Obviously, Chinese people do not look the same. Two people with blonde hair and blue eyes do not look the same. Identical twins may not even look the same.
In my primary school and high school, there were two Chinese people, Yin (not the real name) and me. Yin had a pinyin name, and I had my White name, Sharon. At the time, I probably had about two friends, and that is most likely an overestimate. Yin, however, was very well known in our primary school, for a reason I could never fathom. Perhaps it was because every now and then, there would be a crowd in the playground watching Yin escape from being stuck in a tree. But extraordinarily, everyone for sure knew this name. This name was so well known that I did not exist. People genuinely mistook me for Yin, shout the name across the playground directing at me, or sometimes outside of school, I would hear mutters of “is that Yin?” by classmates I recognise. It would be understandable if we look significantly alike, but apart from our black hair, same height, same gender and same coloured skin, our appearances were virtually opposites. I had very long hair and Yin had a short bob, I was a chubby kid and Yin was slim and sporty, I spoke with a full English accent and Yin had a strong Chinese accent. This, till this day, baffles me that they never considered that I could just be another Chinese person, not Yin.
Thinking about this situation now, it may be reasonable for my classmates of the time to not recognise someone when they’ve only seen a face once or twice. Having worked in a retail shop, I struggled to recognise the customer that came back a few hours later to purchase a product that I personally kept in the back for them whilst they went to the cash machine. I am so busy and focussed on keeping everything stocked up, fulfilling the other customers’ needs and etc, that I simply cannot remember anyone’s faces because it is not my priority. In relation to this, we must remember that we were all about 5-12 years of age when this occurred. The attention span of children are small, so when someone is only an acquaintance, not a friend, it is natural to forget a face, let alone their name.
The difference is that Yin’s name stands out because it is unfamiliar in comparison to our classmates’ names, and fascination always leads to remembrance. I had a White name so inherently, no one remembered it. Mine and Yin’s Chinese faces are distinctive because it is different to what they have been used to, thus it is natural for them to match Yin’s name to any Chinese person in our school. My friends could distinguish me, because they knew me. Therefore, it is not that they think all Chinese people look the same, but because generally, it is difficult to remember someone when you don’t know them. And when something stands out because it is different, it is automatically remembered and anything that fits in with the norm, it is forgotten. This then leaves what appears to make sense, the remembered name matching with the remembered face.
Perhaps it is understandable when children assume, but I do not think it is acceptable when adults assume. During my A-Levels, there were three Chinese people in my year. A newcomer joined our school for the last year of A-Levels who amusingly, could never tell us apart. I felt like every time the newcomer would just take a stab in the dark at one of the possible three names we could be.
It is a matter of turning the tables, what if I called a White person any White-sounding name hoping it would be correct? That would be absurd. Guessing my name insinuates that you are generalising because I am of an ethnic minority in England. I believe that it is demeaning and disrespectful if you guess someone’s name, and not just with Asians. I think that by simply asking them to remind you of their name is much politer than guessing. The feeling of humiliation when you ask someone to remind you of their name is far less than if you guessed wrong.
All in all, it is not because all Chinese people look the same, it is simply because you don’t know them, like how you may not be able to remember the name of anyone when you first meet them. So don’t guess, be honest. 🙂