Monday, September 7, 2009

refer to people as "orientals"

The first time I felt the full force behind the word “Oriental,” I was 13. My music teacher was explaining the phrasing of a difficult passage to my string quartet, and we all nodded. Suddenly he turned to me, the only Asian in the group, and said, “Oh, stop being so Oriental and nodding.” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face.

New York's Governor David Paterson signed legislation last week banning a word that I still hear white people use sometimes. New York's new law forbids the reference in all state documents to any person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage as an "Oriental." According to National Public Radio, the state of Washington took similar steps in 2002, when that state's governor was Gary Locke, a Chinese American.

Apparently some Asian Americans applaud attempts to banish the term, while others are cynical about the motives driving such efforts (no surprise there, given that Asian Americans obviously don't think with any more of a single, collective mindset than do the members of any other group).

In an NPR interview, SF Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang said he's glad about the news from New York, because the term Oriental "feels freighted with luggage. . . . It's a term which you can't think of without having that smell-of-incense and sound-of-a-gong thing going on in your head."

Yang also cited the term's imprecision -- "Orient" basically means East, which could be any place in that direction, and which "only really applies in a flat world. I mean, you keep on going East, you end up 'West.'"

When asked if the word isn't already dying out anyway, rendering such legislative moves against it a waste of time, Yang said he actually has heard the term applied to himself, and it felt wrong. He added that other Asian Americans also feel uncomfortable with it, "so to have it stricken from the public record just kind of makes sense in some ways. I think people probably feel a little kind of curious as to why it took so long."

In an old Usenet posting, circa 1993, Alan Hu takes a different view on efforts to ban the term. Hu blames such efforts on "exploitation-types," who he says "have realized that saying 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental' is the cool thing to do, without changing any of their stereotypes and misconceptions. (You can force a person to change his/her behavior, but you can't force a change in thought.)"

Hu also writes that the exoticizing usage of "Oriental" has survived a long time,

and it still frequently carries all of the exotic/foreign/inscrutable/mysterious connotations. These connotations happen to coincide with many of the stereotypes held of Asian Americans. Furthermore, by definition, the word "Oriental" is Eurocentric, referring to things east of Europe. For these reasons, some Asian American activist types decided that "Oriental" was a Bad Word, and that "Asian" was more accurate, less Eurocentric, and less loaded with strange connotations. No big deal, right?

Well, a lot of people didn't want to change their language usage. Some people grew up using "Oriental" and saw nothing wrong with the word. Others came from other parts of the world, where hip-activist-American-English-linguistic-evolution hadn't hit. Still others never encountered anyone aware of Asian American politics, so had never heard of this word usage change. Some people were exploiting the exotic mysticism connotations and resisted change. (Very early on, you would see articles about business and trade in Asia, whereas the travel articles would talk about visiting the Exotic Mysterious Orient.) Finally, some people were convinced that this was a typical case of left-wing-politically-correct-thought-police-mind-control (which it was) and decided in typical right-wing-politically-correct-knee-jerk-response that the word usage change was intrinsically evil and had to be resisted at all costs.

Over at Asian American Movement, an anonymous blogger calls New York's new law

largely a symbolic gesture–not unlike the US Government’s recent “apology” for the enslavement of Blacks (over 140 years after the fact), or the state of California’s apology for racist laws against Chinese Americans during the nineteenth century, or Bill Clinton’s apology for America’s illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.

These actions are ultimately designed to burnish the USA’s propaganda image. The American establishment loves these kinds of meaningless gestures, as they have very little cost politically and are a great public relations exercise.

Indeed, the election of Barack Obama should be considered a prime example of this type of political rebranding on a grand scale.

They don’t call it poli-tricks for nothing.

So what do you think?

Is the explicit and legislative rejection of the term "Oriental" usually a hypocritical PC ploy? Or is it instead a welcome attempt to describe a diverse group of people more accurately?

If you overhear someone describing another person as an "Oriental," do you consider it worthwhile to correct them?

For further discussion, see:

"What's the Matter with Saying 'The Orient'?," Christopher Hill, Japan Society

"Oriental: Rugs or People?," Leaya Lee, NYU Livewire

"What Does It Mean to Be Asian American?," Jeff Yang, San Francisco Chronicle

Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (book), Robert G. Lee


  1. "Oriental" is not an offensive word in the UK. It simply refers to East Asians, because in the UK, "Asian" is a term that's aligned with South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Sri Lankans). (in the USA, it's the opposite, of course)

    Along with everyone else (including white British folks and East Asians), I've always called East Asians "Orientals" for a long time and when I came to America, I was surprised that it was considered offensive.

  2. My friend its not the word but the way they say it. Whites in Honolulu used rats as the excuse to burn down China Town. They were put on the grounds of Kawaihao Church, held in there with not support just guards to keep them in. Ethnic Hawaiians took care of them until they were allowed to leave.

