I’m East Asian, and if I encounter another one, sometimes it seems obvious (though that can still be a mistake), sometimes not. The Chinese/Japanese/Korean breakdown is probably easier for someone with cultural familiarity of those faces than someone not, but those first impressions aren’t always reliable. Same with other ethnic groupings, whether white or brown or red or whatever – as in, given X years of exposure to Y, Z, and Y-SubTypeA ethnic groupings, you get better at telling them apart.
I find it easier, for example, to tell apart ethnic Indians and Middle Easterners because I met enough during childhood and adolescence. I didn’t really meet Black people until well into adulthood, and it took some time to be able to differentiate American Blacks of long-term mixed descent vs a recent immigrant from Ghana or Kenya, and I’m still no good at it. I also struggle to tell apart French from Italian, at least until they start talking. Or someone from the Pacific Northwest vs the South, for that matter.
For the most part though, it seems to me that most people in my generation (mid-30s) just don’t really care. We all just speak English to each other, with various accents of various degrees and maybe we wonder for a split second but never really ask about it or care. It’s been a long, long time since I was asked “Where are you really from?”, both in general and especially by anyone under, say, 60.
There’s so much mixing in every which direction that ethnicities are more like recipes – a cup of this, a dash of that – it doesn’t really make sense to assume any sort of simple grouping anymore. And it’s also just not very interesting. Especially in a place like the USA where people come from all over to basically chase the same thing, learning that Parent A came here for money and Parent B came here for money from some other part of the world… okay, and? You learn way more interesting things about a person by knowing where they’ve worked and lived recently rather than their long-term heritage. I’m not saying that to be politically correct, just to point out that for many people, ancestral heritage and ethnic background are a much smaller part of their identities now vs in the olden days. Diversity in heritage & tradition has largely given way to diversity in contemporary interests, at least in my personal bubbles. I meet more people who are re-learning the ways of their ancestors as a casual pastime than actual tradition… essentially the cultural equivalent of “Christmas and Easter”. There was a lot of purposeful cultural erasure from the East Asian generation before me who immigrated for money, and they often prioritized assimilation over tradition.
And maybe that’s part of why this seems very different when I talk to my parents or aunts/uncles. Ethnicity and heritage are huge for them and always the first thing they ask about someone new (like a friend or girlfriend), and in their minds that is still the overriding definition of a person’s identity – whether they’ve met that person or not. Of that generation, maybe they didn’t really spend time with people who weren’t East Asian until well into adulthood, so any ethnic differences stood out to them a lot more than individuality personality and recent backgrounds. They will always remember a person’s specific nationality (which to them is equivalent to ethnicity and race and heritage) even if they forget everything else about a person. They have a really hard time with the idea that someone may look like X, have Y citizenship, but have parents of Z descent, and will usually try to boil that down to “So are you really X or Y?”
When I meet or talk to Europeans who’ve been here for a while (i.e., the various shades of “white”), I get the feeling that for many in my generation, their heritage is also something of a distant familial memory, something they celebrate on certain holidays but otherwise don’t really know. And to the extent that they care to know about it at all, it’s often from a more detached, academic perspective (“…back in the day, my people did… I wonder what that was like…” vs “my grandma always told us to do this this way, so that’s how I do it”). And once in a while I’ll meet a South African white person who has a very different outlook on class and economics, coming from a much more recent history of apartheid than most Americans. Or a white person who was born and raised in an East Asian country and experienced a mix of fascination and xenophobia (not necessarily because they’re white, but because they’re not X – a lot of East Asian societies can be very insular and what Americans would call “racist” towards outsiders even though it’s really more about the other-ness than ethnicity, because they don’t have the same white/black historical dynamics, for example).
The people that most identify with a recent culture – again, in my personal experience only – are people from Central and South America. Of my friends from, say, Mexico or Cuba or Columbia, they will talk at length about their cultures and traditions (and I feel lucky to have participated in some of their rituals and especially cuisines!). I don’t think I’ve ever heard them using generics like “Hispanic” or “Latinx” unless they’re criticizing public policy or something, i.e., discussing the identifiers that other cultural groups throw at them from the perspective of that other cultural group (WASPs, especially… which as a term is is becoming more and more of a dated). Often one parent or the other will be from a different heritage/nationality, but they will either choose one and embrace it as their own culture, or sometimes split the difference between the parents. But it’s one of the real examples of diversity that I see in my generation; as a broad observation it seems to me they’ve maintained more cultural heterogeneity than the East Asians. But that could a mistaken observation given my relative unfamiliarity with that vs my own history.
There is one broad grouping of people I do often wonder about: Native Americans. Both because they can sometimes look somewhat East Asian but not quite, and also because I have a personal interest in their histories and cultures. But I don’t meet one very often, and when I do, I’m often afraid to ask because so many of the memories are still so recent and painful and still-ongoing. As far as I can tell, they tend to treat me as though I were white – as in “generic outsider”, not “oppressor” – and don’t really get into any cultural details. I wish they did, but I also don’t really know how to navigate that… is “which tribe are you from?” their version of “where are you REALLY from?” Wish I had a better way of navigating that and getting to know people.
Anyway, sorry for the long anecdata.