The idea that Asians all look the same has two parts. Both parts stem from the same idea, but they are characteristically different in the sense that one is on a micro-level while the other is macro. They go like this: it is difficult to distinguish from one individual Asian from another, and it is hard to distinguish one Asian ethnicity from the other. For this first installment, I will focus on the latter, the idea that Asians from different countries could all look like they come from the same country, particularly in regards to the East Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan.
I cannot remember the number of times that I’ve been asked, “Can you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Japanese person, or a Korean and a Chinese?” For the first 27 3/4 years of my life, I had no qualms about answering this question. It seemed to be a valid curiosity, posed without any agenda, bias, or ill. I usually responded by saying that it was difficult for me to tell the difference between the various ethnic groups but that I could usually get it right like 6 or 7 times out of 10. I’m usually met with faces of astonishment and sometimes statements of disbelief like, “No way! Really? I can’t tell the difference at all!” And for a moment, I feel proud of my God-given gift of discernment.
So for all the people who have wanted to ask this question to a real-life Asian, I will answer this mystery once and for all: Yes, I can tell the difference between the Asian ethnicities. But let me qualify this by saying that I get it wrong 3-4 times out of 10. But before you go off and conclude that I really can’t tell the difference, ask yourself this question: can you always tell the difference between a Frenchman and a German or a Greek and an Italian? Would you say you get it wrong maybe as much as half the time? The question could also be asked for the various black and Hispanic ethnicities. Does that Mexican look like that Guatemalan? Does that Ghanaian look like that Ugandan? Sure, there are plenty of distinguishing characteristics you can look out for, but there are just as many exceptions that can throw you off.
Now, the question itself doesn't bother me. Because I agree, it can be fun to try to figure out who’s who. But the recent spate of such inquiries (three times in the last week), has led me to reevaluate the “all look same” idea and the motive behind it. One thing that gets me is why all the curiosity? I have been asked whether I can distinguish between my fellow Asians by nearly every one of my good friends and acquaintances. In fact, it seems as though the whole country is asking it. There is even a website dedicated to this conundrum (alllooksame.com). Try out the test online and you’ll be even more convinced that there is no physical difference between East Asians (keep in mind that if you have little exposure to Asians, you will test very poorly. And for those who do know Asians, you will also do poorly because the test is trying to throw you off).
My only answer to this unusual degree of curiosity is that it goes to the whole notion that Asians look the same, no matter what country they are from, and it’s just so darn funny to make light of it. While I recognize that most people who pose this question to me are not being malicious in the slightest degree, I just have to wonder why hardly anyone asks if that Brit looks like that Swede, or if that Spaniard looks like that Italian; the idea that you cannot distinguish Europeans is never the punchline to any joke. Hidden beneath the "all look same" question is actually a statement that wants to get out but is politically incorrect: “I think all Asians look the same.” My take on why people are so enchanted with this question is that people love to think of Asians as this monolithic group of people who all have slanty eyes and dark hair. Or another way to interpret it is that they are not individuals; they are all the same. Do you know how many times I’ve watched a movie with a group of people and the Asian character in the movie (with an insignificant role, no doubt) appeared on the screen and the person next to me said, “Hey, it’s your dad!”? It's almost a guaranteed response by at least one person watching the movie. They think it’s the most hilarious thing. In fact, this just happened on a date a couple months ago. She thought it was funny; I ignored her.
But it doesn’t stop at physical features. This idea even extends to the culture: Asians all eat noodles, use chopsticks, and have mean karate kicks. Europeans, on the other hand, are seen as individuals, with each country offering a unique culture and experience. The ironic thing is that a very convincing argument can be made that each Asian country is a lot more culturally distinct from one another than the European countries are from one another. And that's kind of a given, considering the close proximity of countries in Europe and their centuries of very intertwined history.
If you can't tell the difference between the various Asian countries, no one is blaming you. But just ask yourself if it's going to be annoying for the Asian guy who has to constantly be the butt of "all look same" jokes and who has to answer "all look same" questions three times a week.
So before you ask your next Asian friend whether he could guess if that Asian girl eating noodles is Korean, Chinese, or Japanese, just remember one thing—you have a whole continent of people who look just like you too… and they eat potatoes.