Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who Are You Calling Oriental?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it common knowledge, except for the Archie Bunker types and members of a certain older generation who didn't get the PC memo, that we don't use the word Oriental to describe our Asian friends?

Be that as it may, I've been listening to the BBC lately in my car and have heard the term Oriental used to describe people of the Middle East, today it was the people and culture of Iran.

Of course I did a little digging and found that in the United States we adhere to these guidelines:
"Merriam-Webster describes the term as "sometimes offensive,"[6] Encarta states when the term is used as a noun it is considered "a highly offensive term for somebody from East Asia."

But ... "In British English, the term "Oriental" is now used to describe one of East Asian extraction, especially the ethnic groups of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and any other pertinent and surrounding countries, and has no pejorative connotations. The alternative is usually to use "Far Eastern," or refer to the specific country from which an individual or family may have originated, if this is known."

Isn't that interesting? In England the term Oriental isn't insulting when speaking of Asian people? But still, does that explain why BBC news reporters are using the term Oriental to describe people of the Middle East? I mean Chinese people and Iranian people are a little bit different, right?

So I'm looking for answers here. First and foremost, why is Oriental considered offensive here in the United States but not in the United Kingdom? And who decides if it's offensive or not? Did all of the Asian people in Great Britain get to vote and say they didn't mind the term? My guess is that some British Asians might like to get rid of the term. But I could be wrong.

And second, is the word offensive only when talking about people or does it also apply to objects like, "Oriental rugs or Oriental Art?" There seems to be more debate on that issue. I for one always feel uncomfortable when I hear folks use the word because I just thought it was a no-no. But always the journalist, I'd like to know why.

I'm listening.

Peace!

25 comments:

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

From what I understand in the States saying Oriental Rug/Art is fine but people are not "Oriental".

However it's different in Europe and the Caribbean. In general folks are less PC outside of America. I can't tell you how many times I had to tell Caribbean relatives, "no, we don't say that in America".

currentsbtwshores said...

hmm, interesting, i had a similar conversation the other day with a british man married to a chinese woman. he says the term "oriental" when referring to people from far east asia is simply geographically wrong (as it is) and that it is also considered racist to use that term in england as well. hmm? but if you heard it on the bbc. . .well. . .why don't you write in to the bbc and ask?

LT said...

Ragazza,

You know the PC thing is very American, and I always get into "discussions" about it with my Spanish relatives. They say we're too sensitive, and maybe we are, but I'd take sensitive over insulting any day.

Rose-Anne,
I know, it is just plain wrong from a geographic standpoint. Maybe I will write to the BBC...

Oli said...

Oriental is used most of the time in the UK when referring to East Asians. It's not at all seen as offensive and helps to differentiate from (British) Asians who are of South Asian descent.

Josie said...

Hmm, as a Brit (all be it, a Black British Woman) I've never heard a fellow Brit refer to an East Asian person as an 'Oriental', and assumed that it was considered offensive here as well (currentbtwshores' British acquaintence summed it up perfectly). I think some people in America will be pleasantly (or unpleasantly?) surprised to find that England has a PC culture too, although some who wish they could use pretty offensive terms willy nilly are up in arms about our move towards this. Read: The Daily Mail & it's readers...

Color Online said...

I was told oriental describes objects while Asian refers to individuals. Do I have it wrong?

LT said...

Oli,

Thanks again for the in country perspective!

Josie,
Am def. "pleasantly surprised."

Color Online,
That's kind of a rule of thumb here I think, but it's still just geographically incorrect. but it is hard to keep track, which is why i brought this idea up for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Why is it Geographicaly incorrect to use Oriental ?
I do not follow that argument.
I have believed Oriental is the East, and we have the near, middle and far east.
Iran being in the middle east, it is still the east, is it not?

Anonymous said...

When did everyone become so sensitive? Oriental is supposedly offensive because it refers to traditional stereotypes of Asian people that modern American Asians find offensive. The problem isn't the word - it is the stereotype. Changing Oriental to Asian does not change the stereotype. The stereotype is what everyone should try to avoid. It also inaccurately captures non-oriental Asians and groups them together with the Orient. Perhaps the modernization of Oriental to Asian will lead to a negative stereotype associated with "Asian drivers"? Then we'll have invent other Newspeak instead of correcting prejudicial sterotypes.

