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Feature: Who exactly is Asian American?

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, July 11 (UPI) -- Who exactly is an "Asian-American?" The U.S. government's official racial definition is coming in for criticism as being both too narrow (because it leaves out West Asians, such as Arabs, Israelis, and Iranians) and too broad (because it clumps together the East Asians of China and the Philippines with the quite different South Asians of India and Pakistan).

The central issue is the status of South Asians. Currently, the government brackets South Asians with East Asians in an artificial race called "Asian," rather than grouping South Asians alongside West Asians in the Caucasian category.

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According to the U.S. government's official racial classification rules, the westernmost 2,400 miles of Asia don't count as "Asian." Even if you are from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan -- which are all Asian countries according to the universally accepted geographic definition of the continent -- you can't be an "Asian-American" in the eyes of the federal government. Americans with roots in these countries are classified instead as "white" or "Caucasian," and thus are not a legally protected minority.

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Armenians, for instance, are geographically Asian but racially Caucasian. In fact, Armenia is on the southern, or Asian, side of the Caucasus mountain range that is one of the boundaries between Europe and Asia. Peter Abajian, director of the West Region of the Armenian Assembly of America, recalled with a laugh, "At the University of Michigan, I immediately checked off 'Asian' on my financial aid form thinking it would give me an edge with my Pell Grant and loan stuff. No such luck!"

The Office of Management & Budget regulations, which are used by the Census and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, implicitly decree that Asia doesn't actually begin until the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet, that border, which U.S. bureaucrats have designated a major global racial boundary, is actually one of the most porous in the world, as American soldiers have found out to their frustration in trying to track down Taliban fighters. Many of the Pashtun tribesmen who made up the bulk of the Taliban stole away over the mountains and melted into the villages of their Pashtun relatives in Pakistan.

These border-ignoring Pashtuns are hard to distinguish visually from West Asians, or even Southeast Europeans. One famous Pashtun is the green-eyed girl whom a National Geographic photographer found in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1986. Her haunting picture became the most popular photo in that magazine's distinguished history. She was recently discovered again, now living in Afghanistan.

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Although the people of the Indian subcontinent vary widely in skin color, most have Caucasian facial features. Indeed, practically all Indian immigrants are from the Caucasian majority, rather than from India's hard-to-categorize tribal minorities. Further, most Indian-Americans are from the Hindu upper castes. They are descended in part from the ancient Aryan invaders from the northwest who introduced Hinduism and the caste system. Even now, higher caste Hindus remain fairer-skinned than the lower castes.

Most Indians speak an Indo-European language, a vast linguistic family to which English also belongs. Where the Indo-Europeans originated remains hotly disputed among scholars, but speculation centers on Eastern Europe or Turkey.

In contrast, the differences between South Asians and East Asians are clearly visible.

Dinesh D'Souza, an immigrant from India who is author of the current bestseller "What's So Great About America," told United Press International, "Middle Eastern culture has some similarities (religion, cuisine, taste in music and movies) with Asian Indian culture, but very few with Oriental (Far Eastern) culture."

The most common justification advanced for federal government's clustering together South Asians and East Asians is that Buddhism originated in India. Yet, that religion has practically died out in South Asia.

Don Lee is a third-generation Korean-American. Because his father was a U.S. diplomat, Lee grew up mostly in Tokyo and Seoul. "Yellow," Lee's prize-winning book of short stories tells of the Asian-Americans of a fictitious Central California town. Although Lee feels comfortable writing about all kinds of East Asians and their similarities and differences, he scorns the government's expansive definition of "Asian-American."

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Lee emailed UPI, "The impulse to call us all 'Asians,' using such a broad label to encompass everyone from Koreans to Pakistanis, seems both meaningless and demeaning to me. There's no utility in lumping together an entire continent of peoples with such different cultures and religions, and refusing to allow for these differences is, I think, unfair and fundamentally colonialist."

Pyong Gap Min, a professor at Queens College in New York City, has studied the personal reality behind the political label "Asian-American." The sociologist finds, "It is a political term used by Asian-American activists and enhanced by governmental treatment. In terms of culture, physical characteristics, and pre-migrant historical experiences, I have argued, South and East Asians do not have commonalities and as a result, they do not maintain close ties in terms friendship, intermarriage or sharing neighborhoods."

In an admittedly unscientific 2001 poll on the Web site of Asian American Village, visitors voted 65 percent to 26 percent against considering anyone other than East Asians as Asian-Americans.

Unlike the government's label of "Hispanic" -- which is explicitly a non-racial "ethnic" term that encompasses people of many different ancestral backgrounds -- "Asian" is officially a racial designation. Racial classification schemes always include anomalies and conundrums, but some are worse than others. According to leading anthropologists, on genealogical, linguistic, cultural, physical, and genetic grounds, South Asians have more in common with West Asians than with East Asians.

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Although racial groups always blend into each other, the transition zone that runs along the mighty Himalayan Mountains, dividing Caucasian-looking Indians from Mongolian-looking Tibetans, is one of the most abrupt in the world. The jungle-covered mountains of Burma to the east of India and Bangladesh are another formidable barrier to cultural contact and intermarriage.

Anthropologists have long classified the Indian subcontinent as being predominantly Caucasian, although there are numerous enclaves of other groups. In his 1965 book "The Living Races of Man," the leading physical anthropologist of the day, Carleton Coon, summarized, "India is the easternmost outpost of the Caucasian racial region."

The anthropologist's son, Carl Coon Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Nepal, told UPI, "The public take on who are 'Asians' is completely muddled. For me, it is a divide between people of Mongoloid provenance and people whose ancestors are from more westerly regions -- call them Indo-Aryans or Caucasians or whatever. Thus, Nepal is split, while Bangladesh and most Indians are essentially Indo-Aryan; Burma is clearly on the other side of the divide."

For determining ancestral affinities, anthropologists have learned from DNA samples that South Asians tend to share far more ancestors with Europeans than they do with East Asians. In the landmark 1994 book "The History and Geography of Human Genes," Stanford's L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the dean of population geneticists, reported that the "genetic distance" between Asian Indians and Thais is 3.3 times greater than the distance between Indians and Italians. Indeed, Indians are 2.9 times genetically farther from the South Chinese than they are from the English.

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How does the government justify its definition of Asian-Americans? "The concept of race as used by the Census Bureau," it explains, "reflects self-identification by people according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These categories are sociopolitical constructs and should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature."

Yet, do Indians actually self-identify with Far Easterners instead of Caucasians? There is little evidence for that. The stars of Bombay's Bollywood movies are drawn from the fairest, tallest, most European-looking Indians. Marriage ads in India stress fair skin and height as crucially desirable characteristics. And South Asians seem to blend easily into the American population, largely because in the main they speak excellent English.

In the long run, though, the government's categorization may actually succeed in constructing a sociopolitical group consisting of East Asian Americans and South Asian Americans. The OMB's 1973 invention of the "Hispanic" category for affirmative action purposes has done much over the years to psychologically unite into a single interest group peoples having as little in common as Argentineans, Bolivians, and Dominicans.

Whether it would be a good thing if the fast-growing and highly articulate South Asians remain assigned to a protected minority group is another matter. Would they be helped by the affirmative action programs available to officially protected classes? Or hindered by being drawn into a dependent relationship on government when they show every sign of independent economic success?

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As for America as a whole, it has to decide if it wants to encourage newcomers to assimilate to a common national identity or to continue assigning them to one of the several minority identities available. And if the latter, whether it minds that those identities may be rooted in little more than the convenience of the U.S. government bureaucracy.

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