Chinese American or American Chinese? Indian Briton or British Indian?

In practice, I've come across both forms and I would love to know whether this is a matter of personal preference or whether there are, in fact, clear-cut rules to be followed.

I personally feel the ethnicity should precede the nationality, i.e. Chinese American and not American Chinese when referring to an American citizen of Chinese origin. In other words, when I say "Chinese American" I am referring to an American citizen who is ethnically Chinese. When I say "American Chinese" I mean a Chinese citizen who is ethnically American (a rarity, I grant you).

However, as mentioned, I have come across texts where the construct "American Chinese" refers to ethnic Chinese who are American citizens. Such a construct just strikes me as wrong but I have never been able to find any real evidence to back up my opinion on this matter.

Is my interpretation correct or does the matter just come down to preference?

3 Answers 3


In my understanding the word order matters here because what you actually have is adjective + noun. So "Chinese American" is an American (noun) who is adjectivally Chinese. Presumably this means ethnically Chinese, but as you point out in your question, "ethnicity" is not necessarily a relevant interpretation. An American Chinese would be a "Chinese" person who exhibits some quality of American-ness. Americans don't have a typical "ethnicity", but presumably any person of non-Chinese heritage who lived in China could be considered American Chinese, once they attain whatever they need to be considered "Chinese" in the first place.

  • +1 This hits the nail on the head, and extends to such constructs as "Farsi Londoner" (to describe a former colleague) or (in my case) "Romulan Terran." (I would dislike being characterized as a Terran Romulan.)
    – Gnawme
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 21:00
  • IME both "American Hungarian" and "Hungarian American" mean someone of Hungarian ancestry living in the USA. The situation gets even more complicated with British+Indian. I think the only reliable answer is to look at the context.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 0:48
  • @Marthaª That's probably because Americans who adopt Hungary as their home (American Hungarians) are so rare as to be almost nonexistent. It's interesting to note that when I had clients in Malaysia, which has a mélange of ethnicities, the natives were all Malaysians -- either in a straightforward way (Chinese Malaysian) or qualified in some degree (Malaysian of British-Indian descent).
    – Gnawme
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 1:00

It comes down to preference. In the USA ethnicity-American is standard. In the UK it is more complicated: British Indian is usually used those of Indian decent resident in the UK or a British citizen, while Anglo-Indian will usually mean a person who has mixed Indian and British ancestry, or someone of British descent who was born or has lived in India.

  • +1 for good examples, but in many cases it's likely down to convention or usage than personal preference.
    – Hugo
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 21:27
  • 1
    Or sometimes just how the words sound. So it's British-Indian (Indian origin in Britain) but Black-Briton (afro-caribean origin in Britain)
    – mgb
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 4:48

From my experience, I would say that ethnicity does indeed precede nationality. “American Chinese,” spoken from the perspective of a person born in China or raised by Chinese parents, who now lives in the United States, would be odd.

Alas, I’m unaware of any resources that might provide an authoritative answer to this question.

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