Thursday, April 9, 2009

Asians all look the same (part I)

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 ( 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.


  1. I guarantee that it was Jamie who said "Hey, it's your dad!" She is such a bigot. Plus she's short, and interestingly enough, all short people look alike to me.

  2. Hah, I tried to pull this on my mission in Korea. In order to get a rise out of Koreans I would say--isn't Japanese culture pretty much the same as Korean culture? (I knew they were different I just said this if I wanted to needle someone a little bit.) That always got them going. But then one guy (Kang Ho Gwun--you might remember him) asked, "How is American culture different from English?" I paused and realized the differences were subtle enough that I couldn't explain them with my limited Korean--so I just had to shut up. He, and you, have a great point.

    I do seem to recall Koreans saying that all Americans look the same to them--but it didn't come up that often.

  3. Will never forget graduation when you asked me to stand in between you and another student so they wouldn't confuse you because you are both asian...totally nonrelated, check this out

  4. I freely admit my clairvoyance with identifying the male gender is still lacking, but in regards to the female persuasion of the specie, after many years of study and practice I can now distinguish between ethnicities based solely on how they kiss.

  5. Nice post Jang. I always enjoy reading your stuff.

  6. Hey I like potatoes too. I can stab 'em real good with my chopping sticks.

    Asians look Asian, not for their eyes. It's the nose. White folk have beady eyes too. It's the nose, ya know

    I would have cut the girl with the movie comment with my sharp tongue. Respond in immediate action. The blog will just tickle her funny bone.

  7. I think one of the main reasons for this stupid question is the fact that there are millions of billions of Asians and besides the only slight physical differences that they may have in facial appearances…it is safe to say that Asians mostly all are born with black hair, black eyes, and very similar skin color(obviously there are some exceptions to this, but I would say the exceptions only account for about .1%). Build wise though we are just like Caucasians, we come in all shapes and forms: chubby, skinny, muscular, tall, average, and extremely short. Therefore due mainly to the extremely close facial physical similarities of the three main Asian ethnicities; Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, this question is asked all too much. I get this question just as much when people ask me if I can tell the difference between Hawaiians, Tongans, and Samoans.

    Caucasians on the other hand are born with many different vastly varying facial physical characteristics such as an array of varying shades of white skin and different everything! From eye color, skin color, hair color, face structure the list is endless. Build wise, I feel Caucasians tend to be slightly more obese then Asians, but that would just be me stereotyping, in general, they come in the same variety of shape and form that Asians do. So I think that basically it is the facial similarities where Asian ethnicity would be classified as a much more homogeneous race as a whole while Caucasian culture is much more heterogeneous in nature.

    There is a double standard though. I feel that when Asians ask this question to other Asians, it is a cultural challenge in a way to proclaim your Asian-ness, but on the other hand, when Caucasians ask this question, it is portrayed purely as ignoranance. Auurite…paYce

  8. Jay makes some great points. I personally am a 6'8" Caucasian guy with relatively tan skin, brown hair and green eyes. One of my brothers is 5'8" and has fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Another is 6'4", very tan, blond, and has brown eyes. Jang, you and your brothers all look STRIKINGLY similar.......just sayin'.

  9. On, my exam rating was: "Hopeless, might as well flip a coin" (4 out of 18). It also mentioned (rather rudely) that I was "total whitebread" and suggested that I should "spend less time perpetuating the 'coke joke' and more time ruining the economy." I thought that was excessive.

    Obviously I was not confident about any of my answers. I couldn't even narrow my options down to two like I was taught in school. I couldn't find any reliable physical similarities. To me, not a single one looked the same as another. I bet I would have similar trouble telling Europeans apart.

    The exercise did prompt me to crack open my psych texts again. Out-group homogeneity and own-race bias were the key terms. There are many interesting studies done on these phenomena. Some of the previous posters would be wise to reach beyond the anecdotal before tripping to conclusions. (I will say again here that I like the anecdotal quality of the blog because I feel the narrative form has been undervalued and ignored. However, the anecdote's place is not to form general conclusions - that's one way stereotypes can spawn.) One conclusion that may be obvious by reading this post and comments, as well as the research, is that sameness is subjective and relative, having to do with the observer's familiarity with the observed.

    Here's an anecdote: I see caucasian families all the time in which every member resembles every other member - boys and girls, even the mother and father. In Utah, some of the families have enough offspring to gather statistics that can rule out chance as a factor in similarity. To me, the greater tragedy is when their behavior is cloned, not just their biology.

    Jang, were you hinting at an experience you had one year ago that you will bring up in a future post?

  10. Many Asians also have that misconception of Euros and Americans alike. I think when people make such comments and judgements, usually they are limited to their own race and ethnicity. They haven't been exposed to diverse cultures enough to appreciate and distinguish their unique differences, as subtle as they may be. And yes, it definitely is crippling when someone is generalized physically.

    I do have to say that Filipinos have this knack for spotting their own people, even when they are 1/8 flip. We have this special radar built in us, I guess. =o)


  11. Grant Olsen, Yes, I have two older brothers who look strikingly like me, but our degree of resemblance is actually an anomaly. I've actually never seen Asian siblings who are as similar as we are. But have you seen my oldest brother lately? Now, he looks strikingly DISsimilar.

    Rob, yes I remember you playing that joke on Koreans. It was the best when you said that kimchi originated from Japan. I tell that to people all the time.

    Jody, I forgot about that! Too funny!

    Nate Kiser, unlike you, I don't make it a sport to get with every ethnicity out there...

    Joe, thanks! I sometimes write these with you in mind... not in a bad way, but more in a WWJTISF way (What would Joe think is funny?)

    Sunny, I have not thought of a good way to respond to ppl for this one.

    Jay, I'd have to argue that Asians vary in skin color way more than White people. Um, ain't I like five shades darker than your Korean wife? And yes, there is a double standard, but like I said, I don't automatically assume that a white person is making fun of me when they ask this question. But if they ask it with a smirk on their face and then respond by smacking their forward and exclaiming, "Are you for real?! You can tell the difference?!"... then I can assume otherwise.

    Jordan, don't worry, I think I only got like 6 out of 18. I also will make sure I don't fall into the trap of making broad generalizations with my anecdotes. Although I warn you that it may happen every now and again. However, I realize that a mistake like that will greatly discredit everything I've said thus far. And yes, I do see white Utah families who appear to look the same, but that's mainly because of the group effect that happens when you see a bunch of people who have generally the same qualities and features. When you look at them briefly, they appear to just look like a blob. But when you take time to look at them individually, you see that they are very different. But yes Jordan, I know what you are getting at... and I appreciate the support!

    Marjorie, yes, it really is about what you are exposed to and noticing the apparent as well as subtle differences in other races. That's why I said that you really can't be blamed if you just haven't been exposed to other ethnicities.

  12. h, and Jay, even controlling for such variables as hair and eye color, most white people still don't think of white people the same as they do Asian people. For example, there aren't incessant jokes about how all blondes look the same. (yes, I know there are other kinds of blonde jokes but those are not the same as what we're talking about here, and yes those too are based on an unfair stereotype).

  13. I wonder what is the probability that people who make such comments as all asians look the same believe that all asians act the same. Also I didn't realize there were "millions of billions" of Asians. Is it me or does that phrase make it sound like an epidemic or plague? The day we left Utah was a good day.