Monday, August 10, 2009

Asians and Orientals

Last week, the following email arrived in my inbox:
Why do you call Asian guys Orientals? Are they furniture? Decorative vases? You professed on your blog that you are not a racist, but you come across either as very condescending or ignorant.
In fact a few years ago my friend P had made a similar comment to me, so I was pretty sure that I hadn't been using the word 'Orientals' to described East and South-East Asian guys, at least not for several years. However, since that conversation with my friend P, I had become aware that some Asian guys use the word 'Oriental' to describe themselves. So I sent back the following reply:
Hi, thanks for reading my blog :-). Actually, I hear a lot of Asian guys in London call themselves Oriental. I've always regarded it as a term which is more specific than Asian. Asian can mean from anywhere in Asia, including India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, etc. But I think Oriental refers to East and South-East Asia. Do you disagree?
GB xxx.
But his reply was quite adamant:
I do. "Random House's Guide to Sensitive Language states "Other words (e.g., Oriental, colored) are outdated or inaccurate." This Guide to Sensitive Language suggests the use of "Asian or more specific designation such as Pacific Islander, Chinese American, [or] Korean." Merriam-Webster describes the term as "sometimes offensive," Encarta states when the term is used as a noun it is considered "a highly offensive term for somebody from East Asia."
However, I wasn't going to be convinced so easily, so I sent him back the following argument:
Very interesting, although perhaps those sources are out of date given the usage that I've observed here. For example, if you search on you'll find a lot of profiles of Asian guys where their profile name starts 'Oriental'!
GB xxx.
Indeed, doing a quick search last night I found 144 such profiles. This time, his reply was a bit more conciliatory:
Are you from England? I am from America. We tend not to use the term Oriental to describe Asian guys.
This whole email conversation had been during the day while I was at work, so when I got home that evening I searched my blog for the word 'Oriental'. In the past three years I only found three occurrences. Two of these were when a guy had described himself as Oriental in an email where he was asking me for advice:

and the other occurrence was when a similar thing happened on Although back in May 2006, I did use the word Oriental to describe a cute Chinese guy.

Last night, I also asked boyfriend T what he thought about using the word 'Oriental' to described a person.

"I'm not sure," he replied, "Isn't there a train called 'Oriental' that goes from Europe to Asia?"

"Oh, you mean 'The Orient Express'," I answer after a little thought, "but that doesn't really go do Asia, well, only Istanbul I think!"

"Anyway, I don't think 'Oriental' is an offensive term," he says, "although I think of the Middle East and India, rather than the Far East."

In spite of what the guy who emailed me said, the fact that some East and South-East Asian guys use the word 'Oriental' to describe themselves suggests to me that it's not an offensive term. Do any readers have any thoughts on this matter?


anothergaybanker said...

It is not rude to use the term "oriental" when one is oriental. Conversely it is very rude when one isn't oriental.

Using the "n" word is another example. You may only use it if you love fried chicken and Tina Turner.

Alastair said...

I've come up against this one also, but it's almost exclusively a North American issue borne of the political correctness movement there. Thankfully, it's one bit of irrationality that hasn't caught on in Britain.

I first became aware of it whilst visiting friends in Seattle; my use of the word oriental saw a furious 20-something Korean female shoot out of her chair and state that she was "not a rug".

After I was able to stop my hysterical laughter (which didn't really help her mood), we had a conversation along similar lines to yours; the happy conclusion was that no offence was intended, and that local sensitivity to the word has become a little OTT due to long term misappropriation of the term in America.

While I have a western name and look southern Mediterranean, I'm half Asian, grew up in Asia, and think of myself as Asian before European (I'm a Londoner these days). I've lived in a handful of countries across SE Asia, and in all places there, as in Western Europe, the word "Oriental" is used to refer to anyone of eastern origin without any prejudice or pejorative intent.

It's no different to saying "Westerner" to refer to all peoples of ancient European stock - were we to be consistent, we could say "Occidental" ("caucasian" is also grossly misused in the US to refer to white people only; the word is far more encompassing in reality), but that is a clumsy and pretentious word, whereas "Oriental" has penetrated English lexicons as a colloquial term for the East as a matter of course - a direct result of colonial history. It refers to the region, the people and, yes, even their furniture. It's just a very handy adjective.

So basically you've done nothing that needs fixing; I'm oriental, and I'm not a carpet, and your use of it is fine with me. Personal interpretation is personal interpretation - all you can do is be aware that a small proportion of people across the Pond go spare when you use that word of people, and perhaps modify out of courtesy if necessary.

Your blog, on the other hand, is British and yours, and never (thus far) used to offend, so don't feel the need to second guess yourself.

Hope you've found that laptop ;)

John F said...

It's definitely an American-versus-British thing.

Some Asian-Americans have decided that the term Oriental is offensive and therefore, to them, it is.

