Monday, April 13, 2009

Asians all look the same (the sequel!)

For this second installment of “All look same” I will focus on the more common and therefore more annoying idea that all Asian people look the same. As I briefly explained in part I, this one deals with the sameness on an individual level and how it may be difficult to tell apart this Asian guy from that Asian guy.

First I would like to say that if you have had little exposure to Asian people, it is understandable and quite normal to have trouble distinguishing between Asians. It is a well-documented fact that every race has a tough time distinguishing people of other races. The law has even recognized this, and so whenever you have an eye-witness in court who testifies against someone of a different race, you can discredit that testimony with an expert witness who informs the jury about the inherent difficulty for one race to identify people of other races. Misidentification has notoriously been a major problem for minorities caught up in the justice system (Yes, I know white people are misidentified, too).

While I acknowledge the inherent difficulty, it still bothers me when people confuse me as someone else. To be honest, I couldn’t care less if you can’t tell a Korean from a Chinese, but if you can’t tell me apart from my Asian friend who is standing right next to me, that is just a tad annoying.

In my freshman year at college, there was a Chinese kid from Michigan who lived on my floor in the dormitory. His name was Naman (pronounced Nay Min, like the character in the Old Testament). Honestly, you really couldn’t find two Asian guys who looked more different. He was 5’5". I’m 5’10". He was buff. I was very skinny. His hair was straight and spiky. Mine was a straight afro. His wardrobe was stuff from Abercrombie. Mine was stuff from a hip hop video. These were some of the more notable differences, not to mention the minor detail that our faces looked totally different. Even with all these apparent differences, however, there was this one kid on our floor who would constantly call me by my Asian counter-part’s name. And my Asian counter-part would get my name. I would politely correct him every time he got it wrong, but as the semester wore on and he continued to do this, he could sense that I was getting a little perturbed. I think on one of the very last times he mixed us up, I was walking down the long hallway of the dormitory when I saw the kid walking towards me from the opposite end. As we neared each other, I could see a look of worry on his face. When we got to about 10 feet of each other, he blurted out, "Naman!" like a contestant on a game show. But as soon as he said it, he knew it was wrong, so he quickly corrected himself almost in a remorseful tone and said, "Jang." He had a pained look on his face as he rolled his eyes, knowing that he had done it again. I was just glad the semester was almost over.

More recently, in my first year of law school, I went to the Career Services Office to get acquainted with some of the people there. I had actually been in the office before and had remembered the girl’s name behind the counter. I entered the room and called the girl by her name, slightly proud that I had even remembered it. In response, she called me “Alma.” I gave her an inquisitive look. And then she corrected herself and said, “Oh, Nate!” I raised my eyebrow even further. And then she corrected herself again and exclaimed, “Oh, Jang!” The funny thing was that she did not appear to be even remotely embarrassed that she had just named off every Asian guy in the first-year class. In fact, she looked pretty excited that she had gotten my name at all. At least, she didn’t name the one Asian female. Check out the class photos of the three Asians, in the order that they were named (My hair was shaved for all three years of law school).




Besides the fact that the blue backgrounds make us look like the Brady Bunch goes to the Orient, these are fair representations of our faces. While some legally blind people may argue that Nate and I look like carbon copies, if you see us in person it is even more apparent that we look nothing alike. Plus, I think the girl in the office wasn't thinking in terms of how similar we actually looked, but more in terms of race ("Oh, they're all Asian!"), considering the fact that she named Alma first, and I think most people would agree that Alma does not look like me.

And of course, there's the “Hey, you look like my friend, Johnny Zhang [or insert some other Asian surname].” Now, I am not opposed to looking like other people, but if you say this to me, be prepared to show tangible proof. I want you to introduce me to this guy or at least show me a headshot, so I can determine for myself if he is really my spitting-image. If he is, then fine. I'll be glad that someone else has also been blessed with dashing good looks; it’ll just be awkward if I run into this twin at a party. If not, then I'm going to smack you across the face and tell you to go back to where you came from (that's a joke, people). I realize this is a completely subjective thing because I’ve often noted, in the face of great opposition, that some person looks strikingly like another person. I mean, did anyone else think that Jim Carey looked kind of like his co-star, Cary Elwes, in the movie Liar, Liar? See for yourself (I don’t think the picture is from the movie, however). I just thought it was a funny casting choice to have them both in the same movie.

