How to tell Asians apart

It’s happened to all of us before.

You see a cute Asian in your class, but don’t know whether to open your conversation with “ni hao” or “konnichiwa” (hint: If you’re in America, just use “hello.” Seriously).

Or, if you’re of Asian descent, you’ve probably had people come up to you and ask where you’re from. And when you answer is something like “New York” or “California,” they look at you like you’re stupid and say emphatically, “No, where are you REALLY from?”

Composite photos of Asian celebrities (from left to right: Korean, Chinese, Japanese).

So basically, telling Asian ethnicities apart (as well as one Asian individual from another) can be pretty difficult. And when you mess up, it’s also really awkward.

But there have to be some tricks. I mean, how else do waiters at Chinese restaurants know when to greet Asian customers in Mandarin or English? And at my university, we have international students from all over Asia–Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China…how do they avoid awkwardly mistaking another Asian student for someone from their home country?

Over time and with lots of practice, my Asian identification has improved immensely. Sometimes when my friends and I are walking around campus, we try guessing the ethnicity of Asians around us and then listen closely when we walk by to hear what language they’re speaking. We’re correct 90% of the time.

VictoriCat’s Guide to Types of Asians in America:

  • Though Asian Americans are a broad group, the majority of them dress similarly to Americans of other ethnicities.
  • If the Asian is fashionable to the point of appearing “overboard”–e.g. stilettos, leather pants, and fur vests in class, there is a high probability that you are observing an international Asian.
  • Koreans: Have a preppy style, with lots of cardigans, oxfords, chunky glasses, and leather backpacks. Whereas males tend to prefer extremely tight-fitting clothes (though they also have a penchant for sweatpants), females are often seen wearing baggy sweaters or hoodies. Higher prevalence of monolids (, however, recent trends in plastic surgery may render this trait obsolete. See k-pop stars for reference.

    Korean skinny jeans, meant to highlight how the boys have nicer legs than you.

    Oversized Korean sweater!

  • Chinese: Many like knock-off or fake designer items–think “Couch” and “Sportsac” rather than Coach and LeSportsac purses, or shirts that say things like “Canel” and “Guccie.” Both genders often wear glasses, and males may sport mandopop-esque hairstyles while girls seem to prefer bangs. Some Chinese are seen mixing patterns or clothing pieces in a way that is confusing for others, who aren’t sure if they’re colorblind or just high fashion. See Chinese dramas for reference.

    China LOVES its knockoff designer clothes.

    Show Luo’s hairstyle here is very popular among Chinese boys.

  • Japanese: Listen closely to their voices to differentiate between genders. Younger Japanese males often have longer, layered hairstyles and delicate features that make them appear more feminine. School uniforms as well as costumes (e.g. maids or video game characters) as well as unusual accessories (e.g. cat ears and cartoon circle lenses) are common identifiers. See anime and manga conventions for reference.

    Japanese boy band Hey Say Jump!

    The bunny is a nice touch.

Let’s stop here before anyone gets offended. I don’t mean these seriously. For one thing, I’ve never even seen a Japanese person that actually wears cat ears, and almost all the Chinese people I know don’t own fake designer clothes. And did you notice that I only covered three ethnic groups? Asia is a huge continent, and even though China has a billion people, there are many ethnic groups and subgroups that I didn’t even mention.

There are several points I’m trying to make here.

Takeshi Kaneshiro

First of all, everything I wrote above are stereotypes. Sometimes they’re useful–maybe they’re what waiters and foreign students use everyday to connect with patrons or friends. But sometimes these same stereotypes can be immensely harmful (ever heard of racial profiling?). When I was in middle school, I bought into the idea that all Chinese people were ugly because that was a stereotype that other students often brought up, especially with the typical “chink-eye” joke. Japanese men all look feminine? Look at actor Takeshi Kaneshiro (swoon)–yeah, he’s half Taiwanese but he is ALL MAN. These stereotypes can often be false, so even though they might be a kind of accurate when I’m walking around campus, I do wish I’d use them less. Of course, ideally we wouldn’t use these stereotypes at all, but being “colorblind” causes us to lose sight of the uniqueness and beauty of every ethnicity. And imagine being unable to determine anything about a person before speaking with them. I’m not promoting “judging a book by its cover,” but we need to accept that stereotypes are an automatic “cognitive shortcut” and can be huge time-savers. What we should watch out for is overusing/abusing stereotypes or negatively profiling a person by their race, appearance, or style.

Second of all, (even with stereotypes in hand) Asians are really hard to tell apart. There are actually tests for differentiating between different Asian groups online! One of them, which you can find on (, exam #1), presented 18 photos of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people and asked users to identify their ethnicity. I scored a 9 out 18, and the average score is a 7. At one point, I was randomly clicking on different answers because I had no idea what the real answer was. Our stereotypes come from personal experience, and most of my experience comes from seeing Asian college students at my school. Judging people of all ages by just their faces confirms the fact that the descriptions I wrote above are sadly lacking and unhelpful when it comes to the diversity of the Asian race (not that they were meant to be taken seriously in the first place).

China alone boasts 56 ethnic groups!

Finally, there are lots of different kinds of Asians. Like I mentioned before, I only discussed three ethnic groups, which are typically the first three that come to mind when Americans think of “Asians.” But what about the Hmong (“they’re all under 6 feet tall”)? Filipinos (“Asian-looking but have Spanish-sounding names”)? I didn’t even touch on South Asia or the Middle East! Coming up with ways to tell all sorts of Asians apart would probably not only be racist but near impossible. Within every ethnic group there is an immense amount of diversity. There are Hmong people over 6 feet tall, not all Filipinos have Spanish names, Koreans don’t all dress like k-pop stars, and I’m sure most Japanese people don’t cosplay. And some individuals just don’t “look” like the type of Asian they are: My Korean best friend is often mistaken for a Chinese, and I’m often mistaken for being Korean.

In short, trying to tell Asians apart can be difficult and may result in some really stupid, inaccurate stereotypes. Even as I write this post, I realize that I’m actually a really big offender. In reality, is it really necessary to know the nationality of every Asian I see on the street? Personally, I think it’s more important to simply appreciate the uniqueness of each individual and his/her respective culture, and this is something I strive to achieve.


One thought on “How to tell Asians apart

  1. Pingback: Do Asians look alike? | VictoriCat

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