Thursday, October 25, 2007

"All o'Y'all Look Alike!!"

Dear Korean,

This is a question about something I've heard in various forms from a lot of non-Asian Americans. Simply put, people tend to say that "all Asians look alike." That's an obvious exaggeration, but I'm wondering whether you think East Asians really do look more alike than people of European descent. After all, most East Asians have dark eyes and dark hair of a similar texture, whereas Europeans have many different eye colors and hair colors/textures. (Of course, I'm not counting perms, dye, and contact lenses.) Asian body types also seem to be more uniform than European ones. Is it just American stupidity or do Asians really look more alike than other groups?

Andrew T.

Dear Andrew,

You do have a point: All East Asians have dark hair and dark eyes. But really, that's all. Outside of hair and eye color, there is a whole lot more variation in East Asians than you might think. The point is illustrated by Isabella Byrd Bishop, a British woman who traveled Korea in 19th century. She visited a Buddhist temple in Korea whose claim to fame was its statuettes of 500 disciples of Buddha, and this was her impression: "Among the infinite variety, one figure has deeply set eyes, an aquiline nose, and thin lips; another a pug nose, squinting eyes, and a broad grinning mouth; one is Mongolian, another Caucasian, and another approximates to the Negro type. Here is a stout, jolly fellow, with a leer and a broad grin suggestive of casks of porter and the archaic London drayman..."

In other words, all other bodily features of East Asians could be radically different. The skin complexion can go anywhere from very dark to very light, roughly going from a slightly light-skinned black person's complexion to completely pasty. The hair curls and texture range from very straight and fine to very curly and coarse, almost to the level of jewfro. Eye size, nose size, lip size, height, build, you name it; East Asians are hardly uniform. If you think all Asians are short and have slight build, the Korean has 25 sumo wrestlers who would prove otherwise by sitting on you.

This then begs the question: Why do people think all Asians look alike? "Because people are stupid" is never a good answer. The answer has to do with heuristics. (The Korean covered it once here. Read it if you'd like a more detailed explanation.) To recap quickly: heuristics is a mental shortcut. People engage in heuristics by extracting the most prominent information out of a certain situation; if people encounter a new situation that shares the same prominent information, they conclude that the new situation is the same as the previous situation. Heuristics is useful because it enables quick decision-making with little information.

So suppose you are a person who has never seen an Asian person. You meet your first Asian man in your life; not very well met, just a random encounter at a party or something. What would you remember about his looks? Unless he has stunningly good looks, the only prominent thing you would remember about his appearnce a few days later would be his dark hair and his general Asian-ish looks. Then you meet your second Asian guy -- and bingo, the second Asian guy has dark hair and general Asian-ish looks. They both look the same!

(This is, in fact, one of the mechanisms through which deja vu can happen. Even though you are in a new place, for example, it feels like you have been there before. It's because some time in the past, you only remembered certain features of a place, and this new place shares the same features.)

This process happens to any race of people who are considered "exotic". A lot of white people thought black people looked all the same, until discussing race became the powder keg that it is right now. Here's a confession: the Korean himself, for some years after he moved to the U.S., had the hardest time distinguishing Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman. They are both slim, distinguished-looking black men who have some gray hair -- at least, those were the only things that stuck in the Korean's head whenever he saw Mr. Glover or Mr. Freeman. So even though they look nothing like each other, the Korean's mind just jumped the gun, until he consciously tried to remember every single facial feature of the two men.

As you might have noticed, this process definitely works the other way around as well. Europeans are more of a mix, but they can be broadly divided into light-haired, fair-skinned types and dark-haired, swarthy types. So if you are a white person traveling in Asia, you will definitely hear comments like "You look just like [insert the representative movie star here.]" It's pretty flattering to hear, but just remember that such a statement is the same ilk as "All Asians look alike."

