use words.


  3. To answer this, I think it’s a regional thing.

    To wit:
    In America, “Asian” generally refers to East Asian, as “Oriental” is (properly) used only for objects, and is offensive to most. South Asians are “Asian” when talking about “Asian Americans”, but that’s about it.

    In Britain, though, “Asian” is commonly used to refer to South Asians, and “Orientals” East Asians–and it is not offensive there.


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