I once was the provocateur in a USC graduate journalism class when a classmate described a person in the New York subway as Asian. Just what does that mean? I had already lived for more than a year in England less than a decade before, been to Japan three times. During one stay in Japan I had a long conversation with a black Kenyan diplomat who spoke disparagingly about Asians. I had also traveled and been the seldom seen face of a forever foreigner in the US.
While in Los Angeles, I heard the silliest news description on the radio, that police were searching for an “Oriental” man in Gardena driving a Toyota. While that was decades ago, Gardena was and still is like ramen central. At one time, it was the home base for Toyota USA and Honda USA. Even now Korean and Japanese restaurants abound. The new immigrants mix with the pre-World War II immigrants and their descendants.
More recently, I wrote an essay which noted that Asian Americans could play Egyptians. That led to a twitter storm of people wondering if I was crazy. Where did I think Israel was?
Where Is Asia?
Merriam-Webster defines Asian as “: of, relating to, or characteristic of the continent of Asia or its people” and “a native or inhabitant of Asia.”
The continent of Eurasia has several countries that are considered intercontinental. In both Asia and Europe are:
- Greece (Dodecanese Islands are in Asia)
In both Asia and Africa are:
- Egypt (Sinai Peninsula)
- Italy (Pelgie Islands are in Africa)
- Spain (Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands are in Africa)
Where is the Orient?
According to Merriam-Webster, the Orient is:
1. capitalized : regions or countries lying to the east of a specified or implied point : the eastern regions or countries of the world : EAST sense 2—formerly understood to include regions (such as the Middle East) lying to the east and southeast of southern Europe but now usually understood to refer to regions and countries of eastern Asia
sailed for the Orient
In the past, Oriental studies covered North Africa as well as Asia. In Europe, you’ll find Department of Asian and North African Studies. The International Congress of Orientalists which first met in 1873 (in Paris) was a gathering of scholars from Europe and US. In 1973, the congress was renamed the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies.
The Britannica defines Orientalism as “Western scholarly discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries that encompassed the study of the languages, literatures, religions, philosophies, histories, art, and laws of Asian societies, especially ancient ones.” Further, Britannica notes: “More recently, mainly through the work of the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, the term has been used disparagingly to refer to the allegedly simplistic, stereotyped, and demeaning conceptions of Arab and Asian cultures generally held by Western scholars.”
Americans and Exclusion
In the UK, when people say Asian, they likely mean India and Pakistan.
The Kenyan person explained to me that when he said “Asian,” he meant Indian. As it turns out while Indian traders established themselves in East African communities, it was actually British colonizers who brought the biggest influx of Asians when they brought about “32,000 indentured Indian laborers to East Africa” to build the Uganda railway from 1896 to 1901.
Since we are in the US, lets really look at what happens when Americans use the word “Asian” to mean East Asian and also “African American” to mean sub-Saharan African (Merriam-Webster defines African American as meaning “an American of African and especially of black African descent”). It means that people descended from North African and West Asian peoples and ethnicities are without a continent.
The term “Orient” was vague, but could include both North Africa and Asia as well as the Pacific Islands. Asia should mean the continent of Asia and not be dependent upon socio-political issues of immigration and legal acts. As the Chinese were originally singled out by the Chinese Exclusion Act and that was expanded to include other Asians, the legal issue of naturalization in the US divided Asians–those who were white enough to become a US citizen and those who were not.
Asia and Asian Americans
If people forget that West Asia is part of Asia, then it is easy to forget that if the so-called Western civilization begins with Mesopotamia, then Western civilization begins in southwestern Asia. Mesopotamia now includes the area of eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and most of Iraq.
Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth which is in Israel. Israel is in Western Asia. Jesus was Asian. Christianity started in Asia. The religions Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism originated in Asia.
There are things that we think are as American as apple pie, but apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia (Malus sieversii) Peaches are native to northwest China. Oranges also originated in southern China, northeastern India and southeastern Asia. Lemons and all modern citrus trees came from Asia (Assam, northern Myanmar and western Yunnan). According to Britannica, “most rose species are native to Asia, with smaller numbers being native to North America and a few to Europe and northwest Africa.”
Asians can be white. Asians can be white-passing. Asians can be black as “Little Black Sambo” and Asians can be “yellow” like the yellow peril. To simply say someone looks Asian isn’t descriptive enough.
After 9/11, it should be clear that West Asians (and North Africans) needs to have their heritage acknowledged in the face of being forever foreigners and, as such, the target of hate incidents and hate crimes. With the pandemic of COVID-19, Asian Americans who can be mistaken for Chinese are experiencing anti-Asian hate incidents and crimes. Asian Americans should unify support each other. For that reason, I’m looking at Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the broadest terms possible.