Well, are Indians Asians?
You’re thinking what kind of idiot poses this silly question. You look at a map or globe and point out India smack in the middle of a humongous landmass marked Asia. Indians are Asians and that is all there is to it. Or is there more?
You’re mileage may vary, Dear Reader, but I’ve come across at least three different notions of what constitutes an “Asian”. The first and most obvious is the geographic argument that anyone hailing from the largest continent on the planet is an Asian. The second is the close approximation of those who are politically-aligned to the major cultural powers within geographical Asia. Finally, there are those who are considered to be ethnically Asian. These notions are neither clear, discrete, or completely overlapping.
Let us look at who is an Asian in greater detail. Is someone from Russia an Asian? Most of Russia is in Asia, but politically Russians can be considered aligned to the the rest of Europe. If a white Russian is born in Moscow the geographical argument would dictate that she should be considered a European, but this is also in line with popular political and racial notions. Now, what if this Russian is been born in Vladivostok, which is geographically in East Asia and thousands of miles closer to Tokyo than it is to Moscow? Or take the case of white Israelis born within geographic Asia. Do they fit the common political and ethnic notions of “Asians”?
The question of whether Indians are Asians is an interesting one. I’ve been told by many highly-educated individuals in the United States that I am “an Indian and not an Asian.” When asked to elaborate, I’ve been informed that Asians have physical characteristics that resemble individuals belonging to the predominant ethnicities of South-East Asia and East Asia. On a related note, I have also heard Pakistanis referred to as “Middle-Eastern, not Asian”, and that one clearly makes no sense at all, even to me. Indian Americans are a subset of Asian Americans according to the US government, but the person on the street often does agree with this nuanced hierarchy.
Curiously, all I need to become an Asian is to take a flight across the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, British Asians include desis from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who form the predominant “Asian” community. East Asians are called “Chinese”. Also the word “oriental” does not have the racially charged connotations it does in most of North America. In short, if you believe popular definitions, East Asians are either Asians or Chinese; and South Asians are either Indian or Asians depending on which side of the pond you ask the question.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban