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NinjaTurtle

"Do you speak another language besides Chinese?"

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889

This sort of reminds me of growing up, and hearing older people insist that they'd used "colored" all their life and nobody was offended -- indeed it was and is the NAACP -- and they had no reason to stop using it.

 

Which is to say that you can discuss all you want the curious and interesting ways in which language and usage change, for reasons that are sometimes difficult to understand, but to not adapt is more than just an old fogie's stubborness. It's plain wrong. So bury Oriental deep in the graveyard of dated English. Right next to Celestial.

 

As for whether it's polite or rude or something inbetween to make inquiries about someone's background, I think the only honest answer is, "You never know." In which case the safest course is just to keep your mouth shut.

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imron
8 minutes ago, 889 said:

Right next to Celestial.

I was about to ask what's wrong with celestial, and then a bit of Internet searching tells me this used to be a term for China/the Chinese.  Huh, well, that's something new I learned today.

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Lu

Immediately brings to my mind images of men with small hats and very long braids down their back, building a railroad through the Old West. I especially like the Dutch equivalent, hemeling. Is 'celestial' still insulting or only hopelessly outdated?

 

ETA, to answer the question behind the question in this thread: a good way to ask where someone is from is 'Are you from around here?' In Chinese, 你是北京人吗? (assuming you're in Beijing. If not, fill in whatever city you are in at that moment.) Sometimes you will expect to hear Korea or Japan and instead get California, but that is still interesting information which will allow you to continue the conversation.

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889

In terms of current use, it's obsolete. Almost nobody knows it once had that meaning.

 

In terms of past use, it painted Chinese as exotic and alien, as from another world. Not insulting as such, but like any such word it could be used with an insulting connotation.

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realmayo

On a related note, western-born Chinese people (or Koreans or Vietnamese etc etc) seem to be -- often understandably -- sensitive about a whole lot of things which China-born Chinese find wholly unproblematic. Certain things the former might call cultural appropriation, the latter might see as cultural appreciation.

Indeed I know Chinese people who are genuinely disappointed that no one will strike up conversation with them ("where are you from?") in London, given opposed to what happens to westerners in China.

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889

I don't recall what I said, it was years ago, but it prompted a very sharp, "I am NOT an ABC!" that still rings in my ears. So I remain very cautious about getting anywhere near anyone's background. And more cautious still about making assumptions about anyone's background.

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Shelley

My lesson came many years ago when I was first studying Chinese. A lady was having trouble communicating her needs at the deli counter in our local supermarket. Thinking that even with my very limited Chinese I might be able to help, I volunteered my services by asking in my best Chinese "what do you want to buy"  I was promptly put in my place with a very loud and cross "I am not Chinese, I am Malay"

This taught me to be much more careful.

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LiMo

Well Black people used to be offended by being called Black, then Negro became the respectable term, now Negro has fallen out of fashion and there's an odd mix of Black and African American (no such issue in the UK by the way). This is just how language evolves and there's often very little rhyme or reason to it (although I imagine it often has to do with the way respectable words gradually accrue negative stereotypes or dog whistle undertones until a new term is chosen).

 

The broad geographic terms have their issues, my dad hates the use of the term "Asian," he insists on calling them "Indian" which I've pointed out is

 just a way of mixing up about 5 different countries to no more benefit other than affirming ones reactionary backlash against "political correctness." If you seek to be accurate you have to ask and risk offending, but if you wish to avoid offending you have to be vague and potentially offend in different ways. Damned if you do damned if you don't.

 

Edit: Funny the term celestial should come up. I only just discovered it for myself a few days ago while reading Star Raft: China's Encounter With Africa by Philip Snow. It's an interesting look at Africa-China relations that ends in the 80s so it hasn't quite caught up with the new take we have today. He also claimed that the coolie trade was called the "piglet trade" because of the Chinese men's queues but elsewhere I read that it was because they were treated like animals (probably a malicious pun with both meanings intended, I think).

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歐博思

To OP: Due to geopolitical reasons in recent years, people may be more likely to have a negative reaction if you presume them to be Mainland Chinese and they're, for instance, Japanese. 

 

You might be able to get a good reaction from people asking "do you have any overseas ancestry?" If yes, great! If not then play it off smoothly - "no? ohh but you look just like the attractive lead in *Bollywood/JCinema/Kdrama show here*." 

 

10 hours ago, 889 said:

As for whether it's polite or rude or something inbetween to make inquiries about someone's background, I think the only honest answer is, "You never know." In which case the safest course is just to keep your mouth shut.

I don't know, is it truly the safest course though? After all, communication is a great way to improve the world, like how Shelley was trying in her example. Using one's perceptive insight to realize that cashier is Mainland Chinese instead of Malay could make them feel culturally valuable, and they are inspired to write a best-selling novel. Or buy the right meat.

