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Joy

Ronny Chieng’s joke about Asian identity inspired a compelling debate about labels

"The Daily Show" correspondent's comments were about Rishi Sunak's appointment as U.K. prime minister.

ronny chieng, rishi sunak, asia

Ronny Chieng on "The Daily Show."

Rishi Sunak made history on Tuesday, October 25 by becoming the first Asian and Hindu prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. His appointment is seen by many in the U.K. as an important step toward representation in a country that is 7.5% Asian.

Sunak’s grandparents migrated to the U.K. in the 1960s from India and his maternal grandmother was born in Africa.

However, this issue is a little more complicated from an American perspective where people of Indian descent are rarely referred to as Asian. We reserve the label for people of the Far East such as Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea.

To complicate things further, if you go by what the U.S. government has to say, Asian refers to people “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”


Things get a little vaguer when you consider the different ways people divide one another by race and ethnicity throughout the world. For example, even the term “American” is up for debate worldwide. We consider ourselves American in the United States, but in Latin America, an American is someone from Latin America.

Comedian Ronny Chieng had some fun with the nuanced topic of racial classifications on “The Daily Show” in a bit called “Don’t call Rishi Sunak the U.K.’s first Asian PM in front of Ronny Chieng.” Chieng was born in Malaysia.

In the bit, he made fun of how the term Asian means something different throughout the world. “Indians are not Asians. I love how Indians try to have it both ways, like being Indian and Asian. Pick a lane, OK,” Chieng joked.

The bit was funny because Chieng’s mock rage pokes fun at how we can be adamant about our identities even though, in many ways, they’re rather arbitrary. It’s all just lines on a map. Further, the concept of Asia wasn’t even created by Asians themselves, it was foisted on them by the Greeks.

Some folks thought Chieng’s jokes were spot-on.

But not everyone agreed on whether the joke was accurate or funny and the piece received a lot of serious responses. Such is the way of Twitter, if you make a joke, you get serious responses. If you say something serious, you get jokes.

Also, it was a joke, meaning, he wasn't being serious.

In the end, what’s important is that the U.K. government and its people have progressed to the point where it has appointed the first person of color to represent their entire country. That’s a big step toward the ultimate goal of living in a world where people are judged by their abilities rather than the color of their skin.

This point got a bit lost in the discussion surrounding Chieng’s joke, where he made fun of the fact that people are so keen to define one another by race, they lose sight of what matters.

Photo by Jacopo Maia on Unsplash

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