In that case, how can one distinguish different Asians by looks? (i.e. Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc.?) Well, that's for another, highly interesting post.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I think your idea about heuristics is right on. I am a Euro-mutt and am married to a Korean woman. Her mother always tells me that all white people look the same to her (except me at this point). All of their friends also mention how I look like a movie star. Like you say, flattering, but I know it is merely because they don't see too many white people in Koreatown. Moreover, they likely associate me with the few movies and theatrical posters they've seen.

  2. Here is ask'in another Korean who's actually studied the anthropology.

    There are certain types of East Asian physical types. Northern Asian, Southern Asian and islander aborigines.

    Koreans are essentially of the Northern Asian type, which migrated from Siberia in the last ice age. Northern Asians are characterized by high cheek bones, small flat noses and wide eyes with an epicanthal fold. Northern Asians evolved from areas where it was very cold, and there was a high wind chill factor. High cheek bones and a flatter face helps the heat distribute better in and around the head. wider set eyes helped keep wind out as well.

    The Chinese are a blend of Northern and Southern Asians. South Asians have rounder faces, slightly larger eyes and darker skin. It is well known amoung Chinese themselves that people from the North and the South look noticeably different.

    The Japanese are a blend of Northern, Southern and islander aborigine (in approximately that order), with the Northern influence being more prominent on average.


  4. I love the way you handled that question. Kudos to you!!

  5. "How can one distinguish different Asians by looks?"

    Well, if you want to distinguish Indians from Vietnamese it's pretty easy, but if you want to distinguish Chinese from Japanese it's much harder. For the most part you'd be just as successful taking a blind guess - after all, it's not like anyone can tell an Englishman apart from a German just based on looks.

  6. Ah, but you forget that Koreans in fact pick out other Koreans with remarkable accuracy. How they do, that's for another post.

  7. Admittedly heuristics does play a big part and can certainly hold true for a lot of cases. I will say one way to overcome that is to watch a lot of movies/tv dramas from the different countries and consciously or no, the differences become more obvious. I unfortunately don't have the background in anthropology, but anecdotally, hairstyle for a lot of male celebrities can also roughly give you an idea of where they're from.

  8. hey there, I really like your blog, is very interesting!! I have some korean friends and they told me a general (notice "general") way to distinguish chinese, korean and japanese. the chinese have the and of their eyes like turned up, the end of the eyes of the korean are in the middle, and the japanese are "turned down". I practised, and in the 80% of the cases I was right. But it also helps me to have asian friends: I know the different features of the chinese, the koreans and the japanese.

    I'll keep reading your blog, it's awesome!!

    Ps: sorry if my english is not excellent, I'm from Europe (exactly half german and half italian) ^-^

  9. I'm Korean but I left that country when I was six. The first time I went back was at nineteen. I experienced the same thing the Korean described here. I would meet people, talk to them and not remember their faces two hours after that.

    Koreans all looked the same to me because I was used to look at white people's faces all the time.

  10. Once again, the Korean is spot on. When my parents first went to the USA, they had never encountered any black people and still to this day, most black people all look the same to my parents. You cannot overstate the point of what a great role familiarity can play. So whereas to most non-Asians in America, all asians look the same. To other people, all hispanics look the same, all whites look the same and all blacks look the same. Eventhough, in reality, there are a wide range of apperances in all races, it is sometimes difficult to escape heuristics as the Korean has so well explained.

  11. I went to the alllooksame site and took the Asian faces quiz, but I only got 12/18...and of the 5 Korean faces, I only got 3 of them correct. The site says "pretty good," as the average is 7 correct answers, but for an eastern Asian, I feel inadequate :P

  12. This posting is pretty good. I personally understand when Europeans get confused with East Asians~ but if peple just say 'Asia or Asian' I just wanna ask back 'what is Asia or Asian?'. 'Cuz they call Indians and Pakistans as Asians, South Asians as Asians and North Asians as Asians I even heard some ppl saying 'I like Asian food' men~ I can't even tell what Asian food is. Plz don't mix up. Be specific~

  13. I am a White woman married to a Korean-American man. Our middle child is a boy, adopted from Korea, and we have another boy and a girl who are our biological kids. When we first went out as a family, strangers would comment on the extraordinary resemblance between our adopted son and my husband. My husband would always mutter "Oh, yeah, I guess all Asians look alike" under his breath. But as time went on, I noticed that Asians, including Koreans, were at least as likely to make that observation as non-Asians. I think our adopted son and my husband actually do share a resemblance. I was told once that the Korean adoption agency tries to match up the newborn babies with adoptive parents that share some kind of resemblance, but I don't know if that's a load of BS or not.

