South Asia

Before I met Mary Anne, I had never heard the term “South Asia.” And I keep running into white Americans who either aren't familiar with the term or misinterpret it, so I thought it was worth posting about.

Like most of the other white Americans who get confused by the term, I had heard the term ”Southeast Asia” many times, usually in reference to Vietnam and/or Cambodia. But the only other term for an Asian region that I was familiar with was just “Asia,” which I had usually heard used to refer to China and Japan, though sometimes also some other countries in the region. I didn't think of India as being part of Asia-the-region at all, although I knew it was part of Asia-the-continent. (And I had heard the term “Asia Minor,” but (a) thought of that as kind of old-fashioned, and (b) thought it meant India, whereas I now see that it refers to a part of Turkey.)

When I first heard Mary Anne refer to “South Asia,” I was really confused. I thought she was referring to Southeast Asia, and I had never heard India or Sri Lanka grouped into Southeast Asia.

But I was just wrong about what she meant; South Asia is a different region from Southeast Asia. Here's Wikipedia on South Asia:

Different sources vary in their statements of which nations are part of the region. For example, according to the United Nations geographical region classification, Southern Asia comprises the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. However, the United Nations notes that the "assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories." By some definitions, some of those nations are not part of the region, and by some definitions, Burma and Tibet are also included in the region. . . .

(I'm cheating here; Wikipedia says that partly because I just edited it to say that. But I believe it to be accurate; the changes I made were to bring the article into agreement with the cited sources. See the Wikipedia article for links, and see the article's Talk page for extensive argument about whether various of those countries should be included in the definition.)

In the US, the common use of the term “South Asia” appears to generally include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and sometimes Afghanistan and/or the Maldives. But as noted in Wikipedia, there's a fair bit of variation among definitions. And definitions elsewhere may vary even further. Definitions of regions often carry a great deal of political and cultural weight; it's not my intent in this entry to provide a definitive definition of the term, because I don't believe there is one.

Instead, my goal in this entry is to make clear, to people like me who weren't aware of it, that “South Asia” means something different from “Southeast Asia.”

(By the way, note that the UN uses the term “Southern Asia,” but I never hear people call the region that; I always hear “South Asia” from people in the US whose ancestors come from that region.)

The other related term that white Americans sometimes get tripped up on is “East Asia.” That term, too, has multiple definitions, but generally includes China and Japan, among others, and does not generally include Vietnam or Cambodia or any of the South Asian nations.

(Originally wrote this in February 2012, but didn't post it 'til now.)

2 Responses to “South Asia”

  1. Vardibidian

    I think of South Asia as equivalent, more or less, to “the subcontinent”. I don’t know if that phrase is any more in common usage than the other.

    I also use and hear “South Asian” as a descriptor for people, people that by skin tone, accent, clothes, manner, whatever, appear be of subcontinental heritage. Vaddevah dat means. You know, when saying “that guy that came in this afternoon”, and the person looks at you blankly, so you start to describe the guy: tall, glasses, South Asian…

  2. Jed

    IIrc, there’s a lot of argument about the term “subcontinent” on the Wikipedia talk page. There seems to be a lot of disagreement about it. It’s not a term that I ever hear people of South Asian descent use in the US, but I am not an expert by any means.

    And yes, “South Asian” is often used to refer to people from, or descended from, South Asia.


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