In the UK, obviously, we use the term "Oriental" to describe someone of East-Asian appearance (as opposed to "Asian" which describes someone of South Asian appearance). In the US (my native country, albeit one which I left many years ago), "Asian" refers almost exclusively to individuals referred to as "Oriental" in the UK.

There is no simple term in the US to describe someone from the subcontinent. Our (British) term "Asian" has no direct equivalent in the US; the nearest is "South Asian" but most people equate that with Indian.

Anonymous said...

I'm of Chinese descent, from South-east Asia. I prefer to be referred to as "hot."
Beyond that, "Asian" will do.
"oriental" is not acceptable. It has nothing to do with being from the UK. If you want to be more specific, you can call me Southeast Asian or East Asian.
"Oriental" is not precise. It comes from the French and is used to describe what we now refer to as the Middle East.

Bill said...

'Orient' (like 'Occident') derives from Latin, not French, and simply means 'East', with 'Occident' meaning 'West'.

It originated amongst peoples of the western-Eurasian landmass to refer to people from further east. It did not originally mean 'Asian', but it has come to have that meaning in some countries. Incidentally, I (as a white Briton) find the term 'Asian' to refer, in the UK, only to 'South Asia' (Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, etc) as decidedly peculiar, but perhaps that's because I lived for many years in what is called the 'Far East' in the UK. Apart from the pre-war Japanese concept of the 'East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere' I don't think I've ever heard someone from China/Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Philippines, etc refer to themselves as 'East Asian'. Other than their own nationality, whatever it is, they refer to themselves as 'Asian', just as I refer to myself as 'European'. I certainly do not think of myself as 'Caucasian', that technical term which has been bizarrely corrupted in US-usage to refer to anyone who is 'white' (i.e. 'pinko-grey'). When you look at the linguistic links that exist between diverse countries across the Eurasian landmass (e.g. Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish, Korean) it becomes clear just how wrong-headed the current US-usage is. Some tribes from the Caucasus went west, some south, some east to create the 'races' we have today, but we're all basically the same.

Finally, I don't think I've ever used the term 'oriental' myself to refer to a person, not because it has offensive connotations for me, but it simply never occurred to me. I use that term for rugs, vases, possibly even as a generic term for Asian cuisine, and the term 'orient' simply means 'east' to me.

As ever, Wikipedia has words on this subject:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised to read some sort of "Orientalism" argument here. I studied this kind of stuff at grad schools in both US and UK (sociology major by the way), and the word "Oriental" is very sensitive and politically incorrect (all comes from the book "Orientalism" by E. Said). I thought people no longer used this word, but I guess not. What I think of this term is that this actually offends some Asians, especially in the US and some parts of Asia, and I guess the situation is a bit different in the UK (there's even a school named School of Oriental and African Studies. I was shocked when I heard the name :-).

Bill said...

(there's even a school named School of Oriental and African Studies. I was shocked when I heard the name :-).

Where I studied Arabic, as it so happens.

Bill said...

Personally I find the term 'third country national', as used by many US organisations operating outside the US to be extremely offensive; in the organisation I worked for (not a US company) it would have been unthinkable to use such a term about anyone.

Similarly, I find the concept that non-US citizens have few/no rights under the US constitution (as rather too many perfectly ordinary travelers to the US have discovered post-9/11 in the paranoia that infected it in the aftermath) when in the US to be completely outrageous, so I do not think, to be brutally frank, we have too much to learn from US hang-ups about word usage, although I agree it is useful to be aware of cultural sensitivities and that certain people may find the use of certain terms offensive. This is not some kind of anti-US rant, by the way, even if I do deplore the attempts at 'thought control' implied by declaring certain words off-limits for what often seem to be flimsy reasons. We in the UK are afflicted by our own particular version of that disease, specially in matters surrounding what is known quaintly as 'Health and Safety'.

Miguel said...

This is an interesting conversation. My partners mother is from the Philippines and uses the word Oriental often. (It might be a generational thing.) Here in California, I don't hear the word Asian used to include people from India, Pakistan, etc., it seems to be limited to describe people of the Pacific Rim area.

Homo homo sapiens said...

On gaydar you can be Arab, Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Mixed Race, Other, South Asian or Rather not say.

When organisations in the UK collect information to monitor their equal opportunities pledge, there can be White British, White Irish, White Other, Mixed White & Black Carribean, Mixed White & Black African, Mixed White & Asian, Mixed Other, Asian Indian, Asian Pakistani, Asian Bangladeshi, Asian Other, Black Carribean, Black African, Black Other, Chinese, Other.

What about the people of the UK? Are they British, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, "White", "Caucasian", Non-continental European or United Kingdomer?

