kaigou: this is what I do, darling (3 break out of prison)
[personal profile] kaigou
My previous post on this topic (and the ones before) were working towards a kind of apology, and a kind of working-through on just what/where that apology is due. When I had posted about seeing a Korean actor at a specific angle and mistaking that facial structure for my little sister, I gave none of the context that I've given in these past few posts, so it's possible the post could have been read on several -- totally unintended -- levels.

Without context, a reader might ask... Was I actually implying in some way that a Korean man's face might be so neutral ("all you ___ look alike") that I could impose my sister's facial structure upon him? Was I erasing the distinct features of "Korean-ness" or "Asian-ness" and superimposing "Anglo-ness"?

I would hope that the post directly before this one (in the topic-string) makes it clear that my mistaking one-for-the-other was operating on the level of most prominent (to me) facial details -- cheekbones, jaw, nose, brow. For that matter, the similarity is/was really only significant when the actor is filmed at three-quarter angle, from slightly above. Again, without context of understanding the properties of light and how I'd learned to view faces as a matter of angle and proportion against the light cast, then... yeah, my acknowledgment of seeing facial similarities may have been misleading, and as a result, potentially offensive. For any offense given, I do humbly apologize.

And I think if there was offense given, that my tone within the post may have also been a trigger for that offense -- because I did write bluntly about my own confusion as to how I could be "seeing" these similarities. But again without context -- and, I should note, without addressing or understanding other related issues bubbling underneath -- then even such admittance could be ambiguous.

Was my confusion or seeming dismay at the mistake/overlay because I couldn't see (so to speak) how I could mistake an Asian (implied: not-normal) face for an Anglo (implied: normal) face? I say "implied" not because I meant to imply such, only that in expressing "how could I mistake one for the other" that my reaction might be read as dismay. If you've spent your life with people thinking your face is strange, or not-normal (in contrast to Anglo faces), and so on, then to have someone say, "how could I mistake that for this" (and explain no further), one might conceivably knee-jerk right into: "So, basically, you're saying that you're shocked you might mistake that (not-normal) face for this (normal) face."

In this particular instance, the real surprise for me wasn't the Korean/Anglo aspect; it was the male/female aspect. I'm used to comparing within a sex, but almost never between sexes. (More context: I spent time among drag-queen communities as I came of age, and learned quickly to use other cues -- clothes, hair, speech, walk, etc -- to identify sex. Regardless of strongly so-called 'masculine' features, if someone dresses like a woman, uses the women's bathroom, etc, the person is clearly 'being' a woman, and for all intents and purposes is a woman. Hence, to this day, I'll compare male/female faces but rarely mistake them for each other, not when there are plenty of other cues otherwise; doing otherwise will catch me off-guard because it's going against that ingrained rule.)

Getting back to the point: the fact that I spoke without a double-meaning (ie, to imply that X type of faces are not-normal) doesn't mean that someone else hasn't used the same statement to intentionally imply that negative meaning. The burden isn't on the reader to force the trust that the speaker (me) means no harm. The burden is on me to either avoid the topic and not say such double-meanings (intended or no), or to give careful thought first to whether there might be a better way to express myself. Whether I stay silent or speak, neither absolves me of wrong if I did offend; that remains my responsibility. And if I did offend, I deeply regret it, and apologize most sincerely.

Were the issue underlying these posts only a small matter to me, then silence is the option I would've chosen. But what's going on underneath is of such importance to me, that I need to address this possible failing in myself, and my most common tactic for such is to start at the edges, with the easiest, or top-most layer, that which I can express in a more light-hearted manner, before working my way down. In that respect, I do regret not having the guts to leap right in, and instead letting my own cowardice and internal confusion be the impetus for inadvertently confusing, and thereby offending, anyone.

This is the crux: the more jdramas I watch, the more kdramas I watch, the more Taiwanese and Mainland dramas I watch... the less I am able to distinguish between Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese faces.

At a distance, I find this baffling and worthy of consideration. Deeper down, I also find it embarrassing and shameful, to have to acknowledge that somehow I'm losing differentiations I'd worked so hard to be able to see. Frankly, the more dramas I watch, something's happening to how I see certain faces. I watch myself watch faces, and I'm disturbed by what this sudden in/ability might indicate.

Before I go further into that, I think maybe some triangulation might help.

The line I keep coming back to -- that "all ___ look alike" -- has been discussed in various articles I've read over the years in psychology and science journals. The roots seem to lie in the fact that we can best distinguish common shared-features of faces that we see regularly. Okay, that makes sense: if you meet someone who has, say, vibrantly-neon-blue eyes, this one feature would be pretty distinctive. But if most of the people you work with have brightly-blue eyes, you need to find something else in their faces/appearance as your route to rapid-fire identification.

