Orientalism and Asianness

If it’s not already abundantly clear from my name and appearance, I’m not actually Midwestern.

I’m actually … Southern!

Well, in name only anyways, I moved out of Arkansas when I still had all of my baby teeth, and I’ve lived in Oak Park ever since. But, this answer isn’t satisfactory right? To cut to the chase, I’m also Chinese, my parents were Chinese immigrants, and on the weekends (and if I’m lucky the weekdays too) we eat store-bought dumplings and pickled vegetables. However, I’ve always resisted being “Asian”.

After reading and watching about Said and Orientalism, the point I took home was the pervasiveness and strength of the Orient. While now, I doubt anyone regularly uses such antiquated terms, I feel like it’s undeniable that the idea persists even to this day. And, consequently, I believe we can most clearly see its effects in the nebulous concepts of Asia and Asianness.

Ah yes, Aisa, constituting ~60% of the world’s population and culturally distinct nations from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, Taiwan, India and Myanmar.

I don’t like Asia, but that’s mostly because I feel like the term is ever specific enough to warrant its use. However, for most people, I don’t think that this Asia, the geographical Asia, is the Asia that people refer to. Just in daily dialogue, people would likely never talk about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. as though they were Asian nations but rather Middle Eastern. This example only serves to illustrate how Asia is rarely a useful descriptor for regular use. That being said, Asia still exists a continent and an idea that still exists, despite the fact that Asian nations hold little similarities besides their being colonized by Europeans (specifically mostly the English and French) and different than Europe.

As Said stated, the Orient and Occident are constructs created by Europe to, among many things, define themselves in contrast to the Other. I hope that I’m not taking too many liberties when I say that Asia is just the modern version of this construct. And following the doctrine of Orientalism, it still lives not as just a stereotype or myth but in academia. Although I’m sure there are other examples, the most poignant one to me is the race questions on the SAT. On the SAT, race (ethnicity is also used, but only to distinguish Latino, Spanish, or Hispanic origin) is separated into:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian (including Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin)*
  • Black or African American
  • White (including Middle Eastern origin)
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

Although I can understand the desire to limit categorization to a meaningful few options, I still don’t feel like label of Asian is specific enough to hold any worth. They may also be using the Asian category also due to the similarity in test score range in order to give their scores some context for colleges (e.g. those in the Asian test category tend to test higher than those in another); however, the fact the Asian label is still being used illustrates the commonality of Asia and Asianness.

For all these observations, I feel like I should summarize why the label of Asia and Asianness matters.

For one, in daily life, Asia and Asian just doesn’t really work that well as labels. Although Europe and European are also labels, I don’t think I’m going too far when if I say that Europe is much more homogenous than Asia. I’m not trying to ignore the nuances between nations, it’s only that I find that regions like the Middle East and East Asia are just as distinct with each other as they are with Europe.

Second, Asian is too vague of label to be useful for people. No disrespect to you Mr. Heidkamp if you’re reading this, but when I heard that his “Asian-American” friends had faced discrimination due to the coronavirus, I couldn’t help but wonder if he meant Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, etc. His friends are most likely East-Asian, probably Chinese, considering the origin of the coronavirus, but I only understood that from context and the connotation that Asian has with East-Asian. But why should I rely on the connotation? Why not just say East-Asian?

Third, and probably most importantly, the Asia and Asian carry a lot of baggage with them. To say someone is Asian likely brings to mind the usual stereotypes: having immigrant tiger parents, focusing heavily on school (the STEM and medical fields specifically), and being an overachieving model-minority. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that all stereotypes hold a little bit of truth, in fact, I myself have immigrant parents, care probably too much about school (and STEM), and have relatively well-off parents. However, it should be obvious that stereotypes, even positive ones, are limiting. The Asian-American stereotype in particular is harmful because it, to some extent, takes hard-work for granted. I’m sure everyone’s heard at some point that all Asians are good at math. But what this phrase ignores is the passion and work that’s needed for such aptitude. This effect unfortunately leaks into academics and specifically college admissions.

Some supporters of the lawsuit

The lawsuit against Harvard, to put reductively, was focused on how Harvard consciously discriminated against Asian-Americans in their admissions process. Harvard won, but the case demonstrated an undeniable implicit bias against Asian-Americans who were generally given much worse personality scores.

There are many things to take away from the lawsuit, but the easiest one for me to talk about is how the model of the Asian-American not only over-generalizes a sizeable chunk of people, it adversely affects those unfortunate enough to be saddled with the Asian-American label. In turn, anyone stuck with the label is also isolated from other minorities who seem to benefit from such race-conscious decisions. Whether this distinction is a good thing or a bad thing is for debate; however it should be noted that while this lawsuit finished the admissions scandals came out, demonstrating a more serious issue of wealth and legacy in college admissions.

In short, from small annoyances to life-changing decisions, the baggage of Asia and Asian is simply unacceptable.

While I bring up all my issues with Asia and Asian, I only hope to demonstrate an issue that I felt Orientalism fit in perfectly. As such, any solution to the problem of Asia(n) should stem from Orientalist theory. The take-away from Orientalism is that Asia, as a label, stems too greatly from colonist-colonized and us-them to be an accurate, nuanced descriptor. So, I propose that instead of Asia and Asian, we should just use Eurasia and Eurasian! That way, continents make sense and the label is now complete in its uselessness. More seriously, we should strive to find new borders and terms that better convey the distinctive cultures and experiences of the people known now only as Asian. I think that Middle-East, East-Asian, and Indian-subcontinent work alright now, but really, I just hope that in the future there’s no need to make a distinction. I just dream of a world in which people are just a name, and if it’s helpful, and a first language.