  14. I think that your idea about euristics is right, and the only way to stop the euristics and start recognizing differential treats is being closer to that kind of people.

    For example, I work in a casino in Spain, and half of the clients are chinese. Since I've been there for a while, now I can pick up most of the chinese people I see, but still have my difficulties to distinguish between japanese and korean.
    But when I travel abroad, I can tell if someone is spanish with no doubt, while other people would have difficulties and couldn't tell if they are french, italian, portuguese or even from some south american country.

    Setting another example (hope no-one offends), I've had always cat pets. I wouldn't make a mistake telling which one of ten white persian cats is mine and which are not, but for someone at the outside, there's no difference, they all are cats, with long white hair.

    (Hope my english is not too bad. If it is... I'm sorry, I'm trying to improve it.)

  15. i'm asian and most of the time, i can't tell asians apart. i can only tell them apart if they have a quirky characteristics, like a big nose or pretty clothes, or they are really cute or things like that. it also plays on familiarity. if i see them around a lot, then i can tell who is who and if they are my friends, even better.
    as for telling which asians are which kind, i can sometimes tell them apart. but most of the time, i guess or just ask them.

  16. I am Korean and always get mistaken as Chinese, even by my own people, lol. I guess you could always get a Korean shirt like this to clear it up:

  17. When my blonde self adopted my Chinese daughter she thought all blondes looked alike and for a time would reach out to anyone blonde. Once in the arms of a stranger she'd freak out realizing, wrong blonde-lol.

    I don't have that "all Asians look alike" thing but a Chinese buddy of mine said it was a real problem to him when he immigrated to North America. Seen one big nose seen them all...

    I really like your explanation of this, its a funny brain trick that I'd be happy to see disappear in the human race.

  18. All asians dont look alike. some are south asians (indian and pakistanis, for example) and others are east, or southeast asians. all east asians do not look alike, all south asians dont look alike, all sub-saharan africans (negroes) dont look alike, all europeans dont look alike. however, and this is basic anthropology, it is perfectly normal for members of the out group to think that all members of the in group look alike. so just as yellow people are inclined to think that all black people look alike, blacks are inclined to think that yellows look alike. normal human phenomenon. but some people take offense.

  19. I get mistaken as Chinese frequently by my own people (Koreans), even though I look Korean enough to be identified by non-Koreans. I have seen many Indians (might have been Pakistanis), whites, islanders who can tell that I am Korean.

    By the way I don't care what people think I am. It's better for me to be identified as Asian, because when I accidently commit a crime, I can get away with it easily.

  20. Wow--there is a lot of talk on here about how different Koreans look--and yet, when I walk the streets, everyone looks basically the same. Am I crazy?

  21. To the untrained eye most east-Asians look alike, even to trained eye it is sometimes difficult.

    Everyone seems to forget that most of what is now China and Korea was conquered and occupied by the Mongols for hundreds of years. Apparently 1 in 200 males in this region share a common DNA, scientists speculate that it is that of Genghis Khan's. (History Channel).

    The original inhabitants of the Japanese islands look nothing like the Japanese. There are still communities of these original peoples on isolated islands. The Japanese inhabitants that we're familiar with are transplants from the asian continent. Probably from what is now known as Korea.

    So we do probably share some common lineage.

    To me a Swedish person and a German person look the same. If any of you ever go to Sweden, mention this and stand back and prepare for a tongue lashing. They hate this and will point out all these physical features that make them different.

    Now go tell a German he/she looks Polish and you'll get a dirty glare.

