What Is “Asian”? How Do We Define “Asian”?

Asian. It is a word we see and hear a lot in Australia when someone refers to a person with black hair, small eyes and yellow skin and their Chinese/Malay/Indian/Indonesian etc. heritage.

Asian. It is also a word that has segregational connotations.

A word that means different things to different people as well.

The word "Asian" has positive and negative connotations. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The word “Asian” has positive and negative connotations. Photo: Mabel Kwong

When I was studying in Malaysia and Singapore, very rarely did I hear anyone calling one another “Asian”. The exception was of course in newspaper stories discussing regional relations, stories explaining how countries in the “Asian region” could benefit from international trade. My classmates and I referred to one another as “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, “Eurasian” etc.. “Asian” was pretty much a foreign term to us.

When I returned to Melbourne some years ago, I remember feeling confused about the definition of the term “Asian”. When I read the Australian newspapers, local stories would go along the lines of “Melbourne’s Asian population set to skyrocket in the next decade”. I also read up about the White Australia Policy and how politician Pauline Hanson said that Australia is “in danger of being swamped by Asians”. I wondered, “What’s Asian? Who’s Asian? Do Asians belong in Australia?” Are Indians from India and Sri Lankans considered Asian?

In the eyes of many white Australians, “Asian” is associated with the foreign and exotic. There is high chance Anglo Australians, especially those living in isolated Anglo-dominated areas, see “Asians” as one race. So, in general, the word “Asian” arguably functions as an umbrella term used to describe someone who has dark hair, dark eyes, straight hair, small eyes and yellow skin in Australia. After all, time and time again here in Melbourne, I still hear Caucasian Australians saying “all Asians look the same” and that it’s hard to tell Asians apart from one another. Sometimes, when thinking about the term “Asian”, Caucasian Australians normally think of all things associated with Asian pop culture: Japan, sushi, Hello Kitty, kung fu.

As an Asian Australian who has Australian friends of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and Taiwanese descent, I definitely do not see Asians as “one race”. For instance, there are the Chinese from China, Chinese-Malaysians, Chinese Americans and Chinese Australians, all whom I’m sure grew up in different environments with different lifestyles. As I see it, “Asian” is a complex, diverse term. Each Asian ethnicity has their own individual, contrasting languages.

Maybe this is why surprising subtle discord simmers among the “Asian” community in Australia. It’s funny how some Asian Australians at times ostracise one another who are of Asian descent. I speak with a slight Singapore-Malaysia accent, and during my university days, many of my Asian Australian classmates asked me “Where are you from?”. Perhaps it was my slight FOB accent. Many of them hung out with their fellow Asian Australians who spoke with the “Asian Australian accent” and took the liberty of chatting with me and international students from Asia usually for only a polite few minutes when we said hi.

I felt like a victim of racism against one’s own race. I felt like a minority within the Asian Australian community in Australia back then. It was akin to Asian Australians vs. Asian international students, even though I’m sure most of us have things in common like similar Asian values (e.g. taking our shoes off at home, listening to our elders).

But on a positive note, when used as an umbrella term to refer to people of Asian ethnicity, “Asian” signifies diversity. An ode to multiculturalism.

What comes to mind when you see or hear the word “Asian”?

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14 thoughts on “What Is “Asian”? How Do We Define “Asian”?

  1. The labels used to describe peoples indeed can be a bit strange at times. In another example, when I was in Japan and China, I used to wonder why I was being called a westerner when I was not even from the western hemisphere and never referred to myself as a westerner when growing up.

    As for what Asian means, there seems be some confusion about where the boundaries are yet still an idea of what an Asian is. At a political level, some of this is seen in bodies like ASEAN. (Association of South East Asian Nations.) I think I remember Australia trying to get involved but a Singapore politician said that Australia was not Asian and until more Asians populated Australia, Australia would be excluded. I think by that he meant east Asians with the more slanted eyes, not sub-continental Asians, but I can’t be sure. Likewise, when Australia pushed to be involved in the Asian qualifying group for soccer, there were voices in Asia that said Australians are not Asians. An example of the sentiment was in the 2006 World Cup where a Chinese commentator said he hated Australia because the team reminded him of New Zealanders http://english.cri.cn/2886/2006/06/28/45@107643.htm and the Australian team was full of Europeans.

    Caucasian is also an interesting word for point of comparison. I think most white Australians wouldn’t think of the regional association with Caucasian if they defined themselves as Caucasian and Caucasians around the world definitely don’t have a unified social identity. (In America, they make a distinction between white Caucasian and Latino Caucasian.)

