This semester I am enrolled in a course on “The Idea of East Asia.” That’s right—not South Asia, but East Asia. Surprised? So was I. Not that I have anything against East Asia. As a student of the world, to use the cliché but apt phrase, I am interested in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history, politics, and culture. Like other 20-something wanderlusts, I hope to backpack through the region in the near future. But just as I have prioritized the mastery of my mother tongue, Malayalam, and the study of Hindi over the project of learning Mandarin or Japanese, I have generally gravitated toward South Asian, as opposed to East Asian, subject matter in my selection of college classes.
(Though, I might add that I can count the classes I’ve taken about or concerning South Asia on one hand; my university is not unusual in its presentation of Western canonical literature and critical theory.)
This is not to simply expose my own essentialism in course selection. Rather, I want to acknowledge that as an Indian American, I am often unsure about the extent and content of my Asian-ness; that uncertainty plays out in myriad ways, from course selection to understandings of contemporary global politics. I’ve always been particularly attuned to representations of India in the media, but I am not always critically aware of representations of Asia.
I was walking through Houston Airport, observing the mélange of tourists and businesspeople at a nearby gate, when I passed a wall papered with Time magazine covers, dated June 26, 2006. An unmistakably Indian woman’s face smiled at me from two dozen identical covers, her black hair plaited, eyes shaped with kohl, forehead adorned with a large red bindi. She wore the signature temple jewelry of South Indian classical dance. Patterned triangles radiated from her face, giving her the appearance of a peacock on display. But the most striking feature of the image was the headphone set atop her head and the story’s title below: “India Inc.: Why the world’s biggest democracy is the next great economic superpower—and what it means for America.”
Bharatanatyam jewelry. Call center apparatus. Time magazine. And suddenly India had leapt from the lines of a Thomas Friedman column and into magazine stands all over the country. What struck me most about the image was not its familiarity, but the fluency with which it employed religious, artistic, and professional cultural signifiers to represent a nation, a people, and a threat.
What did the Time cover aim to communicate about India? Is India truly a viable threat to American economic and cultural hegemony? Or is the rise of India merely one aspect of Asia’s potential reemergence as a global superpower?
The Time cover was part of a more pervasive rallying cry for American students and professionals to ready themselves for the Asian onslaught, a rallying cry that is sounded ad nauseam in the contemporary news media. My own university’s president, for example, recently wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled “The U.S. Edge in Education” that paints a picture of Asia as America’s “emerging competitive rival.” To return to my own unexpected study of East Asia, I have become increasingly aware of both this newfound Asia-consciousness in the Western media and India’s tenuous relationship with Asia in the process.
What is Asia? How does one start to think about a geographical and political space as unwieldy as a region of well over two billion people? There are countless modes of analysis of “Asia”: as political concept, cultural concept, geographical location, region, value judgment, process, collectivity, totality, idea, reality, discourse, disposition, and mood. Does Asia exist, and for whom, and to what end?
We are accustomed to discussing the United States as somehow beyond the limits of country or nation-state; as a world superpower, the United States seems to exceed nation, region, even hemisphere. In contrast, over five dozen countries in continental Africa are commonly collapsed into the general descriptive term of “Africa.” The case of Asia is distinct from both the United States and Africa, for the integrity and individuality of the nations of the continent is largely recognized but regional generalizations are not uncommon.
The idea of Asia has been constructed in opposition to the “West” by theorists of history, Western imperialists, and Asian politicians and thinkers from Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, and India. To what extent is Asian regionalism organized in opposition to the West and how much stems from genuine, productive commonality, whether historical, cultural, linguistic, religious, political, or economic? Rabindranath Tagore developed a theory of Pan-Asianism predicated on the assumption of coherence between the cultures, histories, and goals of Asian nations, namely Japan and India. Most of us would agree, however, that there is no monolithic, coherent Asia to speak of. There are multiple modes of being Asian, nations with concern for individual sovereignty, countries with common cultural and ideological concerns, and disparate peoples with little but shared geography.
How did the name Asia come about? What does it mean, and who does it include? The act of naming is fraught with historical considerations, as is the decision to employ or dispense with any given name. The self-proclaimed ownership over the term America by the United States, to the exclusion of Central and South American nations, is just one example. India’s recent return to city names that predate colonialism—Mumbai/Bombay, Chennai/Madras, Bengalooru/Bangalore—is another.
I pose this question regarding the name “Asia” because I am aware that it is a term not consistently embraced by those of us of Indian, or sub-continental, extraction. At Duke, the Asian Students’ Association is distinct from the South Asian Student Association; at most universities, East Asian Studies programs are distinct from South Asian Studies. I have never marked “Asian” on a census form or survey to denote my racial or ethnic background, opting consistently for “Other.” And I only ended up enrolling in “The Idea of East Asia” on what turned out to be a fortunate whim (and because I didn’t want to spend four months reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit).
We South Asians generally assume that “Asia” means everyone else, everyone East of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, both China and Japan have historically had similarly contentious relationships to the idea of Asia as a unified, homogenous region. The Chinese name for Asia (Yaxiya or Axiya) is actually written with characters that mean “Inferior-Trifling-Inferior,” a reflection of China’s own historical reluctance to identify with other Asian nations. In the late 19th century, many Japanese intellectuals quite self-consciously advocated that Japan repudiate Asia entirely (namely China and Korea) and cast its lot with the nations of the West. Any assumption we might make regarding the coherence of Asia outside of South Asia must take into consideration the complexities of each nation’s relationship to the region and ownership over its particular identify formation.
The Time magazine cover marked the beginning of increased vigilance in the United States regarding the development of Asia as an economic superpower. In the coming years, there will no doubt be extensive discourse regarding the emergence of India, China, Japan and the other Asian nations in the media, in the academy, and in U.S. politics. Will the European Union ever serve as a model for Asian institutional regionalism? What will India’s role be in an institutionally regionalized Asia? There are countless questions to be posed, and I am the first to acknowledge that I have neither the experience nor the expertise to do more than ask a few. I close then with an educated suspicion: If India is indeed poised to be the “next great economic superpower,” it will only be with the participation and acknowledgment of the rest of the increasingly powerful Asian region.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a senior and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.