While reading yesterday’s paper, I skimmed a news piece about Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America winner. Being American, I was puzzled by the journalist’s description of Davuluri as the first “Asian-American” to win. It’s an illogical reaction on my part; Davuluri is Asian-American. “Asian,” however, has long been shorthand for “East Asian” in American English dialects, as Separated by a Common Language‘s Lynne Murphy discussed some years back:
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.).
Demographics almost certainly play a role here. Over 4% of Australia’s population (for example) is of Chinese ancestry, compared to less than .5% in the UK. Yet for me, “Asian” fills a lexical gap left by a word banished from my vocabulary as a child: “oriental.” Murphy briefly addresses this taboo term later in the post:
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)
But how did the word become offensive to begin with? Etymologically-speaking, “oriental” is hardly pejorative, deriving from a French term which basically translates to “Eastern” (and still exists as French “orientale“). In other words, one might describe it as a Latinate antonym of “Westerner,” a term which Europeans and Americans take little offense at. Of course, etymology little influences our politeness norms.
I distinctly remember older teachers in my childhood using “oriental,” and just as distinctly remember my father chastising me for using it to describe a Chinese restaurant on Cape Cod. Since then, I’ve never questioned its offensiveness, yet it’s tricky to describe why. Note, then, this explanation from Wikipedia’s entry on the term:
John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. Tchen has said, “With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘’Oriental’’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’.”
So it seems that with the “politically correct” movement in late-20th-Century academia, “oriental” may have been purged along with once-euphemistic terms like “retarded” and “handicapped.” With respect to Tchen, however, I find the word more creepily fetishistic than disparaging. In my opinion, its patronizing quality makes a more compelling argument for its offensiveness. Indeed, when New York State decided to ban the term from official state documents in 2009, Howard University’s Frank H. Wu defended the action on such grounds:
[Wu] said that the term was associated with exoticism and with old stereotypes of geisha girls and emasculated men. “‘Oriental’ is like the word ‘negro.’ It conjures up an era.”
The “Negro” comparison seems apt. “Negro” causes less offense than its vicious cousin, but we nevertheless associate it with eras of racist condescension. Both also notably derive from latinate versions of everyday words (“black” and “Eastern”), giving them an unnatural, old-fashioned ring. At least that’s my impression; I’ve heard both used unselfconsciously over the past decade, so not everyone finds them as cringeworthy.
Although it seems “oriental” still enjoys some currency in the UK, I’m less clear on its status beyond the US. Is there any part of the Anglophone world where “oriental” is completely okay? Or is doomed to the dustbin of English history?