DC Chinatown Friendship Gate
DC Chinatown Friendship Gate
Credit: Richard Tao via Unsplash

Since the pandemic started, there has been a huge uptick in the dialogue about Asian American identity in response to the xenophobia and violence toward Asian Americans. Movements like Stop Asian Hate seek to bring greater awareness to Asian hate crimes and racism. While I think these movements have been successful in bringing attention to the problems Asians face in America, we need to take a step back and ask who Asian Americans are before any meaningful change can occur.

Asia is too big and diverse!

Who are Asian Americans and what does it mean to be Asian? The question seems simple enough, right? Clearly, Asian refers to Asia so anybody from the continent of Asia can be considered Asian. This is technically true but I don’t think this definition is satisfactory or useful at all.

World map with Asia in red
World map with Asia in red
Credit: TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why not? In short, it’s because Asia is humungous. Not only is Asia the largest of the seven continents but the lion’s share of the world population resides in Asia. As of this writing, 4.6 billion out of the 7.9 billion people on Earth live in Asia – that means nearly 60% of the world are Asian! Asia dwarfs the next most populous continent, Africa, by more than threefold. A single word to describe people proves useless when it’s used for 60 percent of the world and their diasporic communities.

However, the problem isn’t just the fact that Asian is used for so many people. Asia is such a large area that no one word is sufficient to account for a such a great diversity of people. I realize this is the case for any word used to describe a group of people but the definition of Asian in relation to the continent is particularly egregious. To illustrate the diversity of Asia, let’s look at linguistic diversity. This is a particularly good indicator for diversity because language is so closely tied to culture.

There are several major language families in Asia including Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, Dravidian, Turkic, and Austronesian. Compared to Asia, over 90 percent of the European population are native speakers of a language in the Indo-European language family. Asia’s linguistic diversity greatly overshadows that of other places. In fact, speakers of Indo-Iranian languages, the Asian branch of the Indo-European language family, outnumber Europe’s population 1.5 billion to 750 million. Looking at language alone, the term Asian encompasses greater cultural diversity than comparable terms like European or African. Due to Asia’s size and diversity, defining Asian in terms of anybody from Asia means that the word is too broad and blunt to have any meaningful utility.

Map of the world's major language families
Map of the world’s major language families
Credit: Alumnum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The US Census

Fortunately, in America, the Census Bureau uses a finer definition of Asian such that not everybody who originates from the continent of Asia is considered Asian. The Census Bureau considers people from the Middle East and Central Asia as white. Essentially, the Census definition only considers people east of Pakistan to be Asian. This means that Asian in the US refers to East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian.

While I think this is an improvement from an overly inclusive term of Asian, I still believe the Census definition is too broad. There’s a valid case for grouping East and Southeast Asia together. Historically, there’s been a great deal of cultural exchange from East Asia to Southeast Asia due to the migration of Overseas Chinese. However, I don’t think the same can be said for grouping East and South Asia together. To understand why this is the case, I think it’s helpful to look at what I consider to be East Asia and South Asia.

South Asia

The essence of South Asia is what I call Greater India. This region’s core is composed of the modern countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. These countries are indisputably South Asian. Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Maldives are also sometimes included in this classification. While there is tremendous diversity in the region, I think there are some commonalities that unite Greater India such as the influence of Hinduism in the caste system and the historical importance of Sanskrit as a liturgical language.

Map of Greater India in dark orange. Areas in light orange and yellow indicate regions with significant cultural influence from Greater India.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Regions influenced by Greater India have some clear links to the Indian subcontinent. Aside from religion (Hinduism and Buddhism) and the caste system, many of the cultures have linguistic connections. Languages from Tibetan to Khmer have adopted an abugida writing system based on Sanskrit as well as many Sanskrit-based loan words.

East Asia

Just as there is a core for Greater India, there is an equivalent core for the Greater China cultural sphere composed of the modern countries of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Taiwan and Singapore are sometimes also included due to their cultural ties to China. Further, some also consider Mongolia’s historical ties with China in the Yuan dynasty to warrant classification with East Asia.

While diverse, there are historical and cultural similarities among these nations. For one, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam have traditionally adhered to Confucian and Taoist values and beliefs. Additionally, these four nations have historically used Chinese characters and much of the modern vocabulary of their languages originate from Middle Chinese. As an aside, these cultural characteristics of East Asia are also part of why I think the western regions of China (i.e. East Turkistan, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia) don’t even count as Chinese or East Asian.

The Greater China cultural sphere
The Greater China cultural sphere
Credit: Hogweard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Similar to Greater India, Greater China has exerted tremendous influence in Southeast Asia. Although Overseas Chinese are a minority in this region, their economic dominance in the bamboo network means they have exerted disproportionate influence on the local culture. For example, noodle dishes like mi goreng in Indonesia have Chinese origins. Given that the bamboo network is still alive and well (and China’s recent politico-economic encroachment in the region), there’s an argument to be made that today Greater China is a greater influence on Southeast Asia than Greater India.

What this means for Asian Americans

Clearly, South Asian, East Asian, and Southeast Asian cultures are very different so why are they lumped together in America? To me, it’s because white America doesn’t care enough about Asian Americans of any kind. Your average South Asian and East Asian would never get confused for each other. Asian, espically when it’s used as AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander), is a classification that means we’re exotic (i.e. not white) but not black or Spanish-speaking. This is the only way I can justify the reasoning for joining such disparate groups.

Some people will say that Americans of East Asian and South Asian descent share a lot in common. For example, we both have strict parents who pressure us to be high-achieving, eat weird (to white people) food at home, and feel simultaneously part of and alien to our American and home cultures. Personally, I feel like all of these similarities are part of the immigrant experience and not unique to any kind of Asian culture.

Other than the British calling our ancestors coolies (which, as a tangent, would be kind of cool for us to reappropriate), there isn’t much that unites us together. I don’t even see why we would want to be put together. For most of world history, China and India were the wealthiest civilizations with rich, unique cultures. I would much rather have the American cultural language reflect this history instead of the racial chopped liver that the word Asian is.

Clearer Asian American Vocabulary

In the Asian American dialogue, we need an expanded vocabulary to describe our cultural experiences. I think the American racial and cultural dialogue has outgrown the Pan-Asian ideals of the 1960s when the term Asian American was created. The sooner we can recognize this, the sooner there can be meaningful change to our problems with race in America.

South Asians commonly use desi to describe their diasporic kin. I absolutely think there should be a commonly used, equivalent term for East Asians and Southeast Asians. Although I’ve been using them in this entire essay, I don’t like the terms South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian at all. They’re too geographic, academic, and robotic to be readily used in normal conversation. In the future, maybe we can extricate the word Oriental from its offensive origins and reclaim it for ourselves.

So, what is Asian? Well, it’s a word that describes a huge and diverse group of people. Because of this, it doesn’t really amount to much. Asian groups in America experience different experiences and challenges that are unique to their cultural group. East Asians and fetishization and demasculinization. South Asians and colourism and caste discrimination. Southeast Asians and intergenerational trauma and their achievement gap. We Asian Americans deserve better and more diverse language that reflects our culture and history. If we’re ever going to make any meaningful change, we must have the vocabulary recognizing the diverse groups within Asian America.