All Foreigners Look Alike, All Chinese Look Alike?

Crowd of Chinese people crossing the street in Shanghai China
Have you ever had trouble distinguishing between a group of people, such as Chinese or foreigners?

“I have a lot of trouble remembering the faces of my colleagues,” confessed Fang, a close Chinese friend of ours mentioned while driving home together from a dinner in town.

“How so?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “Foreigners just all look alike to me.”

“But how can that be? Foreigners look even more distinctive than Chinese do, because our eyes, hair color and skin tones are so different from person to person.”

John chuckled and echoed Fang’s frustration. “They look all the same to me, too.”

I could almost understand Fang having this problem — but my own husband? He married me, a foreigner, and I would have thought, after spending so much time around my “foreign family” that he’d finally see the differences in us.

“But, Sweetie,” I pressed John, “I can tell the difference between Chinese people, after all the years of living in China. I don’t see them all as one generic group.”

John just grinned — his embarrassed grin. “I guess I don’t pay enough attention.”

And maybe there’s no better way to explain it than that. Maybe John learned, from his childhood and family socialization, just how to pay attention to the distinctions among Chinese — but not those among foreigners.

The thing is, he’s not the only one.

Just yesterday, John and I signed out a pair of tennis racquets and balls from the university gym at his school here in the US, which required leaving his university ID at the desk. When we went to return them, the attendant — a plump Caucasian guy in his mid-twenties — fished out an ID. “Is this you?” he asked, holding up a photo of a Chinese man. This photo displayed the kind of squinty face and slit-like eyes that John didn’t have, along with a completely wrong last name.

John shook his head, and it wasn’t until I pointed to the ID lying on the desk — which hadn’t been filed away — that we finally got John’s ID back.

As John and I walked away, with his ID safely in hand, I couldn’t help but say it: “He thinks all Asians look alike, doesn’t he?”

Have you ever had trouble distinguishing between Chinese, or between foreigners?

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22 thoughts on “All Foreigners Look Alike, All Chinese Look Alike?

  • September 13, 2010 at 3:09 am

    I confess, when I first moved here I had A LOT of trouble with this, and even still, after a year, I sometimes struggle. Every time my colleague tells me to go ask XXX for something, I always blush and have to ask him to remind me which one XXX is.
    I have always felt incredibly guilty about it, but once some of my Chinese friends told me they had the same problems with foreigners, it made me feel slightly less bad. (I also have had friends who are not Chinese but who are non-white say all white people look the same to them, so apparently it’s a strange phenomenon we all struggle with.)

    What really complicates the issue — at least for me — is the similarities of all my colleagues’ looks coupled with their similar-sounding (Chinese) names. Trying to remember Chinese names is still virtually impossible for me, especially if I don’t know the characters, and so I really have an even harder time trying to remember what someone looks like when I can’t even pair them with a name!

    The only remedy, I’ve found, is actually getting to know people! It’s much easier to remember what people look like when you know some personal details about them (where they grew up, if they have kids, where they went to school/what they studied, etc etc etc)

  • September 13, 2010 at 4:08 am

    Sometimes I do have this problem. But without my glasses it’s hard for me to recognize even European people (even my eyesight is not that bad). Usually if I have a meeting I will arrive first so the person I’m seeing will have to find me.

  • September 13, 2010 at 7:26 am

    I haven’t had come across that problem but I experienced something similar to Brittany.
    When I came to Turkey I found everyone different and distinguishable, but as I didn’t know the names I still found it impossible to keep track of who everyone was. As I was visiting my fiance’s family it was a bit embarrassing to have to keep asking who was married to who and who’s kid was that anyway. This was compounded by the fact that the names were quite similar within the family, chosen to rhyme/alliterate. Once I became familiar with the names it all started to make sense.
    I’m sure there’s studies to be done on childhood programming for facial features!

  • September 13, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Haha, My husband also says all foreigners look alike. I thought the same thing you did Jocelyn, that foreigners are more distinct than Chinese but I guess that’s just my ethnocentrism showing!

    I don’t really have trouble telling Chinese people apart but it does take me a bit longer to learn my students’ names than I suspect it would if I were teaching foreign teenagers. Back home I think I’d probably have more features to help me distinguish people, you know, Jack is the readhead, Emily is the blonde, Tom is Asian, Bob dresses like a punk, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever had an instance where I actually would mistaken one Asian for another because they all look alike, but I do think you’re right that our culture teaches us to distinguish people in certain ways and to look for certain cues and when we switch cultures it might be more difficult.

  • September 13, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Here in the US, dark skinned Indians are confused for African Americans and most light skinned Indians are thought to be Hispanic, while others are considered white. They cannot make out the difference between most East Asians.

