What is “Asian” anyways?

The term “Asian” has been a consistent source of confusion and frustration throughout my involvement in community organizations. Be it student association, professional association, board member, or now most recently in developing Cold Tea Collective. If you have ever been involved with a community or student group that considers itself “Asian,” I’m sure you know the series of questions that always comes up:

“So who’s included in this group? Are South Asians okay or do we stick to East Asian? How about South East Asians?”

The words Asia and Asian are loaded with so much complex history and usage that it could have completely different meanings depending on where you are in the world. In North America, Asian is perhaps most commonly associated with those of East Asian or South East Asian heritage, but not necessarily South Asian. In contrast, Asians in the UK are more commonly associated with those of South Asian heritage.

So where did the words Asia and Asian come from?


Some basic internet sleuthing will tell you that no one actually knows where the word Asia originated. What we do know is that the word has remained pretty much unchanged in its current form for thousands of years since its adoption into Latin.

It is speculated that the Romans got it from the Greeks, and the Greeks may have adopted it from the ancient Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Syria).

The general consensus seems to be that the original meaning of asia was literally “to rise”, as in sunrise. Its intention was directional much like how we would use east and west, north and south. In a flat-Earth world this makes complete sense.

“Where are you from?”

“I was born here.”

“No, where are you really from? You look like someone from where the sun rises.”

Little did these ancients know that the world was a lot bigger and rounder than they could have imagined.


As the desire for global economic dominance spread, words like Asia and Asian transformed from directional intentions to that of categorization.

Categorizing groups of people has dangerous impacts and has been used throughout history to justify the killing of people (war), dominating them (empire/colonialism), and exploiting them through subjugation (slavery).

Terms like Occidental and Oriental or Western and Eastern were and continue to be used in a variety of ways to validate difference. You may be more familiar with the latter where Western is generally associated with progressive and morally righteous societies and Eastern with oppressive societies that play catch-up to the West. But, at their heart, all of those terms were derived from literal geographic meanings just like Asia was. Don’t forget that Eastern societies are just as guilty of categorizing as well.

Interestingly, “Asian” is a relatively new usage when referring to people as its predecessor “Asiatic” and “Oriental” were considered to be too correlated with racial discrimination. Perhaps we’ll see a similar change with Eastern? Only time will tell.

Present Struggle

So now that Asian is the preferred term, it’s still a crude way to refer to people hailing from the world’s largest, most populous, and perhaps most culturally diverse continent. As I mentioned earlier, the meaning of Asian changes depending on where you are in the world which further complicates the situation.

I would speculate the reason for this vernacular change is purely based on historical migration patterns and how those receiving countries (or colonies) dealt with it. In North America, much of the public discourse about those from Asia were dominated by the Chinese (Chinese railroad workers, Chinese gold miners, Chinese head tax, Chinatown riots, etc.), as such East Asians are more commonly referred to as Asian in Canada and the US. The United Kingdom had a very different migration pattern that was dominated by South Asians, and today, South Asians in the UK are more commonly referred to as Asian.

Imagine the confusion of an Asian-Canadian walking into an UK Asian conference.


So, who should be included as an Asian?

To be honest, I really don’t know.

My socially progressive friends want to establish another term that would make things clearer. But what? The word asia has been in use in some way, shape, or form for almost 5000 years. That’s a massive beast to tackle.

The only solution I can offer is that we must acknowledge and educate that “Asia” and “Asian” are heavily complex words with incredibly deep histories. We must be mindful that the modern day usage of these words changes from region to region. If you see the word Asian being used in a way that doesn’t seem to include you, does it make it okay? Maybe not, but perhaps you can be a little more understanding as to why.

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