A reader who has just finished my book, The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks has asked me what the difference is between Orientals and Asians. I had thought the terms were more or less synonymous, both meaning “Eastern.”
But according to the Urban Dictionary, the definitions are by no means simple. In America, it is politically incorrect to refer to people as “Orientals.” Oriental describes objects like rugs and fans, Asian describes people. In fact, one person even suggests it is derogatory and racist to refer to people as Orientals because the term carries with it overtones of European colonialism in China and is equated with terms like Negro, Coon, Paki, and Mic.
Here in Britain, Asian refers to people from south east Asia, mainly India and Pakistan, but not to people from China or Japan. Oriental is not considered derogatory, even by Asians.
So what Asian and Oriental mean depends on who is talking or listening. The safest option seems to refer to the individual countries by name whenever possible.
If I were writing my book again, I’d steer clear of the word oriental altogether.
And I apologize to anyone who may feel I have used to term to suggest that people from Asia are mere objects. The very idea is obviously ridiculous.