    So its not just the Asians' that claim they look different, many European countries claim that they too look different.

  22. Well, as a korean-american, I have no idea how the Korean tells other korean apart from rest of the asian people. Sure it's quite easier to tell apart Koreans from a Thai person or Vietnamese, but it's much harder task to distinguish northern Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. At the airport ticketing lines, I quiz myself about who is a Korean, Chinese or Japanese, and often get it wrong. Only sure way is to look at their passport or to listen to their speech. Koreans, Chinese and Japanese people are close enough genetically so that individual variance in appearances are greater than that of the variance in "racial" norm between the ethnic groups.

  23. @Lost Korean. Most Koreans have Manchurian phenotype, while Japanese can have manchurian and caucasian phenotype. the indigenous people of Japan, the Ainus, have somewhat caucasian phenotype. Read somewhere that they originated in Russia or something. there are many Japanese, like my wife, who look 'korean' because she has a manchurian face. i guess my point is, a trained eye can spot the differences between the different Asians and Africans for that matter. East Africans have a different phenotype from West Africans.

  24. I am a Black American woman currently living in Korea. Koreans often ask me if I am African or Indian. They cannot tell the difference. I can of course see why they would suspect that I was African but Indians have totally different features from Black Americans. Basically, Asians aren't the only ones who "all look alike".

    1. Excuse me if i offend someone for my comment . But what has happened to you is lack of culture of these people. It is understandable that there are difficulties in distinguishing people of the same ethnicity, but not differentiate people of different races and continents is a great lack of culture

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. inversely.. why do all western people look alike? big nose,double eye lid,deep eye socket

  27. On the contrary, Im an asian girl and I find European girls difficult to differentiate at my school. They all have the same hair-do, the same eyes and stuff...I once worked with a guy on a writing piece in my English class and about 5 minutes after, I went to homeroom and mistakened another guy for him. Even after working with him, I could not remember his face..

  28. I think even Asians can't tell from which part of Asia another fellow is from. I've always been mistaken from which part of Asia I'm from (even in my own country!). I've been mistaken to be Chinese, Japanese, even a Korean (don't get how this is logical)when I visited these places; and the only closest link I have is that both my grandmothers are of Chinese descent. Just because I have high cheekbones,light skin tone, double-lid eyes and high nose (note: the latter 2 probably an assumption that I've done a job as most Korean women do these days)people assume on first impression that I'm from Eastern Asia, when in fact I'm from South East Asia. South East Asians have somewhat similar features with darker skin tone (weather-wise these places are hot and sunny most of the time).

    PS: Love this site!

  29. This discussion reminds me of accents. Before I travelled to New Zealand I couldn't tell the difference between a Kiwi accent and an Australian accent; but after a few days over there, it became pretty obvious. Before meeting Canadians, I could swear there was no difference between Canadian speech and American - but there can be (sometimes). Similarly, I could never understand Americans who couldn't distinguish Mancunian from Scottish, but they started to sound more similar even to me after spending time away from my home environment.

    On the other hand, I think it's possible to say some regions have objectively more homogeneous accents than others. An outsider might not be able to tell Canadian from American, but anyone (?) can spot a Southern U.S. accent. By analogy, perhaps it is harder to tell some people apart than others? Those Dutch, they all look alike...

  30. There have been studies done that show that people are best at distinguishing differences in the race they were raised around, i.e. if you were raised around Asians, it's likely that you have no problem distinguishing the differences between 50 random Asians, but it might be more difficult to do the same with someone of European or African heritage. So I guess that the key is really exposure, more than anything.
    I haven't read the studies, but they were referred to in an article on face blindness that was printed in The New Yorker last year.

  31. "So if you are a white person traveling in Asia, you will definitely hear comments like "You look just like [insert the representative movie star here.]"

    HAHA.. I have a Turkish co-worker who keeps saying to me "Natalie Portman.. Do you Know? You look just like her." I never understood this at all because i look nothing like her. Now i can understand his opinion a little better.