Larry Lix said...

"oriental" being politically incorrect or offensive is just another example of people attempting to start a "chain-letter" or "fad" around the world so they can tell people "I started that".

With this tiny gloge using the Internet for high speed communication, people just love to start a rumour, only to see it explode and come back to them, after infecting the world with their disease. This is the analogous to the computer virus writers. It is the latest sickness affecting us via electronic media.

"Oriental" was and never will be offensive to people from those origins as evidenced by so many North American "Oriental" restaurants and "Oriental" societies named by the very culture themselves.

North Americans, grow a pair and stop being so gullible. Our English laguage has been destroyed by this very technique of people attempting to coin a phrase for world recognition by the "look-at-me" crowd.

"Asian" is not a correct term for this culture of people. Russians are Asian and not "Oriental", as well as are Arabs, Iraelites, Lebanese and Siberians. "North Americans" is likelwise not correct for all "Christians" or "whites" in the world.

Geez people! We have to start ignoring this influx of stupidity to preserve what we have left of our sanities. Just because one person says it and another repeats it does not make it true. I mean look at the people that think the movie hoax "nitro-glycerin" is real or even the biggest one of all... the "Global Warming" scam.

Anonymous said...

As an Oriental person myself I find this whole discussion offensive! It offends most oriental people to have what we should think decided by some western culture occidentals that are typically ignorant of most of our cultures and history.

Here's the deal. You decide what you want to be called and orientals will decide what they want to be called.

The ignorance and racism continues from the American culture. Stop trying to tell us how to run our lives and now what to think!

Anonymous said...

I was surprised when several years ago an American boyfriend of mine took offense at me using the term 'Oriental' to describe people from the far East. I explained that in the UK, it isn't seen as a racist term at all, and I think the issue lies with the fact that in England, the term 'Asian' is already taken! Over here, Asian refers to people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc, and it would be confusing to include Japanese, Chinese and Korean people into this group. In the States, Asian generally refers to people from the far East. I think this has to do with the fact that England has far larger groups of Southern Asian immigrants and the US has a greater population of Asians from the far East. Thus over here, Asian means someone from as I said, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh and therefore a separate term is needed to describe those from the far East. I don't know how Americans refer to those from India and Pakistan, but if you referred to these people too as Asians, I imagine it might be somewhat confusing. If someone who was far Eastern over here objected to being called Oriental, I wouldn't have a problem with changing it to something else, but in the UK, calling someone from the far East 'Asian' would just cause confusion. Maybe 'Far Eastern' would be a comprimise or 'East Asian' and 'Southern Asian'. But it's never been an issue. I think it's a cultrual thing in the US.

Anonymous said...

I'm more offended by the fact that you, as an American, think that just because your country finds a word offensive, the rest of the world should too. The United Kingdom is a completely different country to the USA and there's no reason why we should adhere to your ridiculous, arbitrary rules. We should ignore them, just like we ignore your bastardised version of our language.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but it comes up on Google so I thought it was worth a reply.

Oriental comes from the Latin for "east". If you're referring to people from east of you (presumably if you're in a western nation, or one with a Latin-based language), the proper coinciding term for yourselves and anyone to the west of you is Occidental.

More info: http://www.skyscript.co.uk/gl/oriental.html

I've also noticed in England that the news refers to many countries as "Asian", including India, and "East Asian" to denote countries like China or Japan.

Anonymous said...

Funny how Americans feel the need to take offense for Asians being called Oriental.

I am from Asia. I am Filipino. And I see no issue in calling those from the "East" as Oriental. It's just a word to help give a more clearer description of a person, in the perspective of geography.

Americans, you do not represent those who come from the different side of the globe. We honestly don't care if people are using that term on us, what matters most is how we are being treated when we come to YOUR side of the globe.

Anonymous said...

It didn't used to be offensive in Britain ten years ago to say oriental (I'm British) but now I understand it could be.

People don't say the country the person is from as they may not know it, so they say Oriental if they think it could be Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea.

To be honest, it's not totally offensive likes some words could be. I really don't know what is wrong with the word given 'The Orient' means 'The East'. I think it is a nice word and I wonder if I spoke to those from that region whether they would find it offensive.

