General Question

troubleinharlem's avatar

Is there any real way to tell people from Asia apart? (country wise, not person to person wise, mind you).

Asked by troubleinharlem (7976points) December 16th, 2010

Let’s not get mad at me or get your panties all up in a bunch – I just want to know if there’s something that would set apart people from one country from another.

Like, are Chinese girls shorter, do Vietnamese girls have rounder faces, etc.

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44 Answers

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rangerr's avatar

Real way? Ask.

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Eggie's avatar

By their martial arts…

stump's avatar

I don’t know the answer, but I think it is a really good question. I heard somewhere that Chinese people’s faces were flatter than Japanese or Korean. But I don’t know if that is true. @Adirondackwannabe Does that mean you are surprised she doesn’t know the answer, or that you are surprised she would ask?

Kardamom's avatar

If you were simply to look at another person, all things being equal (like if a group of people were all wearing blue jeans and a white T shirt only) you could probably not be able to tell. There are cultural differences with regards to clothing and consumption of particular foods or rituals and practices that might give you a clue. Of course, if you heard someone speak a particular language that might give you a clue too. Or if you happened to know their last name (family name) that might also give you a clue. But even these clues, which would seem to be pretty clear, might also be deceptive.

Some examples of the clues not being correct. Someone who was born in the United States
who is a U.S. citizen (but who’s parents were born in China) might have learned to speak fluent Japanese at school to help assist in his career.

A woman you meet might have a Japanese family name, but that might be her married name. She might be of Vietnamese ancestry, but her husband might be from Japan.

Or you might be visiting a Korean restaurant and notice some Asian-looking people having lunch. You might assume that those folks are of Korean ancestry, but the group might consist of some school friends who have Cambodian, Hmong and Thai backgrounds.

You just never know. It’s kind of the same deal with most white folks in the U.S. Most of them have some type of lineage from Europe, but unsless they told you what that lineage was, you really wouldn’t know if their background came from Germany or Yugoslavia or France.

I guess the best thing to know, is not to make assumptions or make comments that could embarrass people. Some people are very proud of their heritage and would be hurt if you assumed that their lineage was something else. Other people don’t even know or care what their lineage is.

Just curious as to why you would want to know?

Kayak8's avatar

Having lived in Japan and having a lot of Japanese friends since childhood, I would say that I can usually spot someone of Japanese ancestry. I can tell that others are not Japanese, but I couldn’t tell you where they were from.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@stump I misunderstood what she meant.

stump's avatar

@Kayak8 How do you spot a Japanese person? By looks or by mannerisms?

Kayak8's avatar

@stump I really couldn’t tell you. It is so subconscious at this point (45 years).

LuckyGuy's avatar

Absolutely! Manner is one way. My kids grew up in Japan. After we returned from overseas were were eating in a restaurant and after we had been there the second time, the waitress apologized for being rude but asked if they grew up in Japan. they noticed my kids the first time and wondered about it.
The manners are easily identifiable. How you eat , how you sit, clothes, makeup, appearance.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@troubleinharlem Asia is a huge landmass with some subtle differences across the cultures and countries. But you’re probably better off asking.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Watch how they handle a tea cup. Hand the kid a glass of milk and watch how they reach for it. All do it differently.

stump's avatar

@worriedguy I have never been to Asia, so I have no firsthand experience of any of the cultures (outside of Chinatown, NYC). Can you describe how the Japanese mannerisms are different?

ragingloli's avatar

How about their languages?

LuckyGuy's avatar

OK, but first I’ll admit I’m stereotyping here. Sue me.
Japanese will be more polite and inward focused. If you are at a deli and there was one ticket machine and J. C. K. all walked in at the same instant, J, , the Japanese, would not rush to the grab the ticket.
If it is girl;look at ear piercings. They won’t be so radical. Tattoos are rare. Sure Yakuza have them but normal women do not.
Pronunciation when speaking English. Koreans are best their use Hangul – very powerful. Japanese Hiragana and Katakana have limited sounds.
There are many subtle differences. I could write a book.
Oh, and white men can’t jump.

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Kayak8's avatar

I am also very good at distinguishing individuals from India from those of Japanese ancestry.

Aqua's avatar

After working with a lot of Asian people for a few years, sometimes I can tell whether someone is Chinese/Korean/Japanese, etc, but not always. I would say there’s no special trick to learn, you just have to spend some time with the people and you’ll start to figure it out. I second what @Kardamom said as well. It doesn’t hurt to just ask sometimes either.

absalom's avatar

I have lived exclusively with Asians of Chinese (and Taiwanese), Japanese, Filipino and Korean descent since coming to college, and it doesn’t take long before it becomes very easy to tell them apart (not just the roommates but the various Asian ethnicities, obviously). A lot of this to do with mannerisms, skin tone, the accent in their English, and a number of other physical features that are hard to explain but are recognizable to me. Sometimes I can even tell whether a person is from southern China or northern China.