  32. Asians do not all look alike. But they do tend to literally wear uniforms and follow fashion trends. But that's same for some other non Asian countries as well, afterall.

  33. It's not just a 'race' thing. I'm an American living in England and I find there is a preponderance of overweight, bald Caucasian men in the UK. They really all look the same to me. BTW-I can always tell when the (white) American tourists are vising Canterbury because many American woman have very large butts and hips while overweight British women tend to be more 'apple' shaped.

  34. It's funny, but I never group some ethnicities by calling them "Asian". I mean, while they may geographically be from Asia, I call Indians only Indian, and same for Pakstani's, etc. Sometimes, one calls people from north or south Asia "asians". But these days I only use the term if I'm talking about Chinese, or an asian person who it's not obvious what their nationality is. I think generally, many times Koreans are very uniquesly identifiable. I have a much more successful rate of differentiating Koreans and Chinese than my Korean-Korean husband, which surprises me. (Of course, there are Chinese who 'look' Korean, and vice versa.) For Japanese, sometimes I can tell, and sometimes not~ I think many Asian ethnicities are easier to differentiate than Middle Eastern for me. And I grew up in an "oil city" that has many different ME people.
    I would say though, that when I was younger, and had observed far fewer people, I couldn't really tell Asians apart that much. I think that's the deal with some (many?) white Americans~ they just don't pay attention closely enough to observing the distinguishing characteristics.

  35. Now all Westerners look alike? please do not say stupid things. I understand you say you can not differentiate between races but there are big differences among Latin Americans, Anglo-Saxon or Germanic (for example). If someone can not distinguish them for lack of culture

  36. I think there are a lot of Asians who are unmistakably a specific ethnicity - Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. But there are an even greater number of Asians who fall into the ambiguous category where you can't say for sure by just looking at their faces what their ethnicity is. And then there are those who you think must be a specific ethnicity and it turns out you're wrong. So it can get pretty confusing, even for an Asian person.

  37. It's called the cross-race effect "Cross-race effect (sometimes called cross-race bias, other-race bias or own-race bias) is the tendency for people of one race to have difficulty recognizing and processing faces and facial expressions of members of a race or ethnic group other than their own".

    The ability to tell faces apart is not an ability you're born with, it's something you learn through interaction. Proven here:

    It's about an experiment where Korean children adopted by Caucasians showed inability to tell group Asians apart.

    What you mentioned in this post is just one of the many factors of cross-race effect. Meaning is not false, but it's not everything. In my opinion, I think Asians get picked the most because of their neoteny. Think about it, are you able to tell babies apart? Asians in general have very youthful features (I'm jealous), they're the most "baby-faced" (I don't want this to be insulting in any way, I'm just comparing), so it's harder for others, who are used to sharper features, to pick up their differences. But, I might be wrong, after all it happens vice-versa as well.

  38. I had to laugh at this, people were always asking me where in Asia I adopted my daughter from. My answer after many frustrated encounters was to blurt out in the grocery checkout stand "My vagina!"
    She has very straight black hair and most of the people in my family have very dark hair, my daughters dad has Iranian, Israeli, Russian and a bunch of other blood. My family is a mystery, turns out everyone lied when they got here, or just made shit up through out the generations. Even basically said I was a wash out, best to do a DNA test. I appear not to relate back to any of the Hinton's anywhere, even the slaves. Wait, I had a point...I have noticed that it was way easier to spot my daughter in a crowd where there were few black haired people, but I started wondering up to strangers in Northern Oregon and talking to their backs - there are so many Latins of sort of the same build of my daughter, I get confused. Basically, people notice color first.

  39. Not to be a know-it-all, but there are (or at least were) Koreans darker than a "light-skinned black person" such as here:

    "High-class gentlemen taking a stroll"

    "A wedding party in Seoul"

    Three fishermen with rifles in the outskirts of Seoul

  40. Asians look similar because 800 million of them are direct descendents of 11 ancient rulers, one of them being Ghengis Khan who conquered asia and raped thousands Nd thousands of woman in the process.. this is fact.


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