“Asian American” vs. “Oriental

By Zhou Li

We don’t say “Asian American” because it’s politically correct. It’s not a fad. We’re not trying for expediency or trendiness. Although it

is political, insofar as it’s a question of power — naming is always about power — and if someone calls me “Oriental,” you can damn well be sure that I will correct them, on the basis of considerations historical and social and geographical and etymological and existential and whatnot. There are so many reasons why “Oriental” is simply the wrong term: a veritable buffet — take your pick.

The first reason is obvious. “Asian American” simply sounds better than “Oriental,” as my friend Rithy notes:

“It’s got the alliteration, it roughs over a pressurized “jzh” sound in the first syllable, much more energetic than the trippy, metered “oriental,” which waddles and splashes in the shallow pool of an over-enunciated diphthong, curling off a frivolous “Ooorrr” of a first syllable. We are Asian Americans and we mean business.”

Next, we turn to our friend the dictionary. The American Heritage defines the word “orient” as “the east, or eastern regions.” When spelled with a capital O, it refers to the term used “in ancient times for the lands and regions east of the Mediterranean.” Its etymology, not surprisingly, comes from that most Mediterranean of civilizations, the Roman Empire. The Latin root is oriri, a verb meaning “to rise,” referring to the direction of the rising sun, which if one is standing in Rome, does refer to Asia.

The word “oriental” is a very Eurocentric term. Again, this is not the howling forces of the PC thought police. In fact, I am using some of that good ol’ fashioned and much-maligned European Enlightenment-style logic to prove my point. If the center of one’s world perspective is in Europe, that is to say, if one is standing in Europe, the mysterious lands of Cathay, Persia, Samarkand, Siam, and Cipango do lie to the east. If one were to wake up one morning and see Tartars or Huns or Turks charging over the horizon, these invading hordes would more likely than not do it from the direction of the rising sun.

This mentality lasted all the way into the 18th century, when the British decided that there was profit to be made from conquering and colonizing India. The word “Oriental” then came to mean everything east of the Suez Canal, including the rugs, the food, the spices, the religions, the pearls and gems, the poppies, and yes, the people. To this day, “oriental” still carries that connotative baggage of exoticism and mysticism, which is what we Asian Americans find most offensive about the term. Besides that, it’s just plain inaccurate. How relevant is Eurocentrism to Americans, unless you really still believe that this nation has a sacred duty to keep its Nordic Fiber bleach-blond white?


Consult your globe. America the Beautiful lies east of Orient. California sits on the eastern lip of the Pacific Rim. If anything, Asia should be called the Near West, not the Far East. Nothing like a little geographical perspective to change your world perspective, eh? But can we truly consider Asia the new Occident? Imagine how much it would mess up our notions of morality and hierarchy if all things Asian were suddenly labeled “Western.” Acupuncture and herbal treatments as Western medicine? Grabbing lunch at Occidental Kitchen? Geishas as West Coast girls? It doesn’t sound quite right, does it? That’s probably because of the strong gendered implications that the hemispheres have taken on over the centuries.

There’s no need to rename the hemispheres based on an Americentric or any-centric view of the world. We don’t think anybody should be named something based on their direction from an arbitrarily assigned center. “I am not antipodal!” screams Wittman Ah Sing in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel, Tripmaster Monkey. What he means is that no one is ever situated on the opposite side of the earth from where he or she is standing, which is what “oriental” implies. How can you be eternally east of where you are, unless you are an eternal object? The subject is always at the center of its world. You can be east of me; I am never east of myself. Others are directional, but the Self never is.

Which brings me to my last point about why we prefer not to be called “Oriental.” It is a name imposed by others. There is a primal potency to the act of naming oneself, which has long been denied us. The members of a community with any amount of self-respect should confer, and choose and designate and insist upon the name that they feel describes them best. It is with that in mind that we prefer to name ourselves Asian Americans. Asian, because we proudly trace our ancestry back millennia of history and culture and civilization to any one of several countries on the continent called Asia. And American, by birth or naturalization or perhaps even sheer love of this country. “Oriental” is outdated and obsolete, just like Eurocentrism. We are re-defining ourselves and re-visioning the concept of what it means to be “American.” We ask that others respect this struggle by addressing us by the name that we have chosen for ourselves.

Zhou Li is an editor with The RicePaper, the Asian Pacific American newsmagazine for the University of California, Irvine. The above is condensed from an article that originally appeared in The RicePaper.