“I know everyone is really excited that this is the first Asian prime minister, but let’s be clear. Indians are not Asians, okay?” said Ronny Chieng, at the start of his Daily Show commentary about Rishi Sunak’s rise as the newest British Prime Minister.
In two short sentences, Chieng has earned himself the outrage of some Indians and other Asians.
“They’re still people, great people, they are just not Asian people, okay?” the comedian continued before throwing out a rhetorical question. “Answer me this: if this guy is Asian, how come when he became prime minister, I felt absolutely nothing?”
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) October 25, 2022
The Man Behind The Joke
In case you haven’t watched The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, here are some things you may want to know about Ronny Chieng first.
Ronny Chieng, aged 36, was born in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, though he attended school in Singapore, then went to university in Australia.
He also lived in the United States between 1989 and 1994.
His formative experiences in these countries will come to shape his perception of what the categorical word “Asian” means.
After tossing out the rhetorical question, he expounded on the joke further by saying that when he went to have breakfast at the Dim Sum Palace that morning, he and his friends did not look up at Sunak and say, “That’s me up there!”
As someone who has spent years in Singapore, where one of the four main races is Indian, there is no way Chieng doesn’t know that Indians are Asians too.
In his satirical commentary, he incidentally points out the differences present in the grouping of “Asians” from country to country, and perhaps, even the sheer ridiculousness of classifying so many races and ethnicities under the umbrella of “Asians”, as if we don’t have major differences in our beliefs and culture.
Of course, some people didn’t get the joke, so it caused a ruckus on the internet.
No surprise there.
In a bid to prove that Indians are Asians, some netizens have gone searching for various Indian celebrities, well-known figures and comedians who appear to have more oriental features but are actually from India.
For instance, Kiren Rijiju who is India’s Minister of Law and Justice.
Or Eksha Hangma Subba, who is a police officer, supermodel, and professional boxer all at once.
This lady is Indian: https://t.co/EpDFuBBapl
— Anonymous Punjab (@CorruptPunjab) October 26, 2022
Inadvertently and unknowingly, they are touching on the point that Chieng is trying to make.
Yes, Indians—especially a subcontinent as big as India—have people of all colours, shapes, ethnicities and religions.
If there is so much diversity in India alone, isn’t it even more hysterical that the word “Asian” also encompasses races such as the Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Malays, and so on and so forth?
Following the same vein, one Twitter user wrote, “The concept of groupings like ‘Asians’ are from a European worldview, an oversimplification for diverse populations. Funny, but Ronny brings up an important point.”
Other netizens even went as far as clarifying that the word “Asian” can hold different connotations and stereotypes, depending on the country you are in.
For instance, if you are in the United Kingdom, the word “Asian” refers to people of South Asian descent. In other words, people from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Not so coincidentally, some of these regions were once colonised by the British.
This also explains why Rishi Sunak is regarded as the first Asian British Prime Minister, or its first leader of colour.
Whereas for the United States, “Asian” typically refers to people of East Asian descent, aka the Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Japanese, likely because of the major waves of Asian immigrations starting from the late 19th Century.
Having said that, Ronny Chieng is speaking more as an East Asian in this context. He’s not ignorant; he’s just making a nuanced joke that some people are failing to catch.
Heck, Indians know they are Asians, but they are still 100% more likely to identify themselves as “Indian” first as opposed to “Asian”.
The same goes for Singaporeans; yes, we’re of various Asian descents, but we belong to subgroup called “Singaporeans” and prefer to be referred to as such.
“I love how Indians try to have it both ways, like, being Indian and Asian. Pick a lane, okay?” said Chieng.
The punchline lies in the semantics, really.
In truth, as a Singaporean Chinese myself, I don’t feel much about Rishi Sunak being the new British Prime Minister.
But the fact that an Indian is now Britain’s premier during a time of economic crisis, in spite of and after India’s tumultuous and oppressed history under British colonial rule?
Well, that is a vindictive kind of entertainment that I love to watch.
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