  • September 13, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    Hiiiiiilarious. I’ve had this experience sooooo many times. MX is the same. I still find it shocking that they have a hard time finding foreigners hard to differentiate. Soooo many differences. That’s what makes us all beautiful. But in China… well, I guess that’s what makes the country so unique and intriguing. When everyone looks the same… it takes more to stand out!

    • September 13, 2010 at 10:58 pm

      @Brittany, thanks for sharing! I know what you mean, that it really makes a difference when you get to know someone, in terms of remembering faces.

      @Sara, thanks for the comment. I guess sometimes even we cannot distinguish among our fellow compatriots.

      @Catherine, thanks for writing. Wow, I bet it must have been overwhelming to get to know everyone and their names! Well, if it’s any consolation, there are still a ton of my husband’s relatives whose names I don’t know (but they’re distant enough so I can get away with it). At least most of the time I just need to address people with generic names like “Uncle” or “Aunt” which makes EVERYTHING easier.

      @Jessica, guess I’m not the only one who thought it odd Chinese would have trouble distinguishing foreigners! It must be ethnocentrism or something.

      @George thanks for sharing. So, so true. And you know, sometimes people mistake my husband for a hispanic, if you can believe that.

      @Magnus, so glad to see your comment. Good point — you really do need more to stand out when people look similar. 😉

  • September 14, 2010 at 3:38 am

    I am of Filipino descent, however, I’ve been mistaken for being Chinese many times–even by the Chinese themselves! When I’ve visited Beijing, some people on the street started speaking to me in Mandarin. Even my Chinese-language teacher, who is from Taiwan, tells me that I resemble folks there. She is sure that I have a Chinese ancestor or two in my family tree. Usually here in the US, I am mistaken for being Central American. Go figure!

  • September 14, 2010 at 10:51 am

    My husband and I had this conversation when we were dating. He commented how he couldn’t tell us Americans apart, that we all looked alike. I was like “what?” I have never had a problem really telling Chinese people apart except for one overwhelming experience. My husband works for Panda Express Restaurants and we were attending a conference for his company in San Diego. I was upstairs in our hotel room because my husband had been in conferences all day. He calls me and says to come down to the beach because they are now having an awards ceremony I can attend. So I walk down and stare in utter dumbness. There are hundreds of people and they are all wearing the exact same jacket. Apparently they had given out company jackets while I was gone. Now I am not only staring at a virtual sea of Asian people, but Asian people all dresses exactly the same way. 😮 Luckily my husband was on the lookout for me and came and found me 🙂

  • September 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

    “George thanks for sharing. So, so true. And you know, sometimes people mistake my husband for a hispanic, if you can believe that.”

    Now that is really funny!

  • September 14, 2010 at 11:20 am

    “Usually here in the US, I am mistaken for being Central American. Go figure!”

    If you dont go to Arizona you will be ok!

  • September 14, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    What an eye-opener that we all deal with the same problem! A refreshing thought really.
    In 2004, when I first started writing for the International Examiner in Seattle I felt embarrassed when the ethnic background of people from different Asian countries wasn’t clear to me from merely looking at their features.
    I figured knowing names common in certain countries would help, and it does, somewhat. I hoped that being familiar with regional names might make it possible to guess between Taiwan and mainland provinces (just like in the Netherlands), Korea or Japan and it did somewhat.
    If I have learned to distinguish (somewhat) the look of people from different Asian countries, I still, especially when I haven’t really acquainted myself with people, mistake one Asian for someone else. Looking for distinguishing features takes an extra effort, which I’m happy to make (if any of my friend are reading this, I do know your mug).
    This said, I think I have the same trouble with Caucasian people. I often think I met all possible variations of faces in Kindergarten, Elementary, and High school. Everybody I’ve met since reminds me in some way of the people I met when I was young.
    Since I didn’t meet any Asian people before I was 15 (no there was no Chinese take-out where I grew up) I may have more trouble fitting these “new faces” in.
    Perhaps the same is true for your husband and other Asian people.

    Does this thesis fly? How about Asian-Americans who have grown up with Caucasian faces around them, do they/ you have less trouble distinguishing between me and the next gal?

    • September 14, 2010 at 10:56 pm

      @Anna, thanks for sharing. That’s crazy people have thought you were Central American!

      @Sarah, thanks for the comment. Wow, I think anyone in your shoes would have been so lost in that conference — thank goodness your husband came out to find you!

      @George, ha ha, I know what you mean about not going to Arizona! LOL! 😉

      @Judith, great comment and thanks for sharing your experiences. Interesting thesis. I know I have Asian American readers out there, so maybe I can pose the question to them.

