Walk Like an Asian-American

Previously here, with related links. Today several messages on the topic that got this all started: the physical, behavioral, and other traits that may distinguish many Asians from many Asian-Americans.

First, on the "head shape" cue:

>>I'm Taiwanese-American; I was born and raised here and my parents came from Taiwan as adults.

I visited China for the first time last summer, and I traveled around for about three weeks. In the major cities, I think that people could tell that I was different, if they paid attention, but not the exact way in which I'm different. I was told, though, by a Chinese friend of a friend who I met for the first time in Shanghai, that she would not be able to tell that I was American just by looking at me. I think the reason for this is a matter of background probabilities.

In any major American city, if you see an Chinese-looking person, there's a pretty good chance of both possibilities -- that the person is from Asia or from the US -- so it makes sense to use little cues to push your decision one way or the other. In a place like Shanghai or Beijing, though, if you see a Chinese-looking person, the probability might be more like 99.9% from China to 0.1% from US. So if you're in Shanghai and see someone who has some western cues, which is more likely -- that the person is from China but is relatively wealthy and dresses in a western way, or that the person is from the US?...

There's another useful factor for identifying Chinese-born and American-born that I rarely see discussed. Ethnically Chinese people raised in the west tend to have a different head shape than those raised in China. Seriously. If you look at the profile of a Chinese-Chinese person, the back of the head tends to be flatter. In some cases, the back of the head is a straight line up from the neck. This is especially apparent in older men with short hair. I'm pretty sure this happens because infants in China are traditionally raised sleeping on their backs on firm surfaces, whereas in the west, it's much more common to use soft surfaces, and (until relatively recently) to let them sleep on their sides. It's possible that head- flattening is less common in younger Chinese people, as softer bedding materials become more common.

Flat heads have become more of an issue here in the US since the increasing awareness of SIDS led experts to recommend putting infants on their backs to sleep. If you Google "flat head SIDS", you'll find plenty of information about it.<<

Let me just say: I agree with this observation. I have borne it in mind since a day in August, 2006, when I realized that I could for some reason pick out -- from behind -- a Chinese-American friend I was going to meet, amid a crowd of thousands of Chinese people on Nanjing Dong Lu in Shanghai. Like any trait, I'm sure it's not universal, but I suggest it as a hypothesis to test when you are in China. After the jump, some more.

From a Chinese-American scientist in California:

>>I think I can tell the diff. between Asians and Asian Americans and I think that your analysis of the hair and skin is spot on. But, there might be something more complicated than that globally.

When my husband and I were traveling in Paris, Asian Americans would come up and ask me directions in English. He wondered, "how did they know you are American?" I think it was my comfortable shoes.  ;-)

White Europeans could not tell.  In fact, I was not allowed to take photos of shop windows (or of street scenes with shop windows). If I even get out my camera, shop keepers in France and Italy would jump right out the shop doors and start screaming at me.

My husband [I assume non-Asian] and white women can take pictures of shop windows. The presumption from Europeans is that I am a counterfeiter.

While I was in Japan for a conference, strangers would talk to me in Japanese.... In Australia, Aussies assumed I was Asian until I spoke. In New Zealand, Kiwis assumed I was American.<<

From a Japanese-American:

>>My husband (also a Sansei) and I were pegged as Americans all the time in Japan....but not in China (that's another story), back in the late 80s.

Once in Tokyo (this was before Smartphone GPS), we were standing near a subway station  and a young Japanese couple came walking up to us with their faces buried in a map.  They walked within 2 steps of us, looked up saying, "ah no, ne...", stopped dead in their tracks and turned around.  We didn't even have to open our mouths for them to figure out we were not "Japanese".  I'm sure it was the haircuts, clothes, stance....or perhaps the baby in a baby backpack gave us away.<<

From a Chinese-American who was born and raised on the West Coast, went to college at Harvard, and then worked in Beijing before returning to grad school in the US:

>>Since the majority of your readers seem to be of the opinion that Americans are easily identifiable, I thought I'd add another data point to the mix.

In my previous incarnation, I intermittently was more or less a tour guide for American EMBA students in Beijing for their week long programs. In that capacity I frequently filled dead time by blabbering on and on about various things, the content of which was always fairly vacuous and maybe only one or two steps above small talk.

I thought I did a fair job of it, and it was to my surprise that one of my charges thought so as well - he complimented me on my English, saying that he could barely detect an accent. Implication being: he thought I was native to the PRC, and not a native English speaker / born and raised in the states.

I guess the point I'm obliquely trying to make is that perhaps it is not as easy to pick out an American as some might hope or fear...

PS: For me, the more interesting part about the "Chinese Professor" video is the professor himself - where did they get him from? There are few Chinese actors working in the states these days. ... Also related to accents - I don't think many have noticed yet that he seems (to my untrained ear at least) to have a Southern / Taiwanese (NOT northern / standard / Beijing) accent to his Mandarin?<<

Finally, on the larger sociological points raised by the original "Chinese Professor" controversy, this note:

>>As an ethnic Chinese with quasi-Chinese citizenship, I can testify that I felt absolutely no offense reading your post regarding the identification of Chinese vs Chinese-Americans; rather, I am slightly dismayed that, of all the 'blog trolls' lurking on the net, readers of your blog are capable of such undisguised nationalism and bigotry...

The reason why we talk about culture difference all the time is because it is supposed to be a distinctive factor of human beings - if a British Caucasian and an American Caucasian looked and acted alike, the term 'culture' would be quite sensibly sapped of any meaning at all.  The same goes for ethnic Chinese born or bred in different countries and regions.  Almost all modern societies praise cultural distinctiveness to a greater or lesser degree in the name of pluralistic liberalism, including China with its scores of minority cultures. 

Indeed, a more nuanced and scholarly point that goes beyond blog discussions is the issue of Chinese identity - ie Samuel Huntington's point about Chinese civilization masquerading as a country and thus all Chinese are [morally] obliged to toe the standard Chinese culture line - but for present purposes, the outrage the original post provoked should unquestionably be seen as irrational nationalism and branded as such.  It is not a good faith argument when Chinese often differentiate amongst themselves: those who are from the mainland, those from Hong Kong, those from Taiwan; and even with finer distinctions: those from Shanghai, Beijing, etcetc.  That this is suddenly an outlandish and outrageous claim seems to rest purely on the fact that a 'white guy' raised it rather than one which was made in jest - or in hostility - by an ethnic Chinese.

 I say this final thing in provocation to the young nationalists in China.  Almost unfailingly, a Hong Konger is able to recognise a mainlander from a crowd of similarly looking Chinese faces.  To a large extent, non-Chinese East Asians are capable of performing the same feat.  Is that a fashion statement, a socio-behavioral critique, or merely an empirical observation that living in different climates yields different biological responses (skin colour [ie tan], hair colour, nutritional composition, dietary habits etc)?  It might be one or some or all, but it certainly isn't bigotry.<<

Thanks to all. Having a chance to read and share this kind of thing is a big (and unexpected) payoff of the Atlantic's extension to the online world.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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