Saturday, September 24, 2005


I remember when people from the Orient were called Orientals. And then, sometime in the late '80s, we started calling them Asians. I thought it was a great idea: even though it's much broader in scope than the word it replaced and is therefore a lot more vague, "Asian" is a much shorter word, it's easier to spell, and it doesn't take as long to pronounce. But those weren't the reasons for the change. According to a newspaper article I read back around 1990 or so, Asians didn't want to be referred to with the same term we use for rugs, interior decoration, and food. The thinking was something like, "If you're going to call them Oriental rugs and Oriental foods, then we don't want to be called Orientals -- we want to be called Asians instead." Once again, this made perfect sense to me, and I started using that term when referring to my Asian friends, although a couple of them were slow to follow the trend and they continued to call themselves Orientals for a while.

The term eventually caught on, though, and everyone was happy, but look what's happened in the ensuing years: Everyone started acting like "Oriental" is a dirty word. No one uses it anymore. They've stopped shy of calling it "the O-word," but there's no such thing as an Oriental rug anymore -- now it's an Asian rug instead. And people are redecorating their houses to give them an Asian motif as well, even though that term is so vague that it's practically meaningless. In addition, the huge variety of Oriental foods are now collectively referred to as Asian Cuisine. I've even been in restaurants where the Chinese Chicken Salad has been replaced with an Asian Chicken Salad. (I bet you could search far and wide throughout the vast continent of Asia -- from the arid expanse of the Gobi desert through the sweltering jungles of Cambodia to the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong -- and not find a single Asian Chicken Salad, except maybe in a restaurant that caters to foreign tourists.)

As sort of a happy footnote, I have to mention that I actually did see a newspaper ad for Oriental rugs very recently, and I consider that a step in the right direction. But while I'm on the subject of "Asian decor," you've probably noticed that if you decorate a room in a simple minimalist style -- especially if you use natural materials like wood and stone -- a lot of people will say something stupid like it's "Zen-inspired" or they'll say "the room is very Zen." Listen, I don't know anything about Zen Buddhism, and the more I learn about it the more I realize how little I know, but one thing I do know is that it has very little to do with interior decoration. It's fine to call something "minimalist," and you can even make up a new word and call it "Japanesy" if you want, but if you call it a "Zen room" you'll just sound like a moron. So don't do it, unless the room is actually used for Zen meditation. Or unless you're a moron, which I don't think you are.

Remember when we stopped using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration and began using the Pinyin system instead? That's when everyone stopped calling it "Peking" and started calling it "Beijing." That was decades ago, so how come we still call it "Peking Duck"? Shouldn't we be calling it "Beijing Duck"? And Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, so are we ever going to start calling Siamese cats Thai cats? I think we should, since "Thai cat" has a nice ring to it. There's at least one precedent for this animal renaming sort of thing, by the way: The formal designation of the breed of dog once known as the Jack Russell Terrier was officially changed to the Parson Russell Terrier on April 1, 2003, at the request of the Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (which subsequently renamed itself the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America). On the other hand, I don't think we should start calling Burmese cats Myanmar cats, since it's so unwieldy, but there's probably no danger of that happening anytime soon. And we don't really have to change the name of Siamese cats to Thai cats, either. As long as we don't start collectively referring to Siamese cats and Burmese cats as Asian cats, I'll be happy.