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I once posted an article on the web in which I referred collectively to people from China, Japan, and the Koreas as "Oriental". I got an email from someone who informed me that this is an offensive term and that I should call such people by the specific country of origin -- "Chinese" or whatever -- or collectively as "Asians". She claimed that "Oriental" refers to an object, like "an Oriental vase", and is insulting when applied to a person.

I consider "Asian" inappropriate as it would include Siberians, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc. And of course "Chinese" is unacceptable if you want to include Japanese, Koreans, and related cultures.

So my question is: Do people from this part of the world really find the word "Oriental" offensive? If so, what term do they prefer for themselves? I'd be particularly interested in hearing from someone who actually is of Japanese, Chinese, etc., background, rather than an American or European saying what he thinks someone else thinks.

(Frankly I thought the argument about "Oriental" applying to an object was a little curious. I call myself an "American". I don't find it at all offensive that the same word used to describe me as a human being is also used to describe objects, like "American cars", "American food", etc. Both people and objects can be from the same physical place, so I don't see any problem with using the same adjective to describe both. But maybe there are different connotations to the word "Oriental". )

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Good question, but off-topic; etiquette not English. (And as such, there is no general answer). –  TimLymington Dec 15 '11 at 15:49
Oriental is quite offensive to many Asian Americans (though I can't say all, but as an Asian American it offends me and my friends). Its antiquated--it used to be acceptable, but now it isn't. I don't have the research in front of me, but itd be like calling an African American the n word and thinking it's still ok –  simchona Dec 15 '11 at 15:53
You could try "mongoloid" and see if you get a better response. Frankly I think people need to stop being so easily offended. Unless someone digs up a racist origin for the phrase "oriental" I'll keep using it. –  Mr.Wizard Dec 15 '11 at 16:42
It should be noted that "oriental" can be as imprecise as "asian". For example, "oriental" has historically been used to refer to Ottoman culture as well. –  phoog Dec 15 '11 at 17:30
This is not standardised through the English-speaking world. The most neutral term is "east asian". –  Marcin Dec 16 '11 at 0:08

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

You might be able to use the term "East Asians". Of course, you have to consider whether your audience is sufficiently familiar with the East Asia region or not. Also, Mongolia is at times included as an East Asian country; and to further muddle the boundaries, some people use the term "East Asia" to also include Southeast Asia (not a practice I personally approve of).

In order to avoid any ambiguity you could define the term when you first use it in an article, e.g. East Asians (i.e. people from China, Japan, and the Koreas).

As for "Oriental", I don't believe it carries a negative connotation in most of Europe (but I'm not 100% sure on this). To me, the term carries connotations of romanticism and adventure - probably because of the Orient Express. However, it is definitely an antiquated term and on that basis alone I would recommend you not to use it. The fact that some people (possibly a large amount of people) take offence to the term is another good reason to phrase it differently. Note that both Oxford Dictionaries Online and Merriam-Webster list "Oriental" as having negative connotations. (Also note that they disagree somewhat on the geographical scope of the term, with the former dictionary interpreting it as referring in particular to East Asians and the latter as referring to Asians in general.)

And what do you mean by people from "this part of the world"? Are you referring to actual Chinese, Japanese and Korean citizens or to people who can be ethnically classified as such but are citizens of countries outside of East Asia? I can tell you that my Chinese friends (Chinese nationals) aren't even familiar with the term "oriental" and that they would refer to themselves as Chinese (and that makes perfect sense as you would most likely also refer to yourself as American rather than North American if someone asked). If they'd use a regional term they would definitely go with "Asian" - but as you already noted, this term is too broad to be of much use in many cases.