And guess which political party uses this to describe British people. "The indigenous peoples of these islands in the North Atlantic which have been their homeland for millennia. The term indigenous is used to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe. The migrations of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and closely related kindred peoples have been, over the past few thousands years, instrumental in defining the character of this family of nations".

Oh why do I even bother? Very interesting how, in a gay blog, a post like this generates more interest than a post about wanking.

Anonymous said...

I think it's an American thing.

I'm "oriental" and grew up in the UK and never thought the term was offensive. I don't think "Asian" really includes SE/East Asian people in the everyday use of the word in the UK. For example in racial categories for forms (e.g. Census) you have a choice of "Asian" (with sub-categories such as Indian, Pakistani etc) and separately "Chinese" or other (I fall into other) which suggests that Chinese or other SE/East Asian people are not part of "Asian" in the UK definition. Personally I prefer "oriental" as the alternative is to be lumped together into "Chinese", which I find offensive.

I've only come to use "Asian" to describe myself since I met Asian-American people at uni, and even now I would only use it with people from the US.

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I never understood why the term "Oriental" was considered offensive--and I'm Chinese-American living in NYC. I think it has a whiff of colonialism in some people's mind, but it has never really bothered me. I think knee-jerk reactionary sensitivity bothers me more, actually.

A said...

I must say my native language is Spanish, and we use the word "Orient" interchangeably for the word "East", particularly when talking about streets. So, for example, you can drive on streets called "Eje 1 Oriente" or "Periférico Oriente". Similarly, we're always taught the sun rises in the Orient, but a warm room will have eastern-facing windows.

A politically correct statement here (if they exist) is "I like Oriental food", whereas less politically incorrect people will tend to call anyone Southeast Asian "Chinese".

These things depend on the cultural contex. Just as much as it's culturally sensible to avoid words that are harsh in some places (e.g., avoiding "Oriental" if you're an American in America), it's also culturally sensible to understand that people in other countries have different conventions.

Anonymous said...

The least offensive thing in your blog is the use of the term oriental. There are far more offenses to be taken from what you write! Keep on trucking.

Anonymous said...

Nope. There is nothing offensive here. There has been no intention on anyone's part to offend anyone else here, and the matter of regional usage (UK vs.US) does not consitute ignorance that, if corrected may cease to be offensive to some people.

I am Germanic with blue eyes and very fair skin. I have been called 'white'. Do these people think that I am 'milk' or the 'white' of an egg?

I guess not. It is simply usage.


Anonymous said...

God save us from the policially-correct thought police. Bugger'em all!

John F said...

@homo homo sapiens "Very interesting how, in a gay blog, a post like this generates more interest than a post about wanking."

Perhaps that's because not all gay men are obsessed with sex? ;)

I also wanted to pick up on something else about your post. The BNP are particularly insidious in their comments about "people who have inhabited these islands since the last Ice Age". This is complete bullshit and they are well aware of this. They are pretending to draw an imaginary line in time and say 'Everyone here before this is "British", everyone here after this is not,' while of course this is preposterous and makes no sense. The truth is that these islands have been open to immigrants for millenia - Normans, Huguenots, Jews, and others who would be considered "white" but not

Would one not consider Paul Gascoigne British because he's obviously got a French name and thus has some "non-English" blood?

What about Michael Howard, whose grandmother perished at Auschwitz and whose parents were Romanian Jews who sought asylum here?

What about Boris Johnson, whose great-grandmother was a Turkish slave?

No. The BNP roll out this imaginary "British" crap as a mask to cover their evil, vile racism and because they know that if they just said "white", the whole lot of them would be in prison.

pojaya said...

I am of Chinese background, born in Singapore, now living in Australia.
To me, the use of the term Oriental is not offensive at all.

Anonymous said...

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I am new in London and read all your post and I think wooow this guy is amazing, I wanna join one of those gyms.
Any options? I prefer them with swimming pool if it possible

princesm said...

Hello, this is my first time leaving a comment here. Hello GB!

First of all i am a Chinese gay guy who is living in a western country (trying to be politically correct.).

I think when it comes to term like that you get to be very careful cuz it falls into the dilemma of labeling and being labeled. It just like gay guys could call themselves "faggot" it doesn't means anyone else could call them the same way, as well as the word "nigger". I am sure lots of "south-east" people would referred themselves as "Orientals" but i doubt they would all enjoy being called "Orientals" by a white/black/who ever not the same race as they are. I would say "Asians/ south east Asians" are much better terms because they are very direct and they just say the place they come from, just like we call European European because they are from Europe. However, the term "Orientals" is so much more complicated. It has so much connotations behind the term and most of the connotation is just based on feeling since "orientals" is an adjective as well. Its like "yes, i am from Asia, but when you call me Orientals i would imagine you are actually thinking me wearing a "Oriental" rattan hat and standing on the "Oriental" boat holding a bamboo and singing an "Oriental" song in a "Oriental" environment " (I know its retarded to think that way but I just do) oh....i think the word "retarded" fall into this dilemma too....sorry for using that

Anyway, I think its very sincere of you to actually take this issue seriously.

by the way, i don't think i would like being 'Orientals" and i was once being called "color people" by a random guy in front of my place and I just slammed the door. /(> o<)/

Nik_TheGreek said...

