What is an “Asian”? – Mark Haider in Singapore

Now 8 weeks into the semester, I have had the opportunity to travel to Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Melaka), the Philippines (Manila and Boracay), and Thailand (Bangkok, Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, and Chiang Mai). While I still have more travel plans for the semester and had intended to talk about all of the overarching takeaways at the end of the semester, I feel as though it would be useful to share one of my bigger observations now.


It is really remarkable how much cultural diversity there is in such a relatively small region like Southeast Asia. Not only is there substantial diversity between these countries (e.g. Malaysia vs. Philippines), but there is also significant diversity within these countries (e.g. Northern Thailand vs. Southern Thailand).
It is not as though everyone in Malaysia is ethnically Malay, nor is it the case that everyone in Thailand is ethnically Thai. It is not the case that everyone in the Philippines is Catholic, nor is it the case that everyone in Thailand is Buddhist or that everyone in Malaysia is Muslim. Rather, the reality is that these countries (most notably Singapore and Malaysia) are very much integrated, multicultural societies.
Of course, the differences in Southeast Asian culture extend far beyond just ethnicity and culture, but to give justice to all these differences would surely require more than one blog post, which brings me to my main point…


Back in the US, it is pretty commonplace for people to classify others as “Asians.” Now, I’m sure that no one does this out of malice, but it really is a gross overgeneralization that isn’t all that telling of the cultural practices and values with which one identifies. Categorizing people from Asia into one single group is, in my opinion, no more helpful or informative as it would be to categorize people from Europe, Africa, or North America for that matter. By lumping all people whose countries are located within Asia into one single category known as “Asians,” it implies that there are in fact very little differences between these groups when in reality the differences are immense.

Even within Thailand, for example, not everyone identifies as being “Thai.” People from Northern Thailand will often instead identify as being “Lan Na” because, in their view, Lan Na culture is significantly different from Thai culture. In fact, people from Northern Thailand and Southern Thailand are so culturally different that despite their shared nationality as Thais, they would have a very difficult time communicating with one another because of different languages/dialects.

This need not apply only to Asians. Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Hispanics/Latinos, or any other socially constructed pan-ethnic identity unfairly lumps people into categories. This, however, is not to say that all pan-ethnic identities are equally misrepresented, which depends mostly on power dynamics and social positioning.

Some pan-ethnic identities are more known to be pan-ethnic identities than others, which therefore implies that some people know that there is more to a person that the pan-ethnic identity they are lumped into. Coming from the US and having had no exposure to Asia before this semester, I was socially positioned to not be as aware of the nuances within “Asian” culture. Conversely, for someone from, say, Thailand, he or she would likely be socially positioned to not be as aware of the nuances within “Hispanic/Latino” culture.

So… does this mean we shouldn’t use pan-ethnicities?

The core problem with using pan-ethnicities is that it often leads to people forgetting about the diversity and variety that goes into these pan-ethnic groups. As long as we understand that there are vast underlying differences within these pan-ethnicies we use to categorize people, then I don’t have much of a problem with people using them. But if we disingenuously use these pan-ethnicies without realizing their limitations, then I think it can be detrimental to real cultural understanding.


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