The release of the wildly successful American movie “Crazy Rich Asians” has been seen as a triumph by many for the representation of Asians in Hollywood. But many, in the United States, Singapore (where the movie is mostly set), and elsewhere, have also questioned whether the film, with its focus on ethnic Chinese characters (and use of East and Southeast Asian actors) neglects other Asians, especially ‘browner’ ones, such as Indians and Malays.
Beyond the racial and classist implications of the movie, the debate raises a larger question: who is an Asian? What is meant by the term Asian? When people see the term Asian, do they necessarily assume that includes everyone from the continent of Asia?
The term Asian is confusing, because it is an arbitrary, amorphous term rooted in European history that has now snowballed to take on a life of its own in the identity politics of the United States and other Western countries. It calls to mind both people from the entire continent of Asia, which assumes a more strict dictionary definition, but also a more narrowly defined racial and cultural understanding, which can be different in different countries in the West. The first definition is used often enough in Asia in a geographical sense, and for international organizations, but rarely in an ethnic or cultural sense, because Asians are aware of the cultural and ethnic differences between themselves: there is no one single Asian race or civilization after all.
As I’ve noted in a previous article, the differences between the various civilizations of Asia, such as Iranian, Indian, Chinese, and Khmer, are sometimes as great as any differences between these civilizations and Western or African civilizations, and sometimes an observer may find that many aspects of Indian civilization may be more similar to those of the West, rather than China, and sometimes not, wherein lies the point: the dichotomy between the West and East (Asia) is invalid because it collapses a vast variety of cultures into a two-civilization paradigm.
Lynne Murphy, an American linguist, writes in her book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English:
Where [a British journalist] says Asians, he means ‘from the Indian subcontinent,’ and so when he wants to talk about people from China, Korea, or Japan, he has to say east Asians. In America, the situation is just the opposite: say Asian and people assume ‘east Asian.’ When people mean ‘south Asian,’ they’ll probably say Indian or maybe South Asian.
As an American of Indian descent, I can attest that we almost never referred to ourselves as Asian: we used terms such as desi, Indian, or brown. This is a reflection of which parts of Asia the United States and Britain were more exposed to in their histories: for Americans, Chinese have become a sort of default Asian, whereas for the British, it is Indians, because of the British Raj. In the United States, it would be assumed that a movie featuring Asians would probably feature East Asians, but not necessarily South Asians, since throughout most the 19th century, the United States’ primary interaction with Asians was with Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
In the West, Asia has traditionally been part of the Eurasian landmass to the east of Europe, a vast conglomeration of cultures often as distinct from each other as they are from the cultures of Europe or Africa: in short, a construct. An Asian is anyone from this region; in a geographical sense, technically anyone from the traditionally defined continent of Asia, from the western coast of Turkey to the easternmost islands of Indonesia. But, this is of course, not what comes to mind when most people think of who an Asian is. Few people would consider an Arab, Israeli, Turk, Kurd, or Persian to be Asian. And indeed, in the United States census, people from the Middle East are directed to identify as “white.” But, puzzlingly, as soon as one is born across the border from Iran to Pakistan, from the Middle East to South Asia, the census directs the person to identify as Asian. It is clear then, that the idea of what constitutes an Asian is very arbitrary.
In the region conventionally termed Asia, the greatest divide is between the peoples of South, West, and much of Central Asia on one hand, and the Pacific islands, Southeast, and East Asia on the other hand, although there have been cultural and population movements in both directions (for example, Buddhism spread to East Asia, and the Turkic peoples migrated to Anatolia and Central Asia). This division was the products of thousands of years of isolation deriving from geographic factors: the world’s highest mountain chains, the Himalayan, Tian Shan, Kunlun, Pamir ranges, along with dense jungles separate much of western and eastern Eurasia. The people of the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Europe generally group together genetically, linguistically (languages from the Indo-European family are predominant in Europe, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent), and in many aspects of their traditional material and religious cultures. Likewise, the people of East and Southeast Asia share many genetic, linguistic (tonal and monosyllabic languages predominate), and cultural features unique to the eastern part of Eurasia.
So, to return to the question of who an Asian is, the answer is in short, whatever people make of it, because it is so amorphous. But, a longer answer would note that while the term has some value, because of its history, for Asians and Asian communities in the West, the geographic term is too broad to be meaningful in a concrete ethnic and cultural sense, even among communities of Asians in the West that have experienced the leveling of differences characteristic of their home regions. There is a strong case to be made for there to be different terms and semantic terminology for the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia, and East and Southeast Asia respectively (beyond slang), something that is understood by most people, but is also a source of confusion and animosity because of the amorphous meaning of the term Asian, and the conflation of geographic and ethnic categories. Then, perhaps, there would be less argument over the intent of movie titles.