  3. What I can't understand is why they put Asians and Pacific Islanders together in one group. There are Asians on their continent and some are in the Pacific Islands. Pacific Islanders are of various major groups which don't recognize the others as being part of their race or ethnicity. This just shows white man's ignorance. The U.S. is a white supremacist country and anyone who is not white is looked down on.

  4. I disagree with Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! I think that 'Oriental' is offensive in the UK context as well, for the same reasons it's offensive in the US. There is the issue that here 'Asian' often means someone from the Indian subcontinent. I think it's fair to say 'South Asian', 'South-East Asian' and 'East Asian' and refer to fairly specific regions.

    Now, here's another problem: my workplace is called 'the Oriental Institute'. I've always reckoned it should be renamed 'the Institute for Asian Studies'.

  5. Now, here's another problem: my workplace is called 'the Oriental Institute'. I've always reckoned it should be renamed 'the Institute for Asian Studies'.

    Yes, I've wondered about such places, and how long they'll cling to their names. There's also the American Oriental society, which proudly bills itself as "the oldest learned society in the United States devoted to a particular field of scholarship." It was founded in 1842; I suppose some sense of "tradition" is one reason its members have yet to change the name.

  6. What I can't understand is why they put Asians and Pacific Islanders together in one group. There are Asians on their continent and some are in the Pacific Islands. Pacific Islanders are of various major groups which don't recognize the others as being part of their race or ethnicity.

    I suppose it's because if you took time to note everyone's race, it would take up too much space?
    At my school, I'm not sure if it's "Asian/Pacific Islander" or just "Pacific Islander". I don't have that paper anymore. :P

  7. Although as a child I called East Asians "Orientals", up until today I believed I had my terminology at a respectful level when thinking that people are "Asians", "oriental" refers to things (ie: a rug). This post has reminded me that I never questioned the word once I stopped applying it to people. A quick look-up of the etymology of "orient" and sure enough it comes from the Latin for "east/area of the sky where the sun rises". East of what? Well Rome of course. I long ago began trying to say southwest Asia instead of Middle-East for this very reason. Rome must no longer be granted Center of the World status.

    I still haven't figured out what to do about the "Mediterranean" Sea, though.

  8. Holly

    "I suppose it's because if you took time to note everyone's race, it would take up too much space?"

    ...or too much time or effort or... they just don't really CARE what POC categorize themselves as. If it looks like a duck, forget that the duck moos instead of quacks; it’s a duck to farmer, right? I was filling out one of those surveys for Target the other day and for the 'What race are you' question, it listed the usual, black, Latino and right on top was White. The eerily menacing capital W stood boldly above and before all else. I was a bit taken aback honestly. Should I have been? Maybe I'm an overly sensitive Negro, but my mind's eye interpreted it as representative of the power and supremacy of the word, the history of it and those who claim it. It was like they were saying White...or whatever else. Alphabetically it had no place at the top, and there was no Caucasian option. Just White. I guess they might have assumed White people were too lazy or disinterested to even READ the options that didn't describe them.

  9. There's also the, rather prestigious, School of Oriental and African Studies. Presumably there must be East Asian students there, I wonder if they complain about it? (That's a real question, not a rhetorical one.)

    (There's also an 'Oriental Plaza' shopping Mall in Beijing.)

    Realistically I would have thought the useage is only going to change in the UK when East Asian Brits start seriously complaining about it. However, I always say 'east asian' and 'south asian' now, thanks to contact with Americans.

    Are terms ever 'objectively' offensive? Surely its entirely down to useage and whether those on the receiving end consider it to be so? I've been told a certain racial epithet beginning with P, that I don't even want to type, is not considered that offensive outside the UK. At least that's what an Australian I met once argued after shocking the hell out of everyone.

    And, objectively, I guess, there's nothing inherently offensive about that particular word, its just the way it has historically been used in the UK that makes it hateful.

  10. @kepalo said... My friend its not the word but the way they say it.
    yes indeedy!

    I am uncomfortable with this word used to describe Asians because I know about the associated connotations. Generally, it's the older people here that I've heard use oriental and to them (I know these people personally and where they're coming from) it really *just* means people from Asia, kinda like how I still lapse and call Brazilians "Hispanic" - I try to use South American when I remember - even though the people speak Portuguese mostly. I think sometimes it is more due to ignorance and maybe habit, no harmful intention on the individual's part but ignorance breeds more ignorance which could lead to hate and fear of what one does not know of.

    Er, well anyway... the use of "oriental" isn't always intentionally bad/racist but it does show ignorance and once the history of the word is known, it should be used solely for rugs and instant noodles NOT people.

