Field Guide to Identifying Americans

For those joining late, previous discussion here, here, and here. The question is whether it can be "racist" to note that there are quick visual cues to people's nationality, even when the people involved are from the same racial group. I originally said that that I didn't think the famous "Chinese Professor" ad had been filmed in China, because the students in the auditorium, while ethnically Asian, somehow looked different from those I'd seen in real Chinese lecture halls. And as it later turned out, the ad had been filmed in Northern Virginia, with students from the DC area. But what about the seemliness of saying, "They don't look Chinese to me?"

Three reader responses on what's involved in categorizing people by look -- and about the surprising ease of spotting Americans. First:

>>I'm a Chinese-American, currently living in Hong Kong, and I can tell you that even barring certain physical characteristics, there is something distinctly different that seems to set me apart from the locals here, which was also true when I was living in mainland China. I've gotten my hair cut at a local barber, bought clothes at shops other locals visit, even worn the thick, black-rimmed glasses that are often seen worn in Asia. None of it seems to matter. I've been told several times (by both native Hong Kong friends and strangers) that I, and others of a similar background, just look and act different.

It's true that I can blend in. People will speak Chinese to me on first contact, but I can tell this is just because people will generally use Chinese first to anyone who physically looks remotely Asian. But it doesn't take long for them to know I was born overseas.

The reverse is also true. As your other reader also pointed out, I can roam the streets here and quite accurately pick out other Chinese-Americans. And when I saw that picture you took from the Chinese Professor ad, I instinctively knew the students were American-born. I've now seen the whole video, and even though I have the knowledge that they're Asian-Americans, I would have been really shocked if it turned out that they were otherwise.<<

Another reader to similar effect:

>>Yes, I've had experiences that indicate that Americans are somewhat distinctive by simple appearance and bearing.

- In Sao Paulo, as I was getting off an airplane to meet someone from the local office, I looked across a fairly large crowd and spotted her immediately. She wasn't waving or looked much different in terms of skin color or hair or dress, but somehow stood out.

- In Moscow, we were going to a meeting and met an interpreter on the street beforehand. She said that she spotted us a block away, again not because of physiotype or dress, but just by the way we held ourselves and moved.<<

And from an Indian-American reader:

>>You could in fact expand your observation beyond Chinese/Chinese-Americans. Of course, Americans of any descent are easy to pick out based on visual cues, in my opinion. 

Whenever I traveled to India as kid (the country of my parents), i would not even have to open my mouth before folks knew I was American. Its not just dress. But I'd argue most of it is how you carry yourself. Frankly it's confidence--upright posture, and a confident walk. Additionally, Americans are one of the only people in the world who look strangers in the eye when passing them in the streets (perhaps that is also part of the confidence thing). That's the other dead giveaway.  (i say this mind you never having been to China but assuming Chinese there don't look people in the eye).

I recall a few years ago I was meeting a friend in Buenos Aires at a crowded plaza. He's also American but Caucasian. He said that even before he could recognize my face from several blocks away, he knew it was me just based on how i was walking. i think his exact quote was "you were walking like an American."<<

So maybe that's the point I really should have made. It's not so much that the students in the "Chinese professor" lecture hall looked vaguely non-Chinese. It's that they looked so definitely American. (And on what might be involved in "looking Japanese," see this previous article.)