Funny, You Don’t Look American

If I had one minute of national air time in China and could provide a single piece of information to correct a deep cultural misunderstanding, here’s what I would say, “You like to try, but it’s really hard, maybe impossible, to guess a white person’s nationality.”

Just about every Chinese I meet asks me where I’m from. My usual response is “Where do you think?”. What then follows, almost invariably, is “You look like you are from…” following by the name of various countries inhabited by large numbers of white people. Canada, France, Australia, Spain, Russia, Switzerland, Italy. I’ve heard them all.

There’s usually a note of certainty and keen deductive reasoning about it, for example, “people as tall as you are come from France, so you must be French”, or “people in America have big noses, and you do, so you are American, right?”, or “you are so friendly, you are English”, or “Canadians have blue eyes, so you should be Canadian”.

There is universal disbelief when I explain that white people pretty much all look the same, and that in most cases, I can’t tell by looking at Caucasians where they are from. The small clues I might use – differences in clothing, accent, hairstyles – are not perceived or understood by Chinese. They just look at the skin color and then form a conclusion.

About one-third of the time, someone guesses right. When I ask them why they think I’m American, I hear all kinds of things, some flattering, some not. Equally, when I correct a wrong guess, I’m then often lectured, in a friendly way, why I couldn’t possibly be American, because American men are all lighter-skinned than me, or have mustaches, or are balding. And so on.

I always enjoy these little exchanges. As far as I can tell, my Chinese interlocutors do as well. If I have the time, I’ll explain that white Americans are really deracinated Europeans, whose ancestors came from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe. We still look pretty much the same as people still living in those places.

This usually is news to Chinese. I suggest to them that just as lots, though not all,  Japanese and Koreans can pass for Chinese, and that large numbers of Thai, Indonesian and Filipino citizens have Chinese ancestry, so many white people look like they could come from any number of different countries.

From what I can tell,  many Chinese think there is a distinct American “race”, with unique appearance and physique. Sometimes I fit that “genotype” for them. Sometimes not.  Chinese are used to hearing over and over how their own country is made up of 55 different ethnic minorities, many of whom look rather similar to the Han people who make up 91%.5 of the country’s 1.3 billion peope.  Quite a few, therefore, surmise countries in Europe and North America are populated by unique “races” , all somewhat similar, but each with its own unique ethnic identity. Sometimes costumes as well.

The irony is that when pressed, most Chinese will admit that to them, all white people look pretty much the same. They are happy to guess a white person’s nationality, despite the fact that to them whites all look more or less alike. From what I can tell, Chinese don’t “see” a white face the way white people do. They don’t apprehend the big differences among whites in hair, eye and skin color.

If some of these more subtle differences don’t make of an impression, overall Chinese have gotten far more familiar seeing white faces, mainly on TV, but also in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Compare this to the situation 200 years ago when Europeans first began making their presence known, often forcefully, to the Chinese. Then, Chinese described foreigners mainly as peope in garish costumes, with long red beards, and an overall appearance not unlike either monkeys or the devil. (The porcelain plate displayed above is from that time, the Qing Dynasty, showing a Chinese official receiving a European envoy.)

Truth to tell, I don’t much like being mistaken for a Russian, the most common guess. But, I’m always greeted warmly and with genuine curiosity and goodwill. That’s something those earlier visitors of European ancestry rarely, if ever, experienced.