  11. @ Gareth Hughes - I have to support Deaf Indian Muslim on this one. Although I find the term "Oriental" offensive, I'm also American. But in the UK, the term "Oriental" is still used by many (both young and old) to describe East Asians...including by friends of mine who are East Asians. As Deaf Indian Muslim noted, the term "Asian" in the UK normally refers to South Asians. A very well known and well respected school here in London still has the term "Oriental" in its name: The School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS).

    That being said, I still use the term "Asian" to describe both East Asians and South Asians, but again I think its because I was raised to view the term "Oriental" as both offensive and an archaic term, whereas the term is more accepted in the UK...I'm not saying it's right, but just to give some perspective to how word usage (and the offensiveness of a term) varies from country to country.

  12. BlkSmarTee -

    My guess is that the "W" was at the top because most people filling out the form were "Ws." It was an attempt to be convenient to the largest number of people. That's how graphic designers think. Is that bad? What would be a better solution?

  13. The term 'orientals' does seem to have negative connotations, but it also reminds me of something W.E.B DeBois said: "If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called 'colored' or 'Afro-Americans'."

  14. I was stunned to hear my (now former) boss use the term Oriental to describe an Asian American. Not only had I never heard a term I'd long understood to be racist used so casually, but my ex-boss envisioned himself as very educated and cosmopolitan (he was neither). I didn't correct him, but now I wish I would've. "Oriental" reeks of exoticism.

  15. I have been uncomfortable with the word Oriental without examining why. I think I veered away from it when I was an unthinking teenager not cause I knew crap about the etymology, but rather because I didn't like the people who used it.

  16. I am an Asian Studies major at my university, and whenever I hear a professor who is unfamiliar with the field (usually they are over 60 when making this faux pas) I have to swallow back both a sort of shocked laugh and my bile.
    For me "oriental" implies antiquated stereotypes found in Japonisme paintings, used to sell the "far east" as some enigmatic playground for Westerners.

  17. @Lydia Encyclopedia

    I'm sure those guys weren't being offensive deliberately. I expect it was purely occidental.

  18. Personally, as someone who is half-Chinese, I don't find the word "Oriental" offensive. This may be a consequence of having grown-up in a fairly progressive area and not subject to much racism myself. I know that my father, who is Chinese, doesn't care either way.

    I do think that it is more respectful and accurate, in general, to refer to people based on the specific geographical area from which their ancestors hail. Such acknowledges their individuality more and doesn't implicitly acquiesce to the existence of race. In fact, I hesitate to call "White" people "White." I typically find out the current country name of the area a "White" person's ancestors come from and refer to their background as such (e.g. he is of English extraction, etc.).

  19. the so-called "ethnic" aisle in my local grocery has an aisle sign hanging there that says "Oriental". WTF? And I'm in the Seattle area. I think I'll use the NY decision in a letter to them.

  20. Edward Said would be proud.

    p, I suspect if an Australian told you that, they were speaking for themselves and not the whole world.

    I am Australian and I struggled to think which racial epithet you were speaking of beginning with P. Correct me if I'm wrong, were you referring to a term used against Pakistani people? Because Australians have a tendency to shorten every name to its first two syllables (or first syllable plus ie as in Aussie) regardless of how it ends up sounding to other people.

    It does not mean the rest of the world doesn't see it as offensive, just that Australians can be supremely ignorant of WHAT other people constitute as offensive. It reflects badly on us as a privileged mainly white country.

  21. Whether it is Eurocentric or not, it's still a geographical reference, it doesn't imply that Asians are inferior, it just points to where they come from. It's definitely not on par with the n-word.

    I would not use it in front of an Asian person (I was surprised too when I learned that it was seen as offensive in N America), because it's easier to be polite than be an asshole. But I'd have no problem using it in my private circle, if I felt like it.
    As a personal remark, to me "oriental" sounds rather beautiful and musical, but that may be just me.

  22. My boyfriend is Chinese-Jamaican and he sometimes refers to his Asian side as Oriental sometimes (and I correct him, of course), but it just goes to show how words can break so far from their intended definitions that no one even knows what they mean anymore.

  23. So, is it just offensive when talking about people? If so, how, when it's still used to describe types of foods, clothing, textiles, etc? I really don't get it. I just use 'asian', but this is something that's always confused me.

  24. What the hell is wrong with nodding?

    Bleepin--it's offensive no matter the context. Asian at least refers to a continent.

  25. @lutsen

    I still haven't figured out what to do about the "Mediterranean" Sea, though.

    very funny

  26. Oriental is not offensive in the UK. Many people of East Asian decent call themselves oriental and many are shocked when they find out the term is offensive in the US. I have friends of Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino decent and they have no problems with being called Oriental; there is even a School of African and Oriental studies in London...


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