US-Americans: how confident are you of your ability to distinguish Chinese, Japanese, & Thai?

I mean visually, though if anybody wants to discuss cultural differences I won’t object. Nor am I opposed to talking about Vietnamese, Cambodians, & so forth, or to persons of such ethnicities describing their perspectives.

Depends. If it’s distinguishing US born and raised 20 something trendies, it can be really tough.

Someone from China, Japan and Thailand, then it’s pretty easy. Even easier if you can observe how they move, mannerisms, etc.

Of course, I lived in China for 20 years, Japan for 2.5 years and spent some time in Thailand…

Ex wife was Japanese and its fairly easy to tell them apart. Its usually not hard to tell NYers from Angelinos either. They have their unique mannerisms.

My wife, born and raised in the Philippines, often assumes Thai, Indonesians, and Malaysians are Filipinos, even to the point of speaking to them in tagalog at first. Granted, there are more Filipinos than the other 3 combined around here, but it puts to rest the overstatement I’ve heard from many Asians that “we know our own” (speaking specifically from looks).

I haven’t found anyone who can reliably distinguish between the various East Asians who are several generation American or other Western country. Likewise, I haven’t seen anyone who can reliably tell Korean-Japanese or Chinese-Japanese.

I’ve lived in Japan for 25 years and Taiwan for over five.

I have found a lot of confirmation bias, where people do get one right sometimes and they “knew it.”

I would guess that I could not tell Chinese and Japanese people apart with accuracy, except in some cases (as there are a few things I associate heavily with one or the other), but I suspect I could do a better job with Thais. It is Koreans who are the other east Asian people who I have trouble with. I would indeed likely mix up Thais and Filipinos and anyone living in between. But there is usually a distinct difference between the two combined groups. Skin color seems to be the biggest (but not only) indicator, so it’s possible that, for example, a darker skinned Chinese person might mix me up a bit.

I’ve never been able to tell the different East Asians apart. If I had ever been to that part of the world and spent time in different countries, I might be able to, but I haven’t.

The most that I could say is that of all the different East Asian countries, the only ones that ever seem to me to have phenotypes (facial features) that look kinda-sorta European or Eurasian rather than just “unambiguously Asian” are the Japanese. I’ve never seen Chinese or Korean guys who looked like Hiroshi Abe, but I’ve seen countless people of mixed European and East Asian descent who do look like that.

The only reason I’ve ever even picked up on this is that people on my mom’s side of the family, and including myself a few times, have been told that we “looked kind of Asian.” The genes of that family come from the Baltic region of Europe, and some of my mom’s family have blonde hair and some have dark hair but most of them indeed have faint traces of “Asian-looking” features. There are people on that side of my family who ALMOST look like that Japanese guy above, but slightly more European. The people of the Baltic region carry ancient ancestry from the peoples of the Arctic who overlap more than a little bit with the Inuit, Yupik, Inupiat, Nunavut, Samoyedic, etc, and sometimes you can see it in their face.

The concept of race is bullshit, but the varieties of human phenotypes are endlessly interesting.

I take it we’re talking about the people here, and not, say, the cuisines?

If they’re speaking their language, I can certainly recognize Japanese, and probably Chinese (though I couldn’t tell you which Chinese language it was), but anything else, the best I could hope for would be “not Chinese or Japanese”. Appearance of the people? I think I might be able to tell in some cases, but I’ve never tested myself in a controlled manner, so I have very little confident. In the event that it actually became relevant and I hadn’t already found out, I’d ask.

In practice, usually the way I tell is when they say something like “Back home in Korea, we…” in the course of conversation.

The people visually – better than 50% chance of being right and you can throw in the Koreans and other Asiatics as well.

Spoken language and written word – 90% of the three you give; say 75% if you toss in the others.

Culture including food – more like 20%. I just never got into the cuisines and customs much, or the history for that matter. I just found the people as people/individuals more of interest.

I feel relatively confident I could distinguish their cuisines.

I can’t visually distinguish between people from any given Western country, why should it be any different for Asians?

I think I’d do fine, provided they looked/acted more or less typical. I don’t usually have a lot of trouble telling say… Koreans from Chinese or Japanese, so I imagine telling Thais apart wouldn’t be too tough.

I’d have a problem telling Thais from Malaysians or Filipinos though.

It’s questionable whether there’s a more-or-less-typical-looking Japanese person. There definitely isn’t a more-or-less-typical-looking Chinese person. China is too big and too varied for that.

Thatt was my thought as well. China is 1/6 of humanity.

With my legal blindness, I can’t even distinguish Irish & Japanese, but before my vision went south, I thought my Thai sister-in-law looked no more like my Japanese ex-girlfriend than either did Princess Diana.


Groups of people, yes. Individuals, no. If I am channel flipping, and I run across a movie from an Asian county, I can tell which one pretty quickly without having to look it up, and if I see a photo of a large group of people, I can say Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, whatever, but individual people, no. I knew a Korean woman who looked for all the world Chinese to me, and my Korean SIL doesn’t look especially Korean to me, although at my brother’s wedding, you could see how the whole family looked Korean. Interestingly, my mother went to this makeover party in the early morning for all the women in the family (my son was a breastfeeding baby with jetlag, and I’m literally allergic to everything make-uppy, so I skipped it), and that day, my mother looked Korean.

I agree at least the odds of doing getting it right more than randomly are quite low, for me, on individuals without any other hint from context. Pretty much purely random to guess the national origin of American-born Asians as to which particular country if in northeast or southeast Asia (I think it is possible to guess better than randomly between northeast and southeast Asian people by appearance, better than randomly, nowhere near 100%).

With groups of people from there are higher odds of ‘typically X looking’ people in the group. Also the group itself can provide context. For example nowadays people from the PRC often travel in big tour groups. People from Japan and Korea don’t as much nowadays. Also though people from the PRC who travel overseas are usually better off than average and the country much better off than even fairly recently, people from the higher per capita GDP ROK and Japan still tend to look it in their manners and dress.

But, in most real life cases (I often see people from Korea and China at my local Costco, and from those two plus Japan at a local Japanese supermarket) I can overhear people speaking, in which case I assume people speaking Korean or Japanese to one another are from those places, and I can generally recognize (though not understand the spoken language) Chinese.

Why would I need to? It’s none of my business and doesn’t affect how I would interact with them.

Apparently Asians have a hard time telling other Asians apart.

I feel like I am generally pretty good at picking out a Japanese person but I cannot successfully identify by looks where a East Asian person is from. Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.