Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Do we all look the same?
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Do we all look the same?

Erin and I attended a networking event tonight of a new organization forming in Denver, the Colorado Chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals, and had a great time with a spirited group of Asian Americans. We saw some familiar faces, but Erin and I were delighted to find that we didn’t know most of the attendees — it’s nice to see new (and young) Asians adding their voices to the APA community.

During the meeting, which was held in a hip and popular Cherry Creek sushi bar named Hapa, one of the women asked Erin if she was Chinese, and didn’t believe it when Erin replied she was Japanese American.

Then the woman looked at me and asked if I was mixed, or hapa (a Hawaiian word for half-white which started out as a derogatory, but is now widely used and accepted). I explained I’m full Japanese — my dad was born in Hawai’i but he was full Japanese, and my mom is from Japan.

I asked one young man where he’s from (a question that I admit I’d be offended by if a Caucasian asked it of me) because although he spoke perfect English, I thought I heard an undercurrent of Japanese accent. It turned out he was born in Michigan because his father was studying in the states, but the family returned to Yokohama until his father returned to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. in Boston. He remained in the states after high school when his parents returned to Japan.

The woman next to me, who’s married to a European American man and has two hapa children herself, said she’s half Thai and half Filipino. Then we all discussed whether the woman across from us looked Vietnamese. Her family name is Nguyen (the Vietnamese equivalent of “Smith” in the U.S.), but to me, she looked Chinese. A Chinese woman at the table agreed with me when I suggested that she looked like she might be an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.

This cross-cultural guessing game was all held in good-natured fun, with lots of relaxed laughter and the shared affinity of a group of people who might have different cultural backgrounds but still share many Asian values, and, as Asian Americans, share many experiences (some not so nice ones of facing prejudice).

The conversation reminded me that when I was young, I thought I could always tell the difference between various Asians, and point out Japanese from Chinese from Koreans from Vietnamese and so on. But then I was sent a link to a Web site called All Look Same. The site tested my observational acuity by clicking through Asian faces, and having me identify whether the faces were Chinese, Japanese or Korean. (I thought there were also Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian faces, but my memory may be fuzzy — the choices are only between Chinese, Japanese and Korean.)

I discovered my talent for spotting racial subtleties was mere mythology. I sucked at telling Asians apart, it turned out. I got something like 3 or 4 out of 18 correct.

That was a few years ago, so I visited again, and found that the site now has more tests than just faces. There are tests showing images of landscapes, architecture, art and food from the three countries, daring you to show off your visual cultural sensitivity.

I tried the faces first. At least I’ve gotten better: I got half of the 18 faces correct this time.

Register (it’s free) and try it for yourself, especially if you pride yourself on being able to tell Asians from other Asians.

By the way, All Look Same is a project of Dyske Suematsu, who also manages an online culture magazine called DYSKE. I’ve linked to that site before, because he posted a thought-provoking essay, “How to Tell a Real Japanese Restaurant,” about authenticity in Japanese food which I thought walked a mighty thin racial line. I didn’t realize until tonight that and are the product of the same person.