Welcome to another instance of our “Versus” or “What’s the Difference?” series, where we explore commonly-confused and inappropriately-used words, terms, phrases, concepts, and ideas. The topic today is: Oriental vs Asian vs Eastern.
Let’s jump straight into it and begin by looking at the meanings of these terms:
Asian means a person, place, or thing which comes from, or is associated with, the Asian continent and region.
Asian is the standard, accepted term these days, while some of its synonyms (other names to call Asians) have become archaic and/or offensive, but we’ll go into detail on these in just a bit.
If you’re interested, check out the different countries in our Asian travel guides.
Oriental: What Does Oriental Mean?
Oriental is an older term that has been used to describe people, places, and things from Asia.
Oriental comes from the Latin word oriens meaning “east, literally “rising,” coming from the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. The opposite word would be Occident, which comes from the Latin word occidens, meaning “west,” literally “setting.”
The use of Oriental in English, as well as in many other languages, is discouraged as it is considered to be offensive.
Why is the term Oriental offensive?
Oriental is offensive mainly because it has a Eurocentric origin – Asians are east of European countries. In the past, the Orient was Asia, for the most part. Some people still accept more the term Oriental for Asian things, but it’s probably better to skip it altogether – Asian is better and it’s even a syllable shorter!
Frank Wu, a law professor at Howard University, told the NY Times, “The word ‘Oriental’ is not inherently negative. It’s associated with a time period when Asians had a subordinate status. ‘Oriental’ is like the word ‘negro.’ It conjures up an era. For many Asian Americans, it’s not just this term; it’s about much more. It’s about your legitimacy to be here.”
Don’t use Oriental to refer to Asians!
Eastern is another term used to refer to people of Asian origin, similar to Oriental. And just like with Oriental, it can be taken offensively for its Eurocentric roots – Asia is only east in relation to Europe. While it is not as bad as Oriental, choose Asian instead.
Here’re a few bonus terms to add confusion (and relevant knowledge!) to the mix:
Asiatic refers to Asian people, places, or things. It is essentially synonymous with the term Asian, but has an outdated, slightly-negative connotation these days. Use Asian, instead.
ASEAN is an acronym which stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organization made up of ten Southeast Asian countries and helps promote intergovernmental and cultural cooperation amongst themselves.
I added ASEAN here as its spelling as a single word looks and sounds like “Asian.” ASEAN is pronounced AH-see-ahn. All ASEAN countries are Asian countries, but not all Asian countries are ASEAN countries.
Yellow has been used for quite some time as a derogatory reference to Asian people, specifically East Asians. While it has almost been banished from the English language, it still manages to survive.
Why is yellow offensive to refer to Asian people?
Yellow is an offensive word for Asians because it’s a label that has been rejected by most Asians as hurtful. If that’s not enough, it is also not accurate; as the world’s largest continent, Asia has almost all human skin tones within its boundaries – from the light shades in eastern Russia to the dark ones in Papua New Guinea. And, unlike white for Europeans and black for Africans, it has not been embraced by Asians positively.
Which Term is Best to Refer to Asian Peoples?
The best word to use to describe Asian people is simply Asian. Asian is purely grouping by the continent of Asia, but without the politically-incorrect and/or hurtful historical background as Oriental or Eastern (or yellow!). However, when you can, it would be even better to use their national demonyms (e.g., Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese).
Well, what did you think? I hoped this article was able to help you as much as researching for writing it has helped me. If you have anything to ask or mention about this article, I’d love to hear it in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
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