Where is Asia? Or rather, what are the countries in Asia? How do the countries in Asia correlate with the people in the United States deemed Asian-American? All this is the separate from the related question of what color are the people of Asian-descent in the United States based on the answers to the above. The answers to these questions expose the disconnect between the real world and what may be considered “woke” geography.
ANCIENT CLASSIFICATION SYSTEMS
To begin with, Asia is a continent named by the ancient Greeks. It is not an indigenous or native term to Asia. The meaning of term spread eastward as the Greek awareness and knowledge of the landmass spread eastward. From the western shores of the Mediterranean world and the world of Troy to Persia of the Battle of Thermopylae fame and beyond into western India and Afghanistan reached by Alexander the Great, the word expanded in meaning. Now it extends to China and various islands off the mainland continent.
To cite another ancient source, the Hebrew Bible, the classification system also does not appear to be in synch. After the flood and the Tower of Babel, the sons of Noah/men are said to have repopulated the earth. Traditionally, they are divided into three regions, Europe/Japheth, Asia/Shem, and Africa/Ham. European Maps well into the Age of Exploration divided the world into three continents.
More recently, President of Egypt Gamal Nasser proclaimed his country as the meeting point of the three continents. He did so as part of his effort to extol the greatness and centrality of his country.
ORGANIZATIONAL CLASSIFICATION SYSTEMS
Today, Asia has acquired a number of meanings. To begin with let’s start with Asia Society based in New York. The Asia Society covers the following countries and regions:
Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, North Korea, Pakistan, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam
Central Asia, East Asia, Oceania, South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia
This list of countries and regions of Asia is fairly extensive. It extends beyond the continental mainland to cover multiple island entities. North Asia or Siberia(/Russia) is conspicuous by its absence.
Other organizations based in the United States have slightly different definitions. When one become a member of the American Historical Association, one is presented with a “Membership Taxonomy” listing all the areas of specialization. The list is quite extensive. It includes among other designations:
Ancient Near East (West Asia)
Central Asia – various time periods
China – various time periods
Japan – various time periods
Korea – various time periods
Middle East (West Asia and North Africa, various time periods
South Asia – various countries listed separately
Southeast Asia – various time periods and various countries listed separately.
There do not appear to be any Indigenous Asians in this classification system. I guess they do not exist.
By contrast, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) takes a more restrictive view of Asia. According to its website, it is a scholarly, non-political, non-profit professional association open to all persons interested in Asia and the study of Asia. However its definition of Asia does not encompass all of Asia as the map of what it considers to be Asia makes abundantly clear. The AAS was founded in 1941, meaning during World War II. It published the Far Eastern Quarterly and not the Central Asia Quarterly or Near East Quarterly. Subsequently it changed the name of the publication to the Journal of Asian Studies.
The name is deceptive as the organization does not include all of Asia despite the declaration that it does. In 1970 four elective Area Councils—China and Inner Asia (CIAC), Northeast Asia (NEAC), South Asia (SAC), and Southeast Asia (SEAC)—were established to guarantee each area constituency its own representation and a proportionate voice on the Board of Directors. In 2022, the Board of Directors voted to rename CIAC the East & Inner Asia Council (EIAC). So Asia does not mean Asia to the Association for Asian Studies, it means Far East with a new name.
Another example is ARWA, the International Association for Archaeological Research in Western & Central Asia.
At the University of Chicago, to pick one college example, there is the Center for East Asian Studies, which recently had a book talk about China.
Speaking of book talks, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, just had one on The Exploration of Asia Minor: Kiepert Maps Unmentioned by Ronald Syme and Louis Robert. Although the name is suggestive of Ancient Greece, it’s time frame actually is the 19th-20th centuries.
These academic and organizational uses of Asia express a real world understanding and application of the term.
CURRENT MEDIA EXAMPLES
When newspaper accounts are reporting on the events in Asia itself, they generally write “normal.” Decades ago the United States fought a war in Southeast Asia and news events from those countries may still refer to them as being in Southeast Asia.
