Sunday, March 26, 2006

You can't tell them apart, but they can!

When you arrive in a place where for climatic or cultural reasons people look radically different from the way people look in your country, your first impression is- “They all look the same!”. However, while to ‘you’ they may look the same, they do not look the same to each other. People in China and India, for example, can quickly determine by facial features what province or part of the country a person is from.

I remember, while living in Thailand, I was showing photos of my Thai friends to other Thai friends and they would remark- “Oh, a Khmer!” “And this one is Lao!” How would you know?” I would ask them? “It is obvious- he has a Khmer face!” “Look at the way the eyes go and then the lips- can’t you see that?” I would admit that I couldn’t. However, after living in one part of Thailand and then visiting another, I did indeed see what they meant. People did have slightly different features than what I was now used to. The eyes were of a different shape and so were the outlines of the noses and the mouths. The height was also different.” I see now”, I said to myself “Now I know what Khmers look like”.

In Africa, it is the same thing - people quickly pick out tribes by looking at their faces, but I would have no clue how they can determine which tribe is which so well. They have simply developed an eye to tell different groups apart after having dealt with them for so long and having had so much experience with them.

It is the same in Central America. People from Honduras immediately know if the other person is Salvadoran or Costa Rican, Guatemalan or Nicaraguan. How? By facial features. And also the clothes, the bearing, all before they hear them speak. “But they all look the same!” To ‘you’ they do. Not to them.

I remember sitting on a street in Japan with a Japanese friend and she picked out a couple and said “They are not Japanese!” “How did you know?” “The faces and the clothes and the skin color!” I looked at them, but could not tell the difference. They looked completely the same to me, as any other Japanese person would. Even after I had lived in Japan for two years.

And to them we ( and ‘there are different ‘wes’ involved) also look the same. Brits are furious for being mistaken for Americans in Asia. “Can’t you tell the bloody difference?!” they scream at yet another hapless Asian who dares to ask them the same question they hear all the time “ Are you an American?”. And a Lebanese person in Manila is often asked “what (US) state are you from?”. To an average Filipino and another East Asian, the broad distinguishing marks of being an American are white skin and a nose that is not flat. An Iranian fits the bill, too.

However, the Filipinos not only can tell each other apart, but they can also tell various East Asians apart as well. It is very easy for them. But the Caucasians all look the same.
And they look the same to us.

Once in a city in Southern Philippines I was approached by a taxi driver who seemed to recognize me. He smiled at me and told me that he was so happy I had come back. He also said that he was sorry that my wife had left me and remarked that I had dyed my hair very well and that it looked natural. ( I was not married and I had not dyed my hair) I was friendly to him, but I was intrigued since I had not seen the man before. Then he asked me how my trip back to Sweden was. “Sweden?”

“You have got the wrong person!” “I do not even look Swedish!”” I am short and dark, I look more like a Turk. But to him, I did. Not only I looked like a Swede to him, I also looked indistinguishable from some Swede that he had met before.

And a similar thing but of a different twist would be true with some Japanese. After having been introduced to a Japanese person and made acquaintance with him or her, they would pass me by the next day without as much as saying “Hello”. “Hey, Satoshi, don’t you remember me? “ He would look puzzled and I would have to remind him that we had met at a party the night before. It would take him some time to remember. You see, I would have exactly the same face as any other Caucasian to him and picking me from the crowd would be an impossibility.

Not only that. Children of my Asian friends would see President Clinton on TV and say that he looked like me. Some would say that I looked like Paul McCartney. I guess those famous people would provide some “anchoring” facial features which would then be mentally pasted on faces of all the other Caucasian foreigners they would meet later.

And I guess we are the same way. Our Filipina girlfriend looks a bit like Imelda Marcos to us, and our Japanese friend looks like Hirohito. Those are the ones we know the most.

It takes time to learn to distinguish the subcategories, but you will get the hang of it if you stay in one region long enough. This cannot be said about the natives that you will be living among. They will always mistake you for the larger category that they have most experiences with. So, a German will usually be thought of as an Aussie in Malaysia, an American in Japan, and a Brit in Singapore. He looks like one. And if the German is a female, she will look like Margaret Thatcher. To the locals, that is.

1 comment:

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