I Didn’t Know I Wasn’t Asian

There is something exemplary in employee recruitment process in the UK. In the application form, it is required that a candidate complete a section, titled ‘Equal Opportunity’, where one can disclose information related to gender and ethnicity. This practice also applies to many activities of the society, e.g. education and health care. Government and officials tally up the numbers and use statistics to analyse whether people are being treated equally. Although it is rather debatable whether the information provided would bring equality — it might as well bring the opposite -, this is indeed a good attempt. If you are interested, you can check this link out; it tells you more about the Equality Act.

That is about as good as it gets because the form details are rather confusing and even misleading. I was baffled when I was first introduced to the form. It was when I applied to Imperial College in early. Never in my life have I come across a form where I could choose to fill in a field but not to state the information asked. I was given a list of options for ‘Ethnicity’, which looked like the one below.

Note: The list is different in Scotland and Nothern Ireland. The one above is only for England and Wales. You can read this Wikipedia article about Classification of Ethnicity in the UK.

I’m definitely not White, or Mixed, or Black,” I said to myself.

I really wanted to choose an option and it must not be ‘Not Stated‘. I skimmed through the list and wondered why ‘Chinese‘ was as an exclusive ethnicity and not categorised under ‘Asian‘. I thought it was the Asian of Asians. I watched so many English-language movies and TV shows and the term ‘Asian‘ was always used to refer to an Oriental-looking person, who annoyingly enough was always assumed to be Chinese and Chinese-speaking.

They are everywhere and constitute nearly 20% of the world population. Maybe that’s why Chinese should be an exclusive entity,” I thought while I was still figuring what to put.

Well, I’m Indonesian and Indonesia is part of Asia so I must be Asian,” I added.

So I chose ‘Any other Asian background.’ Little did I know that I was not Asian, at least not in this context according to public convention in this country.

Days and months went by and I always chose the same option, with confident, knowing that it would be the way the society would think of me. In January, a shameful event made a headline, two Asians were caught grooming White girls.

It was such a disgrace and everybody disapproved of it. The headline caused massive public condemnation. It got complicated as it also triggered something else, not merely due to the criminal nature of the event, but also a racial issue that was assumed, by some, to be potentially associated. John Straw, former home secretary, a Blackburn MP, jumped in and made racially stereotyping comments and correlated the crime to the origin and the religion of the convicts. But hey, let’s not dwell on this.

It’s not that I wanted to belittle the severity of the crime but I was rather annoyed with the excessive use of the term ‘Asian‘ in the news. The origin of the convicts was quite specific yet ‘Asian‘ was instead used. It was not geographically incorrect but referring to them as ‘Asians‘ could be leading to misconception.

“A hidden world in which Asian men “groom” young white girls for sex has been exposed with the jailing yesterday of two men for child-abuse offences.” - The Times

“However, speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme after the case, Mr Straw said vulnerable white girls were at risk of being targeted by some Asian men.” - BBC News

“The police are being blamed for not having done enough to fully address the issue of young girls being groomed for sexual exploitation by Asian men.” - The Guardian

The credibility of the authors and the sources was undoubtly of high standard. If there were a mistake in the use of adjective, it would have been mine. They were all most probably native speakers of English and chances that they were wrong were very, very low. There must be something behind the use of this word that I didn’t know of.

I quickly looked for references online and I stumbled upon this Wikipedia article about British Asian.

“In British English, the term the ‘Asian‘ usually excludes East Asians (see East Asians in the United Kingdom). Britons who mark the ‘Other Asian‘ category on the UK census are normally of Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, and Yemeni ancestries.” - Wikipedia

I continued to the link suggested by the article and I found this:

“In British English, they (East Asians and South East Asians) are sometimes called ‘Oriental‘. In the British census, the term ‘Chinese or Other‘ is used.” - Wikipedia

“In Anglo America (mostly the United States of America), the term refers most commonly to people of predominantly East Asian and Southeast Asian ancestry; however, in the United Kingdom, the term refers most commonly to South Asians. In other countries (like countries of Continental Europe), the term is applied in a wider sense to all people from Asia or from a number of its regions.” - Wikipedia

To confirm the validity of these citations, I went to two of my friends, an English and an Iranian UK permanent resident, and they confirmed that it was indeed the case.

I was shocked. I nearly could not believe them or everything I found about this little misunderstanding. It was as if my years of learning English were thrown into garbage as I could not understand a word as simple as ‘Asian‘. I tried to think about it and everything seemed to be coming into sense.