Thanks for reading, and hope you’re doing well during this quarantine. 再见!

5 thoughts on “Orientalism and Asianness

  1. Connor D

    This whole post is really interesting. I want to address specifically what I think you’re saying about the Harvard scandal. We talked about this lawsuit a little bit in my Sociology class last semester, and I think there’s a really important distinction between negative and “positive” stereotypes. You mentioned the term “model minority” and it’s a concept I think can get overlooked sometimes in discussions of race. In fact, I often find that the Asian community in general gets overlooked in discussions of race, but that’s a whole blog post in itself. The thing is that stereotypes that have supposedly positive connotations, such as Asians being good at math, aren’t actually positive because just like all stereotypes, they’re false. From my admittedly white perspective, it seems like the tiger mom concept in Asian families is driven by a need for the children to prove themselves as intelligent and live up to those stereotypes. This in turn can perpetuate the stereotypes, continuing the cycle. I don’t have a good conclusion to this because I know I don’t really have any authority on this topic, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you for providing your perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alex Y

      Hey Conner, thanks for your interest! I’m glad I managed to strike a chord with the positive stereotypes and model minority stuff since unfortunately I am all too familiar with it. It is strange how much “Asians” get overlooked in terms of race given that the Asian label covers so many distinct cultures from Middle-Easterners, East Asians, and Indian (all of whom have many divisions within themselves like India itself and China, Korea, and Japan), but I feel like that mostly stems from the lack of Asian-Americans in general. I realize now that Asian-American label has a use that I overlooked, that being granting minorities like Taiwanese-Americans and Pacific-Islanders a more substantial group that they can participate in. Transitioning, on your point about “tiger moms,” I believe that you’re correct in that some of it stems from societal pressures, i.e. stereotypes, but I also think that some of it is just the fact that many Asian-Americans are immigrants and immigrants in general tend to come from cultures that prioritize scholastic success as an avenue to an easy life. Thanks again for your interest, and I hope I could help!


  2. Spencer A

    This was a really cool post Alex! I had always known the term Asian as an umbrella statement but this really puts things into perspective. Labeling somebody as Asian does very little to specify their origin, however, most westerners believes it does. I think people need to become more aware that Asian doesn’t simply mean Chinese or Japanese, but can actually describe a good portion of the world. I will be more careful in using the term in the future as I can now recognize how frustrating it could be to someone to be that generalized. I also found the example of the SAT and the Harvard lawsuit very interesting as well.


  3. Emily I

    As someone who is Asian, I really enjoyed reading your post. I think it’s interesting how you emphasized the idea that the Asia and Asian carry a lot of baggage. My sister and I are both adopted from China, and we are not biologically related to each other. Yet, people think we’re twins. This makes me think of a popular opinion that all Asians look alike. Just because we are both Chinese does not make us related at all. My sister and I are from two different parts of China and I honestly do not think we look alike at all. My mom even says that my sister has Peruvian characteristics because of her facial features. Honestly, I occasionally get offended when people think we are twins because it is obvious that we are not, and they are just going along with the idea that all Asians look alike. In addition, many Asians are discriminated against, especially now with our current situation (corona). My mom sent me an article with the headline “Woman needs stitches after anti-Asian hate crime attack on city bus”. Several people are blaming Chinese people due to the fact that the coronavirus originated in China, and even President Trump has referred to the virus as the Chinese virus. Although the virus started in China, they had no way of knowing the effects of it and how detrimental it would be. After reading the article, I was in shock because I did not realize people’s actions would get this crazy.


  4. Hey Alex, I had put your post aside to get to — and then I think I lost that tab and never responded. To address my use of the term “Asian American,” you are right, I am thinking specifically of a friend who is Korean and a friend who is Chinese — so East Asian would be more appropriate. The relationship of South Asians (see Roy’s diatribes on the Indian government’s response to the pandemic, which I posted on Classroom) to the Orientalism of the moment is very different than East Asians — which is also very different from “Middle Easterners” — another really bad term. The very way we present maps and the globe, what we call East, West, North, South — is maybe the most direct manifestation of the Western myopic point of view.

    The question becomes when do we give in and accept the construct — and try to turn it into a positive. I have a good friend who is a comparative literature professor at NYU. She is South Asian, but has made her academic focus, at least partially, on a broader exploration of Asian American literature, which includes writers of Indian and Korean heritage, among others. She and others have carved out a previously unrecognized place for Asian and Asian American Studies in the core of the college canon. The Harvard lawsuit could also been seen, from one angle, as a progressive use of the umbrella term.

    But as far as lived experience, I see how the term seems useless and frustrating — and part of the legacy of Orientalism.

    What I think blows this all up is the way in which even dividing the world between East and West is ridiculous. I read this article a few days ago — https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/04/us/coronavirus-china-travel-restrictions.html — which, to emphasize the ineffectiveness of travel bans, revealed that close to 500,000 people traveled to the US from China since awareness of the pandemic surfaced. Even when all these restrictions are in place and few flights were being run, these many people felt it necessary to make that trip. I’d to look at those numbers during an ordinary month in say, 2019. As your and other students’ varied “Asian” experience attests, national barriers don’t mean much at all.


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