  • September 14, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    I was pretty surprised when my ex-boyfriend, a Japanese international student confessed to me that “All white people look the same to me.” My mom had the same attitude about Asians, wonder why they did not hit it off better?

    Well, my husband, a white man, sometimes has trouble telling the difference between different people, even white people, so maybe it is not just an issue of what you are used to, maybe some people are just bad at it.

    • September 14, 2010 at 11:43 pm

      @skeptigirl, thanks for your comment. You raise an excellent point — some people might just be better at telling the difference between faces than others.

  • September 15, 2010 at 7:30 am

    I think not all the foreigners look the same, at least i can tell the difference of people from Russia and France, I mean, there are still some difference. But not that big, and also people from Mexico and Spain, although they speak Spanish, but there are difference. This is the same between Chinese and Japanese.

  • September 15, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    “Since I didn’t meet any Asian people before I was 15 (no there was no Chinese take-out where I grew up) I may have more trouble fitting these “new faces” in.
    Perhaps the same is true for your husband and other Asian people.”

    I have an Indo-American woman in my organization who hardly knows any white American (other than Jews). She grew up in Cerritos, CA and went to a high school which is 80% Asian and the only whites were Jews and East Europeans, then she went to Berkeley where all her friends were Asians or Jews and then finished her PhD at MIT and guess what everyone in her PhD graduating class in Engineering was either a Jew or Asian..then she comes here and this is an international organization and even now her groups is mostly everything but white American and she was born in this country back in 1982 and is 28 years old and knows no white American, zilch, nada! So if you have a minority person who grew up like that, nor surprising that even in Seattle you grew up without really meeting any Asian!

  • September 15, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    @Judith: As an Asian American, I can say that I do have trouble distinguishing all the different ethnicities of non-Asian folk. I mean, I can tell differences between faces, but if you ask me who looks German or French or something I wouldn’t be able to do that. I grew up in a primarily Asian neighborhood in LA and only had one non-Asian friend who was Mexican. So I didn’t have many non-Asian friends until I went to college in New York and even now I can only distinguish between Jews and non-Jews (and not very well at that). I can only tell a non-Asian person’s ethnicity by their last name, or else I have to ask. For Asian ethnicities, I can generally tell who’s Chinese/Japanese/Korean etc.

    There’s actually a psychological term for this inability to distinguish between ethnic faces. I forget what it’s actually called, but it has to do with the environment you grew up in and who you were exposed to as a child, so people who didn’t grow up around a certain ethnicity would have a harder time distinguishing among faces.

    P.S. I recently found this blog and I have to say that I love reading the articles.

    • September 15, 2010 at 10:49 pm

      @Xiaoheng, thanks for weighing in — looks like you are far more distinguishing when it comes to foreign faces than my husband!

      @George, thanks for sharing the story. Fascinating world your Indo-American friend grew up in.

      @Louisa, great to hear from another Asian American on this! And I just found the psychological term you were referring to — it’s called the Cross Race Effect. (also, I’m touched you enjoy the writing)

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  • September 16, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    “George, thanks for sharing the story. Fascinating world your Indo-American friend grew up in.”

    Actually very sad!

  • October 26, 2010 at 8:30 am

    My husband who grew up in San Francisco says he can’t tell the difference between Hispanic and Indian. And all blond people look the same etc, so I tease him about that. I grew up in two university towns (Athens, Ga and Gainesville, Fl) for the bulk of my life, both of which had quite large groups of so called ‘minorities’. Not only that, but my family was in family student housing, and often there was maybe one, possibly two other families in an apartment building who were Anglo-Americans. Everything else was a toss up from Eastern European, to South Asian, to African, Aussies – you name it, we had it.

    Heck even the elementary school I spent the most time at was an English as second language school, and since that was in Athens, Ga back in the 80s-90s that means there was a lot of good funding for the schools (especially the ESL ones) and there were times when I was the only ‘white’ kid in the class.

    Now in comparison Phillip went to a private Catholic school in San Fran….

    One would think that then he could tell the difference between tons of different kinds of people. Well – he can’t! Not even Asians! I have to tell him which is which half the time, and I ask him “What, all look same sweety?” for which I get an eyeroll and a “Well, everyone looks the same…” I’m still trying to decide if he’s just not observant or sweetly clueless.

    He says he likes how I look, and that it’s distinctive (hey, piercings, hair, ink) because few people look quite like me. At least by his estimation. Rather sheltered he was…

    But basically, yes, I’ve noticed that many of my Asian friends, mostly just the males, can’t tell the difference between different sorts of non-Asians. And those who are a few generations into being here in the States… can’t tell different sorts of Asians apart either. Which is just WEIRD.


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