Chinese‘ is considered a separate entity because the term ‘Asian‘ is publicly used to refer to South Asians only. South East Asian, quite unluckily, appeared to be considered as a small subcategory of Chinese, hence not Asian.

Is it not weird to say “South East Asians are not Asians” yet there is ‘Asians’ in ‘South East Asians’?

Is being greeted with ‘Ni Hao’ not enough that I should properly and legally be classified under ‘Chinese or Other’? How annoying.

After having been for one and a half year in this country, I finally find out that I am not Asian and I have never been. Even though ethnicity is self-identified, in a way the classification has suggested otherwise.

This sort of classification of ethnicity has also attracted controversy in the past: particularly at the time of the Census where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general. (Wikipedia)

Starting 27 March, the Census day, I can ‘officially’ be Asian as the Office for National Statistics are making some changes in the ethnicity classification in England and Wales. They are to put ‘Chinese‘ to where it should be and should have been, which then would make choosing ‘Any other Asian background‘ a lot more sense to me. They are also to introduce a new category, ‘Arab‘, as an exclusive category.

Illustration by unfoldedorigami.

  • Candy

    Thank you for sharing! But I was still confused about “Asian”

  • No wonder I always got it wrong when filling out forms, phew…

  • I hate these forms. I’m English but I always go for “Any other white backgound” or if the option is available “not stated”. I’m very weary when it comes to anothers play with the metaphyisics of identity. As you yourself have found the meanings this conveys are far too flexible and from expieriance change too frequently.

  • Cosmogentile

    Its actually even more narrowly used than you think in the UK.
    In some parts, a tanned caucasian, whether they have any ‘Indianness’ in them or not, can be regarded as ‘Asian’, because for whatever reason, using the word ‘Brown’ or ‘tanned’ is not acceptable!
    But using ‘white’ or ‘black’ is!
    Figure that one out!

  • Sam

    Interesting article. I am British (though not English), and to me, the term ‘Asian’ brings to mind people from East & South East Asia. Until reading this, I wouldn’t have thought of those from India and nearby countries as Asian. I guess I’m showing my own geographical ignorance here! This whole bureaucratic obsession with putting people in neat little boxes is rather silly really, even if it is sometimes well-intended.

  • If you think the last census was bad, take a look at the latest one!

    Imagine if H had had this kind of information to hand. Scary thought.

  • calvin

    hmm I wonder if it should be done in Indonesia too… so we have enough data to study the demographic :)

  • Hi I am a cabbie and do not fit into any of those categories :) great article by the way

  • Hi Michael, I found you through my research on blog themes and came across this article. I find it pretty interesting.

    I’m an Indian-American, brought up in the US, but who has some family in the UK. I must admit that growing up, I was envious of my British Indian (or Asian :D) cousins who had an entire Census category to themselves. In the US, Indians were “officially” Asians as well; though the term “Asian” in the US almost NEVER conjures up images of an Indian, Pakistani or other South Asian - mainly due to the much larger-scale immigration and presence in the US of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, etc communities.

    The situation is the exact opposite in the UK, where people from the British Empire’s grand old colony, India, have emigrated there en-masse. “Asia” to the Brits mostly involves the Indian Subcontinent, as it has historically been the most culturally relevant representation of Asia to them. March 27 will be an interesting day in Britain, when these old-guard categories come-a-crashing!

    Interesting stuff mate,

  • Chisomo K.

    Racial identity is an interesting topic and the form’s attempt to put us in neat little boxes doesn’t really work for everyone.

  • wow, that’s very interesting. I found living in Hawaii, the 50th state of the US - where there is a high population of Asians; I am a mixed Pacific Islander - when I moved to the East Coast of the US, they didn’t have Pacific Islander, I was either Asian or Other. I picked Other - since I have Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, and French. With controversery in the family about also having a dash of Spanish and Portugeuse. I believe the Spanish part as they invaded the Filipines and there’s more evidence of that then not.

    I guess it just depends not only in what country you live in, but which region. It’s scary to think that you would be judged by what you thought you were classified as - and not what you really are - which is human, just like the rest of “those” people who created the labeling of different types of Asians in the first place.

  • Bureaucracies and daily stereotypes at work. Reading this post I hesitated between “sad” and ‘funny’. Assuming the weird experiences didn’t really harm your identity after all, I choose ‘funny’.

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  • Interesting article Michael