I’m caucasian, not Asian, so it’s harder for me than it is for them. I think they can pretty much look at someone and always know what country s/he’s from, unless it’s something a little less commonly seen like Thai or Malaysian or even Vietnamese.

Rarebear's avatar

When I was in college at Berkeley I was surrounded by Asian friends in the engineering department. I remember we were actually talking about this, and I asked someone if they were Korean. Someone else looked up and said, “Wow, can’t you tell?”

There are apparently certain facial traits that if you’re attuned to, you can see it. I have been around Jews my whole life, and I can usually tell, at a glance, if someone is of Jewish decent or not. I’m attuned to it, so I can see it.

bob_'s avatar

Their passports.

dkranzberg's avatar

Not only are there distinguishing differences (features) between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, etc., there are internal differences. For example, China is so large that there are (broadly speaking) differences in facial features and skin color—north to south and east to west. The same thing applies to other nations whose populations are Mongolic.

@Rarebear is correct on all counts. For instance, most people living in countries with Caucasoid or Negroid majorities don’t notice the differences among people from Japan and China, due to lack of interaction with the amazing variety of oriental stock.

Vivent longtemps les belles différences!

absalom's avatar

I wrote this while Fluther was down, and now it’s up, so I’m posting it, in part to acknowledge mad typos in my original post. But really just refer to @dkranzberg for a good answer.


I have to respond because your answer’s gotten a lot of lurve and yet it seems to me to be mostly wrong.

There are a lot – a lot – of subtle physical differences that distinguish the different Asian ethnicities. I’m tempted to suggest that people who say they’re indistinguishable probably haven’t spent a lot of time looking at or being around Asians.

And this—

You just never know. It’s kind of the same deal with most white folks in the U.S.

—is especially incorrect. Sometimes it’s patently obvious that a Thai person is a Thai person (and the differences between a Thai and, say, a Chinese are pretty frequently manifest). Even without cultural clues I’ve been consistently able to identify, e.g., Chinese and Koreans.

And there’s anyway a lot less ethnic miscegenation in Asian countries. Koreans are frequently discouraged from marrying non-Koreans, Japanese are discouraged especially from marrying Koreans, et cetera, et cetera. They’re fairly small and isolated islands, after all. It doesn’t even come close to producing the same kind of mixture you get in American caucasians.

Edit: I’m racking up the typos. Two days of sleeplessness and counting…

The_Inquisitor's avatar

Umm… I don’t know how to explain this, but I can just tell what they are—most of the time anyways. I can spot Viets, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, .. but the darker ones, I can’t tell. (eg. Laos, Filippo, Cambodians.. etc.)

Don’t ask me how.. because I don’t know how to answer that~

My ethnicity is Chinese.

Although I suppose there are short Chinese girls, they’re not all short….. . .. . . and that’s not a way to tell…...

@absolom; I agree with you!! =D

zophu's avatar

I’ve heard that Koreans seem to be generally taller and slightly lighter in skin tone than Japanese and Chinese, but I don’t think it’s enough to tell on the individual level. I took this test on a website that shall not be named where you have a multiple choice for a few photo portraits and according to it I’m one point above average of my white american demographic in telling the three apart. But I pretty much just guessed, probably like most of my white american demographic does.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Most of us who live in North America (regardless of our racial origin) can’t distinguish (by appearance) an Caucasian American from Iowa, from a Scottish person from Glasgow or a White skinned Australian from New South Wales. Why should we believe we should be able to distinguish the appearance of people from various countries in Asia. Why do we need to have this skill?

People are people, individuals we can get to know if we have to interest and opportunity.

The_Inquisitor's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence, we don’t need to have this skill, the asker was just curious.

answerjill's avatar

Just anecdotal: I have a Korean-American friend who went to Korea for the the first time in her ‘30s. She said that people could never figure her out there. Koreans didn’t think that she seemed Korean and they often thought that she was Chinese. I am not sure how much was based on her physical traits and how much on things like mannerisms and clothing.

JLeslie's avatar

Growing up in the DC area, I could usually guess accurately Korean and Vietnamese. Filipino are especially easy to identify in my opinion. The Japanese do have very specific mannerisms, I agree with that. Very polite, graceful I would say. I think of the Koreans as being taller than the Chinese or Japanese, not sure if that is a fact? And, Chinese faces as being rounder than Japanese. Well, I also think of the Japanese as being the thinnest, so that might affect how angular their faces are. The Vietnamese kids I grew up with had a similar style and hair cut. Again, this is all my perception, no data to support it.