 

Ask Asians' ancestry - support great literature  /jk (but a little bit serious)

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imron
8 hours ago, 889 said:

but like any such word it could be used with an insulting connotation

If this is the standard for banning words, I think we're just going to have to ban all of them. 

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Jim

IIRC they use "celestial" in Deadwood as part of the period flavour; first encountered it in some ridiculous imperial-era memoir of a man who cycles across China on a penny-farthing - looking him up actually he went all round the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Stevens_(cyclist) Must have read an extract. ETA Think this was it: http://bikechina.com/ct-tstevens1.html

'Oriental' we still have in the name of my alma mater SOAS of course;  I can agree there's nothing inherently wrong with the term which is probably why SOAS have stuck with it, even if it's dated and deprecated in more casual contexts and can't think of when I'd use it otherwise.

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roddy
18 hours ago, Lumbering Ox said:

I have no idea what they do in the UK where as I understand it, Asian is used for people from the Indian Subcontinent

The census breaks it down as follows:

 

Asian/Asian British            
   Indian            
   Pakistani            
   Bangladeshi            
   Chinese            

   Other Asian

 

You'll also hear an East Asian / South Asian distinction made. Obviously the census categories aren't exhaustive - the aim there is to quantify the larger populations without making the form any longer, I suppose. 

17 hours ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

The big woman's frilly blouse that was elected in Canada makes me cringe everytime he opens he mouth.

That's what I like about Trudeau. He's not scared of offending people. 

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Jim

Asia starts at Turkey I believe but don't think people of Turkish descent get classed as Asian in UK, clearly bit of a flexible concept.

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imron
3 hours ago, roddy said:

That's what I like about Trudeau. He's not scared of offending people.

As his recent trip to India proved! ;-)

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happy_hyaena

Regarding why certain terms become offensive over time, it's because during the time the word was used to refer to a specific people, the people using it were biased/racist/discriminatory against that people.  Let me give an example from my life.

 

There's a debate in my country right now over the use of the N-word. Most people don't use it, but others insist that they've used it all the time and have no intentions to change just because of "political correctness". This is particularly centered around a pastry that we have, that used to be called "N-word ball". Today it's just called "Chocolate ball", but these people refuse to call it that. They will go out of their way to call it "N-word ball", even in front of Black people if they can. (Whether or not the word should be translated as Negro or N**ger is up for debate. I'll just write N-word.)

Here's a picture from a 1940s Swedish classroom, teaching the kids the alphabet. Do you see what N stands for? A half-naked, primitive looking African tribesman with big lips.
Here's another picture, translation: "the N-word has such a black stomach that he fears the dark during daylight."
One more, supposedly from a children's book. Translation: "Kalle N-word is an N-word king from the Congo lands[...] He is an N-word since yesterday when we burnt some stumps, creating enough colour to last little N-word boys for years."

 

In other words, people feel that the N-word isn't necessarily a neutral term for Black people as it is a racial epithet referring to a caricatured racist stereotype of us Black people. The word has become irrevocably associated with the attitudes of previous generations of Swedish people, so people have moved away from it. Anyone is free to use it, IMO, but then they should be aware of what they actually are communicating.

 

There's a similar history in regards to words like "Oriental". Ever since the arrival of Asian immigrants to the US back in the 19th century, they've been met with racism, the men emasculated and the women sexually objectified. The words people used to refer to them in the past have now become offensive.

 

 

On a related note, and I hope this isn't seen as too off topic, but I recently saw this video that I found very fascinating:
 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chFKDaZns6w

 

It's by a Youtuber called Natalie Tran. She's of Asian descent but married to a White man. She has received a lot of unpleasant comments because of that and she decided to investigate if there's more to it than just salty 五毛s. It's really interesting to hear what the people she interview have to say, as well as to listen to some of the criticism the documentary and herself received afterwards. I can just say that ever since I started studying Chinese I've really realized just how often people pass off racist comments against Chinese people, and Asians in general.

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陳德聰

Personally, I believe “你還會講其他語言嗎?” will suffice. The implication is identical to asking same in English. Obviously the speaker and listener both speak Chinese if this question can be asked and answered.

 

As for whether or not you should be referring to people, who by and large have made it quite clear that they do not like it, by the term “Oriental,” that is really your decision to make. Nobody is going to arrest you for simply being rude. But there is no controversy over whether it is rude to call people “Oriental” in North America.

 

P.S.

@Lumbering Ox Being opposed to the term Oriental doesn’t lead to wanting to be called Asian. If I had my way, I’d be able to determine how and when people talk about my heritage, considering it is personal information about me that is both none of other people’s business and also deeply connected to a sense of self. If I had to make generalisations, I would say terms like East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, Central Asian, and to some extent West Asian, are the broadest I could go while maintaining some sort of meaningful grouping. “Asian” is as meaningless as “African.”

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