The same applies to countries in Central Asia. These “-stans” have been in the news more frequently recently. Russians fleeing Putin’s nightmare have emigrated to countries in Central Asia. The would-be military alliance created in by Russia for the former republics of Soviet Union is experiencing unity challenges as a result of Putin’s war as well.
The Travel Magazine of The New York Times (11/13/22) just featured Tajikistan. The article mentioned Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia.
Newspaper and media accounts are quite capable of discerning the different geographical components comprising Asia.
AMERICAN CLASSIFICATION SYSTEMS
If people from the Asian continent as identified above come to the United States, the entire classification system changes to one at odds with the real world. According to the United States Census Bureau there are over 20 countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent which are included as Asian places of origin. This list of countries does not include Central or West/Southwest Asia or people from Siberia. Strangely enough, people from the very areas primarily referred to as Asian by the ancient Greeks are not Asian according to the United States Census.
This official but strange classification system leads to strange usages in the American popular culture.
For example, when students call for more Asian American studies, which Asia do they mean? The losing Republican candidate for Senator in Pennsylvania voted in Turkey which is in Asia – do Asian-American Studies include Turkey? Poor Turkey, so often excluded from European organizations because it is not in Europe but in Asia and not considered to be Asia under politically correct geography.
When quotas are debated in (elite public-) high school and college admissions (like Harvard), what definition of “Asia” is being used? The actual continent of Asia? The Census Bureau definition of Asians? The culturally popular view of who constitutes an Asian-America? Here again the perception probably is Far Eastern Asia and not all of Asia.
If the issue is with East Asians, then why not say so?
If the issue is with South Asians, then why not say so?
Why is it so much easier to refer to Central Asians as being from Central Asia whereas East Asians Americans and Southeast Asian Americans are called Asians exclusively as if they have a monopoly on the term?
There is a racist component to the classification of East Asians, Southeast Asians, and sometimes South Asians as Asians and people from other parts of Asia as not from Asia.
For example, in 2019, a school district in Washington excluded students of Asian descent from the category of “students of color.” The school district responded:
While our intent was never to ignore Asian students as ‘students of color’ or ignore any systemic disadvantages they may have faced, we realize our category choices caused pain and had racist implications.
In this instance the Asian students seemed to have been primarily East Asians or Far Eastern and the color was yellow.
In 2021, Michelle Wu was elected the mayor of Boston. Her family is from China by way of Taiwan. She routinely in referred to as a person of color. She is an Asian American which makes her a rarity since that continental group has not fared well in elections in major American cities. Her opponent, Annissa Essaibi George, was a first generation American with parents from Poland and Tunisia. She also has been referred to a person of color. Thus the election was between two females of color with the colors never specified.
In this time of identity politics, it always is interesting to note the hyphen applied to an individual or group.
Earlier this year, there was a controversy at Brooklyn Tech involving the segregation of the students. In this case, the cause for complaint was for the number of South Asians, East Asians, and whites. As admissions requirements/standards were revised to decrease the number of Asian students, the parents of the Asians sued. According to an article in the NYT (1/26/22, print), the students balked at the description of Brooklyn Tech as a segregated school. One reason was because “Asian” encompasses disparate ethnicities, cultures, languages, and skin colors.
Perhaps the simplest measure of the differences among the people lumped together as Asian in the United States, is to imagine what would happen if they were a single Asian World Cup team. What countries would you include? It is Americans, and not just white Americans, who are pigeonholing people into racial classification systems using a distorted geography that exacerbates the problem. People in geographic Asia don’t self-identify as Asian until they come to the United States. Then we tell them which people from geographic Asia are Census Bureau Asians and which are not. Then we call people from East Asia and Southeast Asia in particular Asians. And finally people intermarry to further complicate the issue. One drop rule anyone?
Let Asia be Asia again. Asia should have only one meaning. We don’t use “European” to identify people in America because no one here self-identifies as a European. We use the term only when referring to collective actions and organizations by the countries over there. Candidates for political office of European descent are identified by their individual country of origin or ethnicity. We should do the same for candidates from elsewhere instead of perpetuating racism based on a bogus geography. Asian-American should not be limited to East Asians and Southeast Asians. Call them what they are.