Being Asian Through the Western Lens

By Diya Khanna ’25, Layout by Hana Nagata ’24 for Fall 2021

The often overlooked yet fundamental aspect of inclusivity in references made to the Asian community has repeatedly come under scrutiny by those having South or West “Asian” roots. The adjective Asian, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, refers to “belonging to or relating to Asia or its people.” This essentially means that anyone who belongs to or has roots in a nation that is geographically located in the Asian continent can be referred to as an Asian. While this idea of linking people to the region where they originally came from is apparent on paper, it is not as evident in practice. In recent years, the practice of designating a limited section of people to the ‘Asian’ umbrella has become a growing trend that has sparked controversy across the globe.

Other world regions compliment ethnic definitions the way they exist. In such regions, umbrella terms are used to refer to a particular ethnic group. For instance, the term African encompasses individuals from Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia or Uganda alike as does the term European for people from Germany, France, Italy… This idea doesn’t, however, hold true for the Asian context. The only time when the exclusion of a certain group is considered to be justified is when a formal agreement between those nations gives the world a free pass to do so. In the case of Brexit, for instance, the exit of Britain from the present-day European Union directly implied that the British should simply and solely be referred to as the British and not as European. In the Asian context, no such agreement has ever taken place. Yet, the West has conjured its own image of Brexit in the context of Asia wherein the South and West Asian nations seem to have exited the larger Asian bubble.

Time and again, events spanning different socio-political contexts have pointed to the somewhat supreme nature that East Asian countries have acquired over time. Think about the times someone has mentioned the term ‘Asian’ in a dialogue. It won’t be long into the conversation before you realize that they were solely referring to individuals from China or South Korea or any other East Asian nation. In such cases, it is not uncommon nor is it unjustified to find people from other countries that happen to be in the Asian continent feeling left out. Many have also voiced their concerns on the issue and questioned the reasoning behind the use of such terms in a narrow sense.

The sense of isolation that develops from this practice is perpetuated through the West’s continued use of ethnic terminology to refer to a restricted group of people on an everyday basis. In the United States, everything from a university application form to employment documents of various firms are likely to contain a category asking one for their racial/ethnic background. More often than not, Asian, South Asian, and West Asian are contained as separate options while East Asians are mentioned simply as “Asians.” The same applies to the term “Asian American” which supposedly only refers to the East Asian faction despite Chinese Americans (East Asian group) making up 5 million of the US population and Indians (South Asian group) constituting a close 4.3 million. Why are East Asians considered the default Asians? What is required of other Asian nations to actually qualify as “Asian”? These are simply few of the questions that this complex and discriminatory practice gives rise to.

“What is required of other Asian nations to actually qualify as ‘Asian’?”

After the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the term “anti-Asian hate” was probably one of the most common to be seen around. It would be displayed in bold letters across headlines of well-known newspapers from The New York Times to The Washington Post. These examples go on to show the alarming extent to which the use of such exclusionary terms has been normalized in the 21st century. Following incidents such as the Atlanta spa shootings, hundreds of thousands rallied to demonstrate their disgust at the rise in racism against “Asians” across the States. Yet, not half as many individuals rallied when individuals of South Asian descent were killed at a FedEx facility located in Indianapolis. This has had and continues to have some obvious yet serious implications. It compels those from nations such as Pakistan and Nepal to question their positions relative to the term Asian.

This can also take an alternative form where stereotypes targeting “Asians” are
translated into narrow ideas being upheld solely surrounding the lives of East Asians. On giving it a second thought, one would come to realize how the stereotype of “Asians being good at math” or “Asians being shy and submissive” are, in fact, targeting those belonging to the handful of East Asian nations.

Such exclusionary terminology does not merely push aside certain aspects of nations spread across other parts of Asia but also leads to the direct erasure of several cultures and all that they have to offer. Today, the meaning behind the term “Asian” and what it entails continues to remain a puzzle with a plethora of definitions that vary across space. This trend is only projected to increase in the coming years.

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