Ghavri: Where Are the Asians?

Deconstructing what “Asian” means requires understanding “Asia’s” emergence.

by Anmol Ghavri | 5/24/18 2:10am

May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) in the United States, and Dartmouth has been recognizing the month through programming over the past few weeks. The theme of this year’s AAPIHM at Dartmouth has been “Counter Currents: Beyond the Surface,” which was meant to highlight and uplift identities and narratives that are typically subsumed and homogenized within mainstream definitions of “Asian,” “Asian-American” and “Pacific Islander.” Much of the programming planned by this year’s AAPIHM committee has centered around deconstructing perceptions of identity and making new connections and solidarities with those identities, which typically do not get included in popular discourse of what being “Asian” is. This impulse toward further reflection, critique and inclusion in Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities should be lauded. In my view, Pan-Asian activists and community members should take a step further and seek to deconstruct how “Asia” emerged as a geographical unit in order to understand how and to what degree myriad people from various populations in “Asia” do and do not self-define as “Asian.”

Where does Europe end and Asia begin? Historically, this delineation has shifted significantly. What makes one corner of the Eurasian landmass “Europe” and the other three-fourths of it, consisting of 4.5 billion people and 55 countries, “Asia”? The Greeks and Romans during classical antiquity defined “Asia” as the eastern realms of the Mediterranean where they had colonies. Asia Minor was and still is considered essentially the Anatolian peninsula, and Asia Major, to the Greeks and Romans, was the domain of the various hostile Persian empires that rose and collapsed. This definition from classical antiquity was based on an “otherizing” of non-Greek and Roman territories and excluded entirely what Westerners typically include in their imaginations of Asia and most of Europe, too. Do the peoples and countries that now fall into the massively expanded category of “Asia” share anything in common?

Yes and no. Many of the nation-states and ethnic identities in South, Central and Western “Asia” have a cultural link due to the history of Islam and use of Perso-Arabic scripts in languages. Indonesia, too, shares this socio-cultural link as the most populous Muslim nation-state in the world. The peoples living in the nation-states of South Asia and East Asia share some cultural affinities as well, due to the spread of Hinduism and various forms of Buddhism. But are these characteristics enough to lump the majority of the world’s population into its own continent at some arbitrary geographical cutoff point when Eurasia is a geographically contiguous landmass?

Indeed, the definition of Eurasia’s northwestern corner as its own continent is primarily based on a shared cultural milieu and myth based in Christianity and self-perceptions of a Greco-Roman past. Hence, if continents are not simply based on contiguous landmasses, would it not make sense to delineate continents consisting of “East Asia,” “South Asia” and “West Asia” based on some shared cultural milieus and histories? Samuel Huntington, in his widely discredited work published toward the end of the Cold War, essentially did that when he split the world up into various “civilizations” based on what he saw as shared cultural identities, political systems and histories. Actually defining new continents within Eurasia based on perceptions of shared cultural and historical identities would certainly still be insufficient, as the entire concept of “Asia” and “civilization” has a problematic past.

The most important shared characteristic of the people living in the nation-states of “Asia” is the shared experience of varying forms of European colonialism. Practically no section of so-called “Asia” was untouched by European empires; even China and Japan experienced a degree of informal European imperialism. During the late stages of European colonialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the ideology used by European powers to justify violently holding onto colonies was that so-called “Asiatics” were in various states of civilizational backwardness vis-à-vis the liberal “enlightened” European nation-states. The practices and ways of living that colonial administrators encountered in colonized lands, where inhabitants allegedly practiced barbaric customs, reified an auto-imagination of difference and of Europe as “other” in an otherwise contiguous landmass. Thus, the entire conceptualization of “Asia” was invented by Europeans as a place where they “civilized” inhabitants deemed as “others,” which was not perceived as such by the people living in the encompassed territories.

Yet inhabitants of what Europe defined as “Asia” began re-appropriating the label beginning in the early 1900s as various flavors of nationalism and anti-colonialism began emerging. Pan-Asianism in Japan and Bengal sought to flip the notion of European superiority over “Orientals” on its head by either reviving cultural glory, or, in the case of Japan, actually defeating a European power in a war and going on to become an empire itself. Practically every form of anti-colonial nationalism in “Asia,” from India and Iran to Egypt and China, sought to contest European imaginations of non-Europeans to justify calls of nationalism. Accordingly, “Asian” was then re-appropriated and “Asians” were agents in self-defining as such.

Hence, I am not advocating to discontinue the usage of “Asia” and “Asian.” These terms have entered scholarly and popular discourse, and as laid out above, so-called “Asians” have been and continue to be agents in re-appropriating these terms. If the entire notion of “Asia” is a cultural construct originally developed by Europeans to self-define against an “other,” then people from the nation-states of “Asia” should be encouraged to be agents in self-defining and negotiating their own identities, whether or not that involves a geographical definition or label. Yet if people only seek out Pan-Asian identities that fit the geographical definition of “Asia” on maps, then that fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity of Pan-Asian identities. The mainstream hegemony of “Asia” as a historical construct in geography should be complicated in order to further the cause of making room for as many heterogeneous identities as possible.

Ghavri is a Pan-Asian student coordinator for Dartmouth’s Pan-Asian Community.