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As to what I meant by "people from ...", I was thinking of people who trace their ancestry to this region, whether presently living there or not. As I'm talking about words to use in English, my question really only applies to English-speaking people, so would be weighted toward people presently living in the U.S., Britain, etc, though I realize there are many people living in Asia who speak English and might possibly come across something that I write. –  Jay Dec 15 '11 at 16:41
RE "refer to yourself as American": Sure, the broadness of an identification depends on context. If someone asks me where I am from, I might reply "America", "the United States", "Michigan", or "the north side of town" depending on who asked, where, and why. For that matter, I might say, "Earth", if I was aksed by someone from Altair IV. –  Jay Dec 15 '11 at 16:45
In that case my last paragraph isn't of much use to you. As for people of Asian descent who were born or raised outside of Asia, in my experience they tend to be quite specific - if asked about their ethnic origin at all, of course. Some of my Dutch friends have described themselves as being of Dutch-Vietnamese origin (mixed), Chinese-Indonesian (but Dutch nationality), Hong Kong-born, and plain ethnically Chinese or Indonesian. I don't generally hear any of them referring to themselves with a broad term such as "Asian" when their ethnic origins are concerned - they tend to be very specific. –  Bjorn Dec 15 '11 at 17:15
@Bjorn because it is possible to be specific when referring to a single person. A person born in Amsterdam might refer to himself as an Amsterdammer, a Hollander, or a Nederlander, but that doesn't make it incorrect to call him European as well. Further, the question is specifically seeking a term that would be broad enough to describe people from China, Japan, and Korea. An analogous question might be a term to describe people from France, the UK, and Spain, in which case "Western European" would do quite well. –  phoog Dec 16 '11 at 16:58
In Scandinavia the word oriental is only used when referring to objects such as rugs or vases. Applying it to people is considered archaic and offensive. –  papirtiger Nov 26 '13 at 19:56

"Oriental" may not be a slur, but it is outdated, and some people may take offense because it is associated with stereotypes from old-fashioned, unenlightened times. I grew up into the 1980s calling myself "oriental," but would no sooner use it today than "Chinaman" or for that matter "colored."

In the U.S. "Asian" generally refers to East Asians and Pacific Islanders, whereas in Britain it refers to South Asians. It is true that it is inexact, but racial categories always are; thus a light-skinned Arab Egyptian-American is not an "African-American." Incidentally, "Oriental" simply means "eastern." Historically, countries like Russia, Turkey, or Persia were called oriental not inaccurately.

If you're talking about cultural heritage rather than racial identity, however, Asia does break down into broad regions: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia. "East Asian" roughly corresponds to the predominantly China-influenced cultures of East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan, Vietnam; though geographically Vietnam is of course Southeast Asia).

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I also grew up in the 80s (and 70s) and "oriental" occasionally slips out of my mouth when I mean to say "east asian", since this was the word that was in wide use until my early adulthood. It's interesting how much discussion this has generated when it really could be quite simple: "proper term for people from eastern Asia?" -- "East Asians". –  phoog Dec 15 '11 at 22:29
@phoog: Welllll .... the point of my question was that I was looking for a word for people from a specific part of Asia. The words "East Asians" could conceivably be understood to include Pakistanis as they live in the eastern half of Asia. My point was to ask about generally understood and accepted meanings. –  Jay Dec 16 '11 at 6:23
Pakistan is certainly not in the eastern half of Asia. –  choster Dec 16 '11 at 6:25
@choster: Yeah, that's what comes of multiple edits and changing my mind about what example to use. How about substituting Kamchatka. That is clearly in "eastern Asia" in the literal sense of the words. –  Jay Dec 17 '11 at 5:54

Outside of the USA, the term Oriental is not offensive at all.

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This answer would be greatly improved if there were some basis given for its primary assertion (the accepted answer, for example, links to accepted dictionaries that list the word as having negative connotations). –  Hellion Feb 19 at 19:58

I can't recall where I've read this, but one reason that "oriental" might be considered offensive is that it implies a Europe-centric viewpoint. East Asia, after all, is "occidental" relative to the Pacific Ocean.

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I'm not offended when people refer to the United States as being in the "Western Hemisphere", even though to reach here from Japan or the Phillipines one travels east. But then, what offends people is not necessarily easy to define or categorize. Like, why are some words for body parts considered polite and proper while others are considered obscene, when they mean the same thing? –  Jay Dec 15 '11 at 22:02

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