I mean, there's a reason why we have celebrity look-alike contests in America. And surprise, none of the contestants are Asian. Well, that's because there are no Asian celebrities (I'll save that for a future post).

But it was particularly disturbing when on one occasion, a person who I had just met for a few hours told me that I looked like one of her friends. I asked whether he was Asian. She answered, “Yes... and she acts just like you, too.”

Oh, come on! She?! Now I'm a girl?! And this girl even acts like me? Oh, double come on!

Actually, the funny thing is that I've gotten the "and he acts like you, too" probably about a dozen times. But since acting is a behavior and not a physical trait, you would think I would sometimes be compared to a non-Asian. But no. Oddly enough, I have never been compared, behavior-wise, to another white guy, which is strange since I'm pretty sure most white people mostly have white friends, thereby increasing the pool of potential white people I could be compared to. Some people who I'm pretty sure only know like two Asian people, will somehow manage to find that I act exactly like one of their Asian acquaintances back from high school. Imagine that! I act exactly the same way as one of those two Asian people they know. And I look like him! Well, by golly gee, it's a miracle!

Oh, and get this. There was even one time on a date last summer where the girl told me that my voice sounded just like a couple of her Hawaiian friends, and she therefore concluded that Asians all sounded alike.

Maybe I should have entitled this post, "Asians all look, act, smell, think, sound, and pretty much do everything the freakin' same." But I digress...

So, what is the conclusion? Um... well... nothing! I just wanted to gripe about how people mix me up with other Asians. I can't do anything to help this phenomenon, besides tell people to go make an Asian friend today or watch more Asian movies. It's not racism to misidentify people. The only crime is that you don't get out much. You probably don't remember what the sun looks like either. And that's a shame. So, if you think all Asians look the same, it really doesn't say that much about Asians, but it does say a lot about you.


  1. A few things:

    1. Nice Carey/Elwes pic from 1997
    2. The fact that the girl behind the counter went through the three names: "Alma, Nate, Jang!" reminds me of how my mom often does the same thing with me, calling me my brother's names before getting to mine: "Jon, Andrew, Robbie, Grant!"
    3. There are definitely Asian celebrities, and you should enter the Sandra Oh look-alike contest

  2. Great post. There was another Korean kid in my Dental
    class who looked vastly different from me. Probably as different as any two Asian faces can be. Granted, we did hang out a lot and our names were similar, but even after 4 years of Dental school some people still got us mixed up.

  3. Great post, Jang. I can imagine how annoying it might be to a cute, thin, average height Scandinavian blond to be consistently confused with me, an oafish Scandinavian blond. Haha. By the by, I grew up in Cali with Korean TWINS, and people did not get them confused. So I don't know what kind of excuse people have for this!

  4. alma korean and did he grow up in san jose for a little bit? if yes, i think i know him. Actually he looks nothing like the alma i knew when i was 8 yrs old, but im basing this off of my hypothesis that there are not a lot of korean guys named Alma...

  5. jang i clicked on this post because your brother linked it on facebook. i thought the brady bunch pictures were hilarious, and i'm sending the hongs the link. hope you don't mind.

  6. There is a strange phenomena in UT about knowing people's names. I'm good at it and have made a career out of memorizing the names of groups of students, but in UT it can get annoying.

    You and Naman don't look much alike.

    Not shocked at the legal misidentification rule, there are too many messed up laws.