Kardamom's avatar

There’s always some person who proudly says, “I can usually tell the difference.” Except when they can’t. And why does it matter? Unless they need to yell out “Watch out for that falling piano!” in another language. In that case, it might help to know what language a person speaks.

I expect that if they had a lineup of random Asian people (where you didn’t hear them speak, which is fairly obvious, and you didn’t watch them pick up their tea cup, and didn’t see them wearing a stereo typical article of clothing) no one would be able to tell for sure. And it doesn’t make any difference as long as you treat people with respect and don’t embarrass them or say rude things.

It’s the same for caucasians. Pretty much everyone on my block has a different European background of one kind or the other, but they pretty much all just look like middle class white Americans (or Brits or Australians etc.) Although, individually, they all look totally different. Just like Asians.

JLeslie's avatar

My girlfriend is second generation American, Polish descent on her mothers side. This person they became acquainted with does geneology as a side thing. Anyway, he immediately asked my girlfriends mom if she was Polish when he met her. Then also guessed correctly the town her grandparents had immigrated from. Next time he saw them he brought along a book, opened it to the section about this town, and there was a picture of a woman that looked amazingly similar to her grandmother, like sisters.

I once had someone ask me after meeting me for a few minutes if my family was from Latvia. It is. She said I look just like her best friend back home in Latvia growing up.

I agree it is more than just how someone looks usually, it is the whole package, but sometimes you can guess fairly accurately if you are very familiar with the different groups.

Not that it matters. My husband is Mexican, but he is only second generation Mexican. Paternal side Israeli, maternal side half French half Spanish. So what is he? Hispanic?

Also, I was thinking China is full of many ethnicities, so it is like saying someone looks American. I guess someone can act American? Dress like an American? Sound like an American. But, to have physical features like an American seems impossible to generalize. Although, on Top Gear they do sum us up as fat. Lol.

wundayatta's avatar

I do it by listening to them to see what language they are speaking. Other than that, there has been so much movement and mixing in the area, that I think you need to be from there to have a really good chance of determining nationality just from looks.

RocketGuy's avatar

There is no sure way to visually tell between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, however you can beat random guessing:
Chinese often have rounder faces (depending on what part of China their ancestry is from)
Korean often have higher cheekbones
Japanese often have more angular facial features

But don’t bet money on this. I am of Chinese ancestry, but have been mistaken for Japanese due to my more angular features.

Getting a little closer to your Asian person – accents, when speaking English, are another clue, but only if their first language is not English.

Last names are the final clue. Now you have to be close enough to ask. Chen and Wong are Chinese, Kim and Oh are Korean, Ishiwara and Watanabe are Japanese – notice the greater number of syllables.

Now you can beat the 33% random guess, and only be wrong 60% of the time.

mattbrowne's avatar

This has to do with how our brains work. Exposure is the only way to refine recognition for any sensory input, whether it’s singing birds, the taste of red wine, or faces.

troubleinharlem's avatar

@rangerr, @Aqua, @Kardamom, @Adirondackwannabe, @Dr_Lawrence : I asked because I have a lot of students that are from Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam at my university, and I’d like to be able to know where they are from without guessing. I mean, I’ve asked before and some have gotten very irritated if I’ve guessed wrong.

Me: Are you from… China?
Me: ... Okay.

JLeslie's avatar

Maybe just ask them where they are from instead of guessing?

Many foreigners don’t get why Americans always ask where people are from. My brother-in-law and his boyfriend, both immigrated here as adults, and have accents, find it very odd and offputting. But, it is very American for people tomshare where their families are from, to be curious about life in the country they are from, to wonder if they like it here in the states, or why they came to the states. I think they worry we are making a negative judgement or stereotype about them, when it is not that at all.

absalom's avatar


Taiwanese may become particularly irritated if you presume they are from China. Taiwan is a territory of China and there’s a politics surrounding its status as such. Not to say that all Taiwanese are separatists or nationalists or anything, but there’s a certain pride some have in being not-exactly-Chinese (especially if they have aboriginal blood in them). Lots of people tend to conflate the two already, including other Asians who know the difference, so I suppose it can get annoying.

Just thought that might be the reason the Taiwanese in your example seemed indignant. (But maybe you made up the example, in which case silly me, but now you know for the future!)

troubleinharlem's avatar

@absalom : no, I didn’t make it up, but that would make sense. ^^

gm_pansa's avatar

HAHA!@ Oi. Well, I never thought about it like this at all. However, if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to tell the languages apart by their sounds.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I keep reading research articles which state that people of one race are less able to tell faces apart of a race that’s different from theirs (unless, perhaps, they grew up with that other race).

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