Dear white people: we Asians don’t all look alike

I don’t know how many times people here in Arizona say to me “you look like someone I know”, or “Are you such and such person?” and of course it is usually not me, so I politely reply “no”.  Sometimes just to be a bit contrary, I reply “Yes, we Asians all look alike”  meaning “I forgive you for not being able to differentiate me from another Asian you have met”.   It’s sad that many white people can’t seem to tell us Asians apart. A doctor at UAMC recently came up to me and called me “Catherine” by mistake.  And it’s impolite to single out a so-called “minority person” by their facial features.

Ok, so honestly I must look like every other Asian woman around Tucson:  slim, long black hair (though mine is getting SP – salt/pepper) and wire rim glasses.  Plus an oriental face, yellowish skin tone, the usual “perpetual immigrant/foreigner” Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese/Laotian look.  I could be anyone of those ethnicities, or mixtures thereof.

Recently though, a Hispanic woman mistook me for a Navajo woman friend of hers up north on the reservation. That was more flattering, as I know people have sometimes asked me what tribe I belong to, and I usually just smile and say that I’m not Native American, but I would like to be.

Then there’s the rude folks, who ask me “what country are you from?” so I usually reply “America” since Hawaii is really part of the U.S. (the last time I checked).  Hawaii became the 50th state back in August, 1959, and was an American trust territory since 1898. I was born there on one of the islands. I even have an authentic long-form birth certificate to prove it.  But then they keep asking, as they need to know what racial group to put me in, and usually I give up and reply truthfully that both sets of grandparents left Japan for the Kingdom of Hawaii/Trust Territory of Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations (in 1892 and 1910).

So that makes me 3rd generation Japanese American, a Sansei. And I don’t know how to read/speak Japanese as I barely learned it.  Speaking Japanese wasn’t encouraged or “cool” after WWII which ended in 1945. There were no longer Japanese language schools when I was growing up (as there were in Hawaii before WWII). And only Spanish was offered in our high school, which I also studied in college.

And if you’re wondering if these incidents mentioned above ever happen in Hawaii, the answer is no.  There are too many Asians there to confuse one with the other, and most people there know the difference between the various Asian groups by facial features (even biracial mixes). And honestly, in Hawaii there are so many types of people, so much inter-racial diversity, that no one cares what race you are.  You do get judged mostly by the “content of your character,” to quote Dr.Martin Luther King Jr.

So, dear white people – stop asking me about what country I’m from, and saying that I look like so-and-so.  Just meet and greet me (no hand shaking anymore for me since the Ebola crisis), and just be friendly –person to person, with mutual respect for each other’s ethnicity, or lack thereof.  But I’m still “drowning in a sea of white” when I’m usually the only Asian person at an event.

And if you’re wondering where  this subject came from, check out the hilarious, thought-provoking satire “Dear White People” movie still playing at the Loft.  I posted about it when it first arrived in town a few weeks ago: Note the comment I posted the day I recently saw the movie.

And since many people in town think I look like someone else, I guess I might be someone else and not uniquely ME.  How’s that for a sci-fi story?

Poem by Prof. Albrecht Classen (my husband) about me being Asian:

Don’t we know each other?

Always the same question,
from nice white folks,
don’t we know each other?
Have we not met already?

No, we have never met before.
No, I am not the same Asian woman
you have seen before.
No, we Asians do not all look alike.

Once an Asian woman,
always an Asian woman.
They ask in such a friendly tone,
and they hurt in such subtle ways.

Do I perceive you white folks
only in one type of mask?
Do we not have individual features?
Can you not differentiate?

22 thoughts on “Dear white people: we Asians don’t all look alike”

  1. Happened again twice this week — two white people asked me if I was “so and so” who were obviously other Asian women in town. So, I just politely replied (after listening to them relate how they thought they knew me) “No, sorry, that person just looks like me”. Sigh. I guess we Asians do all look alike…I’ll just accept it.

  2. Thanks for giving me a few chuckles. I’ve never mistaken you for anyone else as you’re the “one and only” Carolyn Classen! Someone today thought I might have been someone else, so it’s not a uniquely Asian problem, but no one’s wondered where I was from, however, for the record, I have Viking blood in my veins …

    • Very funny Martin, but you’ve always treated me as unique. I bet you(as a white guy) don’t get asked where you are from, but thanks for the Viking reference — such fierce fighting/exploring history.

  3. Thanks for writing an important reminder about the age-old problem of the “What are you question?” It was a constantly asked question when I grew up on northern New Jersey, and was always an inquiry about ethnic background. It was never a question about your religion. My college actively recruited students from all 50 states and most of the world. It was there that I got to know students from the South. When they asked that question, it was always an inquiry into my religion. Since I didn’t know that, I would give an answer about the Italian, French, and Polish birthplaces of my ancestors which surprised them. I aways thought that was an interesting difference. I recently decided to ask my 30 something nephew and his friends that question. They looked puzzled for a moment, and then told me what they did for a living, a question commonly asked in America, but considered very rude other places in the world. Let’s hope living in a place with a very diverse population make people realize we’re more the same than we are different. I really wish more people would realize that race is a social concept that has no scientific base. It’s the genes, people. Get over it! Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    • Thanks for sharing your past experiences in New Jersey. Yes, America is becoming more diverse with more immigrants and refugees and intermarriage, so hopefully people will just learn to get along better. Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

    • Thanks David for the compliment. Coming from you that means quite a lot. I spoke from the heart as these are my experiences.

