Setting the Record Straight: 'Oriental' is So Yesterday

33197_U89Flushing Assemblywoman Grace Meng has proposed a bill that will eliminate the term “Oriental” in state, public and city documents, when used to describe individuals of Asian or Pacific Islander ethnicity.  That’s right, Meng has had enough of the Western ego, and wants to set the record straight. The bill will replace “Oriental” with the term “Asian.”  Already approved by the assembly, the bill awaits the vote of the New York Senate, which has yet to reconvene.

As a young New Yorker, I’ve mostly come across this term during school, when reading about the 19th century colonial period in textbooks.  The fact that the term “Oriental” is still being used by the government is quite telling, as it demonstrates the residual traces of past derogatory attitudes toward Eastern Asian countries. 

“Oriental,” which comes from the Latin word “oriens,” refers to places where the sun rises in the east.  Europeans have used the term “Oriental” to describe peoples and places east of Europe, revealing the embedded Eurocentric views of this time. It is outdated and simply politically incorrect to use this term today, although some would argue that “Oriental” implies the exotic, foreign appeal of the Far East, without any intention of insulting its peoples.  In contemporary culture, we mainly see this term when used to describe Oriental rugs, furniture or “Mandarin Oriental” hotels and restaurants.  Whether or not this term comes off as exotic or patriarchal, this proposed bill will make a statement that Asian Americans — whose heritage is firmly based in Asia, as opposed to the fictional "Orient" — want their R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Photo from Queens Chronicle