I believe that the whole 'politically correctness' issue goes sometimes a little too far. I agree that some terms are not to be used but I suggest to people not to be too sensitive about it. My mother language is not English and I am probably not politically correct sometimes, not because I want to. Also, I believe that it all comes down to the way that the ‘words’ are being used. My best mate can call me ‘faggot’ or ‘poof’ and I’ll just kick the shit out of him laughing all the way…

MadeInScotland said...

Well, in the famous words of Christmas Tree from Avenue Q (she prefers to designate herself Asian-American, the slant eyed-type rather than curry loving type - YOU SEE, if we cannot be clear on designation, how else can we distinguish other than tending towards more racist language):

Christmas Eve:
I know you are no
Intending to be
But calling me Oriental -
Offensive to me!

I'm sorry, honey, I love you.

Christmas Eve:
And I love you.

But you're racist, too.

Christmas Eve:
Yes, I know.
The Jews have all
The money
And the whites have all
The power.
And I'm always in taxi-cab
With driver who no shower!

(ps according to Xmas Eve the taxi driver rather liked curry).

Anonymous said...

Re: Avenue Q

That show scarred me for life. I have no problem watching hardcore porn but I NEVER needed to see two puppets shagging live on a London stage :-)

Anonymous said...

Moving to London a couple months ago I was faced with relabelling myself. I am originally from a very 'Asian' city in Canada and being Chinese I identified myself as Asian. But as I recall signing up for my firsts library card here, if I hadn't looked carefully enough I would've just ticked off Asian as my ethicity. I didn't know 'Chinese' was an entirely different category! So here, I feel the need to say oriental because the word Asian does seem to exclude me. I've never found the word oriental to be offensive where I'm from. But in America it does seem to be a racist term.

@MadeInScotland: Reading this post reminded me of that song from Avenue Q as well lol.

Thanks GB for your blog.

Tony said...

I'm asian chinese.. Oriental is fine with me.. Not offensive. =)

Btw GB, The orient express does travel to south east asia. It ends in Singapore.

L.Atexboy said...

English has been having an identity crisis for the past decade or so. People are who they are, that is that. If they like being called something, then that is enough to consider it the correct way of addressing them.

Take no notice of those yanks! [oops...]


brondee69 said...

On the lighter note, "oriental" likely perceived as "exotic". So, there you go ! Even in the Big Apple, the term oriental is widely used. But may be because it's the Americas' melting the offensive side subsides over time.

Btw, I am Indonesian in being called Asian or Oriental, and of course Indonesian.

Peace out!

Ray said...

I always thought of the term as least here in LA.

But, like any cultural group, it sounds as if asian people are trying to "take back" the word oriental just like we are trying to take back fag, queer and homo...

LOL Just a thought


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John F said...

The thing which always confounds me is that sensitivities change so quickly. I'm not that old, but in my life I have used about four different words to refer to Black Americans. First there was coloured, then negro, then black, then African-American, now I honestly don't know what it is.

What used to be acceptable (and perfectly non-offensive) has somehow shifted into the unacceptable zone and it is utterly confounding.

I accept that norms change, but it's unfair to expect every human being on the planet to keep up with them all the time - especially as they differ across countries or even within countries!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is the BBC or Glasgow University which has decided to use terminology like "East Asian" and "Western Caucasian".

Min said...

Trust me, I'm an English teacher in Korea, Korean myself, and I do know some differences between the UK and the US English.

'Oriental' is totally acceptable in the UK whereas you may be ciriticized in the US if you use it.

To me, 'oriental' refers some people of Asia including Korea, Japan, and China.
When I use English, I seomtime try to describe myself 'northeast asian'. But don't you think it's just too long? :-) And the word 'Orient' also implies some cultural background as well. It sounds a little weird if I should call an Asian guy from Siberia 'Oriental'.

John F said...

Also, the geography of many people isn't good enough to know that Korea is in Northeast Asia.

Plus what about Vladivostok? That's further northeast in Asia than all of Korea (and all of China, for that matter), yet a majority of people there are ethnic Russians.

It's all so unnecessarily confusing.

klim said...

Agree with John F on comment #3 as it is an American vs. British thing. I found it quite interesting when I first came to UK 4 years ago and noticed that Asians were referred to Indians here and Orientals were referred to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans while in US Asians are usually referred to Chinese, Japanese and Koreans and Indians are referred as Indians though college school applications may differ on the ethnic background again.