Note: when I say "differentiate", the broadest level is where we're talking heuristics, and where this rapid-fire identification becomes transference. If you have a friend with bright-blue eyes who's the only one of his kind (that you know), heuristics would indicate that the next bright-blue-eyed person you met would probably get some benefit of the doubt or mild transfer of your friendship. You'd react instinctively: "my friend who has ___ is a good guy, so I bet you must be one, too," and you probably wouldn't even realize you're doing it.

(This is very similar to what CP likes to scoff at as the "song-on-the-radio" obsession, aka, "oh! I can't stand this song, because it was playing when I discovered my boyfriend had traded in my seventeen ferrets for an aardvark and run off with the manager from that vacuum cleaner repair shop." The emotional context -- usually against -- has little to do with the song itself, and everything to do with some random event that occurred years ago while the song just happened to be playing on the radio. CP usually notes, no one ever says, "oh, I hate this song! It was playing that day when I wasn't doing much of anything.")

Anyway, back to the bright-blue eyes. Let's say forty out of fifty of your coworkers have bright-blue eyes. You can't just say, "he's the one with blue eyes." You need to find some other way to identify him, so you don't constantly embarrass yourself by catching a glimpse of bright-blue eyes and immediately hollering out a greeting. You realize your friend has a Roman nose, and ears like jug-handles, plus he's six-five. If someone asks you for a description of your friend, you might not even mention any more that he has bright-blue eyes, because your brain has put that in a list of "useless information that doesn't actually differentiate him". Instead, you'd mention his nose and ears, and his height.

Our basis for differentiation (between one face and another) is two-fold: of the things that are most different between us and a friend, which is also the most different between that friend and other people? In other words: if that most-different (between us and another) is not a difference between the other person and everyone else, then it's a useless (or less useful) differentiation-point.

To put this in terms of skin-tone, since that's the bluntest: if Person-A is white, and Friend-B is black, then it'd be reasonable for Person-A to have a mental-tag next to the interior category of "things about B" that says: 'B is black'. But if Person-A is white and Friend-B is also white... that tag won't exist, because that's not a major differentiation. Perhaps instead it's that Person-A has blond hair, and Friend-B has brown hair, thus the "things about B" will include, "B is a brunette." We only note those things that are different, and presuppose sameness for things left unnoted, at least it seems to me, listening to the way people talk and what I myself have noticed I say or do or remember about people.

(This can work on really subtle levels, too: like if you drive a car, you're probably going to remember which friends only take the bus, because their bus-taking is different from how you get around. Or if you like to go sailing, a friend who hates water is going to get tagged with a difference-marker regarding the not-sameness per water/sailing.)

Getting back to Person-A being white and Friend-B being black, and the corollary of bright-blue eyes: if Person-A lives/works in a place where Friend-B is one black person among a majority of black people, then you'll notice Person-A dropping -- fast or slow, but it'll happen -- the tag of using "B is black" as a differentiation-point. It's become useless, because while it may signal difference between Person-A and Friend-B, all it does is differentiate the way Person-A is different from most of the people around. In other words, it amounts to saying, "B is not like me, just like everyone else is not like me." As a tag for identifying a single person, then, it's of no use.

As a result, in dropping that tag, Person-A is learning to distinguish the differences in facial features of faces that are not like A's own. The result is that for members of __ group, they no longer all look alike, because Person-A has learned to look past the single unifying feature of this "not-like-Person-A" group (skin-color, in this case) to see the nuances and variations, and hence the individuals.

To be honest, this wasn't something I'd ever been aware of, growing up. As I've mentioned in other posts, I was raised military, which tends to be more diverse than the usual population, yet that diversity was limited to Anglo-Americans and African-Americans. Only rarely do I recall other ancestries or ethnicities in a class or a workplace, at least until I got back into the IT field full-time.

Right around that time, too, was when I started dating CP, and early on we were talking about... oh, I don't know who or what it was, I just recall taking a look at the person's face and pegging the person as being of German ancestry. CP stared at the picture blankly for a minute, then said, "how can you tell?"

I was stunned. Wasn't it kinda obvious? The faces around me, especially of family, had taught me the innate sense for most of the North European ethnicities: Scottish, Irish, French, German, Danish, and so on. Little cues here and there, certain features that show up again and again as predominant physical traits in immigrant populations, and so on. Yet if the person was generally North European origins in ethnicity, CP couldn't for the life of him tell anything more than that.