    You can use this to your advantage...USF's law library applied strict scrutiny to student ID's for students trying to get in. One day a very dark skinned friend of mine asked to borrow my ID to get into the library. I was doubtful he would be successful...sure enough a few minutes later he came back w/ my ID and had gotten what he needed from the library. I learned this from Marguerite Driessen, take advantage of ppl's racial ignorance especially when they think you're lacking intelligence...Of course your frequent well reasoned posts (this one included) demonstrate your brilliance, but maybe you should play around with ppl a little, bet you could create some comical situations, haha!

  7. I'm still laughing at the exclamation points in the captions. I can totally see you saying it like that . . . and with a cheesy, open-mouthed smile!

    It occurred to me that the kid from our freshman year probably picked "Naman" first every time just to play the odds. I bet Naman would say that he never guessed his name wrong. Also, you guys have completely different personalities.

    Sounds like your classmates were taking more "trips" to the career center that you were.

  8. Nate looks a lot like a white boy. I think he's an asian imposter!!!

  9. Why do you have a picture of the same asian guy three times, but with different names?

  10. A few years ago, I went shopping and this little kid walked around me a few minutes. His mother told me that he thought "I was Jackie Chan" Are we all look alike??? Answer is No!

  11. Grant Olsen, you are very lucky that we are friends... if not, I would have smacked you and told you to go back to where you came from. Yes, you touch on a good point that parents often do this to their own children. My parents did the same thing. However, the difference there is that it is quite normal and acceptable for a parent to almost think of their children as one and the same. I mean, they are the literal offspring of them, and have a deep enough association between the siblings that mistakes should be common. And while your parents may sometimes have minor verbal slips, they don't ever stare at you in the face and actually think that you're another brother.

    Jung, the funny thing is that Naman and I didn't hang out all the time. We each had our own friends whom we hung out with a lot more.

    Kimberly, people didn't confuse the Korean twins? Now, that's unbelievable!

    Alane, Alma is from California but I don't think he's from San Jose. Oh, and he's Chinese. C'mon, you can't tell?! haha.

    Michelle, the Hongs should know about it already because I asked Nate for his permission to use his pic.

    Jody, I always use my Asian friend's ID's to get into places. I've done it a million times. It's very convenient.

    Jordan, thanks for also noting that Naman and I had different personalities. But that doesn't matter for some people.

    Brian Bambl, I think you're actually Asian in a white man's body.

    Cougbuck, the whole post is just an optical illusion.

    Bon, next time you'll probably get Bruce Lee.

  12. i rarely meet asians that think my sister and i look alike, but almost every non-asians we meet together think we are twins. i'd ask you if you've had a similar experience, but i'm pretty certain even most asian people think you and your two younger older brothers look alike, so i won't.

    and i must tell you that it saddened me very much that you had posted this yesterday and i couldn't read it because of finals.

    oh, and lastly, i hope no one ever uses my school picture for anything after graduation. that's just wrong. but it seems you asked them for permission. i guess you guys liked your pictures. :)

  13. Great post Jang, but I have to agree with Jihyei - those school pictures always turn out bad. nate hates that photo!


  15. Jang, what an awesome post, you have such an awesome sense of humor. I only wish you could read or say your post out loud in person because I can totally imagine you saying it with your body all tensed up, your hand gestures, face and voice and everything. haha I'll have to read the others later when I have more time! and WHAT??? he got you confused with naman? HAHAHA I find that so ridiculous it's hilarious!

    I always get comments that I look so much like Lucy Liu and the girl from crouching tigers hidden dragon. Just because those two are the only asian celebrities they know and I happen to be an asian girl. :)

  16. A coworker looked at me, called me by a different person's name (an asian guy that I look nothing like but is tall and wears glasses like I do) and asked me a question about something they had been talking about earlier. This isn't the first time that someone has confused me with this other guy even though my hair is almost shoulder length and he has a buzz cut..I guess we both fall into the category of tall asian dude. One odd thing is that I have been told that I look or act like their friend but more often then not, the friend they compare me to is not asian. I've had many random people come up to me and tell me that I look like Josh Groban or Zack Braff - strange since they are both white and I don't think really look like me or each other.