In my research and encounters with multiracial/interracial Asian families, I have been asked this question a lot. Everyone seems to have a general idea. But shine the spotlight on “Asian”, try to get a good look at it, and we all get confused. Everything is blurry. Why is that? What and who exactly is “Asian”? Well. It depends. Like all racial concepts, “Asian” has a long history of construction informed by race/power politics. It never comes into clear view because its identity is never static. Rather always fluid. Continually defined, dismantled, reclaimed and redefined.
Let’s start with geography. The well respected science that studies the lands, its features, its inhabitants, and the phenomena of the Earth. Geographers tell us there are 4 major landmasses on our planet. Eurasia, North/South America, Africa and Australia. These masses are also called continents.
Eurasia is divided unevenly into two continents. A small fifth to the west is Europe. Everything east of that, a MASSIVE area, is Asia (including western Asia or the “Middle East”). Indeed Asia is the largest and most populous of all the continents. It compromises 30% of the planet’s land area and is home to about 60% of the world’s current human population (Wikipedia). Why are there 4 landmasses, but 5 continents? Does that seem…maybe a little unscientific? That’s because it is. And now we’re getting to the heart of things. Rewind the clock. The word “Asia” was actually invented by ancient Greeks. It described the land to the east which was inhabited by people who were often their enemies. “Europe” was then coined to describe the area to the west where they were the predominant cultural influence.
This “us” versus “them” concept of Asia continued to be propagated by European geographers, politicians and encyclopedia writers. “Asian” remained a descriptor for non-Europeans on the landmass. “To talk of Asia at all,” writes Philip Bowring in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “May even be to talk in Eurocentric terms…Asia would have been no more than a geographical concept but for Europeans deciding they were something different.” Important to note too, the dividing line between Europe and Asia was drawn where the Urals join with the Caucasus and the Black Sea (Columbia.edu). If you will recall from my piece on “Mongolian Spots”, the Caucasus region was once thought by Europeans to be the birthplace of humanity. It was the location after which the archetypal, and most beautiful, “Caucasian” race was named (from which all other races theoretically diverged). And of course this delineation of races became the foundation for a global racial order that still impacts us.
Fast forward. Nowadays we can tell a lot about what “Asian” means to a people by their country’s national census. Censuses are deeply implicated in sociopolitical construction. They provide the concepts, taxonomy, and information by which a nation understands its parts as well as its whole. They create both the image and the mirror of that image for a nation’s self-reflection (Harvard.edu). Census definitions of “Asian” however are often at great odds not only with geographical definitions, but each other as well.
For example in Australia, you’re “Asian” if you’re from central, south, southeast and northeast Asia – but not western Asia (then you’re either “North African” or “Middle Eastern”). Western Asian people aren’t considered “Asian” in Canada or the U.S. either. In Canada they’re “Arabs”. Here in the U.S., they’re “White” or “Caucasian” (UPI.com). In New Zealand you’re “Asian” if you’re Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Thai – but not south Asian. Conversely in the United Kingdom “Asian” is pretty much south Asian, while “Chinese” is a different category entirely (Wikipedia). And of course these definitions are always changing.
So what does “Asian” mean? Perhaps the best answer is – something different all the time.