Wednesday, June 04, 2008

O is for

Oriental, the opposite of occidental.

That’s what I was called when I was growing up (along with some other more colourful epithets) until Asian became the modifier du jour.

I’ve never really understood the vagaries and inconsistencies of modifying people by geography. Nowadays, the terms Asian or African, either in hyphenation or not, are used as all encompassing descriptors of people who may or may not have been born or even set foot on said continent. It supposedly indicates one's ancestral origins – no matter how many generations removed. Yet, we don’t call someone European unless they in fact are -- at the present, in this generation -- from Europe. e.g. Someone visiting from Europe or just landed from Italy – in which case we’re just as likely to call them Italian.

Let’s look at this scenario: Here is a diverse neighbourhood with a multitude of ethnicities. Most of the families have lived here for several generations. Why do we say that Mrs. Sandhu is South-Asian; I’m a garden variety Asian; Mr. Brown, next door, is African; yet Mrs. Smith is just Mrs. Smith, a Canadian (or American)? Even more incongruous is when we look at the two new families down the street. Both have recently arrived from the UK; one is called Asian, the other is a Brit. Why not European?

I’m also called Chinese-Canadian even though I’m a third generation Canadian. I often wonder when the hyphenation ends. How many generations before the nation of your birth takes precedence over the country of your ancestors?

It’s something to ponder


Jay said...

It is something to ponder ... I don't know how these labels come about. Obviously, if someone moves here from Asia, they'll be called Asian, in the same way as someone moving here from France will be called French, I guess... As to origins, or ethnicity, we 'Europeans' (oh, how I hate that word!) used to be called Caucasian. That fell into disuse, and I don't know what they call us now!

You can call me Anglo-Saxon though, if you like, even though I have no idea what my actual racial mix is. The Anglo part is good - I'm English - but though I don't think I have any German blood, I can't swear to it!

Berry Blog said...

Good points. I don't even refer to anyone in color or ethnicity anymore in any way. I am constantly reminded of things I am not aware of however. As recently as last year, someone told me that it's not Oriental, it's Asian.I was really embarassed at my ignorance. But as well, Joy reminds me that it's jeans, not dungarees. It ain't pleasant to realize that while a working bloke in education, I was becoming an anachronism in my speech. My feminine faux pas are still awful.Sometimes I feel like just not talking to anyone.But we know that's not going to happen.
Just Charlie works for me.

Joy said...

I've wondered this, too, and am glad you wrote about it.

Charlie, I didn't know you said dungarees, too. It's denims I made fun of and country-western music when it's just country.

Good post, Ell! (as usual)

missmays said...

indeed. i would assume people label each other to categorize or generalize, however in a world where more and more people don't live in their 'country of origin' how long until we realise that this type of labeling is dated!