Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fabrications of the PC movement

On my recent visit to Asia, I was having drinks one night with a few colleagues, one of them a Singaporean of Chinese descent. Singaporeans are mainly ethnic Chinese, Malay or Indian.

At one point during the evening, he referred to himself as an "Oriental". When I started laughing, he just looked at me and said "What?". I explained that in the US at some point, someone decided that calling a person of Asian descent "Oriental" was insulting, and that they should instead be referred to as "Asian".

After he stopped laughing, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. He went on to say "Here in the Orient, us Orientals refer to ourselves as Oriental all the time!"

This got me to wondering just how the word "Oriental" became politically incorrect. I couldn't find anything stating definitively how, when and why the term became unacceptable, but I did find this usage note in the online American Heritage Dictionary:
Usage Note: Asian is now strongly preferred in place of Oriental for persons native to Asia or descended from an Asian people. The usual objection to Oriental—meaning "eastern"—is that it identifies Asian countries and peoples in terms of their location relative to Europe. However, this objection is not generally made of other Eurocentric terms such as Near and Middle Eastern. The real problem with Oriental is more likely its connotations stemming from an earlier era when Europeans viewed the regions east of the Mediterranean as exotic lands full of romance and intrigue, the home of despotic empires and inscrutable customs. At the least these associations can give Oriental a dated feel, and as a noun in contemporary contexts (as in the first Oriental to be elected from the district) it is now widely taken to be offensive. However, Oriental should not be thought of as an ethnic slur to be avoided in all situations. As with Asiatic, its use other than as an ethnonym, in phrases such as Oriental cuisine or Oriental medicine, is not usually considered objectionable.
In other words, even the folks who compile dictionaries can't say exactly why the word has now become offensive, it just is. Unless, of course, you're an actual Oriental.

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