The Other I

December 11, 2012

Accidental racism

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:13 pm

A friend who has just read my book, The Big Bang to Now:  All of Time in Six Chunks has asked me what the difference is between Orientals and Asians.  I thought the terms were more or less synonymous, both meaning “Eastern.”

But according to the Urban Dictionary, the definitions are by no means simple.  In America, it is politically incorrect to refer to people as “Orientals.”   Oriental describes objects like rugs and fans, Asian describes people.   In fact, one person even suggests it is derogatory and racist to refer to people as Orientals because the term carries with it overtones of European colonialism in China and is equated with terms like Negro, Coon, Paki, and Mic.

Here in Britain, Asian refers to people from south-east Asia, mainly India and Pakistan, but not to people from China or Japan.  Oriental is not considered derogatory, even by Asians.

So what Asian and Oriental mean depends on who is  talking or listening.  The safest option seems  to refer to the individual countries by name whenever possible.

If I were writing my book again, I’d steer clear of the word oriental altogether.

And I apologize to anyone who may feel I have used to term to suggest that people from Asia are mere objects.  The very idea is obviously ridiculous.



  1. Language is very tricky isn’t it! And meaning, I like to think, should be dependent on the context it is used in, rather than on connotations of which the speaker/writer is unaware. However- it is always good to learn something new and adapt 🙂


    Comment by sanstorm — December 11, 2012 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

    • Yes, as you say, language is tricky. It demonstrates, doesn’t it, how easy it is to misunderstand – and be misunderstood? Thank you for your own understanding; I appreciate it, especially under the circumstances. Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 11, 2012 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  2. It’s true that “Oriental” has become non-PC here in the States. Like “Negro” (unless you are of African ancestry and are using the word to denigrate another African American who’s not “black” enough). Edward Said’s book Orientalism may have had something to do with this. “Asian” is used indiscriminately, as you suggest it is not in Britain, and, I think, ineffectively. When people are referring to the whiz kids at Stuyvesant High School they say “Asian,” meaning mostly Chinese but also Korean, Indian and Pakistani. Not so much the South Asians, though, such as Filipinos or Indonesians or, God help us, people in Borneo. Americans don’t really know what they mean by the word, where it begins and ends. But, then, I have a friend of Chinese upbringing who says the Chinese can’t make sense of the differences we see among Westerners….


    Comment by pianomusicman — December 11, 2012 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

    • Fascinating! And to think all of these language-adjustments has taken place since I left the U.S. I wonder what other critical information I am missing for a civilized encounter in America. Maybe if I cultivate an English accent I can get away with my ignorance?


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 13, 2012 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

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