Most people profess to not being able to tell Asians apart. Living in Europe, I have been the embarrassing recipient of confused Europeans mistaking me for an Asian acquaintance they saw briefly in passing. Then I met someone, a German, who was proud that he could unlike his countrymen and most of the world, could distinguish Asians apart and he guessed I was Chinese. When I said I wasn’t but Korean-American, the look of disappointment on his face almost made me sad to tell him he was wrong.
Most people guess I am Chinese except for one Brazilian guy who guessed I was half-Chinese and when I asked why half, he answered, “then I would only be half wrong,” which I thought was the best strategy of all time. He eventually went on to Strategy consulting.
Having never been to China, I couldn’t say why I looked more Chinese than Japanese or any other Asian country. I personally thought I didn’t look Chinese, but I didn’t think I looked Korean either or Japanese, more like a very pale, small-eyed Native American man because of my prominent nose and thin hair. Growing up that was actually how I gave myself my own American creation myth. As I realized I was neither white nor black, I decided I must be Native American and the realization came much like how James Baldwin describes, “It comes as a great shock to discover, Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you.”
I can imagine myself growing old to eventually look like Sitting Bull pictured above with glasses. If I go senile, perhaps I’d even wear a feather.
As if I had been asking the universe “why does everyone think I look Chinese?” (and not Korean or Japanese) for too long, it gave me an answer. In rapid succession, two separate Chinese girls approached me in the span of a few days and just started speaking Mandarin to me. They didn’t even start the conversation with “nǐ hǎo” (a word I learned from Europeans greeting me on the streets), they went straight to business, positive that I could understand them. When I responded in English, one girl looked shocked, “You’re not Chinese?”
After speaking to her for some time, she confessed, “I didn’t know there were Koreans who also looked Chinese.” So I asked her, “What makes me look so Chinese?”
Then she motioned to her face and as nicely as possible said, “All the Koreans I’ve seen have had long faces like Japanese, and yours is… not.” Yes, I had the round mooncake face.
Then I asked, “So most Chinese have round faces?” and she smiled and nodded her head yes.