Sunday, May 6, 2012

Those Asians

Alright! Time for another essay-ish thingy, cause I like getting my mind out there and where else to do that but my own personal blog!
So last time I talked about how I feel the hyphen to mark cultural identity, specifically in Canada, is being used in a strange kind of way. Well, I would like to take this time to address another word that seems to largely be used oddly and inconsistently here in North America, the word “Asian”. So let’s get started!
So my friends, I ask you. How many times have you described someone you suspected to have an East Asian, or, to a lesser extent, South East Asian background as being “Asian”? We’ve probably all done it several times at least, I know I have. It happens all the time, we do it without thinking about it. How many times have you overheard or taken part in conversation that goes something along the lines of “there’s this Asian guy at work who can totally play the guitar or whatever and blah blah blah”. You hear it all the time and most people probably don’t think there’s too much wrong with it, after all, it’s better than saying “oriental”, which is true, I’d certainly argue. Still, what does it mean to call someone Asian? When you hear the word “Asian” what comes to mind? If your someone living in North America, when you hear the word “Asian” in regards to a person you probably imagine a Chinese, Japanese or Korean person maybe a Vietnamese or Filipino person, but isn’t that kind of funny? (I mean strange funny).
Some might argue, “How is that odd? China’s in Asia so it only stands to reason!” but East Asia and South East Asia make up only a small part of a continent that spans a third of the globe, so how come so many of us seem to associate the word “Asian” exclusively with “East Asian” cues? Interesting no? As anyone with a globe or atlas (or googlemaps) could tell you, Asia is a massive continent which is home to myriad nation-states and cultures. So really, when your friend tells you about that “Asian guy” at work, there is a serious lack of information going on there. What sort of person are we supposed to visualize? A person who looks Chinese? Not necessarily.

Which of these celebrities and/or political figures can be considered Asian? If you answered all of the above, you would be correct.
 It would seem that the inconsistency here lies in what countries most of use associate with being in Asia. For example, I’ve talked to a number of people who seem to be quite unsure of what continent the countries known as “the middle east”, such as Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc. belong to. I’d wager that there are some who believe that the “middle east” is a continent in and of itself. Well its not… its part of Asia. You know Israel? That’s in Asia. You know Saudi Arabia? That’s Asia. Iraq? Asia. Iran? ASIA! The list goes on. What about South Asia? What about India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives? All Asia! Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia! ASIA!!! Did you know a huge chunk of Turkey is in Asia? Did you know the majority of Russia’s landmass is in Asia? Ever heard of Uzbekistan? ASIA! Siberia?! ASIA!!!!!!!! Inner and Outer Mongolia? Kazakhstan, that place where Borat is supposed to come from??? DAMN RIGHT! That’s Asia.
Take a look; those are some diverse countries, which are each home to dozens of different cultures, sub-cultures and ethnicities of people. So isn’t it kind of weird that when people say Asia, the first thing that often comes to mind is Japan, Korea and China, three countries which make up only a very small and very specific part of the larger discursive space known as Asia? Weird. Another funny thing are the times you may hear someone refer to a person of East Asian decent as “Asian” and a person of South Asian decent as “Indian” or “Pakistani” (or the more offensive sounding “Paki”) despite not knowing their actual country of origin. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve noticed this quite a bit in my daily existence. Seems pretty inconsistent no?    

It’s hard for me to expect that people reading this, who use the word “Asian” to demarcate people of East Asian heritage or decent are going to instantly start using terms like “East Asian” or “South Asian” as old habits are hard to break, and the word “Asian” as it is often used does serve as a widely accepted ethnic identifier in our society to the point of being hard-wired into some peoples brains. But in reality it's vague and problematic. I can’t say that terms like “East Asian” and “South Asian”  are perfect either but I would argue that they are at least more correct in being more specific. After all, in this ever-growing global community of ours, how can anyone truly know where anyone came from? It certainly is worth thinking about for sure. 

This of course is to say nothing the term "Asian" as it is applied to Americans and Canadians who come from East Asian backgrounds, which will be the topic of my next essay-ish thingy! (I guess “article” is the word I’m looking for.)

P.S.: If I left out one of your countries in my frantic naming, I apologize.  

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