But he could identify someone's ethnicity inside a hundred yards, if the person was Asian -- which is why he'll sometimes say that "all you white people look alike". He misses the nuances I learned by seeing similar faces around me (similar to me, and to each other) and thus needing more minute aspects to differentiate. Our discussions on the topic eventually made me realize that -- without major contextual clues and barring facial outliers -- to him, all white people really do look alike.

(Note: from the articles I've read, and from my own and others' anecdotal stories, it appears to be that the biggest factor in ethnic-based facial recognition is developed in childhood. CP has been living in the US for, well, let's just say a long while, and I've spent most of my adult life in pretty diverse communities and friendships. But it seems to be that exposure, as a child, is what defines our earliest -- and thus most instinctive -- reactions and impressions when it comes to heuristics. I guess that argues for exposing kids to a variety of faces and ethnicities from the earliest point possible, but lacking that, the adult may sometimes stumble on whatever is later-learned.)

Then again, CP spent his childhood bouncing between Hong Kong, Taipei, Washington DC, and a stint in Nagoya. Growing up, the faces he saw the most (including his mother's) were predominantly Asian. If I grew up around people of mostly Scots-Irish descent and could therefore register the tiniest differences (including accents and slang) that gave me clues as to a person's family or origins... well, it made sense he could do the same. It was just that he could do it about the people he'd grown up around -- and it was me who was in the wrong for assuming that because of certain physical traits that we both share that his experience (or feature-identifying skills, I should say?) were automatically going to be equivalent to mine. Or mine to his, for that matter.

The result was that I was quite embarrassed. Oh, not on his behalf, but on my own. I realized there were massive parts of the world -- entire ethnicities -- for which I had only the barest of tools for differentiation. In other words: that the phrase "all you __ look alike" was... well, if I were honest with myself, I had to recognize that this attitude applied to my in/ability to differentiate between ethnicities other than my own. (This is also when I was first learning photography, too, so there was also all that other stuff in there.) I realized: would I want anyone to see me as looking-all-alike? Absolutely not. Why should I permit myself to ever see a friend (or anyone) that way? If I ever wanted to demand the respect of being seen as an individual, my demand would be worth nothing if I could not give the same in return.

That's the other reason -- while learning light -- that I began studying faces intently. It's not like I had study guides, and at first, I just tried to see the distinctive features of people I saw daily, and slowly expand my mental tags for friends to include "Chinese" or "Korean" or whatever applied, to change my "things about B" that had been limited to just, "B is Asian". Friend-B (and Friend-C, and Friend-D, and so on) each deserved better than just the simple -- and lazy -- generic.

I worked most often with a team that had a younger developer from India, who was also an extrovert of the nth degree. He couldn't not have everyone involved in any activity, and when he'd find an online meme, this meant we all had to take it -- after which he'd go around telling our scores to everyone else on the team. One day he came across the Faces Exam, which has photographs taken in New York City of people who are Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. For each face, you select the person's ethnicity.

As I recall, the highest score on the team -- known thanks to our team-extrovert spreading the news -- was one of our Indian (male) team leads. The second highest score was a Chinese woman, and the third place, as I recall, was tied or only one point off, between me and one of the Indian (female) developers. The lowest score was the Pakistani team lead, and the second lowest... was our Vietnamese team-mate. (I think CP was only a point or two behind me.) I'd been expecting the lowest score, to be honest, pleased to do well, but privately just a little dismayed that everyone else (all immigrants and/or PoC) were that shocked I'd done so well, but also absolutely tickled that my Chinese coworker/friend seemed to consider my score to be to her credit. (I don't know what the Mandarin or Cantonese would be for sempai/sunbae, but if there is a word, she was that for me, and instinctively I knew my job was to not look like an idiot and thereby make her look bad.)

Side-note: our Vietnamese team-mate was also irked about the lack of Vietnamese as an option. He even muttered some about how there were Vietnamese faces in there, too. Now that I'm aware that Chinese Han are the largest minority in Vietnam, I'm not surprised some of the faces might ping to him as Vietnamese.

Honestly, I had no idea how I scored so well. (I was also a bit put-off by "Vietnamese" not being an option.) Most of my daily interactions with Asian coworkers were with Chinese and Vietnamese ethnicities. There were Korean and Japanese developers, but on teams I didn't run into as often, so I have to admit I recall guessing. That is: I could identify a face as Chinese, but Korean vs. Japanese, well, I was practically flipping a mental coin. I'd tried to pay attention to surnames (as indicator of family background) and to recognize more than just, bluntly, the shape of the eyes, but I wasn't confident. I guess the score on that exam proved I'd been getting at least something right.