I will ask my friends from that area to see if they do. If they do, I will find out why and if it is offensive then I wouldn't use it. I will do my own research. People change descriptions of people far too rapidly nowadays. What is right one decade is wrong the next. Who decides these PC laws? How is the public supposed to keep up? (these are rhetorical questions)

Anonymous said...

It didn't used to be offensive in Britain ten years ago to say oriental (I'm British) but now I understand it could be.

People don't say the country the person is from as they may not know it, so they say Oriental if they think it could be Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea.

To be honest, it's not totally offensive likes some words could be. I really don't know what is wrong with the word given 'The Orient' means 'The East'. I think it is a nice word and I wonder if I spoke to those from that region whether they would find it offensive.

I will ask my friends from that area to see if they do. If they do, I will find out why and if it is offensive then I wouldn't use it. I will do my own research. People change descriptions of people far too rapidly nowadays. What is right one decade is wrong the next. Who decides these PC laws? How is the public supposed to keep up? (these are rhetorical questions)

Anonymous said...

I'm Chinese American and I find the term generally annoying to hear. There is no place called "the Orient". It's just an old Eurocentric term which paints "Orientals" as foreign, exotic easterners.

And for anybody who thinks the US is being too "PC" or "sensitive": well they don't have to deal with tons of different cultures roiling around in their society of 330 million people. They don't have a history of being "the land of the free" whilst engaging in slavery and the oppression of pretty much every minority group (including people of European descent like the Irish).

Anonymous said...

I'm Asian and I'm actually proud to be called an Oriental.

We have a rich culture and history in the far east and calling me an oriental is a compliment to my heritage.

The word isn't offensive, it's our own perspective of it.

Chris Thompson said...

I agree with person that posted at 4:08 am. I don't take offense to being called an okie and am proud of that term! So the word lets people know where I'm from, regionally in the US, like that person says oriental describes them regionally where they're from. We are way too PC here in America and really need to lighten up like everyone says we do!

Anonymous said...

Literally, not technically, Orient simply means "East" of Europe - this leave quite a lot of countries to be called "The Orient" including the Middle East and Asia. I agree that to be caught up in feeling offended over something that simple is missing the point. If it were the UK, GB, or England - should someone from that country be offended by which you call it, or simply understand the reference? Being PC has become ridiculous and we ar a bunch of walking wounded infants. I too come from Oklahoma, grew up in California and spent the majority if my young adulthood in Germany. I believe there is a narrow scope here when it comes to how to best have healthy interpersonal relationships - this is yet another example of how not to accomplish that task.

Anonymous said...

I am from Asia. I am Filipino. BUT please do not call me Oriental. I am not a piece of furniture.

Anonymous said...

Describing someone as oriental is only offensive to uncultured people in America. Oriental or people from the Orient refers to people with almond shaped eyes who are from far east Asia. The term Orient means; to change or create something. It's an old-world term never intended to be offensive.

Using the word "Asian" to describe someone with almond shaped eyes is commonly used, however, this word can include anyone from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and even Russia since 3/4 of it is on the content of Asia. Simply put, the word "oriental or from the orient" should not be offensive, just like people from Mexico don't get offended when you call them Mexican, or people from America, Americans. Both my parents and I have slanted eyes and olive colored skin. We were all born on the Mongolian/Russian border - I'm honored to be oriental.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I don't know if someone already clarified this, but people from America categorize a huge portion of ethnicity by physical appearance.

Anyone with slanted eyes and olive skin are "Asian". People with tan/red skin are usually Native American Indians or Middle Eastern.

If you have beautiful olive shaped eyes, stop being so insecure about your physical appearance. You've obviously spent too much time in the US and need to revisit your roots to become proud of your heritage, appearance, and well-deserved stereotypes. The fact that you get offended by is offensive to me!

Anonymous said...

This is patently STUPID! The Orient is a region in Asia. Asia stretches all the way to Europe. There you can find Europeans. Why you do refer to blacks in america as Afro Americans ...well? This seems more offensive since they are really just plain old Americans. since when is it racist? What is racist? "Racism has existed throughout human history. It may be defined as the hatred of one person by another -- or the belief that another person is less than human" there is nothing racist about the word 'Oriental'. Get over the BS. The extent of PC nonsense in the US is really insane.