  4. I actually don’t know anyone else personally who looks like you, Carolyn, except possibly Victoria Steele. In years past, I was confused with city councilwoman Barbara ? (1st one in Tucson) on many occasions because we were both Democrats and short and full-figured (!). I was also once told I looked just like a Russian peasant woman. Seriously, your points are well-taken and should be heeded by all. Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks for commenting Georgia. Victoria Steele is also part Native American, which explains the resemblance and I find that flattering as I think she is attractive. Sorry I don’t know former City Councilwoman Barbara Weymann. I appreciate your support.

  5. From where I stand, it seems that it’s more an issue of familiarity than anything. When I lived in more segregated areas and knew fewer people of diverse backgrounds, Asian people mostly looked alike. Now that I’ve spent multiple segments of my life in contexts where white people are in the minority, it wouldn’t occur to me that all Asian/Latino/Black/etc people all look alike.

  6. I have a good friend who is Filipino. One night when we were out dancing another friend of mine asked him, “what are you anyway?” I was so embarrassed. His response was, “Filipino, what are you anyway?”

    • Yes, “what you you anyway?” is a common question for us “minority people” in the U.S. Mainland. If you ask that in Hawaii, you would be laughed at, as people wouldn’t know what you meant. People there brag about 7 ethnicities, being “Cosmoplitan” poi dogs (mixed breed), etc. Glad your Filipino friend asked the Q back. I usually am so shocked when people say things like that I am speechless.

  7. Thanks for writing this article, Carolyn. I’ll never forget when I first started college; this guy called me “Cheryl,” and when I corrected him, he assured me that I looked just like her. Cheryl turned out to be a foot taller than me, Chinese, and had hair twice the length of mine. She was also very loud and sporty, and I was quiet and poet-y. I have a feeling that you don’t look like these other Asian Ams that people say you look like. I think what’s most important is what you said—notice people’s character. Asians only look alike if the people looking at us see only “that Asian lady.”

    • Thanks for commenting Heather, that’s exactly what I’m talking about — being taken for some other Asian woman w/o considering individual differences, individuality. Ross just told me via email that someone thought he looked like actor Pat Morita, which is somewhat flattering.

  8. “Kingdom of Hawaii”! I like that!
    Is/was there a difference between being a territory (like the Arizona Territory) and a trust territory?
    Were there interment camps during WWII in the Hawaiian territory or any of the U.S. territories? If not, was there a practice to send Hawaiians of Japanese descent to camps on the mainland, as it was to ship people to other states? (I’ve been wondering this, and I promptly forget to ask whenever I see you.) Because of so much ethnic diversity there, I suspect that it would’ve been difficult, if not impossible.
    (I supposedly have a doppelganger living on the east side of Tucson…pretty chilling stuff!)
    I think most people have a very small mind-village (I read somewhere that a person’s universe tops out at 150 or so — everyone else they know is a barely-knowing, not much more than name). A friend from Australia visiting the U.S. about 20 years ago was asked time and again if she knew Mel Gibson. It got to the point that she replied, “Sure I know Mel. There are only 100 people who live in Australia.” (It was fun for her to laugh at the typical American, who was under the impression that Australia’s population was overwhelmingly kangaroos, dingos, and sheep, until she met Gibson in an airport bar, and she had the chutzpah to make him buy her a Coke for having to tell people they were close personal friends for such a long time. 😉 )
    I don’t think you should feel devalued. Most folks want to be friendly, but are somewhat timid at the same time, particularly with a group of mostly strangers. Grasping at straws by thinking your someone else helps to get to know you faster, even if the identification is (way) off the mark!

    • I think all Trust Territories were the same, Arizona or Hawaii. Yes, Japanese Americans were held at one famous (but small) internment camp on Oahu called Honouliuli:
      More suspicious Japanese American leaders (like my aunt’s father, a Buddhist priest) were sent to FBI/DOJ camps on the U.S. Mainland, a terrible hardship.
      I know what you are saying that people are not smart and only trying to be friendly, but for minority people, it’s not fun to be singled out as looking like someone else racially. Good story about your visiting friend from Australia, who got to meet Mel Gibson (lucky her). Did I tell you about the time actor Danny Glover got off the plane at Tucson airport before my husband, and I just gawked at him?

  9. Lovely post, Carolyn! I’m an old white lady who has been guilty of being thoughtlessly insensitive at times, although now I try to think before I speak. I lived in Atlanta for over 25 years and I would often feel unfriendly “vibes” from a African-American who didn’t know me. I just accepted this reaction, in my case, because I don’t blame African-Americans for being suspicious of whites. But your blog reminds me to be thoughtful when meeting/interacting with anyone. Thank you.

    • Thanks for commenting Bobbie. Glad my post was of some help for people to think about how they interact with each other, esp. just in the initial greeting. I guess I feel devalued when someone acts like they should know me because of some other person they knew who just looked like me.

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