However, I mention that score not to pat myself on the back, but to underline that I know something is really wrong, for reasons I'll explain in the next post. In the meantime, if you have a chance, and you haven't taken the Faces exam, you should. There are now other exams -- on food, on temples, on modern architecture, on city landscapes -- but the exam on Faces remains a real eye-opener, and humbling experience, for just how good (or bad) one might be, when it comes to seeing the nuances.

The last contextual element that may have bearing (or not; I'm still not sure) is that CP himself is part-Filipino. He may have the jawline, eye-color, and hair-color from the Eastern European genes from his father's family, but he inherited has his mother's eyes, lips, and cheekbones. For more than ten years now, his face has been a constant for me, such that things like an epicanthal fold don't ping for me as "different" when I look at him; his features ping for me as... well, just insert something kinda sappy and you'll know how I feel. (Hint: start with "incredibly handsome", but not like I'm biased or anything.)

But just as we transfer heuristically (if unconsciously) the feelings we have for a known-person onto someone else with similar features (up to and including the infamous "falling for someone who looks an awful lot like your ex"), could it be that my relationship with CP has caused me to be welcoming towards, or more receptive to, people with features similar to his? I don't mean on the extreme of suddenly being BFF with anyone purely on the grounds of Asiatic facial elements; it's more subtle than that. So much so that later you'd be able to rationalize easily why you just sort of turned a little cool when facing that ethnicity, or 'felt' someone of another ethnicity to be friendlier, or whatever. It was the person's perfume, or their word-choice, or you were just having a bad (or good) day. Can't possibly be because you're transferring expectations via heuristics.

Thus, could it be that by associating CP's features with "someone I respect and cherish," that any previous baseline "benefit of the doubt" is now increased, thanks to this heuristic transference?

(Not that this is a bad thing, or something I'd want to undo. I ask only because I want to know where, when, how I'm operating on unconscious grounds; pulling it out into daylight is the best way to see where else this behavior may impact my interactions with other people, and root out any places where this may actually not be positive.)

Because this is getting long, I'll be posting this part now, and posting the rest shortly.

Date: 11 Dec 2010 08:38 am (UTC)
mongrelheart: (ruining books for art)
From: [personal profile] mongrelheart
I just took that test (I think it's the same one? i found it on alllooksame.com), and it seems I can tell who's Chinese but when it comes to Japanese & Korean, I might as well flip a coin, LOL. While doing the test, I started to realize that I was sorta unconsciously asking myself, does this person look like me? And if I thought they looked somewhat more familiar, usually it turned out they we're Chinese. I'm an American of Chinese descent (1/2 Chinese, 1/2 Eastern European mutt, and tend to identify more with my Chinese side), and grew up in Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Hawaii. Growing up in Hawaii i was very used to the fact that many people there are mixed and maybe look like one "side" or the other, or a combination of 6 different "sides", or whatever aspect that happens to assert itself. So I dunno... Maybe that muddies the waters? Or else maybe I'm just not that good at faces without the accompanying other social & cultural cues? I'm not sure what this test means, or how much significance I would give it.

Date: 14 Dec 2010 05:13 am (UTC)
mongrelheart: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mongrelheart
That's a good point, maybe someone like me isnt really the intended audience of the test. It's very interesting, regardless. I've always considered myself to be kind of mediocre at recognizing and remembering faces. It's definitely the other cues people give off, that help me figure it out.

I read an article a while back, and I wish I could remember where, But the gist of it was that we all have the easiest time individually differentiating the faces that are the most like ours, and the hardest time with the faces that are the most different... And it went on to posit some social, biological, and evolutionary reasons for this. Something about how it may have originally, way back in the distant past, been a way to tell friend from foe. I may be remembering that bit inaccurately, however. I'm going to have to search again for this article 'cause now it's going to drive me nuts :)

Date: 14 Dec 2010 08:37 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I'm hopeless at that test. The faces all look 'East Asian' to me.

But I just don't run into many people from Korea or Japan to have learnt the cues, I think. My only friends and close acquaintances who have East Asian heritages are all New Zealand Chinese.

Reading these posts, though, I am remembering my deep embarrassment when I've accidentally misidentified people with Maori and Pasifika heritages based on their looks and/or names. Failing to realise that a coworker was half-Maori as well as half-NZ-Chinese or thinking another person was Samoan not Maori both really surprised me as well as making me feel shame when I found out my errors. I expect to know without being told at least if someone's Maori or Samoan.

Thinking about this also highlighted for me that I do expect to know the difference between the ethnic groups who are likely to indicate to me that they care about my errors. I wonder how much that is the issue? I can't tell different European groups apart very well either. Very pale or red hair and blue eyes are Scandinavian heritage, and some styles of darker colouring look like French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, or Spanish to me. With everyone else in the 'Caucasian' grab-bag, I don't even really have guesses.


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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