The Face of Asia
By: Anishi Patel
“Please indicate your ethnicity.” For Asians, the list of possible options generally looks as follows:
- Asian Indian
- Pacific Islander
Limiting options, for the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse continent. As someone whose family hails from India, the box I check is obvious, but this list always makes me wonder: what exactly is the face and identity one associates with the “Asian” box? I’m Asian. People from the Philippines, Nepal, and Pakistan, just to name a few, are also Asian. But the face I, much of western society, and most ethnicity-based forms such as the one above generally associate with “Asian” is that of someone from East Asia, or the region encompassing China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. This classification both generalizes the peoples of East Asia into one group, and excludes the rest of the continent from claim to the term “Asian.” In fact, I never considered myself “Asian” until the ninth grade, when I looked at charts of my new high school’s ethnic makeup. We have a large population of Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans, among a lot of other South Asian ethnicities, but in most pie charts, we were all grouped into the “Asian” slice.
Now, I realize that, of course, regions generally not considered Asian — India, the surrounding South Asian countries, and the Pacific Islands — are as Asian as regions that are, since “Asian” applies to all people of the Asian continent and those in Eurasia who want to lay claim to the word. Perhaps, in dividing the world into continents, Asia, for its sheer number of ethnic groups, should have been divvied up into two or three continents, but as the world stands today, people from a variety of contrasting ethnic groups can lay claim to the term “Asian,” especially since continents are largely defined by convention, rather than any strict criteria. Let’s take a closer look at a few groups that are not generally considered “Asian.”
Let’s begin with Russia, which is geographically in Asia. At least, most of it. 77% of the world’s largest country is located in Asia, but the geographic distribution of the “Asian part” of the country is around two people per square mile, which means the vast majority of Russians live in the remaining 23% of Russia, or the “European part.” Most ethnic Russians consider themselves, and are generally considered, European, but there are those that argue Russia is not European or Asian, but a distinctly Eurasian country, since it and its people have been at the crossroads of multiple civilizations and ethnic groups.
Next, the most prominent South Asian countries: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. People from these regions generally share darker skin and are often referred to as “Indians,” especially since people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India look very similar. People from Bhutan and Nepal often look like a mix of South and East Asian people, which is to say they generally share South Asian features but are sometimes darker skinned.
Some say that in the U.S., Indian-Americans often aren’t considered “Asian” because of their late immigration to the U.S.. East Asians have been immigrating to the U.S. since the 19th century, and they’ve come in large numbers, especially Chinese immigrants. In fact, Chinese-Americans have a whole history in the U.S., from legislation that limited the number of Chinese immigrants to railroad construction and the Chinatowns of some west coast cities. In contrast, South Asians only began coming to the U.S. in large numbers in the last 50 years. As such, when people refer to “Asian immigrants,” they generally visualize East Asian people, not South Asian ones.
Other countries close to/around the borders of the Asian continent, such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan, are likely generally not considered “Asian” because their people often look Middle Eastern, despite some of these countries bordering China and India and looking like they solidly fit within the Asian continent.
In the end, since the Asian continent can be defined so broadly and its people come from so many different ethnic backgrounds, it is really up to each individual to decide whether or not they consider themselves “Asian,” and for the general population to not question anyone who claims they are Asian. The face of Asia is not always East Asian.
Anishi Patel is a senior at Saratoga High School with a passion for creative writing. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and is in Skipping Stones Magazine, The Blue Marble Review, and 805 Lit, among others. Anishi is an Editor-in-Chief for the Saratoga Falcon, and she is also the leading editor for her school’s literary magazine, Soundings.