    As for the friction between Asians, I’ve seen a fair bit of that. Sometimes it has been between nations like China, Korea and Japan but also between individuals from those countries. Opposite is also true though. In some social situations, I’ve seen Chinese bond together as a kind of “other” but that is when they have been the minority. In some nightspots in Sydney, I also saw east Asians bond together as a kind of other so that Chinese, Japanese and Koreans also went there was almost no Caucasians.

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    • Your 2006 World Cup example reminds me: “Asian” is also about geographic boundaries. It has always intrigued me as to why Australia participates in the Asian Cup (soccer). I always thought that the Asian Cup was a tournament for countries in the Asian region, North, South, South East and East Asia and Asians in these regions only. So you have a very valid point when you say that there is some confusion about the ideas/boundaries of what is Asian. We always hear the phrase “Asia Pacific”, and somehow I think this makes Australia seem closer or at the very least a part of the “Asian” continent. Interestingly enough, Australia is currently the only Caucasian-dominated country in the Asia Pacific.

      Asian international students from China, Japan, Vietnam etc. banding and bonding togethe in Melbourne is extremely common. Walk into any restaurant serving up Asian fare on the weekend and you’ll see groups of them hunched over bowls of fancy food and talking in broken English.

      The word Caucasian is definitely another interesting word. I remember when I was in primary school in Malaysia, my (Asian) classmates thought I was a Westerner (white). I was very amused.

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  2. Asian is a broad category for me. It bothers me less when people I deem as Asians use the word but wow, it was just rude when one of my colleagues said ‘Asian’ was a language. Like she just did not think it was worth differentiating between all the languages.

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    • Hahaha! Asian is a language! I’ve never heard anyone say that before. If someone came up to me and asked me, “Do you speak Asian?”, I think I’ll feel very insulted though I won’t blame them – sometimes people just don’t know and aren’t all that educated about cultures and languages, and just turn a blind eye to the word “Asian” whenever it crops up ever so often in newspapers, articles etc..

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  3. It happens. One thing I hate most is that guys like to use the pickup line “I like Asian girls.” Blah, I do not see how he is into Asian culture if he cannot tell the differences between Chinese, Japanese, Korean and the South East Asians. I can even tell which place a Chinese is from based on looks only.

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    • I get the impression some Caucasian guys like Asian girls just because they are, well, Asian. Not because they are Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc., but “Asian” and see an “Asian” partner as an accessory. Like you, I can distinguish between a Chinese person from China, Japanese person, Korean person and other East Asians based on looks. You just have to look carefully at the shape of their noses, shape of their eyes and skin colour to identify one Asian ethnicity from the other.

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  4. I have been noticing this a lot: when a white male and his Asian girlfriend sees an Asian male around, they tend to go towards his way and wave the flag in front of him; either kissing or all of a sudden becomes affectionate.

    Now, I have also noticed this: when the white man and his Asian girlfriend encounters an Asian male with a white girlfriend (or any non-Asian woman), most often times the white male/Asian female couples gets very agitated and offended. Instead of waving the flag, they tried turning the other way. Usually tensions build up from the latter (wm/af) when both couples come face to face.

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    • Hmmm. I’ve never come across what you’ve seen before. But what you say, I don’t think is nonsense at all. There has always been tensions between Asian female/white guy and white girl/Asian man couples. In general, the first couple are perceived as occupying the higher echelons of (cultural) society and the second couple are often regarded as weird and bizarre. I’ve seen both types of couples getting very affectionate with one another out in the open, PDA-ing in public in front of Asians, Caucasians and everybody else like no one’s business. So sometimes there are decent AF/WM and WF/AM couples out there. But only just some, perhaps.

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      • As an asian male dating a half-white, half-asian female, I have not really experienced that tension. I have never noticed any tension between the two types of couples. However, what I do notice and what could possibly be what Zakk is talking about is that some asian females are ashamed or embarrassed to be asian, or maybe just a minority in general, and therefore shuts out that side of themselves and then may only date outside of their own culture. This is not common, but I have seen this a few times.

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        • Yeah, I’ve come across some Asian females who don’t like being Asian and seem to take a liking to Westerners. It could be a superiority-complex thing; maybe they think their race is inferior or are convinced that the ideal standard of beauty is to look like a Caucasian. I’ve also seen a lot of Asians comfortable with themselves and proud of their culture. Which is great since each culture is unique and significant in its own way, and we should embrace such beauty of culture. Maybe the rise of K-pop – putting Asians in the spotlight and showing their talents – has something to do with some Asians being comfortable with themselves.

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